The Age - 15th November 2003

The real David Bowie

Interview: David Bowie

By Patrick Donovan

After 40 years of pushing rock music into new territories, posing behind outrageous aliases such as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, only to retire them and reinvent himself, David Bowie has come full circle. On his 25th album, Reality, Bowie is shooting from the hip.

It is one of his most personal albums to date, and also his best since 1980's Scary Monsters. "I'm pretty much a day-to-day guy now, I think you have to be," he says over the phone from his hotel room in Brussels, Belgium. "I've been a pretty regular guy over the past 14 years, in the way that I live my life and my ambitions, which are very few these days. It's about just trying to keep my family unit together, really try to create a secure and comforting nucleus for my daughter. If I'm looking further ahead, I'm usually looking through her eyes."

At 56, Bowie seems healthy and content. He is married to former supermodel Iman Majid and they have a daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, 3. Unlike many rock stars, he has demonstrated financial savvy, too, when he floated his future song royalties on the stockmarket in 1997, which have reaped an average annual return of 8 per cent. These days he appears to driven by the need for security and clarity rather than hedonistic experimentation and fantasy. And, for once, there appears to be no front.

"Of anything I've written over the years, I guess possibly so. As I get older and older, I write more and more from the first person, and I think that is possibly something that happens with age. It's not daunting, it's just the way things are. But it doesn't rule out my wanting to write more theatrical or metaphysical or science-fiction kinds of things. It always occurs to me to do things like that, because I enjoy the hell out of writing them."

So is he still looking over his shoulder for something new?

"I'm talking about looking beyond the reality of what's next, and what are the consequences of the way that one lives one's life. That's, for me, what that line means.

"But some of the fans have taken it very differently. It's an endless source of amazement and interest to me how a lot of the kids dissect the songs and come up with their own meanings for them.

"I'm very partial and happy for them to do that, because it's exactly what I do with songs. I tend to relate them to my own experiences. I'm not looking to see how the writer or singer is living, I'm looking to see how it relates to me, so I like to leave it a bit loose when it comes to a definitive meaning."

Bowie is now a New York resident, though his flamboyant alter ego Ziggy Stardust would probably be denied entry to most of the increasingly conservative US these days on the grounds of being an illegal alien. Bowie says the intensified fear factor in New York dictated the sound of Reality.

"There is a feeling that it's not over yet - I think everyone's sort of expecting something else to happen... I think the idea of terrorist action in bars and restaurants and that kind of thing, being cited astargets, is somewhere in everyone's mind."

This uncertainty and fear has polarised artists, Bowie says. "People either try to make as much of a good-time sound as possible, or go the other way and deal with things much more personally and subjectively, and you really come back home to what things are all about. There's not much in the middle."

Reality has a large dose of both. The album has inspired Bowie to embark on his first world tour in eight years, playing to about a million people in 17 countries, including Australia in his first visit for 17 years. On the tour, these new songs are mixed with a smattering of hits, including Rebel Rebel, Fame, Ashes to Ashes, and Heroes.

"I wrote pretty fast," he says of the new material. "It always amazes me that when you do write and record pretty fast, how often stuff turns out to be really good, and you can deliberate over something for months and it's not anywhere near as good as the more spontaneous things."

Most of his cover songs are of male singers, including Stevie Wright on the Easybeats' Friday on My Mind.

If he could be a female artist, who would he choose?

"That's a searching question," he says with a laugh. "On the new album, Try Some, Buy Some - which for me was a Ronnie Spector song - I know it was written by George (Harrison), but the performance that nailed me was Ronnie Spector's. I don't think I'd want to be a female singer. I'd rather be me singing some female songs."

Bowie, affable and humorous, is still buzzing from playing a 33-song, three-hour show the previous night in Berlin, a city that continues to figure prominently in Bowie lore. He moved there in the mid-1970s while trying to escape heroin addiction, and while there collaborated with Brian Eno and Iggy Pop on a succession of darkly brilliant albums including Low, Heroes, The Idiot and the more upbeat Lust for Life.

He also has a fondness for Australia and kept a flat in Sydney's Elizabeth Bay for about 10 years until 1992. He recorded some film clips here, including Let's Dance, which portrayed two Aboriginal children grappling with a consumerist, Western society.

Some found an Englishmen highlighting Australian's treatment of its indigenous people a bit rich, but it anticipated Midnight Oil's political Diesel and Dust album by four years.

Bowie became obsessed with Australia as a 12-year-old when he spotted Uluru on the cover of a cheap Igor Stravinsky re-issue CD.

He hasn't been following Australian race relations since he left Sydney in 1992, but he says he will do some surfing on the internet before he comes out to discern "the lay of the land". "You tend to let go of these things. Quite honestly, my concerns over the last while, especially the last few years, has been the state of affairs in America and how things are in New York."

David Bowie plays Rod Laver Arena on February 26. Tickets on sale through Ticketek.