"David Bowie, as a musician, performer, and song-writer, continually re-invents himself and his art." - VH1 Legends.
The hallmark of rock and roll's greats often lies in their ability to hone to perfection a strong and easily assimilated iconic, but singular image. It may evolve slowly and surely over the years but will always be presumed to be a natural maturing. David Bowie, as a musician, performer and song-writer, defied this convention completely. He continually re-invented himself and his art at breakneck speed and illogical disjointedness. It seemed as though time was always at a premium. With complete disregard for music style loyalty or so called integrity, he often combined the most unlikely forms of music with angst ridden end-of- millennium subject matter, presenting the rock world with it's first truly post-modernist star. After living each legendary character to the utmost, he deconstructed that which made him singular, then a new element would arise to confound and entice the masses who thought they had just figured out his latest incarnation. Bowie exemplifies the new aesthetic from his humble folkie beginnings to the glitter and glam of Ziggy Stardust, to the elegance of The Thin White Duke, at each twist and turn of his career, creating more than one myth to harken back to his creative visions.
In the beginning...
David Robert Jones was born in Brixton on January 8th, 1947. At age thirteen, inspired by the jazz of the West End, he picked up the saxophone and called up Ronnie Ross for lessons. Early bands he played with, The Konrads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys and The Lower Third provided him with an introduction into the showy world of pop and mod, and by 1966 he was David Bowie, with long hair and aspirations of stardom rustling about his head. Kenneth Pitt signed on as his manager, and his career began with a handful of mostly forgotten singles but a head full of ideas. It wasn't until 1969 that the splash down into the charts would begin, with the legendary 'Space Oddity' (which peaked at No. 5 in the UK). Amidst his musical wanderings in the late 60's, he experimented with mixed media, cinema, mime, Tibetan Buddhism, acting and love. The album, originally titled 'David Bowie' then subsequently 'Man Of Words, Man Of Music', pays homage to all the influences of the London artistic scene, and shows the early song-writing talent that was yet to yield some of rock and roll's finest works, even if it would take the rest of the world a few years to catch up with him.
'The Man Who Sold The World', Bowie's first album recorded as an entity in itself, and marks the first definitive creative stretch for the listener. Mick Ronson's guitars are often referred to as the birthpoint of heavy metal, and certainly the auspicious beginnings of glam rock can be traced back here. Released by Mercury in April 1971, to minimal fanfare, Bowie took his first trip to the United States to promote it that Spring. In May of the same year, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones was born to David and his then wife Angela.
RCA was the next label to sign Bowie, and after a trip to America to complete the legalities, he returned to London to record two albums nearly back to back. Hunky Dory was built from a 6-song demo that had enticed the label to sing him and features 'Changes' and 'Life On Mars?'. Almost immediately, it was followed up by the instant classic, 'The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars'.
1972 was certainly the year that Bowie began to get a glimpse of the power of the pop. Previewed in London that Spring, his rock and roll creation Ziggy Stardust, put on one of the most spectacular and innovative live shows to date, and the craze that followed was the beginnings of his superstar myth. The summer of 1972 was also a busy one for him in the studio, as he produced albums for Lou Reed ('Transformer') and Mott The Hoople ('All The Young Dudes', for which he wrote the hit title track). The US Ziggy tour began in September playing sold out shows full of theatrically inspired Japanese costumes, snarling guitars courtesy of Mick Ronson, and a bold, daring approach to performance that propelled the audience into a rock and roll fervor. He abruptly put his own creation to rest on June 3, 1973 with, the pronouncement, "of all the shows on the tour this one will stay with us for the longest because not only is this the last show of the tour, but it is the last show we will ever do." This surprised everyone in the house - not least the members of his band.
Amidst the Ziggy fever, 'Aladdin Sane' was released in April 1973, inspired by his experiences in America while touring. After putting the Stardust Show to bed, he traveled to France to begin work on his next albums. 'Pin-Ups' was the last time that Bowie would record an album with Mick Ronson on guitar and Ken Scott at the production helm. His tribute to the artists that he admired in the London years of 64-67 was released in October 1973. In April of 1973, his proto-Blade Runner project, 'Diamond Dogs' debuted, full of tension and angst standing in stark contrast to the disco music that was beginning to crowd the airwaves. In the summer of 1974 he undertook his greatest US tour yet, with an enormous set and choreographed tableaus. The double album 'David Live' was recorded in Philadelphia's Tower Theatre, and serves as a souvenir of this tour.
