The Daily Telegraph - February 19, 2004

No major problems as a starman lands

By Kathy McCabe

For the first time in his 40-year career, David Bowie is enjoying performing.

It seems unbelieveable that a man who has commanded thousands of stages and mesmerised millions with his mere presence hasn't thoroughly revelled in the experience.

However, pop's greatest innovator insists adopting a no-frills on-stage persona - including the standard rock uniform of jeans and T-shirt - and putting the focus back on to the traditional singer-and-band set-up has finally ignited his passion for performing.

That passion will eventually thrill more than five million fans around the world when the tour wraps at the end of 2004.

"This is all new for me," he says at a Circular Quay restaurant after spending several minutes admiring the docked QEII liner. "I've never felt like a natural performer. I just didn't enjoy the process.

"For me, it was a means of getting my songs heard and a way to put a theatrical context to the songs. But it wasn't of particular enjoyment. It was a job.

"During the past three or four years, I've been absolutely enjoying the process of interpreting the songs and it just gets better and better."

Bowie is emphatic that if he wasn't enjoying himself on the Reality tour - which has scored gushing reviews worldwide - he would cancel the shows immediately.

The reason is simple. He misses his wife, Iman, and their three-year-old daughter Alexandria.

"If performing with this band wasn't so brilliant and the audiences hadn't been so extraordinary, I would go home," he says. "I would just stop the tour, cancel the shows. I don't do it to make money and I miss everybody so much.

"And there are some places - which I won't mention - that you couldn't care less about moving about in, that are so culturally levelled.

"You wonder why you're there - until you play the show that night and the audience respond and it makes it all worth it."

Bowie credits his family and a close-knit circle of friends with making him feel "safe" enough to continue his prodigious music career.

As critics call his latest album, Reality, his best in years, the charismatic entertainer insists he hasn't changed that much.

"I haven't changed that much over the years, except for a certain kind of sobriety," he smiles.

"That has come into my life and made me less screwed up.

"I was really screwed up. I had major, major, problems, especially in the '70s and early '80s. I feel I've found a safe place in my soul I never had.

"I'd felt adrift in the most spectacular, pessimistic, dark and nihilistic way."

Bowie, who admits to having extreme mood swings, says he made a decision to be optimistic.

He doesn't directly credit the arrival of his daughter for the change but one senses he felt he could no longer indulge an overly pessimistic view of the world.

"I don't know how it happened that I decided to be optimistic," he said.

"I think that's where friends come into the picture - and giving up drink and drugs."

Bowie and his band have rehearsed about 50 songs for the tour and insist their bare-bones staging and lighting set-up allows them not only to mix up the set list every night but to enjoy the occasional free-form jam live musicians crave.

A disciplined professional, Bowie attends every soundcheck, using the opportunity to gauge the venue and develop a framework for the set of songs that night.

Australian fans who'll witness his first shows in 17 years here will be delighted to know his repertoire to date has run the gamut from classics Rebel Rebel, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Heroes to newer songs from Reality and Heathen.

"I can pick up what feels right at the soundcheck," he says. "But I leave gaps in the set list where I can just call out for a song, depending how the audience is reacting.

"These people who lock themselves into things [because of technology]... I don't understand it, I just run off at the mouth during a show.

"I wing it as much as I can because I want to get something going between me and the audience."

And that includes his "schtick", as he calls it. An eccentric take on nudge-nudge, wink-wink, old-school British humour peppers not only his conversation but his on-stage patter and puts a very human spin on David Bowie, pop master.

"I just want to have a laugh with the audience. I don't want it any other way," he says. "If there's a sense of seriousness, that comes in the songs themselves.

"Performing isn't a life-threatening situation in the scheme of things. It can be important and uplifting.

"I want to enjoy myself, I want the band to enjoy themselves and an audience can tell if you don't - it affects their enjoyment of the show."

Many reviews of the Reality tour have commented largely on how the old and new songs on the set list combine to present a timely commentary on the state of the world.

Bowie says this was never his intention but again illustrates his point that he hasn't changed the way he writes music much over the past four decades.

"I've always been quite worried about the idea of reinvention or use of the word 'chameleon' to describe what I do," he says.

"I might have addressed similar topics in a different way each time but I think the fundamentals of my writing are the same today.

"I think there's a continuum between Reality and my earlier albums, even if I haven't donned a character to tell these stories."

As for the other string to Bowie's creative bow - his acting career - don't expect him to be starring on the big screen any time soon.

"I'd love to be a movie star and have my name on posters and photographs 14-foot high and all that but you have to work so hard at it - the acting and all that you have to do.

"It really takes up time and I don't think I have a commitment to it, really.

"It's not my profession... it's wonderful when [Martin] Scorsese asks if I want to wander on and do Pontius Pilate [in 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ] - that's terrific. But Russell [Crowe] can sleep safely."