The Arizona Republic - 1st February 2004

Bowie's golden years

By Larry Rodgers

DAVID BOWIE takes his music as seriously as anyone who has ever written a pop song, but at 57, he has finally discovered the joy of laughing at himself.

It has been more than 30 years since the British rocker shocked both sides of the Atlantic with his glammed-out, androgynous Ziggy Stardust character. Since then, Bowie has kept fans guessing with a series of musical identities, but he's showing a sentimental side now as he tours behind his accessible Reality album.

Bowie, a jet-setting musician/actor/clotheshorse/ painter, whose surgically sleek sound, ultrafashionable videos and guarded personal life made him seem untouchable in years past, sounds humbled by the outpouring of affection from fans of all ages as he performs rock classics and new tunes.

"I'm enjoying touring like never before... and it's very satisfying to see some pretty young kids out there, to see their faces expressing a kind of joy and enthusiasm for what you do," Bowie says in a backstage call from a Canadian arena.

The London-born singer still has the striking looks that make him appear 20 years younger, and he laughs when it's suggested that his supermodel wife, Iman, has been giving him trade secrets. But Bowie, who performs Thursday in Phoenix, finally is acknowledging that time waits for no one, as his friend Mick Jagger has sung.

"Sometimes I sigh and think, 'God, I wish I was 50 again,' " Bowie jokes.

But he's part of a generation of artists, along with Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, that continues to create fresh music in a genre that used to be solely for the young and rebellious.

"It's a very weird thing, having grown up through this entire history of rock and roll, that our lot really are the first 'oldies' to get there," he says.

Granted, an earlier wave of rockers that includes Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis continue to recycle their '50s hits onstage, but Bowie and his peers still are releasing new material and performing for millions. This outing, Bowie's first world tour since 1995, will take him to 17 countries in seven months.

"We are pioneering. I'm sure there are quite a few (young) bands out there that are looking at us and thinking, 'OK, let's see what we're going to have to do when we get to that age,' " Bowie says.

"So in a way, there's a lot on our shoulders, though I'd hate to say we have artistic responsibility. I refuse to take that mantle."

Bowie, whose real name is David Robert Jones, plays a sold-out show this week in the 5,000-seat Dodge Theatre. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is filling arenas three times that size in New York, Boston, San Jose and other cities.

Over the years, Bowie has crafted a series of musical personas. There was Ziggy Stardust, with the futuristic costumes, heavy makeup and orange hair, in the early '70s, then the soulful, suit-clad Thin White Duke. Later in the decade, Bowie was the avant-garde composer in Berlin. In the '80s he moved to poppy new wave before founding the punk-flavored Tin Machine in 1989.

As his musical clothing changed, the hits flowed: Changes, Suffragette City, Rebel Rebel, Fame, Golden Years and China Girl all became mainstays of rock radio.

Acting stints on Broadway and the movies, including his role as an alien in 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth, also kept him in the public eye.

Despite that stream of changing creativity, Bowie, who lives in New York with Iman and their 3-year-old daughter, doesn't view his career in terms of planned stages.

"I'm not so sure about the idea of evolution in general," he says. "I really exist more on a day-to-day basis, and I don't see any pattern in it, and that's the trouble.

"The negative side of me sees us surfing along on chaos completely, with no perceived pattern or absolutes. . . . But I actually feel it gives a kind of wondrous freedom if you virtually have to make up the day as you go along."

Part of that drive for change prompted Bowie to announce in the early '90s that he no longer would perform his old hits. He kept that vow until a small tour behind 2002's Heathen album, which, like last fall's Reality, reunited him with Tony Visconti, who produced some of Bowie's strongest early albums. Both discs were well-received by critics and fans, revitalizing Bowie's career.

It took the singer a decade to realize that his new songs could stack up to the hits of his heyday in the '70s and '80s.

"I don't feel that the new songs suffer in any way when put up against the older stuff that I'm known for, when I used to get radio play. I guess the radio stuff that I'm playing (in concert) always seemed a bit of a weight around my neck because it was so well-known. You think, 'How am I ever going to beat those things?'

"So I pretty much cleared the decks in the early '90s. And as I've gone through this period, it's very evident to me that I can certainly compete with myself."

After his '90s forays into punk and electronic music - the latter in 1995's adventurous Outside with longtime collaborator Brian Eno - Bowie has returned to solid contemporary rock on Heathen and Reality. He plays guitar, keyboards, sax and percussion, and is joined by a '70s collaborator, guitarist Earl Slick, and jazz-influenced pianist Mike Garson.

The new album's opening track, New Killer Star, is a crisp, rocking nod to the Ziggy Stardust days, while the funky Never Get Old would rest comfortably next to 1975's No. 1 hit Fame. In between, Bowie pauses to reflect on life's ups and downs in Days and The Loneliest Guy.

The guitar-fueled New Killer Star, with its reference to the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, quickly has become a favorite concert tune of Bowie's. It also earned him a nomination in next Sunday's Grammy Awards.

"That's the spirit of the album, that there's an awareness of what's been going down recently where I live, at least, and how it's affected New York and probably America generally."

Bowie says Killer Star, with the line, "Let's face the music and dance," contains "a real strong sense of positivism... You hold your head up and go into battle smiling and whistling and dancing."

Those songs mark a departure from two of Bowie's favorite themes: isolation and abandonment. His first hit, Space Oddity, described a lonely astronaut floating into oblivion, and subsequent hits such as Changes and The Jean Genie portray characters searching desperately for something.

After a failed first marriage that brought a son (Duncan Jones, 32, a filmmaker) Bowie sounds as if he has found the person to make his life complete in the Somalian-born Iman. He proudly mentions that they are approaching their 12th wedding anniversary, adding, "We've been together 14, going on 15 years."

But Bowie hints that he'll always draw most of his musical inspiration from within, and not from his wife or daughter.

"I'm not saying there's a closed door in my work, but I do feel it's very much my area and it doesn't really get distilled by anybody. I listen to my band, but I already know what I want.

"I'm quite despotic that way: This is mine."

David Bowie, with Macy Gray
WHERE: Dodge Theatre, 400 W. Washington St., Phoenix.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
ADMISSION: Sold out.
DETAILS: (602) 379-2888,