Sound and Vision: Marc Scarpa tells Night Flight about interviewing David Bowie a few days after he turned 50

By on February 4, 2016

On January 9, 1997, the day after his 50th birthday, David Bowie performed at a memorable sold out concert at Madison Square Garden — with proceeds from ticket sales going to the charity Save the Children. A few days later, Marc Scarpa, C|NET’s New York Bureau chief at the time, interviewed Bowie, and he shares with Night Flight some of his memories about it. Watch the complete interview now on Night Flight Plus!.

BOWIE 97 1
(Photo: George Kalinsky for MSG)

Marc Scarpa:

It was a few days after his 50th birthday extravaganza at Madison Square Garden in 1997 that I had the pleasure, honor and humility to sit with one of the all time greats, David Bowie.

My assignment was simple, get him to speak about the world wide web and internet as much as possible.. This being the directive from my Supervising Producer Win Baker whom had hired me as C|NET Central (now CBS) unofficial NY Bureau Chief in the early days of the networks inception. Our shows ran on NBC at that time in addition to various cable channels — I believe this interview was for the show TV.Com. The interesting part was of course that no one knew much if anything about the world wide web at that time, especially celebrities.

This thankfully was not the case with the thin white duke. He has a lot to say and in fact had pioneered many concepts in the ’70s with Brian Eno revolving around organic computer and collaborative music making – all pre-web. Bowie was keenly aware of the impact of this not so new communications revolution that was afforded to us all via the internet and feared greatly that if governed or controlled would wind up being a matter of the have and have-nots in terms of access.

Mind you, this is prior to the digital millennium copy right act being introduced and therefore we were still and in many cases still are in uncharted territory. Except now, there are standards & practices in place whereas in 1997 there certainly was not.

BOWIE 97 4

David Bowie however was far ahead, as usual, of his contemporaries whom few if any had even heard of the world wide web let alone realized the importance of owning there own domain names and managing it themselves as opposed to their labels. He had a blog before there were blogs and it still exists in a more robust form at his website.

This vision of the future had him be the first artist to ever go public on a stock exchange and at one point, due to his digital presence, he even had his own credit card issued by Mastercard as part of BowieBank and also was the first person in history to issue bonds against his past and future work.

Bowienet, as it was called at the time, was both a free and paid service whereby you could chat directly with David if you were a subscriber and actually buy paintings, drawings and custom items from him directly. Subscribers also had dial up service via the ISP (internet service provider he had set up) to facilitate general access to the internet for anyone – thus competing with AOL, Prodigy and other ISP’s in the marketplace at the time. You could even create and host your own personalized home page with the service with your own @bowie.net email (mine was marcscarpa@bowie.net, wish it was still active).

He was a digital pioneer in every sense of the word and he still IS a digital pioneer in every sense of the word as davidbowie.com lives on as does his music, writings, teachings and family.

BOWIE 97 3

My brief time with David was supposed to last one hour — including set up — however it turned into three. We were the last interview of the day at his personal recording studio in NY and his eager young publicist had no interest in staying any later than he needed to. Also at that time, no one had heard of C|NET. He, in fact thought we were there for NBC news, who oddly enough where already there earlier in the morning.

In a surreal moment, we had gotten on the bill as the final act to a long day to which every big name in journalism was paraded into David’s studio to talk to him about his 50th Bday celebration, his upcoming Earthling album and all things Ziggy.

We didn’t talk about any of that, well except of course the 50th Bday party because it was a great way to kick off the interview, but not the conversation. As I was in my mid 20’s at the time and an early adopter of the internet and the world wide web, my questions were loose however leading and my enthusiasm for technology and gadgets was strong.

ap_97010901405-edit

Moments before the interview was to begin, my camera operator and friend Sam Henriques was a bit nervous, very nervous. So nervous he had lit the set from the wrong side and as a result David’s personal lighting director made us re-light the interview from scratch.

This was to ire of the young PR handler who now proudly boasted that this was coming out of my one hour allotment. No wiggle room here, and these guys were serious. We swiftly re-adjusted the lighting, got final approvals from the lighting director and PR handler and so now we sat and waited, and waited and waited and waited. About thirty minutes had past and we technically had about five minutes left to do the interview as per the allocated time.

I had gotten comfortable in the engineering room where serendipitously his mixer was the husband of a friend of mine from Atlantic Records, the world was small. Further and curiously above the recording console was a photograph of Lama Chime Youngdong Rinpoche, whom Bowie had studied under during his youth in an exploration to find out what to do with his life.

It turns out that Bowie had aspirations to be a Buddhist monk and thankfully Lama Rinpoche talked him out of it saying (according to Bowie) “David, you will make a terrible monk, be a musician instead.”

BOWIE 97 9

Finally, David comes downstairs from his private sanctum, apologetic that he had gotten distracted on his computer answering emails. In my hand is a second camera, a newly released Sony handycam which he took a hard stare at after briefly introducing himself. Now the interview was to begin and we made our way to the studio, got him mic’d up and we began rolling, even before the conversation started.

Having noticed his interest in the camcorder I offered it up to him to mess around with, he loved the pixilation it created when you zoomed in and swiftly ordered jokingly one for “every member of his band and crew.”

Ironically, I had heard from Mark (Bowie’s engineer) that he had in fact bought one for himself later that day, thereby making that purchase by far one of the best tech investments I ever had made!

BOWIE 97 7

As the interview progressed it was clear to me he enjoyed talking about technology, the influence it had, where it was going and how it could be used for the democratization of societies world wide.

He had a real concern that corporations and government, “as they tend to do,” would corrupt the new found medium and completely constrict the creativity and freedom of speech it provided the masses. We touched upon so many subjects in the interview and needless to say we went well past the 5 minutes we had left.

In fact, we blew through one beta SP tape (20 minutes at the time) and talked off camera for another hour or so in the engineering room until he was called away back upstairs.

BOWIE 97 8

As we were just about wrapped, David came back downstairs again to speak with us about artists he loved in the trip hop music scene such as Tricky and various emerging techo sensations he admired. We caught a bit more of him during this time which is evident in the video and can be seen after the fade to black post interview.

During my tenor at C|NET I was provided the opportunity to interview many pioneers in their respective fields from Jeff Bezos, Cindy Crawford, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Josh Harris, Toshio Kuramata, Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert, Nicholas Negroponte, Red Burns and even Al Roker — yes, Al Roker is a geek.

However, meeting with and speaking to David Bowie about technological ideologies was a pinnacle moment in my career. To this day, it’s still a moment I recall in fond detail and subconsciously what I learned from him has stayed with me throughout my career. In person, he was kind, engaging, curious and interesting and, above all else, a gentlemen.

BOWIE 97 5

I hope in sharing this moment with you, that you too may be inspired by his words of sound and vision for our future.

BOWIE 97 2

About Night Flight

Voice of a generation that spoke from 11PM-7AM EST Friday and Saturday on USA Network in the '80s. Back to enlighten and inspire 24/7.