The folks at XFM radio – now re-branded to just the crisp Radio X – couldn’t believe their luck when they stumbled across records of a conversation between legendary musicians Robert Smith and David Bowie. The conversation is believed to have been held in their studio around the end of 1995. Perhaps the inspiration behind their re-branding was the proverbial X in the sand – or filing cabinet – in which this treasure resided. Smith and Bowie, who are both renowned, and some could argue, both built their careers from bold eccentricities in their music, not only speak trivially about the weather or if they prefer red or white wine. Instead, the duo took the opportunity to see how the other half live as they interview each other. The result in this extract is a full-fat chat about albums and the UK.
Immediately, Smith and Bowie (which sounds like a formulaic ITV detective drama) discuss life in England. Smith, who establishes himself as the more sentimental persona in the conversation, says that he “couldn’t imagine life outside of England because of family”. Bowie responds in admittance to not living in England properly since 1974. However, he continues, he has suddenly found himself as the head of a family of four “from nothing, it’s a new beginning”. Bowie recognises a more “domestic need” to return to England to “find his roots again”. There must be something about the UK that screams family life. He does, nonetheless, also state that the atmosphere in the country is enthralling again, ensuring that it’s a “very exciting experience whenever I return to London”.
Smith retreats at the prospect of London, preferring a comparatively rural residence in Sussex. After living in London for some time throughout the 1980s, he can no longer stand returning to the capital. The ever-inquisitive Bowie proposes boredom or overfamiliarity as the reason behind Smith’s reluctance, but Smith instead points to the distinction between London and England. “We [The Cure] all live in different parts and we visit each other so we get to see more of England rather than just London. Travelling up to London today, I had forgotten how awful it was”.
Bowie, who had grown up in the suburbs of London, identified with Smith’s observations. “I think it’s the greyness of it all,” Bowie says, before adding: “It was a man-made Orwellian society cast in stone. I think all my generation just wanted to escape.” In this comment, Bowie may have self-analytically encapsulated his reasons for becoming Ziggy Stardust, the man from space. His desire to escape the dystopian suburbs, blended with his unfettered imagination which led him to look to the great beyond.
Despite finding comfort outside of London with “people that chat at traffic lights,” Smith concedes that he is not welcomed with open arms in the Sussex community. “I’m not accepted at all, but I don’t mind that. I see it as a plus side,” he says. “In London, it would be easy for me to go and socialise whereas where I am, I retain anonymity.” The goth deity remains true to his half-human, half-arachnid character. “The locals haven’t taken me into their hearts. I’d be horrified if they had,” he adds. Surprising, to think that Robert Smith nipping in an off-license to get milk or strolling on the local beach would be greeted with anything other than abundant joy.
In a discussion of albums, Bowie once again embodies the role of the interviewer. He asks, “Do you write with an audience in mind or are you writing to satisfy your own need?” This momentarily stumps Smith, whose first response is: “Crumbs, I’ll have to think about this while I’m talking.” Eventually, he goes on to state “I probably seriously redefined who I was writing to which leads on to yes, I did at some point accept that I was writing with other people in mind. I don’t think early on… I don’t think one ever believes that one is ever going to be heard by enough people for it to really matter.” Smith baffles with how humble he comes across, it’s difficult to believe that he would ever and still have anxiety about the size of his audience. Not that any normal human being can accurately foreshadow their own success, not even the Starman. An incentive for any budding musician.
The conversation continues for over an hour, with both Smith and Bowie lending their rare insights to one another and the world. What is most startling here, is how two characters that spent most of their careers and lives transcending the confines in which most “normal” people operate, are the same as everybody else beneath the surface. Anxieties of success and integration, a desire to be loved by their audience and an ever-burning longing to escape.