VH1 - September 22nd 2003

David Bowie: Reality Bites

Singer's new disc uses New York as backdrop to big ideas. He talks about living up to fans' expectations and the trap of becoming a traveling jukebox.

By Brian Ives and C. Bottomley

David Bowie once swung in London. Then he moved to Berlin looking for heroes. But the man who fell to Earth has ultimately landed in New York, and the great metropolis fuels his current creative resurgence. On 2002's Heathen and the brand new Reality, Bowie's perpetual experimentation has partnered with post-9-11 edginess, and Manhattan landmarks like Battery Park have replaced Mars as the backdrop for his songs.

Bowie's become as devoted to the city as Woody Allen. His last string of live dates was a marathon around its boroughs; he played a local college in Queens, a Brooklyn art space, and even ventured to Wu-Tang country - Staten Island. He opened VH1's Concert for America with a haunting version of Simon and Garfunkel's "America," and recently appeared on Lou Reed's The Raven, a tribute to fellow Gothamite Edgar Allan Poe.

New York is a city of reinvention, and Bowie is always up for shedding old skin. Reality is a new installment in a pseudo-biography where an aging performer reflects on the times while teasing US into thinking we're finally getting a glimpse behind the ch-ch-changeling's masks. Lap it up, but don't be suckered. As he says on the title track, "I'm back where I started from/ I never looked over reality's shoulder."

The album is a musical game of hide-and-seek. "Never Get Old" is a campy, confessional number originally written for a mineral water ad. "Bring Me the Disco King," finds him crooning about his decadent days in the style of old duet partner Bing Crosby. Lately the singer has been expressing himself through the songs of others, too. Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso" becomes a hard-rocking variant on "Jean Genie," and George Harrison's "Try Some Buy Some," a tune written for Ronnie Spector, becomes a fan letter to the late Beatle himself.

With a semi-permanent band that includes 70s cohorts like pianist Mike Garson and guitarist Earl Slick, Bowie's embarking on his first world tour in eight years. A veritable clutch of classics from the past decade - as well as his career highlights - will be featured. He talked about keeping it real in all its many meanings.

VH1: "Real" has become such an overused term, particularly in hip-hop. Why call the album Reality?

David Bowie: Precisely for that reason! It's a misappropriated word these days. I should put a disclaimer on that: "Reality" was also one of the first songs I wrote for the album. It felt like a good catchall for the subjects I was writing about.

VH1: You recorded Reality in Manhattan, whereas Heathen was done in upstate New York.

DB: Those albums are like both sides of the same coin. Heathen's aesthetic is far more serene [than Reality], although there's something somewhat disturbed about it. A lot of Heathen is questioning one's spiritual connection, and it has the unease you get from being in the mountains. There's something disturbing about being up there! Down here there's a different kind of disturbance. There's an aggression to the urban situation. So Reality is less about the spiritual life and more about the - I have to use the word - reality of living in a town left with such a tragic residue.

VH1: Are you going to release a single?

DB: [Sighs] Y'know, I do okay. I put a single out and it won't get played. I think the first one is "New Killer Star." I put that out because it's one of my favorite songs on the album. I have no idea whether that means it's a good single or not. In its way, it encompasses just about everything else on the album, so there's a slight manifesto quality to it: This is what the album is.

VH1: It has that "thrusty" sound that you've described the album has having.

DB: Yeah. This is a stage-written album. It really feels like it was meant to play live. I'm terribly excited about the touring part of this! It's a gas!

VH1: You did a show in New York were you played Heathen and Low in its entirety. Is there an album from the past that you associate this one with?

DB: Those two really felt comfortable with each other. I didn't want to do that again, because I didn't want to force the issue. Nothing immediately struck me - because I did contemplate it. I thought, "That worked so well." It was such a lovely thing to do. But I couldn't, with any integrity, find something that would absolutely feel right for me to do alongside Reality. So I thought, "No. Do what seems to be the right thing to do, which is do a bunch of things from Reality and Heathen, the way we are doing." But I would do it again if that came up, because I did enjoy that experience a lot.

VH1: It's surprising to think that this is your first major tour in eight years. You've played New York a lot over the last few years.

DB: Oh, I always play New York. My world tours have been centered around New York! [Laughs.] This really is a world tour inasmuch as it goes to Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and all these other places that we literally haven't been to since 1990. That's very exciting, because there's 13 years worth of material that we've never had a chance to play for those guys.

VH1: So we can expect a 90s heavy set-list?

DB: Yeah. A lot of Heathen, a lot of Reality, Earthling and Outside. But then I'm stealing things from albums as diverse as Lodger and Low, because I still have a penchant for that. I've got half-a-dozen or so songs that I would presume people would expect and want me to play. But this is not a traveling jukebox.

VH1: You probably feel like you don't have to live up to people's expectations.

DB: The audiences have really kept up with what I've been doing over the last ten years. Things like "I'm Afraid of Americans" are thought of in much the same way as anything from the way past. It means I can put together a show which really goes through the decades, which is incredibly satisfying for me. There's nothing worse than thinking you have to rely only on things that you wrote about 30 years ago.

VH1: A lot of your old collaborators have returned to the fold. What makes you return to work with figures from your past?

DB: The music dictates it. I guess it's like how I'm writing at the present time. It's stretching it as an analogy, but you think of the musicians as characters. Their musical sound is a character for the song. You think, here's this little play - who would you people it with? How does the character of this song sound? I've had a pretty consistent band now since '95, with the occasional role-changing as people have dropped out or whatever. This present one is probably one of the best ones I've worked with.

VH1: Why have you stayed relevant where so many of the artists from the '60s and '70s haven't?

DB: I can sit up straight and hold a cup of tea! [Laughs.] I don't know. It has to be something to do with the fact that I'm really a rock fan. Before anything else, I love music and what other artists do. I love listening and buying CDs. I'm a fan! I really am! It's my music, it's the music that told me who I was when I was a teenager. I've grown up with it.

VH1: So can rock keep you forever young?

DB: That's an interesting thing about the state of things right now. A lot of guys in my generation grew up with rock music. Not Sinatra. Not big band. They grew up with the Stones and the Beatles and all that. So there's not quite such divergence between the generations as when I was a kid. It was called the generations war. He likes Sinatra and he likes Jagger and never the twain shall meet. In a way it was true. As much as I love my father and all that, we didn't share anything like the same musical tastes. But my son and I, we pretty much have the same tastes. We can look at each other's albums. He'll pick out a Lennon album and a Hendrix album and say they're cool. I can go for a Grandaddy and Mercury Rev album and say, "I understand this. I know all about this, what they're doing."