The two previous albums showed hints of Bowie's interest in the music he heard in America. The most direct result of this fascination is the rhythmic, soul-laden 'Young Americans', released in 1975. A collaboration with John Lennon on 'Fame' came out of an impromptu session at Electric Ladyland in New York, and was a last minute addition to the LP. It resulted in Bowie's first ever No. 1 single in the US. Not long after the album came out he moved to Los Angeles, and starred in the science fiction film 'The Man Who Fell To Earth.' After completion of filming, he almost immediately returned to the studio for the recording of 'Station To Station', a travelogue of sorts. The 'White Light' tour followed, this time an electronica driven line-up, played out with Brecht-inspired theatricality. A compilation of hits, 'ChangesOneBowie' was released by RCA in May 1976. Never one to stay in one place too long, shortly after his tour finished, he relocated to the Schoneberg section of Berlin.
'Low' and "Heroes" were recorded during Bowie's sojourn in Germany where collaborators Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, and he adopted new approaches to the song-writing process. In an interview for French radio he said "Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things. Anything else you don't mention and in the end you produce Low." Surrealism and experimentation were the themes of the day, and the incorporation of cut and paste techniques into unique instrumentation birthed what are now heralded as luminary ambient soundscapes. Released in 1977, Low confused RCA, and thought the masses weren't quite sure what to make of the effort, the single 'Sound and Vision' eventually hit No. 2 on the British charts. Friend Iggy Pop was in Berlin at the time as well and Bowie took time out of recording to produce and collaborate with him on 'The Idiot' and later 'Lust For Life'. He also overcame his long-publicised fear of flying to accompany Pop on tour as pianist that summer.
The second in his three album triptych, Heroes, prominently featured Robert Fripp on guitar, and a more optimistic outlook. One of his greatest singles, the track from this album recounts a romantic liaison between lovers near the Berlin Wall. His next foray into film occurred in 'Just A Gigolo', which he described as "all my thirty-two Elvis Presley movies rolled into one." March of 1978 found him on tour again, and during a May break he narrated 'Peter And The Wolf' with the Philadelphia Orchestra the first of many children's projects he was consistently to support over the years (now out of print, the result was a collectible green-vinyl album). 'Stage' was released in September 1978, culled from his recent tour of the States, and featured live material from his "Berlin" period. A re-location to Switzerland was to follow, abandoned frequently due to his ever developing love affair with the exotic Indonesia, Africa and the Far East. Recorded in France, 'Lodger' was released in May 1979, and by the end of the year he was again in the studio. Rehearsals also began for his Broadway debut, in the part of 'The Elephant Man', which opened in September 1980 to rave reviews.
In the same month, the 'Scary Monsters And Super Creeps' album was released. After this period, he distinctly dropped out of the public eye for a while, while remaining involved with various film and movie projects. 1982 saw him playing the male lead in 'The Hunger', the role of Celliers in 'Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,' and writing the theme song for the movie 'The Cat People'. Another Greatest Hits compilation, 'ChangesTwoBowie', came out in 1982. Officially signed to EMI in 1983, the album 'Let's Dance' followed along with the world-encompassing 'Serious Moonlight' tour. In October, RCA released the 'Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture' album, capturing the energy of Ziggy and the Spiders during their last show. Shortly thereafter, the movie, originally filmed in 1973, was finally released as well.
During this period Bowie reinvented himself once again. The album Let's Dance, produced by Chic mastermind Nile Rogers, was perhaps the most straightforward album of his career. A collection of elegantly produced, Impeccably sung dance floor numbers including the Motown styled 'Modern Love', the darkly romantic 'China Girl' (first cut with Iggy Pop in Berlin) and a remake of the movie theme 'Cat People'. All of the above would be substantial radio hits, as was the glossy and romantic title track. The upbeat romantic theme extended to his next album 'Tonight' (1984) though the single 'Loving The Alien' drew a prophetic scenario on the Islam/Christian tensions.
