The Columbian - April 9, 2004

Bowie still plays among stars

By Alan Sculley

Only a handful of rock artists have pushed well into their 50s and continue to create CDs that are as strong, as challenging and as relevant as the ones that brought them stardom early in their careers.

This select group would include the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, perhaps Eric Clapton and the youngest member of this class of rock's elder statesmen, David Bowie.

"I think for all of us who are kind of in that age... this has never happened before. This is like going to the moon," Bowie said in a recent phone interview. "I mean, rock and roll has never been this old. We've watched it with blues guys and R&B guys. We've watched John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and those kinds going gracefully into old age and still performing and all of that. But it seems kind of incongruous that this would ever happen for rock... It's a momentous and very strange situation, and we're all learning about it as we go. None of us have the answers to why this happens and how this happens. And we don't know what the end result is going to be. It's like it's a journey for all of us."

Part of the secret to staying creatively vital, Bowie said, is for artists to not pretend to still be young rockers and write about issues and emotions that matter in their lives at the moment. And the 57-year-old singer had further insights.

"I believe it's a lot about why we started doing what we did in the first place," said Bowie, whose real name is David Jones. "And I would imagine - I obviously can't second guess or talk for the others - but it was a real belief in the power of music to change peoples' minds, to make them think about things, that it was as important as any of the other arts and then (having) an undying love for it. I think that is absolutely essential. And I think if you have that burning desire to be a writer and a musician, then that excitement and that, I guess almost earnestness, you'll feel it. It will come through. It's just not about a career. It's not about being a celebrity.

"And you know that all of that stuff, that is probably what is the downfall of a lot of other people in some way, because I think they go into music because they want that other thing, this thing they've read about called fame or celebrity or whatever," he said. "And I think that ruins a lot of them because they're in it for the wrong thing."

Bowie is qualified to voice that opinion. The one period when he went off track creatively, Bowie said, was when he forgot to stay true to himself as a songwriter.

His 1983 CD, "Let's Dance" became a mega-hit when the title song and "China Girl" both became hugely popular singles. His next two CDs were the albums where Bowie said his music hit a low point.

"There were two albums in there in the '80s that I feel were barren. Creatively I was pretty indifferent to them, and they were 'Tonight' and 'Never Let Me Down,'" Bowie said.

The trouble, Bowie said, was his new-found popularity caused him to stop writing music to please himself first and foremost.

"I think it was popularity and facing a new kind of audience that I hadn't experienced before. Kind of my audience had been pretty cult-y and maybe a little obsessive with the kind of thing that I did. This was a far more general, easy-going family, I guess, good kids," Bowie said with a hearty laugh. "And I didn't know who they were. I kind of thought, well, I had better learn to write for these people. I wonder what they would like to listen to? And it kind of came out of that kind of thought. I really struck a bad note by doing that, I think. The irony, of course, is both albums sold incredibly well for me, but it started to impact me. I really felt like I was painting myself into a corner."

Bowie escaped that corner by making a radical decision. After compiling his career-spanning box set, "Sound + Vision," Bowie went on tour in 1990 and announced this would be the last time he would perform songs from his back catalog.

Not only that, he essentially put aside his solo career and formed a band, Tin Machine, with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the sibling rhythm section of bassist Tony Sales and drummer Hunt Sales.

The group - a true collaboration between all four band members never enjoyed the kind of major success Bowie had experienced. But Bowie said Tin Machine - and in particular his creative relationship with Gabrels - rekindled his creativity and put his career back on track.

In essence, Gabrels told Bowie he needed to go back to being the musical risk-taker and remember the artist who reinvented himself at will during the 1970s. He needed to remember the man who helped define glam rock by becoming the highly theatrical, androgynous Ziggy Stardust on the early 1970s CDs "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" and "Aladdin Sane," how he then morphed into the sophisticated soul-inflected character, the "Thin White Duke," on this mid-70's albums "Young Americans" and "Station To Station," and then reinvented himself yet again with the moody, more minimalist electronica-tinged music of "Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger."

