Denver Post - 16th January 2004
Bowie's new reality
By Ricardo Baca
'That's kind of... different."
It's the euphemistic phrase parents use to describe their kids' music. And the more the music varies from the expected, the more different it is.
Needless to say, different was the No. 1 adjective for the over-40 set in the early 1970s upon first hearing the glammed-out stylings of David Bowie. But now, more than 30 years after "Ziggy Stardust," Bowie himself is employing the vague adjective. The subject is hip-hop, more specifically, the most honored group of 2003.
"OutKast, yeah, they're kind of different," Bowie, now 57, said recently.
Unlike the aforementioned out-of-touch parents, many of whom are resistant to the boundary-pushing that popular music relies upon, Bowie can back his assertion up with context.
"The new OutKast album is pretty extraordinary," said Bowie, on the phone promoting his latest Reality tour, which stops in Denver on Monday. "But hip-hop, it's just not my world. I'm not about to be doing an album with (A Tribe Called Quest frontman) Q-Tip.
"But you can't fault the work that Missy does," he said. "There are some astounding technical achievements on that record, and the beats are insane, and she really is fantastic. I have nothing but respect for what she does. But my world is much more ambient and a little bit more wordy, but in a different way. There's always an otherness to the music that I gravitate toward."
And that otherness has been the lone constant in Bowie's shape-shifting career.
Bowie made his name on his fortuitous foresight. He saw and acted before most people even formed a thought, and by the time everyone else caught up, he was moving on, recording another album or embarking on another collaboration that would, again, change the way people saw him.
Walking through Bowie's career is a veritable who's-who of the five decades in which he's recorded music. John Lennon is there - he co-wrote "Fame" with Bowie and Alomar - as is Stevie Ray Vaughan, Brian Eno, Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, Trent Reznor and Moby. Those collaborations alone show Bowie's malleability, an aspect of his personality that no doubt has added to his career's longevity.
He's taken risks. He's succeeded and failed. But he's the gem of his generation of rockers who are still out there. And unlike the vast majority of his peers, he is unafraid to try something new.
In 1995, for example, Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails at the pinnacle of that band's career. The sprawling epic "The Downward Spiral," which spawned "Closer" and "Hurt," had come out the previous year; the arena tour was the culmination of the experience.
NIN frontman Trent Reznor employed his longtime hero to co-headline the tour, a move both brilliant and obtuse. Despite Bowie's ever-present street cred, NIN's teenage fan base cared more about "Pretty Hate Machine" than they did "Scary Monsters."
The tour drew disparate crowds. Denver's McNichols Sports Arena date was no different, as thirty-somethings talked through the pounding Nine Inch Nails set and the 21-and-unders roamed the hallways as Bowie played an extensive set of familiar work woven with the more industrial tones of 1995's "Outside." The only time the two demographics were simultaneously focused on the stage came during the songs Bowie and Reznor did together, including a haunting take on NIN's "Reptile."
"They were the headliners because it was the Nine Inch Nails tour," Bowie said of the experience. "You get a good mixture of fans. Everybody brings in their own audience, and it's kind of interesting to me, because, at some point in their lives, most people have come across a couple of my albums along the road, either in their own collection or in their parents' collection.
"Everybody generally kind of knows some of my stuff, so I usually end up OK in those situations."
It's likely one of the reasons Bowie was asked by his neighbor and friend Moby to join his second Area festival in 2002.
The first year swept the nation in a frenzy of hype and talent and glitz. But the second festival, which featured Busta Rhymes, Blue Man Group, Bowie and Moby alongside DJs Tiesto and John Digweed, saw ticket sales take a dive; in Denver, the concert was moved from the Pepsi Center to the Universal Lending Pavilion, and the smallish tent venue never looked quite full, even at the event's apex.
"It was a strange little show," Bowie said. "I don't think the sets were long enough. But that's the only problem with that kind of show, is you only get to do an hour."
On the current tour, supporting his latest genre-defying record "Reality," Bowie said he's playing two to three hours per evening and that "both myself and the audience are pretty famished by the end of the night." Of the new record, Bowie said it was written to be played live by his band of nine years.
"It's very representative of the band," he said. "We pretty much have our profile together. We know what we want and what we like, and ('Reality') has that feel. It's much more of a collection of songs rather than a thematic thing. It definitely doesn't have a follow-through.
"All the songs are informed in that they were written in New York, so there's some sense that there's a big city around there. But it's not about the city," he said. "It's not my 'New York album,' in the same way 'Heathen' was informed by New York, because this is where I wrote it, but it's not really about New York."
When Bowie truly hit in England and beyond in the early '70s, he was known for rapid change. Although "Hunky Dory," "Ziggy Stardust" and "Aladdin Sane" were all released within three years of each other - a time in which he also produced Lou Reed's "Transformer" and the Stooges' "Raw Power" - each album had a distinct personality.
A couple of years and a few drug problems later, Bowie released two albums from his Berlin base (the electronic-influenced partner records "Low" and "Heroes") and produced Iggy Pop's two comeback records ("The Idiot" and "Lust For Life") all in 1977.
So are Bowie's more recent albums, which are non-thematic in nature, a sign of what to expect in the future from Bowie, who turned 57 last week?
"I have (strayed from thematic records) just for the moment, but I never know from year to year how that's going to go," he said. "It strikes me at the time of recording, and depending on what I'm experiencing, I can always go back to thematic things."
Bowie listens to some new music but is rarely touched by a band. He likes the arty work of Mercury Rev and the retro sounds of Interpol, both based out of New York, and fawns over the talent of West Coast indie rockers Grandaddy.
But when it comes to most of his peers, "I can't afford to give it much thought," he said. "I can't really care about all of them. I take notice of people like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and how they're always pushing for something, and there are adventurous and heroic qualities to what they're doing.
"Neil, when he came to Madison (Square Garden) last year, it was really bizarre," Bowie said. "It was before ("Greendale") came out, and he had 13,000 people sitting there listening to music they'd never heard before. They didn't know what to make of it. He rewarded them, like they were school kids, and gave them a bunch of well-known songs for the encore. But I sat there with bated breath waiting for it to all fall apart.
"I just love those kinds of experiences. They're so much more rewarding than anything else."
And "rewarding" here isn't different.
It's simply different.
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