Sydney Morning Herald - Feb 13th, 2004

Reality check

No hits, no drugs, no smokes... This is ground control to David Bowie: what the hell are you up to? Dino Scatena finds out.

Sydney Entertainment Centre, Harbour Street, Haymarket
February 20 and 21, 7.30pm
Bookings 136 100

David Bowie doesn't expect his work to change the world. Not any more. He's also quite sure that he will never release another hit record.

There's no need to pity him. Bowie is totally hunky-dory with it all.

"For artists like myself, I don't think it works like that any more," he says from the dressing room of the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, another sold-out stop on A Reality Tour - his world tour that started last October and arrives in Sydney next week.

"We don't get played on radio or seen on television, so you don't rely on that. That's where hits come from. So you go with word of mouth, and that, generally, has worked incredibly well in my favour.

"That's why I think I'm still able to do the work that I can do. We have, I suppose, what's quite stodgily called a loyal audience. So we kind of know we can bank on a certain amount of people that will always be there for us in some kind of way."

Of course, it wasn't always this way for Bowie. There was a time, sure - a full generation ago - when he produced an endless stream of hits, and his name alone ensured full stadiums around the world, rather than theatres and small arenas.

When the London-born Bowie was inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, the institution described him as "rock's foremost futurist and a genre-bending pioneer, chameleon and transformer... his innovations have created or furthered several major trends in rock 'n' roll".

Yes, once upon a time, it would have been impossible to argue with that. For if Bowie's art didn't physically manage to change the world, it certainly forever altered its sonic state.

This June marks the 40th anniversary of Bowie's debut record release as a 17-year-old wannabe pop star. When the subject is brought up, Bowie at first pretends he wasn't aware of this.

"I hadn't even thought about it," he says. "It is 40 years, isn't it? Let me see... it would have been 40 years since the single Liza Jane, I think, as Davie Jones or whatever [Davie Jones and the King Bees]. Well, how about that? Dear me. Well, that's the end of this interview. I better go and lie down."

He cracks up, laughing heartily.

"It's a bloody long time to have the same job, yeah. It's great. I mean, it's still great. I can't say anything less than that.

"It's been an extraordinary life, really, in a way. Ultimately, I guess the best part about it is that, at this particular time, I'm still performing and writing and recording.

"It's just as big a buzz for me now as it was in the beginning. In a different way, you know - it's a bit more mellow. But overall, I couldn't possibly think of doing anything else."

David Bowie turned 57 last month. These days, home is New York City, where he lives with Iman, his ex-supermodel wife of the past 12 years, and their three-year-old daughter, Alexandria.

The Bowies are - it goes without saying - filthy rich. Last year, London's The Sunday Times estimated Bowie's wealth at 120 million ($287 million).

Except for those famously different-coloured eyes, there's little resemblance between the aristocratic music figure that Bowie is today to the genre-bending, cocaine-fuelled, cutting-edge artist that helped define popular music - in both look and sound - in the '70s. Even his once-trademark crooked teeth have long been straightened.

Modern-day Bowie, he confesses, is just as straight as those teeth, has been for as long as he can remember.

Late last year, he even got around to finally giving up his beloved cigarettes, leaving him virtually viceless.

"Well, there's just the heroin," he says. "But I'm dealing with that - it shouldn't be long now. Other than that, life is a dream."

He bursts out laughing again.

"No, please, I take that back. Yes, I'm afraid I am viceless. I don't drink, do drugs or smoke. I do coffee - gallons of it, still."

He adds, in a considerably more serious tone, that all the decadence of decades past is "rather a non sequitur of my life now. I mean, it's just so far away, all that. I just don't live like that, no."

What also changed somewhere along the way - in 1984, to be precise - is that Bowie finally slipped off his pedestal as rock music's primary innovator.

The 12 studio albums he released between 1970 and 1980 were as influential on popular music at the time as the Beatles in the '60s or Elvis Presley in the '50s.

By the mid-'80s, however, Bowie completed a most unexpected transition from cutting-edge artist to unabashedly commercial artist. The Let's Dance album belatedly turned him into one of the world's biggest pop stars in 1983, but successive albums - 1984's Tonight and 1987's Never Let Me Down - suggested his muse had morphed into MOR mush.

Bowie now looks back on that period as his "Phil Collins era", his great artistic void. Yes, Bowie sold out. By the end of the '80s, not only had music critics long turned against him, but the hits had dried up, too.

Since then, he has spent his career trying to reconnect with the creative energy that made him such a significant artist in the first place.

His first attempt to get back to basics was the creation of a stainless-steel rock band called Tin Machine. The band released its self-titled debut album in 1989 and was treated as a joke at the time, but Bowie believes the project has since been critically reassessed in his favour.

"That was really a watershed for me, Tin Machine," he says. "It was a great experience in grounding, and being able to find what it was that I initially loved so much about writing and recording. Artistically, I was pretty spent by that time. I had just come to some kind of cul-de-sac. And I really needed to give myself a kick-start, in a way.

"There are a lot of people reappraising Tin Machine and what exactly it was doing at that time, what it was trying to do.

"Once you got past the whole thing of, 'Oh, David Bowie is trying to be in a band and not an individual', once you get back to the music of it, there was a lot of it which was really pretty interesting.

"I thought there were some great songs in there and I really did start to feel my weight again as a writer on those albums."

Bowie's four solo studio albums that followed Tin Machine throughout the 1990s were hit-and-miss affairs. If Bowie wasn't quite proving himself to be the genius of old, at least it was obvious he was trying.

Then, in 2001, after more than two decades apart, Bowie reunited with Tony Visconti, the man who had produced several of his era-defining albums of the 1970s. The result, Heathen, was hailed as Bowie's best album since, well, his last album with Visconti (1980's Scary Monsters).

Its follow-up, last year's Reality, was also recorded with his old pal. Bowie already has plans to work with Visconti again, once this world tour wraps up in July.

"It's smashing, it couldn't be better," he says of the renewed partnership. "We get on so great. And these days, with his new girlfriend, he lives not far away from me [in New York]. So it's a kind of local thing now."

Bowie promises A Reality Tour will cover material from virtually his entire career, conveniently overlooking the lowlights.

"I really reach back as far as I can, into the early '70s, right through until now," he says. "We rehearsed about 40 or 50 songs, and that enables us to move at least three or four songs each night.

"I mean, I have batteries of fans that latch on to particular periods of what I have done - so you get all these different types turning up to the shows. I've had a bit of fun working with the set list. I think I've covered everybody, plus kept myself interested, as well.

"I think you'll enjoy it," says Bowie with a last laugh. "The tour has just been a blast. We give good value for money."