"Probably if Reeves hadn't come along at the exact time he did, I think I would have gotten back on course again, because I'm a fairly bright boy and it would have occurred to me that I was just killing myself and wasting my time, that I should just get out," Bowie said. "But I think it would have taken probably quite a bit longer."

Tin Machine broke up after three CDs, but the creative juice Bowie got from that band has carried over to the solo records he has done since.

"I like all of the stuff I've written since around 1991," Bowie said. "I think the last 10 or 12 years have been really good to me as a writer."

While some observers are especially fond of the 1995 CD "Outside" and 1997's "Earthling" - two adventurous CDs that found Bowie exploring modern styles like jungle and electronica within a pop format - others point to his two most recent releases, 2002's "Heathen" and his current CD, "Reality," as representing his finest work since the "Heroes" and "Low" period in the last half of the 1970s.

There's certainly credence to that view, as both "Heathen" and "Reality" have been compelling from start to finish.

Where "Heathen" was more lush and introspective, "Reality" finds Bowie getting a bit edgier with his sound.

The edge is most blatant in tracks like the title song, which recalls the brashness of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust era, and his spunky cover of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso." Other standout songs, such as "New Killer Star," "Never Get Old" and a version of George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some" rock only slightly less briskly, but have dynamic melodies and plenty of attitude. Ballads such as "The Loneliest Guy" bring an effectively moody dimension to the "Reality" CD.

Again, Bowie, who is happily married to the model Iman and has a three-year daughter named Alexandria from that marriage, credited his musical rebirth to his decision to be creatively selfish and let his own impulses guide his work.

"The more that I write mainly just for me, so that I can tangle with my own problems and use myself as an audience of one and see if it has an effect on me, if my songs have an effect on me that's emotive on me or keeps me challenged in some way, then my writing is good," he said. "When I start writing for an audience, it drops off considerably and it's not good."

WHO: David Bowie
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 13
WHERE: Rose Garden Arena, 1 N. Center Court, Portland
COST: $41.50-$66.50

Bowie finds a favorite persona: himself

Early in his career, David Bowie became famous for such stage personas as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke.

In recent years, though, Bowie has adapted a new character - himself.

"I've gotten very comfortable with simply interpreting my songs, and with very little stage action, other than myself and the band, I mean, not really a propped show or too much in the way of visuals," Bowie said of his current tour. "It's a very minimalist and I think kind of stylish looking show, but it basically really is just about the songs and the performances."

And although at the beginning of the 1990s Bowie had announced that he would no longer perform his old hits, his live sets now include a handful of his best known songs from his past, while also featuring material from his most recent releases, "Outside" (1995), "Earthling" (1997) "Heathen" (2002) and "Reality" (2003).

Bowie said his decision to once again embrace his back catalog was the product, first of all, of feeling he had regained his stride artistically and that his new songs would stand up to his classic material. He also realized his audience wants to hear his older material.

"The way I would choose those (famous) songs, in particular, is they had to be songs that I really actually enjoy singing," Bowie said. "I think the area where I'm not going to meet my audience terribly well is if I'm just doing a song because I believe it's a song they want. So I have to kind of second guess to a certain extent well these are the seven I like. I bet the audience will like these too.

"And then I'll kind of flesh out the rest of the set with either newer material from over the last 12 years, that includes obviously the last two albums and the albums that went on in the '90s, and maybe more obscure songs from relatively known albums, but maybe not so well known, albums like 'Lodger' and 'Low' and whatever," he said.

Although his concerts are not as flashy or theatrical as they were in the past, Bowie said he actually enjoys performing now more than ever.

"I'm just having such a fine time. I love my band," said Bowie of his touring unit that includes bassist/singer Gail Ann Dorsey, guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, keyboardist Mike Garson and drummer Sterling Campbell. "I think that we're really working well together. It's been a long time being formed, over eight years with changes throughout, it's a really wonderful band to tour with and it's a good unit. I'm just actually enjoying the act of performing. It's really something that is beginning to suit me now, and I suit it, and I really embrace the process."