Time Off - February 2004

David Bowie: Shared Yearning

By Sean Sennett

Two years ago David Bowie felt he was on the brink of his own "personal cultural restoration". Sitting high above New York City on the 55th floor of the Sony building, he was about to embark on a workload that would culminate in the release of Heathen, his strongest album in two decades. Next came the obligatory 'Bowie best-of', a 30th anniversary re-release of the Ziggy Stardust film and album, and a digital refurbishment for the 1973 landmark Aladdin Sane.

Along the way Bowie found time to record his current album, Reality, and embark on a series of live dates around the globe. Gazing out his tour bus window, Bowie is again enamoured with life on the road.

"I'm somewhere between LA and Phoenix," he offers in his distinctive tone. "We're travelling alongside the Coachella Mountains. It's quite spectacular and quite beautiful."

The tour bus has become Bowie's preferred mode of travel. Last night was the third of four nights in LA; then it's onto Phoenix, Vegas and New Zealand. Australia is just around the corner.

"I'm having a ball," he confesses. "We're five months into it and I'm not even vaguely bored. I'm having just a super time."

Reviews of the current tour have sent critics reaching for superlatives. A clever operator, Bowie has seemingly tamed his set-list to please both hardcore fans and the casual observer.

"Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I've done the right thing," he explains. "I think I've chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows.

"I've got 40 or 50 songs rehearsed for this tour. I think over a two-night period we'll be able to change the list quite dramatically. We go back as far as 1970 and bring it right through to Reality. I can't tell you how fantastic it's been."

The polar opposite of 1987's famed Glass Spider hyperbole, the emphasis here is on Bowie's songs and the synergy of the band performing them. At 57 years of age, Bowie still gets a kick out of revisiting tunes from his 70s catalogue. In fact, on occasion he says it feels as if he's playing 'Rebel Rebel' for the first time.

"I think it's because the songs aren't theatrically presented in any way," he muses. "I'm literally just doing a 'pair of jeans and a T-shirt' tour. It's not much more than that. It's really very fundamental. Therefore, I think you take on the songs with a completely different attitude. It's about being a singer, singing songs you believe are well written.

"'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Life On Mars' get an almost emotive response from the audience, and it's very touching. I don't know whether the audience think of the characters, or a time in their own lives. Some of the audience are so bleeding young... they can't respond to a time because they weren't even born when these things were written."

The same can be said of newer tune 'Slip Away'. Much of the audience are largely unfamiliar with 70s TV character 'Uncle Floyd' and 'Bones-Boy', but 'Slip Away' creates a shared yearning all the same. Perhaps it's because truly great music can somehow remind you of a place you've never been... but you'd like to visit.

"That's right," Bowie booms. "The best music often paints an untouchable or a needed landscape of some kind. When something's successful I think it produces that kind of effect."

For Bowie, writing new material in the wake of 9/11 had an effect on Reality. The album explores the alienation evident not only in Heathen, but in much of his work.

"I think circumstances probably gave those two albums a sense of continuation," he admits. "Reality was written in New York and there was a 'social mortality' about because everyone in New York was so effected by what had happened to them. It was a first for them. I think everyone had a sense of their own mortality, even if it was glimpsed only briefly.

"With Reality I was initially motivated by a different desire to Heathen. There was a different sense of purpose. I wanted to create an album that the band would play splendidly on and be something we could showcase quite well onstage. I gear my songs to be more observations of things rather than my own personal feelings. New songs like 'She'll Drive The Big Car' are more like a narrative story."

As the landscape changes, Bowie begins talking about Sofia Coppola's current film Lost In Translation. For the record, he loves it and is looking forward to being a Gaijin in Tokyo again. Life on tour also presents Bowie with the opportunity to catch up on one of his favourite pastimes - reading.

Currently on the Bowie coffee table are South African writer J.M.Coetzee's Disgrace and A.S. Byatt's The Little Black Book Of Stories.

With so much work behind him, Bowie's aforementioned "personal cultural restoration" seems out of place as he looks towards the next town and the next set-list.

"I think I'm in a very transitory time of my life," he confesses. "I don't know where I'll be in a couple of years. I simply don't know. It's kind of exciting for me."

David Bowie plays the BEC Tuesday Feb 17. Reality out now on Columbia/Sony.