The Kansas City Star - May 9 2004

Reality and relevance

Chance taker is still a rebel

By Timothy Finn

In a recent edition of The New Yorker magazine, the German automaker Audi launched an advertising campaign titled "Never Follow."

The eight-page, four-color ad featured glamorous portraits of four people famous for taking chances, breaking rules and marching to their own unique cadences. At the front of this advertisement is rock star/artist/business entrepreneur David Bowie, 57, looking tall, blond and thin and cooler than a wine cellar in Minsk.

Under the headline "Never Mind the Stares," Bowie states the philosophy that has guided him through nearly 40 years of stardom in music, movies and other endeavors: "There is no progress without failure. Each failure is a lesson learned."

Monday night Bowie comes to Starlight Theatre for his first live appearance in Kansas City in nearly 20 years. Unlike other rock stars his age, however, he comes to town not just as a guy with a stash of old songs trying to rekindle his career by reliving it. He comes as a guy with cards in his hand, a pile of chips on the table and plans to remain in the game for a while.

Bowie is often called a chameleon for the many times he has changed his appearance and persona. But chameleons change color to hide, to blend in with their environments, to go unnoticed. Bowie is the opposite. He changes to get noticed, to stand out. To be stared at. And despite his many artistic stumbles, Bowie remains as admired for all the risks he has taken as he is for all the great music he has created. But, as he puts it, the only option to risk-taking is ultimate embarrassment.

"Once you create an atmosphere for yourself where you're accustomed to taking chances, that way of working becomes the only practical way of doing things," he told The Star Wednesday, speaking by phone from his hotel room as he nibbled on almonds and rested before a show in Miami.

"I've found that when you steer away from that and do things the other way and for other reasons, you learn a big, hard lesson."

That lesson, as he describes it in the Audi advertisement, is learned when fads, trends and pop charts start to affect a guy's sensibilities in the wake of success: "Unnecessary failures are the ones where the artist tries to second-guess an audience's taste, and little comes out of that except a kind of inward humiliation."

That's what filled him in the late 1980s, Bowie said. After putting out the critically acclaimed "Scary Monsters" and the commercially successful "Let's Dance," he started listening to voices other than his own.

"Then it all started to feel really bad for me, and I didn't quite know what I was doing," he said. "I was having these incredibly successful tours, but I wasn't proud of the albums, and I didn't feel committed to them. I did exactly what I shouldn't have done: I tried to find material and arrange it in such a way that it met the expectations of what I thought the audience had from the 'Let's Dance' album, and that was a foolish thing to do. It was a bad move. Then I got back to the idea of doing things strictly for myself - Tin Machine actually caused me to do that - and I really felt like I had more integrity again."

Like few other artists, Bowie has avoided becoming a casualty of his own bad moves or wayward motivations. He figures that is precisely because his core audience knows that the price of experimentation is the occasional flash fire or explosion, and that after the smoke settles, he'll be back in the lab cooking up another project.

"When things go bad, I've always looked to my peers and, in a way, my musical mentors to see what they've done in similar situations," Bowie said. "Neil Young and Bob Dylan have done similar things: They have both made a few disastrous albums, but they always end up coming back to the point of what they started in the first place. You've got to go back to what you were doing when you were rooting around with experimentation, ideas that are going to work for me, not my audience."

Lately those ideas have involved working again with producer Tony Visconti, who produced some of Bowie's best albums ("Heroes," "Low" and "Scary Monsters").

Considering Bowie's stage in life - he's approaching 60; he became a father again in 2000; he hadn't stirred up much critical acclaim in several years - it's tempting to see his reunion with Visconti as a way of relying on old formulas that served him well. Not so, he said.

"Becoming a father again has made me really take a long-term view of how I'll handle touring in the future," he said. "My daughter is 4. I can't be away on a long tour like this in the future, or what will happen is exactly what happened with my son: I missed so much of his young life. I was always away back then.

"But Tony and I had been talking about getting together for about five years - really, quite a long time. But we didn't want to rush into it until I'd found material that I thought would suit us as a duo. 'Heathen' was the first batch of that material. The success of the sensibility of that album led us to believe it was a good idea to continue with 'Reality.'"

Bowie has never made an album that engages a listener during the first listen ("Let's Dance" is as close as he has come). His music typically demands repeat listenings and levels of concentration that the average pop/rock fan isn't willing to tap into.

"Reality," released last year, though, feels as accessible as anything he has done recently. At least lots of critics thought so: "Reality" stirred up some of the best reviews Bowie has received in a while. He scoffed, however, at the notion that his two latest records with Visconti are his best in a decade or so.

"I would absolutely disagree," he said. "I like them. I think they're good albums, and I'd agree that there has been a universal acceptance of them. But there were times in the 1990s when I had music out there, and I didn't feel like it was looked at too much. But I'm proud of the work I've done in the majority of the 1990s, specifically 'Outside' and 'Earthling.' I'm as proud of them as 'Heathen' and 'Reality.'

"I think those last two albums, because (Visconti) worked on them, it gave a lot of writers a hook - permission, if you will - to listen to them and take notice of them."

Bowie and his band are in the ninth month of what will be a yearlong world tour. To his credit, he hasn't framed the Reality Tour as anything but another tour: No "farewell" tour (like Clapton or the Who); no "you'll never hear these songs again live" like Prince. (Bowie did make a similar announcement, saying he was retiring all his older characters, for his "Sound + Vision" tour, which played Sandstone Amphitheatre June 9, 1990.)

Instead he has shaved away all the Ziggy Stardust props and Glass Spider trappings and reduced his show to just his band and his songs, including some of the newer ones - which is one motivation for the tour.

"When you're approaching 60, it's tough to get on the radio," he said. "It's quite an ageist thing, really. So these days are much like the old days, when you go out and perform and bring to an audience what it is you're doing."

He has devised other ways of delivering his music to audiences that otherwise wouldn't hear it. He appears on the "Shrek 2" soundtrack in a new version of "Changes" with the young Australian artist Butterfly Boucher ("Her new album is splendid"); and he has jumped on the "mash-up" bandwagon, inviting disc jockeys and other music alchemists to take his songs, tear them down and rebuild them in new forms and fashions.

To some observers, projects like that bear the whiff of opportunism; to others they are signs that Bowie, as usual, is on top of what's going on around and ahead of him. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, which is preferable to the other options - living in the past or desperately trying to please others.

He may be well beyond his years of gaudy, transsexual rebellion, but Bowie is still living in relevance. And though he may be leading no one in particular these days, he's following no one, either.