Confessions of the Thin White Duke

Sporting well-groomed blonde hair and wearing a simple but stylish cabaret-style wardrobe, the Thin White Duke was a 70s actor and musician who sang songs of romance with an agonized intensity while avowedly feeling nothing, the mad aristocrat was like “ice masquerading as fire.” The Thin White Duke was a controversial figure in his time. While being interviewed in 1975 and 1976, he made statements about Adolf Hitler and fascism that some interpreted as being positive or even pro-fascist. The controversy deepened in 1976 when, while acknowledging a group of fans outside of London Victoria station, he was photographed making what some alleged to be a Nazi salute. The Duke denied this, saying that he was simply waving and the photographer captured his image mid-wave. In later years, he blamed his erratic behaviour during the 1970s on an “astronomical” use of cocaine while living in Los Angeles. He eventually left California for Europe in 1976 to improve his well-being, settling in West Berlin in early 1977, at which point he quietly retired and exited the limelight. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Getting stoned and then reading. I never got into acid. I did it three or four times and it was colorful, but my own imagination was already richer. I never got into grass at all. Hash for a time, but never grass. I guess drugs have been a part of my life for the past 10 years, but never anything very heavy. I’ve had short flirtations with smack and things, but it was only for the mystery and the enigma. I like fast drugs. I hate anything that slows me down.

What is your greatest fear? When a huge star collapses upon itself the implosion can be so massive that it leaves nothing but an immense gravitational force. If an object should fall into a black hole it would in theory reach a point where it travelled faster than the speed of light, which has always been supposed to be the ultimate speed anything can travel at. So you would overtake your light and your integral being would fall past that threshold going into the hole and possibly, an alternative universe. But your light would remain stuck at the threshold point and thus your image would remain on the edge of that black hole forever.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? I’ve always been very chauvinistic, even in my boy-obsessed days. But I was always a gentleman. I always treated my boys like real ladies. Always escorted them properly and, in fact, I suppose if I were a lot older-like 40 or 50-I’d be a wonderful sugar daddy to some little queen down in Kensington. I’d have a houseboy named Richard to order around.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? While in New York, tolerance. Outside of New York, intolerance.

Which living person do you most admire? I’m very drawn to other artists and sometimes even liable to admiration. Currently I’m really into Damien Hirst’s work. He’s different. I think his work is extremely emotional, subjective, very tied up with his own personal fears — his fear of death is very strong — and I find his pieces moving and not at all flippant.

What is your greatest extravagance? The road of artistic excess. I have to carry through with my conviction that the artist is also the medium. The only way that I can be this abrasive as a person is to be this confoundedly arrogant and forthright with my point of view. The only thing left in rock & roll that would really affect people would be a Nazi rock & roll band.

What is your current state of mind? Curious. Very curious. I’ll tell you something, I was talking to John Glenn, the moonshot astronaut, and we stayed up until late in the night. We were just talking for hours and the atmosphere got very maudlin. He was staring into his drink and out of nowhere he said: “I saw more up there than I care to talk about.” He was quiet for a while longer, then he said: “Earth is not alone.” And however hard I pressed him he wouldn’t explain what he meant. Can you believe that?

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Meekness.

On what occasion do you lie? I’d just rather like to mind my own business. I don’t like people probing into my life, so I reveal as little as possible or lie about it as much as need be so as to give them something to write about. But people probing into my life, how dare they? My happiness really is from being allowed to remain quite anonymous in the places that I go to and getting involved in what the people there are doing. That is a far greater inspiration for the music I write these days. Sometimes a little misdirection goes a long way.

What do you most dislike about your appearance? My left pupil.

Which living person do you most despise? I saw Dylan in New York seven, eight months ago. We don’t have a lot to talk about. We’re not great friends. Actually, I think he hates me. And I probably hate him.

What is the quality you most like in a man? Confidence and self-belief. Am I, as a human being, worth talking about? I frankly think, Yes, I am. I’ve got to carry through with the conviction that I am also my own medium. The only way I can be effective as a person is to be this confoundedly arrogant and forthright with my point of view. That’s the way I am. I believe myself with the utmost sincerity.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? Good manners.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Everybody fucks everybody.

What or who is the greatest love of your life? Never have been in love, to speak of. I was in love once, maybe, and it was an awful experience. It rotted me, drained me, and it was a disease . Hateful thing, it was. Being in love is something that breeds brute anger and jealousy, everything but love, it seems. It’s a like Christianity-or any religion, for that matter.

When and where were you happiest? When I purchased my first makeup bag.

