Chicago Sun Times - January 9th 2004

David Bowie's new scary monsters

By Jim DeRogatis (Pop Music Critic)

Rock's most celebrated chameleon has been fighting valiantly for the last decade or so to remain relevant and pointing toward the future, but David Bowie has met with mixed results.

We can debate the merits of 2002's overrated "Heathen," but there simply isn't much good to say about Tin Machine or the labored concept albums "Outside" and "Earthling." But his 26th studio album, last year's "Reality," is a different story.

Recorded with one of his strongest bands ever (including regulars Mike Garson on keyboards, Earl Slick on guitar and Sterling Campbell on drums), "Reality" is Bowie's most consistent and original effort since 1980's "Scary Monsters." It finds him drawing on the unique tension and energy of post-9/11 Manhattan in the same way that he found inspiration in the still-walled-in Berlin of the mid-'70s. And when he sings, "I'm never gonna get old," for the first time in a long time it sounds as if we'd better believe him.

Bowie comes to the Rosemont Theatre for a sold-out three-night stand that begins Tuesday and continues Wednesday and next Friday. I spoke to the legendary singer and songwriter from his home in Manhattan as he was recovering from a bad bout of flu that caused him to cancel the first few gigs of the tour.

Q. Hi, David. So, how are you feeling?

David Bowie: I'm OK. [Laughs] Boy, is the flu tough this year! We did so well in Europe - the flu really wasn't a problem over there - but virtually from the moment I walked through the door at home, I came down with it. My baby had it. At that age, 3, it takes a couple of weeks for them to recover from it. I canceled four or five shows, and I never do that. I've always been able to work through these things.

Q. "Reality" is a brilliant album. I'm curious about the uniquely New York energy of it. It seems as resonant of that city as your trilogy of albums with Brian Eno was of Berlin in the '70s.

DB: I have to agree, very much so. "Heathen" has some of the same resonance, but kind of from a different perspective because it was more New York state - it was done in the mountains. But the information that went into both those albums, the genesis of them, was the experience of living in New York. The albums that Brian and Tony [Visconti] and I did back in the Berlin days were informed by Berlin, but rather like these two, "Heathen" and "Reality," they're not albums about the city, though there's definitely a resonance of the cities.

Q. How have you noticed New York changing in the wake of 9/11?

DB: I'm not gonna say that usual line that the innocence is gone because you're talking about America - it's not a nation that was built on innocence; it was built on slavery and corruption and a lot of really extraordinary things evidenced by the first three or four presidents of this wild and wonderful country. It's had a pretty insane history. But there's a new sense of vulnerability, I guess, and I think that was a big surprise for everybody who lived here that it can actually happen in America. I think there was always a feeling that whatever happened in the rest of the world, one reason why it could be ignored so much at the time, as it often is in America, is that really nothing was going to actually happen to America. It's almost like America's now been embraced by the woes that do affect the rest of the world.

Q. But it doesn't seem like the country has learned a lesson.

A. No, and I put that down an awful lot to media and political spin. There's a certain kind of front that has been adopted here, and a certain kind of way of looking at the world. The way we over here - and that's the American "we" - define democracy as the kind of democracy that's going to be given to the rest of the world, whether they want it or not. But coming back to New York itself, I think there's just a shadow of a feeling that it can and possibly will happen again. There's definitely that. But there's nothing that's going to shift me from New York because I love the city, I love the people here, all our friends are here, and this is what we've decided is our home. But one can't help but think that the way that things have been replicated in the rest of Europe - the small bombings in shops and cafes and that sort of thing, the IRA or Basque actions or any one of innumerable terrorist groups - it is on the horizon for New York or maybe any other great American city. This is the very unfortunate 21st century that we've moved into.

Q. What do you think is the artist's role in this situation?

DB: Oh, hell, that's the thing we're all struggling with, frankly. I've got to say, that is a question that I come to all the time. What is my role? Is anything that we actually do worth a damn? But I think firstly before you do that, you've got to actually have an opinion that is worth something. And it's such a complex situation now, one feels so often in such deep water trying to talk about it, so I guess one keeps coming back to just personalized anecdotes of one's own life - just kind of sharing your day-to-day life.

On the other hand, I've never known before I've really started recording exactly how I'm going to approach an album with the lyrical content. Such a lot of what I write and what I do is kind of almost prescient of things around me. I don't do long didactic tracts, but I often find that I've succeeded in getting what's on my chest off my chest by writing these elliptical kind of descriptions of things.

Q. Is there something about being in intense surroundings that encourages that? Some artists would go down to the Bahamas to work for six months, but you've done some of your best work in uncomfortable places.

DB: I want to go the Bahamas right now! [Laughs] But what you say is so true. When I've found myself in more luxurious circumstances, it does seem to nail me. I really can't produce very much. Tense situations -- I think because you implore the good things to come to the surface, but in imploring them to do that, you come across all this stuff that isn't so great, and that becomes the grist for the writing mill. I think you probably treasure the life that you've been given just maybe a little bit more than when things are too easy.

Q. You're married to a woman from Somalia, you've traveled the world and you've always had a global perspective in your art. What do you think about the current political situation: Is it possible for the West to come to an understanding with the Muslim world?