A moving appearance at Live Aid (where he dedicated "Heroes" to his young son), a duet single with Mick Jagger, and the heavily theatrical Glass Spider tour (with lead guitar by Peter Frampton) all kept Bowie's popularity and mass acceptance going into the 80's. However, his creative drive had slowed somewhat. Then 1988 brought the biggest surprise of all: He'd formed a new band, Tin Machine, with the Sales Brothers (Hunt and Tony sons of Soupy) and the hot guitar find from Boston, Reeves Gabrels. And he was adamant that this would be a full time band, not a superstar solo project. On their two million selling albums (plus a limited edition live disc), Tin Machine proved their mettle as a modern alternative live act, with a stripped down guitar sound, all new material and a few real surprises (a Pixies cover!). Some fans loved it, others were confused and Tin Machine was on hiatus by 1982. Meanwhile, Bowie supported the 1989 release of Rykodisc's boxed set 'Sound and Vision' with his first fully-fledged Greatest Hits tour, recruiting long-time collaborator Adrian Belew to play lead guitar. At many of the gigs, fans were allowed to pick the songs via phone poll.
1993 brought the long awaited return to solo projects, 'Black Tie White Noise', and one of rock's first the CDROM's entitled 'Jump'. With Nile Rogers again producing, the album came close to summing up every period of Bowie, with the opening instrumental 'The Wedding' (inspired by Bowie's own marriage to model Iman) offering a dance and house inspired, brighter toned return to the sound of Low, the single 'Jump They Say' harking back to funkier times, and the old Cream tune 'I Feel Free', marking a long-awaited reunion with Ziggy-era partner Mick Ronson (sadly , Ronson passed away soon after). Reaching No: 1 in the UK album charts, Black Tie White Noise though it reassured fans that Bowie's creative curiosity was by no means exhausted.
By 1994, Bowie and Eno were again collaborating in the studio. The result was the concept album '1.Outside'. This complex project touches on the increasing obsession with the human body as art and the paganisation of western society. With it's package-arts broken down style, it's haunted sound of ruin and it's non-linear story line of art, murder and technology, it predates evocatively the new sensibility of movies such as Seven, Copycat and the TV Shows, The X-Files and Millennium. As benefits the multifrenic nature of Outsider art and emotion, Bowie sings in any number of voices: one minute the melodramatic crooner, another the stylized Londoner, another the quiet, intimate recluse of the Berlin years. Or he is vari-speeded between the albums seven characters: on one song a 14 year old girl, on another a sleazy 78 year old, on another a 46 year old Tyrannical Futurist. It is only now, when he has reached his own mid-life, that Bowie can make music that can encompass the point of young, middle-aged, and old.
1996 was an extraordinarily active year even by David's own feverish standards, switching styles and moods effortlessly, embarking on a confrontational tour around the US with Nine Inch Nails and performing acoustically with Neil Young and Pearl Jam at the Bridge Benefit Concert in San Francisco. He had a triumphant summer headlining Roskilde and Phoenix Festival and his electric performance at the VH-1 Fashion Awards on 25th October where he debuted his new single 'Little Wonder' was the talk of New York. Then there was the new album, 'Earthling' - all very direct, hard hitting and to the point. The album arose out of the dynamic achieved and harnessed by the end of that summer's tour. The band working on the projects featured Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals, Mike Garson on keyboards, Reeves Gabrels on guitar and synths and Zachary Alford on drums - the nucleus of the touring outfit. The record features the avant garde drum 'n' bass extravaganza and top 20 hit in the UK 'Little Wonder' and the crushing 'Dead Man Walking', a reflection on getting older.
The next year 1997 was to see a controversial collaboration with Eno in the shape of the 'I'm Afraid Of Americans' single, ("Not as hostile about Americans as 'Born In The USA'" - Bowie). This track, complete with spontaneous Dom and Nic video that saw David and Trent Reznor chasing through the streets of Greenwich Village, hung around the US. Charts for 3 months or so, finishing the project on a real high. Despite the title, Bowie's American influence seemed to be growing apace. He's been cited as guiding star by Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, amongst others. He even reached into American film; the movie 'Basquiat', co-starring Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper saw him playing the character he immortalised in his 1972 song - 'Andy Warhol'. The film's director was America's pre-eminent painter Julian Schnabel.
He continued to break new ground with the Internet-only release of drum 'n' bass single 'Telling Lies'. In January of 1997, he celebrated his fiftieth birthday with an all star filled performance at New York's Madison Square Gardens. He was joined on stage by old friends Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, Foo Fighters and Frank Black all played and sang with David to make this one of his most memorable shows of the 90's. Then he was off once again on a world tour which stormed over 15 headlining festivals, umpteen theatres and clubs and finishing with a Stadium tour of South America.