Which talent would you most like to have? The talent of relaxation. I find all my relaxation within the context of work; I’m very serious about that. I’ve always thought the only thing to do was to try to go through life as Superman, right from the word go. I felt far too insignificant as just another person. I couldn’t exist thinking all that was important was to be a good person. I thought, Fuck that; I don’t want to be just another honest Joe. I want to be a supersuperbeing and improve all the equipment that I’ve been given to where it works 300 percent better. I find that it’s possible to do it.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I’m just an image person. I’m terribly conscious of images and I live in them. Normally before a battle the men would make themselves up to look as beautiful as possible and look at all the old kings and dandies…and if you look to the animal world, so often the male is more beautiful than the female – look at peacocks and lions. Really, makeup and beautiful clothes are fundamental to me.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? My music. But Rock & roll has been really bringing me down lately. It’s in great danger of becoming an immobile, sterile fascist that constantly spews its propaganda on every arm of the media. It rules and dictates a level of thought and clarity of intelligence that you’ll never raise above. You don’t have a fucking chance to hear Beethoven on any radio station anymore. You’ve got to listen to the O’Jays. I mean, disco music is great. I used disco to get my first Number One single but it’s an escapist’s way out. It’s musical soma. Rock & roll too — it will occupy and destroy you that way. It lets in lower elements and shadows that I don’t think are necessary. Rock has always been the devil’s music. You can’t convince me that it isn’t. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars…think about it…I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It’s astounding. And, boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist himself. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? Dean. James Dean probably. Dean was  very much like me. Elizabeth Taylor told me that once. Dean was calculating. He wasn’t careless. He was not the rebel he portrayed so successfully. He didn’t want to die. But he did believe in the premise of taking yourself to extremes, just to add a deeper cut to one’s personality. James Dean epitomised the very thing that is so cam oily respectable today: the male hustler. It was part of his incredible magnetism. You know, that he was…a whore. He used to stand on Times Square to earn money so he could go to Lee Strasberg and learn how to be Marlon Brando. He had quite a sordid little reputation. I admire him immensely–that should take care of any question you may have about whatever or not I have any heroes.

Where would you most like to live? Definitely not America. I’m afraid of Americans. This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler. This place is so ready to be picked up by anybody who has a strong enough personality to lead. There’s some form of ghost force liberalism permeating the air in America, but it’s got to go, because it’s got no foundation at all. I think the morals should be straightened up for a start. They’re disgusting. There will be a political figure in the not too distant future who’ll sweep this part of the world like early rock and roll did.

What is your most treasured possession? A photograph held together by cellophane tape of Little Richard that I bought in 1958, and a pressed and dried chrysanthemum picked on my honeymoon in Kyoto.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? A muzzle and a leash. Unless it’s in the bedroom. Then they are heavenly.

What is your favorite occupation? I wouldn’t mind being the first English president of the United States. I’m certainly right-wing enough. You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up. Then you can get a new form of liberalism. So the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right government to come. It’ll do something positive at least to cause commotion in people and they’ll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it.

What is your most marked characteristic? Off the cuff remarks and getting words in edgewise. I remember the first time it got out. Somebody asked me in an interview if I ever had a gay experience and I said, ‘Yes, of course, I am a bisexual.’ The guy didn’t know what I meant. He gave me this horrified look of ‘Oh, my God, that means he’s got a cock and a cunt.’ I had no idea my sexuality would get so widely publicized. It was just a very sort of off-the-cuff little remark. Best thing I ever said, I suppose.

What do you most value in your friends? I need friction. Also, I adore a sense of competition. I really like to see or hear somebody’s work and say, “I can top that.” It makes me work in a far grittier, more muscular way. In the ‘80s, I couldn’t look at Paula Abdul or Kylie Minogue and say, “I can do better than that.” I didn’t give a fuck. I can’t write if I’m not with people or in a place that really gives me grist for the mill. I need people to throw things back and question my opinions and premise of life. It makes me really respond. There’ve been moments living in Berlin and in New York when I’ve felt all that. Bells go off and you’re alive and everything’s tingling.

Who are your favorite writers? George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov. There’s too many to narrow down.

Who is your hero of fiction? I fell for Ziggy Stardust. It was quite easy to become obsessed night and day with the character. I became Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie went totally out the window. Everybody was convincing me that I was a messiah, especially on that first American tour. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy. I could have been Hitler in England. Wouldn’t have been hard. Concerts alone got so enormously frightening that even the papers were saying, ‘This ain’t rock music, this is bloody Hitler! Something must be done!’ And they were right. It was awesome. Actually, I wonder … I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad.

Which historical figure do you most identify with? Oscar Wilde.

Who are your heroes in real life? My brother, Terry. He’s seven years older than I am – I’m 22 now, he’s 29. He was very keen on jazz when I was at a very impressionable age, and that led me into it. I idolised John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, and learned to play the clarinet and tenor saxophone when I was 12. When I first came into the business six years ago it was as a jazz musician.Terry was very Bohemian and introduced me to the writers that meant a lot to him – like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. And all this led me into songwriting.

What are your favorite names? Elvis, Pontius, and Astyanax.

What is it that you most dislike? Tea and The Little Drummer Boy.

What is your greatest regret? The 60s. Nothing ever changes because people never change. The up-and-coming leaders, the people of my generation, are a worrying prospect. The liberated ones are the most dangerous of all because they believe their way of liberation is the only way. It’s depressing. I saw a TV programme the other week about rebel leaders of the sixties — Jerry Rubin and the guy who used to manage MC5 — who was it now? Anyway, they’re all very straight businessmen now. The dreadful thing is they all decry what they did in the sixties — you know, “we were just kids.”

How would you like to die? I’ve now decided that my death should be very precious. I really want to use it. I’d like my death to be as interesting as my life has been and will be.

What is your motto? You can only believe six things before breakfast. Am I a schizophrenic? One side of me probably is, but the other side is right down the middle, solid as a rock. Actually, I’m not schizophrenic at all. I think that my thought forms are fragmented a lot, that much is obvious. I often think of six things at one time. They all sort of interrupt one another. Not very good when I’m driving.