Alameda Times-Star - 23rd January 2004

Bowie gets back to basics by writing music for himself

By Alan Sculley

DAVID BOWIE's got staying power. A star for almost 40 years, he's one of a handful of artists still producing rock that's innovative and relevant.

But then again, Bowie points out, "Rock'n' roll has never been this old."

While blues and R&B greats such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters may go gracefully into old age, "it seems kind of incongruous... for rock," Bowie says.

Part of Bowie's secret to staying creatively vital is not to pretend to still be a young rocker and to write about the issues and emotions in his life.

"I believe it's a lot about why we started doing what we did in the first place," says Bowie, who was born David Robert Jones. "... It was a real belief in the power of music to change peoples' minds, to make them think about things."

It's also about having an undying love for the music. To Bowie, that is essential. "If you have that burning desire to be a writer and a musician, then that excitement and that earnestness ... will come through. It's just not about a career. It's not about being a celebrity."

Bowie is certianly qualified to voice that opinion. The one period when he went off track creatively was when he forgot to stay true to himself as a songwriter, Bowie says.

In 1983 he was catapulted to a new level of popularity with the singles "Let's Dance" and "China Girl." But the two albums that followed "Let's Dance" were Bowie's low point.

"There were two albums in there in the'80s that I feel were barren. Creatively I was pretty indifferent to them, and they were 'Tonight' and 'Never Let Me Down,'" Bowie says.

He was experiencing a new kind of fan base and that, paired with his celebrity, caused him to stop writing for himself.

"My audience had been pretty cult-y and maybe a little obsessive with the kind of thing that I did. This was a far more general, easy-going family, I guess, good kids," Bowie recalls with a hearty laugh.

Unfamiliar with his newly acquired fans, he figured he should write to them. "I really struck a bad note by doing that, I think. The irony, of course, is both albums sold incredibly well for me, but it started to impact me. I really felt like I was painting myself into a corner."

Bowie got out of that corner by making a radical decision. After compiling his career-spanning box set, "Sound + Vision," Bowie went on tour in 1990 and announced this would be the last time he would perform songs from his back catalog.

He also put aside his solo career and formed the band Tin Machine with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Tony Sales and drummer Hunt Sales.

The group - a true collaboration between all four band members - never enjoyed the kind of success Bowie experienced. But Bowie says Tin Machine, and in particular his creative relationship with Gabrels, rekindled his creativity and put his career back on track.

Gabrels told Bowie he needed to go back to being a musical risk taker and remember the artist who reinvented himself at will during the 1970s. He needed to remember how he helped define glam rock by becoming the highly theatrical, androgynous Ziggy Stardust on "The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" and "Aladdin Sane," and how he then morphed into the sophisticated soul-inflected character, the "Thin White Duke," with "Young Americans" and "Station To Station" before reinventing himself yet again with the moody, more minimalist, electronic-tinged music of "Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger."

"Probably if Reeves hadn't come along at the exact time he did, I think I would have gotten back on course again, because I'm a fairly bright boy and it would have occurred to me that I was just killing myself and wasting my time, that I should just get out," Bowie says. "But I think it would have taken probably quite a bit longer."

Tin Machine broke up after three CDs, but the creative juice Bowie got from that band has carried over to the solo records he has done since.

"I like all of the stuff I've written since around 1991," Bowie says. "I think the last 10 or 12 years have been really good to me as a writer."

While some are especially fond of the 1995 release "Outside" and 1997's "Earthling" - two adventurous CDs that found Bowie exploring modern styles like jungle and electronica within a pop format - others point to his two most recent releases, 2002's "Heathen" and his current effort, "Reality," as representing his finest work since the "Heroes" period in the last half of the'70s.

There's certainly credence to that view, as both "Heathen" and "Reality" are compelling from start to finish.

Where "Heathen" was more lush and introspective, "Reality" finds Bowie's sound getting a bit edgier.

Again, Bowie - happily married to model Iman, with whom he has a 3-year-old daughter, Alexandria - credited his musical rebirth to his decision to let his impulses guide his work.

"The more that I write mainly just for me, so that I can tangle with my own problems and use myself as an audience of one and see if it has an effect on me, then my writing is good," he says. "When I start writing for an audience, it drops off considerably and it's not good."