Already highly acclaimed in the fields of art and music, David has been turning his hand to mastering the information superhighway. 1998 saw the launch of BowieNet (www.davidbowie.com). BowieNet is the world's first artist-created Internet service provider. As the first artist to make a single, 'Telling Lies', available exclusively through the Internet, David has remained at the cutting edge of technology and artistic endeavor, and willingly utilises the most up to date technology. BowieNet offers full-uncensored access to the Internet, news, sport, finance and the very best music and entertainment coverage. For Bowie fans, and indeed all music fans, BowieNet provides previously unreleased material, videos and photos, gig reviews from all musical genres. And is if that was not enough BowieNet also gives you real-time chat and cybercasts (both live and archived) from David himself and a host of other stars. So far BowieNet chats have been conducted with the likes of Ronan Keating, Ronnie Spector, Eddie Izzard, Placebo and Boy George and many others.
1999 had been as busy a year as ever before. With his continuing work on his now highly acclaimed BowieNet website (nominated for the 1999 WIRED Awards for Best Entertainment Site of The Year) David has found time to work on a film, 'Exhuming Mr. Rice', (retitled to 'Mr. Rice's Secret'), a film in which David plays the title role. This year also saw the launch of the David Bowie Radio Network on the Rolling Stone Radio website, this station runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The radio's play list includes 54 tracks all personally picked and introduced by David. In May of this year David received an honorary doctorate in music from Berkley College, Boston. This prestigious doctorate has, in the past, also been received by BB King, Sting, James Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones.
1999 also saw the growing relationship between David and Placebo flourish further. At the annual Brit Awards ceremony David joined the band for a performance of the Marc Bolan classic 'Twentieth Century Boy'. The performance went down so well with the public that the Mirror newspaper began a mini campaign for the track to be released as a single and it was not long before the two artists were to hook up again. This time it was in New York where David was to join the band on stage at their headlining concert at The Irving Plaza. This time much to the delight of the audience Bowie was not only to perform 'Twentieth Century Boy' with the band but also a rendition of the Placebo track 'Without You I'm Nothing'.
July was to see David be voted as the biggest music star of the 20th century, beating Mick Jagger and Noel Gallagher, by readers of the Sun newspaper. In the same month David was voted the sixth Greatest Star of The Century by Q magazine and its readers. In this poll David was the third highest-ranking star who is still alive.
October 1999 saw the release of a brand new studio album 'hours...', this was David's twenty third solo album and harks a return to the sounds of the Hunky Dory days. Written solely with long time collaborator Reeves Gabrels over the last year, 'hours...' could be described as one of David's most autobiographical records to date. Tracks included 'Thursday's Child', 'Survive' and 'The Dreamers'. The themes of loss and regret throughout the album are likely to strike hearts universally. With such personal lyrics as; "Sometimes I cry my heart to sleep" David is evoking emotions recognisable to us all. This album deals more with real life opposed to imagery and fantasy.
Musicians used for the album included David; keyboards and 12 string guitar, Reeves Gabrels; guitars and programming, Mark Plati; bass, Mike Leveque (Dave Navarro band); drums, and Chris Haskett; guest guitar. The album was produced by Bowie and Gabrels and mixed by Bowie, Gabrels and Plati.
Written and recorded in Bermuda, 'hours...' speaks from the point of view of an older guy taking stock of his life. Bowie says "I wanted to capture a kind of universal angst felt by many people of my age. You could say that I am attempting to write some songs for my generation."
2000 and beyond
Following 'hours...', David enjoyed a period out of the public eye peppered with the odd show and the honour of being voted the most influential artist of all time by the UK's tastemaker tome the NME. During this time another life changing event took place, the birth of David and Iman's first child Alexandria Zahra Jones. Bowie took this time to savour fatherhood but also used the time to write a series of new songs...
A series of new songs that all led to a much heralded reunion with Tony Visconti which in turn resulted in a new album Heathen and a change of outlook towards the music industry and the setting up of his own label 'ISO Records' which has now linked up with Columbia Records to release what is probably the most eagerly awaited album of his career.
