San Francisco Chronicle - Jan 25th

Ever-changing Bowie

By Joel Selvin

After years of hiding behind characters he created, David Bowie, 57, knows who he is.

Although he is no longer making records on the leading edge of rock's avant-garde, as he once did, the British rock star has settled into a comfortable and confident middle age, free of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, with a 4-year-old daughter by his second wife, fashion model Iman, and his first real headline tour in more than seven years.

Since his 1990 "farewell" tour, where he played his greatest hits for what he said would be the last time, Bowie has toured with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and dance music specialist Moby and has collaborated in the studio with longtime associates Brian Eno, rock's great effete intellectual; Nile Rodgers, the disco man from Chic who helped style Bowie's 1983 smash, "Let's Dance"; and producer Tony Visconti, the man behind the board for classic Bowie albums such as "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars."

While the public barely noticed such '90s efforts as "Earthling" and "Heathen," or his latest album, "Reality," Bowie expresses great pride and satisfaction in his recent work in a phone interview from his current U.S. tour, which brings him to the HP Pavilion in San Jose on Tuesday.

"I must be honest," he says, "I have very good feelings about things like 'Earthling,' 'Outside' and 'Buddha of Suburbia.' Those three, particularly for me, were very strong pieces of work. I do feature stuff from those albums in the show, along with 'Heathen' and 'Reality.' So I really am plucking a lot from fairly recent years. I feel very comfortable as to what's been happening with me for the past 12 years."

Bowie exploded onto the U.S. scene in 1972 with "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust," his fourth album, a genre-bending work that may not have invented but certainly helped define glam rock, a theatrical, costumed, elaborately conceived set piece that flew in the face of the blue-jeans mentality of the rock world. When Bowie brought the tour to San Francisco's Winterland, home to the Grateful Dead and other Bay Area rockers on the mellow- to-psychedelic spectrum, fewer than 500 people attended. Four years passed before Bowie returned, this time to the Cow Palace.

By then he had abandoned the glam-rock extravagance - and the tailored soul-man period that followed - in favor of a wispy, rakish decadence that he illuminated under huge banks of fluorescent lights and giant spotlights that cast a shadow of him smoking cigarettes across the entire arena floor. By 1983, the beginning of the MTV era, he had achieved the kind of mass popularity that brought him back to headline a stadium performance at the Oakland Coliseum. But he didn't seem to understand the elements that had created this mass acceptance and struggled, with diminishing returns, to duplicate the achievements of his "Serious Moonlight" tour and "Let's Dance" album, which featured the then-unknown guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. There was an air of confusion and desperation to the staging of his "Glass Spider" show at San Jose State's Spartan Stadium in 1987, as Bowie was lowered to the stage in a throne, singing into a telephone.

Finding himself painted into a corner, Bowie returned to the Bay Area three years later in the "Sound + Vision" tour that supported his first boxed set, announcing that he would be playing the songs for the final time in public.

"It was bye-bye to those songs," he says. "That was the idea. And the seed of that idea came from a very practical thing. I was just getting back into finding out what it was that I should be doing. I really felt, in all honesty, fairly intimidated by my catalog at the time. I really had to work out a new way of approaching what was going to be the '90s, and I needed elbow room. I didn't want those things staring me in the face every time I went to do a show."

Bowie obviously had that strategy in mind in 1991 when he played a private performance before broadcast industry conventioneers with his new, largely unlistenable industrial rock band, Tin Machine, and cleared the room at Slim's within half a set, free drinks or not.

As he listened to rock bands on both sides of the Atlantic cite his influence and sing his praises, Bowie spent the '90s making records seeking his center.

"I have less and less concern about expectations from other people," he says, "not trying to second-guess audiences, really feeling good and fit about just doing what I want to do, which is a way that I always had done up until the early '80s. I just felt that that spirit has returned."

He has worked up more than 50 songs for the new tour, playing material from throughout his career, including the songs supposedly banished after the "Sound + Vision" tour.

"As the '90s went along," he says, "I felt more and more confident about the writing I was doing. Now that I'm here, 2004 now, I kind of feel there are certain amounts of the new material that balances well with the older material. And the older material doesn't seem so intimidating anymore."

DAVID BOWIE and Macy Gray appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at HP Pavilion, San Jose.