David Bowie Tells Graduates Music Is 'Lusty Life Force'

Rocker received honorary degree and gave commencement speech Saturday at Berklee College of Music.

BOSTON -- So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star? David Bowie has this advice for you: "Go see a doctor."

That's what he told 600 graduates of the Berklee College of Music Saturday morning. But the chameleonic rocker, who donned a cap and gown to accept an honorary doctor-of-music degree from the prestigious school and address the graduating class, also described music as the source of a life's worth of comfort and joy.

"Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences," Bowie said. "I can't say that life's pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it. But it's allowed me so many moments of companionship when I've been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people. It's both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in.

"I hope it embraces you with the same lusty life force it has impressed upon me."

The college, which in the past has awarded honorary degrees to jazz giants Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and rock singer/bassist Sting, also awarded one Saturday to jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Bowie and Shorter greeted each graduate as degrees were conferred.

"This is so amazing," Marijke Van Niekerk, 21, a film-scoring major who delivered the student address, said. "David Bowie is so inspiring, because he's done so much as a musician. He's someone who we can really aspire to look up to because he's done it -- and that's what we want to do."

Bowie's adventuresome career has taken him from the glam rock of "Rebel Rebel" (RealAudio excerpt) to the art rock of "Heroes" (RealAudio excerpt) and, most recently, electronica. He began his 15-minute speech at the Hynes Convention Center by pointing to one section of graduates and calling out, "Rockers!" and making an air-guitar gesture.

Then he pointed to another section, called out, "Jazzers!," and made a gesture suggesting he was playing an upright bass. Finally, he called out, "And samplers!" and put his hands to head to make devil horns.

"On occasions like this, I really never know what do to -- which is pretty much the way I've handled my career as a musician and writer," he told the class of '99. "I guess any list of advice I have to offer to the musician always ends with the wishes 'Go see a doctor.' That's not going to be of any help today."

He filled his playful speech with anecdotes from his career that he said he hoped would prove relevant to his listeners' beckoning careers. His address will be webcast Monday (May 10) at the official Berklee College site.

"I was chatting with some students last night and I asked one of them for a joke I could use today," Bowie said. "And I also asked for his worst fear. He said, 'I'll give you both.' "

"How does a tuba player answer the phone?" Bowie asked as he squinted his famous bi-colored eyes. Speaking into his hand, he said, "Hello. Domino's!" The students roared.

His own career has had its share of humiliation, he said.

Early in his "Ziggy Stardust" period, he said, he performed at a "filthy, naughty" English nightclub. He was stunned to learn that the club's only facility was a sink.

"You don't expect me to take a piss in a sink," he recalled telling the promoter. "And he looked at me and said, 'If it's good enough for Shirley Bassey, it's good enough for you!' "

Bowie said he began taking music classes after seeing early rocker Little Richard, of "Tutti Frutti" and "Lucille" fame, in 1962. But he quickly realized proper composition wasn't his forte. Instead, he said, he was more interested in creating his own kind of rock 'n' roll.

"I went on a crusade to change the kind of information rock music contained," he said. "I didn't feel comfortable as a folk singer or a lead singer. I was more involved in the idea of manipulation of sounds -- a concept that really had its start in the late '50s with pop art. By the mid-'70s, I found myself making music which British writers called art pop."

His greatest mentor, he said, was the late Beatles singer/guitarist John Lennon.

"He defined for me how one could twist a certain fabric of pop and impure it with elements from other art forms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful," Bowie said.

Berklee Provost Harry Chalmiers introduced Bowie to the students as an example of the ultimate in music-business success. Bowie, bowing and smiling graciously, humbly retorted by citing Tin Machine, his commercially unsuccessful late-'80s and early-'90s band.

"I've got a message here from Reeves Gabrels," Bowie said, referring to his Tin Machine cohort, who graduated Berklee in 1981. "It says, 'I haven't forgotten about that $900 I owe from my last semester.

" 'But I read recently in Allegro that they're holding a check for me dating back from my days in Tin Machine,' " Bowie continued. " 'That should wipe out about $30 worth.' "