"Tony and I had been wanting to work together again for a few years now," says David. "Both of us had fairly large commitments and for a long time we couldn't see a space in which we could get anything together. As spring came around, last year, things began to ease up. I told Mark Plati and my band that I was going to disappear for a while and put this thing together with Tony. They were very understanding, they've worked with me long enough to know that we would be back together again before long."
So, diaries cleared, Bowie and Visconti set about compiling what you might call a location report, just outside of Woodstock in New York state. "I'd been told by guitarist David Torn of a new studio that was near completion called Allaire. Tony and I [took] a trip up a few weeks before we started work there, just to suss it out. In fact, T-Bone Burnett was working there with Natalie Merchant at the time. It's remote, silent and inspirational. We couldn't believe what a find it was."
So taken was he with the setting, David didn't come back to New York again until the record was complete, living in the grounds with his family and eating in a communal dining room. A famously early riser, he put that to good use as Heathen began to come sharply into focus. "I'd get up around six most mornings and spend them in the studio putting together my chord structures and melodies and words, finding sounds that I wanted to use. Then around ten, Tony would get in and we'd go to work."
Bowie's old friend Pete Townsend's contribution to the, playing lead guitar on "Slow Burn", was not his first with Bowie, as listeners to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) will remember. Foo Fighters Dave Grohl took the lead on the Neil Young cover "I've Been Waiting For You."
For a further surprise, there's more Bowie instrumentation on Heathen than anything in memory. "I was delighted that so much of what I played remained on the finished work. That's me playing drums over my own loop on the Pixies cover Cactus. In fact the only thing I didn't play on that track was bass. That was Tony. Nearly all the synth work on Heathen is mine and some of the piano."
And the title? "Heathenism is a state of mind," says Bowie. "You can take it that I'm referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any God's presence in his life. He is the 21st century man. There's no theme or concept behind Heathen, just a number of songs, but somehow there is a thread that runs through it that is quite as strong as any of my thematic type albums."
The release of Heathen will be accompanied by a series of concerts across Europe and the USA most notably David's curatorship of the prestigious two week long British 'Meltdown' arts festival involving acts as diverse as The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Suede, comedian Harry Hill, Coldplay, Television and The Dandy Warhols.
Heathen hits the streets in the second week of June and will propel David into another phase of his careers still going strong after almost 40 years of adventures in the world of music, film and the arts.
To give the last words to the man himself, he says "What's very enlightening for me right now is that I sense I'm arriving at a place of peace with my writing that I've never experienced before. I think I'm going to be writing some of the most worthwhile things that I've ever written in the coming years. I'm very confident and trusting in my abilities right now."
2003: A Reality
Reality. What an elusive and defiled concept. The stark reality about Reality - David Bowie's stunning and vital new album - is that there really isn't any concept. And according to Reality's legendary creator, there ultimately may not be any reality either.
With Reality, Bowie has taken a low concept to new heights. The vivid, wildly impressive result - released September 16, 2003 on ISO/Columbia - is one of the most powerful sets of songs in Bowie's illustrious body of work. Coming from the creative pioneer who brought rock music a newfound narrative drama and depth with 1972's classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the premise for Reality - Bowie's 26th album - couldn't have been more straightforward.
"I said to myself that I would just do a collection of songs that I was writing at the time," Bowie recalls. "A collection of songs with no through line, no undercurrent of any kind of narrative, no concept of tying it all together." The initial mission for Reality was that simple - write a batch of new songs, and may the best song win. "Each song was autonomous in my head," says Bowie. "Yet it did seem for some reason there was still a unity in there somehow. The album pulls together as a complete piece, even though the styles are quite diverse."
In this regard, the potent, eclectic group of songs Bowie delivers on Reality can be heard as being in the distinguished tradition of some past Bowie classics. Imagine 1971's Hunky Dory reflecting on these significantly less hunky dory times, or 1980's Scary Monsters with scarier monsters and more super creeps. Still, even if there are echoes of Bowie's glorious past here and there, Reality is - in its timely subject matter and its tremendous scope - ultimately very much an album in the present tense.
Starting in October 2003, Bowie will return to the road, bringing "A Reality Tour" to more than a million people in 17 countries over seven months. By using the word "reality" for both his new album and tour, Bowie isn't paying even mock tribute to recent lowbrow television trends. Bowie was inspired by ideas significantly bigger than the plot twists on "Joe Millionaire."