DB: I don't want to get into that! Yes, I've got fairly strong opinions about all of that, but I certainly wouldn't give advice in this country! I don't know if anybody can avoid getting the Dixie Chicks treatment. It's really tough to be in a democratic country and have to be very careful about what you have to say.

Q. What's most encouraging about your career is that you've always struggled to avoid the dreaded curse of nostalgia. Sometimes it works fabulously, as with "Reality," and sometimes we've gotten Tin Machine.

DB: [Laughs] Every artist that I adore has worked in that way, whether it's a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan. If I'm going to do something that is provoking and relevant, I have to be prepared to take really loony chances, and I have no fear of failure whatsoever because often out of that something is salvaged, something that is worthwhile comes about. The only failures that I think have just not been worth it are the ones where I'm pandering to somebody else's tastes, and nothing comes out of that situation except a kind of an inward humiliation.

Q. Many artists seem hamstrung by having a following of people who are devoted to them, but you rarely seem to trip over your fans' expectations.

DB: It's almost like part and parcel of being a truly great artist is the ability to be seen to be failing, and just being prepared to walk about with a red nose. If you keep thinking, "What can I do to make this audience like me?" I think you've got a major problem. A true audience is going to like you no matter what. They might not be the most receptive audience in the world sometimes - that's happened to me frequently throughout the last 35 years or so - but they're going to kind of give you a listen. Neil Young's audience at Madison Square Garden the other night wasn't exactly in raptures, for instance, but it was there and it was listening. That's all really that you can expect anybody to do if you're producing some interesting kind of art.

Q. One of the chances you take is in giving your band a lot of freedom. I gather you tried to cut "Reality" as live in the studio as possible, and you stretch out in concert.

DB: Yeah, it's pretty representative of what this band sounds like. We're very happy with it. In terms of what we're doing onstage, I don't think there's a period that I'm not actually touching on. I think it's pretty representative, and it's not just all the hits - we've got a lot of stuff from these last two albums, "Heathen" and "Reality," and I'm also adding stuff from the '90s, which only some of the audience knows. Then that's balanced out with things that obviously they do know, because once you get past 10,000 people you've got to be a little careful. But there again, we've tried to follow both Bob Dylan and Neil Young in terms of learning as many songs as possible before we came out. We've got about 50 under our belt, which is not bad - it means that we can move the set around from night to night considerably. Usually, we do at least 2 hours - it's not a short show - and sometimes we've been going to 3, 3-1/2 hours. But now, thanks to the damn Internet, they post the set lists and then we get, "How come you only did 2 hours here when you did 3 there?"

Q. What do you still enjoy about touring? It can be such a grind, especially when you have the flu.

DB: I like it! [Laughs] It wasn't actually my favorite thing to do; I've got to be honest, and I think I've voiced that frequently. I never really thought of myself first and foremost as a performing artist; I can do it, but it's not the thing I love best. I can do it, but what I love best is working and experimenting and trying things out in the studio. But I guess it's because of the kind of solidarity I now have with this band, which has been in large part with me for about the last eight years, that I'm really getting a joy from just going out and interpreting the songs. I'm feeling like a performer at last.

There's also another thing that's happened in the last two or three years, and this may have to do with the world conditions, but before I go onstage, I realize, "This is not a life-threatening situation. You're just going out and singing some songs, and if you don't enjoy it, then get off the stage!" So I think our attitude before we go onstage is "We are going out to have the time of our life for the next couple of hours." And I think that being swept along by that initial feeling before we go out makes us feel pretty good from the off, and we just relax into it. I never really felt that relaxed before, but these days, you can almost call me goofy. I really feel at home now, I really feel comfortable on the stage, and I'm there to enjoy myself. I hope that extends out into the audience, and they have a great time, too.

Q. I'm curious about your perspective on the music industry. We're at a historic crossroads right now, and you seem to have been ahead of the curve in realizing that.

DB: It's all luck; none of it was planned. I kind of think it's a little bit like photography, where the photograph itself at the beginning of the last century was such an iconic thing. It was thought of almost in a religious manner, and the people that made it were thought of in a special way. And now, people just put everything into Photoshop and change the faces around; they're their own factories of image. One sees a certain similarity in what's happened with music. I think the context of the music has changed immeasurably since I started making it. Like it or not, it has become merely an adjustment to lifestyle rather than the kind of manna from heaven when I was a kid. It just seems to have a different kind of context altogether - it's like water from the tap or electricity from the plug. Kids kind of presume it's just there for their taking, and you can't dispel that idea. That's what they believe and they won't change their ideas.

I don't see any hope for the industry at all. We're watching it collapse - it's definitely imploding - and it's become a source of irrelevance.

Q. You saw that coming, with the way you viewed your catalog as an asset and said, "I don't really need a label."

DB: Well, one half of me says yes and the other half says no. I have old-fashioned ambivalence.

Q. Despite the new way that people are listening, you continue to produce albums as artistic entities rather than as collections of songs that can be plucked out and downloaded.

DB: I may be producing them like that, but I don't think I'm actually feeling that. I'm coming very quickly to the stage where I'm tempted to just start writing songs and putting them out. I really like [Apple's] iTunes - I think it's a pretty cool idea to just kind of assemble the album of your choice, and it makes absolute sense to me. These days, I find it very hard to find more than a couple of tracks on anybody's album that are something I want to play again and again.

Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at or visit him on the Web at