The Sunday Times - August 31, 2003

The star looks very different today

David Bowie, widely considered the most influential pop icon ever, was once written off by his record label, reveals Robert Sandall

So far as the world knows, David Bowie has been cruising in an enviable holding pattern for at least 10 years: a wealthy rock aristo with a model wife and beautiful downtown Manhattan apartment - and something of a Renaissance man as well, with a prestige portfolio of cultural activities. When he isn't releasing another album (the next appears on September 15), or appearing in some art-house movie (as Andy Warhol in Basquiat, say), he's shaking things up on the internet with his online community website, BowieNet, or devising ingenious new ways to market his wares - like the $50m public offer of shares in his songwriting revenues, the so-called "Bowie bonds". That he still has the contours, hair and teeth (albeit cosmetically reconstructed) of a man half his age only underlines the remarkable survival of his creative reputation. Now well into his sixth decade, the man who once played Ziggy Stardust seems to have morphed into a figure even more fanciful: he is the Peter Pan of rock.

But Bowie today is not the freewheeling dilettante he was. The turning point came just before Christmas 2001, when he learnt that Virgin, the record label he had joined only three years previously, was about to drop him after just one album. Bowie's PR machine immediately moved into top gear and, so far as the world knew, David was leaving to set up his own label, sign new acts and explore new avenues.

But the truth was that, with the global record industry moving sharply into recession, Bowie had become a very expensive date. Sky-high video budgets, costly international promotion jaunts, hardly any concerts to gee up the fans and no hits meant that the album Hours... had been a commercial failure - despite selling about 750,000 copies worldwide. Given the equally disappointing performance of his previous 1997 release, Earthling, in which Bowie flirted rather unconvincingly with drum'n'bass, he was starting to look like a corporate number-cruncher's nightmare: a superstar with big ideas, huge overheads and a dwindling sales base.

Bowie, ever the artist, has often been ambivalent about the grubby business of shifting units. He disowns the pop pomp of his Glass Spider stadium tour of the 1980s and likes to point out that some of his most enduringly popular albums, notably Low and Heroes, were only modest sellers in their day; but he got the message. After re-signing his camouflage "label" Iso to the Sony imprint Columbia - where its entire roster still comprises one D Bowie- he hunkered down to prove that he was some way off retirement.

Reunited with Tony Visconti, his old producer from the 1970s, he decamped to a hilltop studio near Woodstock in upstate New York with 50-mile views over the surrounding countryside. Well away from the arty, clubby distractions of Manhattan, in a place that he described as "remote, silent and inspirational", and where he later claimed to know "exactly what lyrics I would write as soon as I stepped into the room", Bowie composed and recorded a set of songs that, for once, eschewed current fads in favour of old-fashioned qualities like strong hooks and choruses. The fact that Heathen attracted rave reviews and a nomination for the 2002 Mercury Music Prize - making him the oldest pop musician to receive this accolade - must have been heartening; that it went on to sell nearly 2m copies worldwide, substantially more than he had managed for nearly 20 years, was an unexpected and undeniable result.

Success bred renewed confidence. Despite his natural brilliance and poise on stage, Bowie has been a reluctant performer recently, but early this year he set out on a club tour, playing five nights in five different small venues in the five boroughs of New York. Energised by the response, he immediately wrote another set of songs and recorded them with his touring band in a studio near his home on Lexington Avenue that he owns with Visconti. A few weeks back he posted a cheerily upbeat message on his website: "Boy, the Reality album sounds good, even if (and I will) I say it myself. We're going to have a great time with this stuff on stage this year (and next it seems)."

For the man who just over a year ago wrote, on the same site, "misery is my default position ... my soul flies erratically on the wings of a feeble bipolarism" things are looking up - and about time too, you might think. Being David Bowie, after all, is not a bad gig. Stellar friends, young and not so young, are never far away. The boys from Blur looked him up and gave him a box for their New York show earlier this year. His old mucker from the glam days, Lou Reed, lives nearby and the two former bisexuals now socialise quatre with their female partners.

Blessed with superhuman stamina, Bowie is up at six each morning, e-mailing around the world, writing, reading (the crime fiction of Jake Arnott is a current favourite) or communing with his collection of 20th-century British art. Then again, he might just play with his daughter, Alexandria. "If I didn't have my little three-year-old running around," he told his web fans recently, "I don't think I would be writing quite this way. Seeing in her eyes all the hope and joy of the future, I have to reflect that in what I'm doing." The role of old softie may be an unfamiliar one for David Bowie, but one way or another it seems to suit him.