"I wasn't even trying to reclaim the word 'reality' really," Bowie explains. "I just threw it in there, purposely juxtaposing the old definition of the word with the new tangle that it's become. Truthfully, I was dwelling on the idea of there not being any ultimate reality. For those who are aware of the shape-shifting going on in the world today, the fact is there really are no absolutes anymore. This reality that we live through, its basis is more an all-pervasive influence of contingency rather than a defined structure of absolutes."
Yet for all this post-modern ambiguity, it's still hard not to recognize Reality's bold sound and vision for what it really is. Smart, sharp and intense, Reality offers a gritty soundscape that's everything we've come to expect from this man who England's famed music publication NME voted in 1999 the most influential artist of all time. From the time "Space Oddity" first introduced Bowie to American audiences through recent triumphs like 1995's Outside and 2002's million-selling, critically acclaimed Heathen, which had 15 top 15 chart debuts worldwide including the U.S., Bowie has set the standard for ongoing adventurousness and artistry in popular music.
At a stage of his life when so many of his famed colleagues and fellow travelers have turned toward mere nostalgia, Bowie remains steadfastly focused on the here and now. Though the narrator of Reality's infectious track "Never Get Old" is no doubt misguided in his pledge to bypass the aging process entirely, Bowie does seem to have tapped into some fountain of creative youth, sounding as engaged and inspire here as ever.
Too often Bowie has been described a chameleon. In truth, the music reflects the man, whatever the changes. Just as Bowie's late Seventies albums Low and Heroes - recorded in Berlin during a period of great personal transformation - conveyed the sonic texture of that place, so too does Reality capture the aggressive edge and street wisdom of Bowie's most recent home, New York City.
Reality's acclaimed, moody predecessor, 2002's Heathen, was recorded in the relative peace of upstate New York. Reality was recorded in lower Manhattan. Laced with references to Battery Park, Riverside and the Hudson, Realty offers the pretty/ugly feel of cracked Big Apple pavement.
"I struggled hard to not make it try to be about New York," says Bowie, who made a huge impact in his adopted hometown by opening "The Concert For New York" in 2001. "But I did try to make it a kind of a snapshot of me living in New York, and my reactions to being here."
Shortly before recording Reality, Bowie completed the "New York City Marathon Tour," which found the global rock great performing on five nights in five different small venues in each of New York's five boroughs. That short but sweet experience helped set the stage for Reality's explosive, road-ready sound. "We got off so much on being kind of a club band for five days in the bars," says Bowie. " It just brought it home to me that that's the kind of album I should make. It really should reflect where I am now and how I live, the people I know and make music with."
Reality follows rather fast upon Heathen, suggesting that the still Thin White Duke is on another big creative roll. Like Heathen, Reality finds Bowie once again working closely with producer Tony Visconti, a key collaborator going back to the days of The Man Who Sold The World, and albums like Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters. "I think it's just that we were so delighted with how aesthetically successful the Heathen album was for us," says Bowie. "That gave us such encouragement for just letting fly on this one. The chemistry is very good between the two of us."
That chemistry extended to the members of Bowie's band - vocalist/bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, pianist Mike Garson, drummer Sterling Campbell, guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, and vocalist Catherine Russell. Visconti himself played bass (on several tracks), while Bowie contributed keyboards, guitar and saxophone. "I did decide before anything else this album would really represent the stage band," says Bowie.
Reality feels both fleshed out and heartfelt. "I built a wall of sound to separate us," Bowie sings on Reality's wonderfully aggressive, even pissed-off title track. Yet the wall of sound Bowie and Visconti have constructed here does exactly the opposite - just check out Bowie's wonderfully beefed-up, brilliant cover of "Pablo Picasso," a minimalist, Seventies proto-punk rock classic by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers - another song that nicely references New York.
Reality finds Bowie looking out at the world around whereas the more introspective Heathen seemed to cast its glance almost entirely within. Songs like the opening gem "New Killer Star" and "Looking For Water" appear to comment on recent world events in a poetic, potent way. "I think that there's more about the exterior on this one, and it communicates in a way. It has a social kind of mattress to it," Bowie says. "You know, it just feels as though these are songs written for people."
Of "New Killer Star," Bowie says, "I'm not a political commentator, but I think there are times when I'm stretched to at least implicate what's happening politically in the songs that I'm writing. And there was some nod, in a very abstract way, toward the wrongs that are being made at the moment with the Middle Eastern situation. I think that song is a pretty good manifesto for the whole record." The song is altogether startling, a little like seeing "Jesus on Dateline" to borrow a memorable line from the song.
In the world of Reality, there is a good deal of anger, much of it political in nature. For example, the mournful "Fall Dog Bombs The Moon" is Bowie's rather artful comment on our military industrial complex. Still there is also much wit and joy here. "There is a lot of humor on the album actually," Bowie admits. Add up the social commentary with more personal songs like the reflective "Days," and the result is a geo-political, rock & roll gas. Like his narrator of "New Killer Star," Bowie seems to be both asking us to face the music and declaring let's dance.
"It behooves me to find positivism in the way that I'm living more than anything else," Bowie says of the album's energy. "I think unlike in Berlin, where I was really dealing with a lot of negativity that I had to lose, these days it's almost the other side of the same coin. I am actually searching for the optimistic in my life. And that's generated by being a father again. I have to say that if I didn't have my little 3-year-old running around, I don't think I would be writing quite this way. It would be a lot more destructive possibly, possibly. But seeing in her eyes all the hope and joy and optimism of the future, I have to reflect that somewhat in what I'm doing."
Reality offers a wide range of reflections. In addition to covering "Pablo Picasso," Bowie has wonderfully recorded "Try Some, Buy Some," a song by the late, great George Harrison that was recorded in the early Seventies for Apple Records by former girl group great Ronnie Spector. In fact, that single's original flip side "Tandoori Chicken" is said to be something of an obscure Beatles reunion track.
"It never really occurred to me that I was actually covering a George Harrison song," explains Bowie, who famously collaborated with John Lennon on "Fame" in 1975. "I was kind of doing an homage to Ronnie because I've adored her for years. I think it's really rather fitting and quite lovely that in fact, it is an unwitting tribute to George. Over the years I've had many songs that I put onto a list because one day I'll do a Pin Ups 2 album of covers. These were just two on it, and I kind of plucked them off for this album because I'm enjoying the part of just being the fan. It's a lovely thing to do."
There are many lovely things about Reality. There's "Bring Me The Disco King" - a long, after-hours, stripped-down jazzy number which prominently features Bowie with one time Spider Mike Garson on piano. Bowie's actually had this song for more than a decade. "I tried it two or three times before, but it just never worked because I made it disco - a virtual audio glitter ball," he explains. "Then I found treating it minimally actually did far more for the lyric and for the sense of the song. And the song just came into its own."
Many of Realty's songs will come even further into their own during "A Reality Tour," where Bowie will mix material from the new album and Heathen with a cherrypicked selection of earlier gems. Bowie intends the show to feature some of his favorite avant garde video, but little of the excessive stagecraft of 1987's Glass Spider tour. "I think I will be bringing to the party things that signify that this is just me on stage," says Bowie. "This is just a bloke singing and interpreting his own songs. It's not a huge theater piece."
This man who once bravely retired his past hits has in recent years grown more comfortable with his own musical shadow. "At the end of the '80s when I was going through the Tin Machine period and restructuring things for myself, I felt very insecure about what I was as a writer," Bowie admits. "I didn't want the weight of all the stuff that had previously been thought so great in my face while I was trying to rediscover who I was as a writer. And I guess modestly I'd have to say that I feel very confident in myself as a writer now. I like the stuff that I've been doing through the '90s and into this period now. I just feel it's been getting pretty much stronger and stronger. I can look at those things from the past now with some sense of equality with the things that I'm writing now. They're very different, but I think the weight is somewhat similar, which I think proved itself on the last tour, because the last time we went out, I think we did 50% new, 50% old. And they counter-balanced each other really, really well."
As for the set list for "A Reality Tour," Bowie says, "I'm doing 'Loving The Alien,' for instance, from Tonight and "Fantastic Voyage" from the Lodger album, trying to find things that actually support and compliment what I'm writing today. I'm also doing rock stuff like 'Hang Onto Yourself' from the Ziggy Stardust album which is going to be quite a surprise. I think we'll be going out with fifty songs. I had hoped for sixty, but I think that's really taking on a lot."
There is one thing Bowie definitely won't be taking on the road this time. "There's no glass spider funnily enough," Bowie says with a laugh. "Not even one."