Scotland On Sunday - 13 June 2004

Still the starman

By Paul Sexton

HE HAS regenerated more times than Dr Who and lived inside a multitude of skins in his chameleon career. But it's hard to imagine David Bowie being more comfortable in any of them than in the one he's modelling right now. The others, of course, had their own designer labels, from his early days as mod chancer and Anthony Newley wannabe to Ziggy Stardust to Thin White Duke. This time, it's tempting to conclude that he's come to the party as himself, even if that does seem a mundane explanation for someone as considered as David Robert Jones.

"I'm a bit over the idea of the 'real me'," he says. "It's been bouncing around as a sub-headline for so long now." Bowie is being polite, as always, and typically mischievous for a man whose current album is called Reality.

Next month, fully nine months after 'A Reality Tour' started in Europe and two months after the worldwide adventure was supposed to finish, it's coming back to Scotland for T in the Park. Bowie's first proper world tour for almost 10 years is now more than 100 shows long, its 57-year-old star the epitome of renewed vitality. It is absurd to think that a week ago he celebrated his 40th anniversary as a recording artist. It was on June 5, 1964 that Davie Jones and the King Bees released 'Liza Jane' on the Vocalion Pop label and saw it flop instantaneously.

For all the teenage commitment of that first single, who could have known that, four decades later with legendary status established and undisputed years since, David Bowie would be taking the fight to the young guns of rock and matching them at their own game. All the old dudes, it seems, still carry the news.

The ambience around the discreetly upmarket Le Faubourg hotel in the centre of Paris shows little hint of the eminence contained within. The night before, I saw Bromley Dave and his exemplary band thrill the 18,000-capacity Bercy arena for two-and-a-half hours. Many recent songs from Reality and its predecessor, Heathen, are featured, but so is a stirringly generous array of the songs of his lifetime and not one of them makes it on to the set list through sentiment.

If 'China Girl', 'Ashes To Ashes', 'Suffragette City' or 'Ziggy Stardust' itself can stand up and do a job in the strictures of a 21st-century Bowie performance, they're in. If not, they're history. Needless to say, they all can, integrating with the current album's lithe 'New Killer Star', 'Never Get Old' and 'Looking For Water'.

The live show makes clear Bowie's professional and personal bond to his current band, with whose help he has found a way to introduce his past to his future, swatting nostalgia out of the way in the process. Even the Stones have been losing that battle in recent years, and it's hard to think of any near-contemporaries who have managed the feat, outside perhaps Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young. With not a little pride, he muses: "We've been quietly hammering away for about eight years now, which for most bands is a really long time."

These shows would challenge the stamina of a 30-something, but Bowie bounces back to the microphone time and again, almost unable to say a final farewell to an equally exhausted crowd. Only last weekend, as the American leg of the tour neared its conclusion in New York, he was playing 'Diamond Dogs' and 'Station To Station', songs that have been in storage for many years. In Paris, Bowie eschews the after-show festivities at both venue and hotel. A famed early riser who usually puts in a couple of hours online before he does anything else, often taking part in virtual conversation with his Bowienet community, he's up in the morning and ready to talk. Staying in the same hotel, I get a call around midday inviting me to make the not-so-arduous interview journey via lift to lobby.

Downstairs, there's an air of low-key security, with the omnipresent Coco Schwab, Bowie's personal assistant for 30 years, in close attendance. We'll be talking in a discreet, book-lined study, just off the lobby and out of the view of prying eyes. Dressed simply in T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, Bowie is a picture of relaxed conviviality, with strong and immediate eye contact. "Step into my library," I offer. "Thanks," he says, "I love what you've done with it."

Bowie's journey from coke-befuddled stick insect to health-conscious family man has been long and complicated. His sexual, political and creative preferences have been the subject of almost as much endless attention as the untouchable catalogue of albums in the 1970s. This is a man, after all, who announced "there will be no more rock'n'roll records from me" 29 years ago.

But his latter-day demeanour, on stage and in conversation, is pervaded by an air of self-effacing humour and perspective. For someone who has spent much of his life perfecting an image of epicene other-worldliness, Bowie now bears startlingly normal hallmarks of a bloke you'd enjoy talking to down the pub. In the light of the room, you can't quite notice his famously different-coloured eyes (one blue, the other appearing hazel and permanently dilated as the result of a teenage playground fight over a girl). Sipping from a bottle of water, he speaks quietly and carefully, rarely animated. Unlike almost all other celebrities I've met, he actually does small talk, and exudes little paranoia.

Indeed it looks, I tell him, as if he's having the time of his life. "Yeah, I really am," he says. "It's been happening over the last few years, my attitude to stage performances has undergone a real rethink about what it is I'm doing up there, and what its import is in the scheme of things. And it's really not very important," he laughs heartily.

"D'you know what, when you put it into a perspective like that, it's just about going up and singing songs, which is no different from doing it at a local club, it's just bigger. That's all it is though. It serves exactly the same function. Everybody's out there to have a good time, and with the help of the band, because they're very much the same spirit as me, we've been able to retain that for a long time. It's a terrific way to be able to tour, because it takes a lot of pressure off. If you f*** up, you just f*** up."

It may seem surprising to some that the coolest and most imitated artist in mainstream rock used to get himself thoroughly screwed up about his live performances, but it's true. When things went wrong, he says, "my self-confidence would disappear. I was so fragile at being a stage performer because I didn't actually believe I was one. I thought I had to do it because they're my songs and I've got to sing them. But it was not the most comfortable place for me in the world at all.

"I'm trying to think of why it started working for me. I'd always been a performer in isolation. We didn't really have support bands for many, many years and I'd never done festivals or anything like that. It was just always me, and I was measuring against myself all the time. I'm one of these guys that, until recently, everything had to be right, you know?

"And then we started doing festivals in the mid-90s, around the time of Outside and Earthling. We did a lot of festivals throughout Europe. I mean, heavens, over a two-year period we did so many. We were working with really top-rate bands like The Prodigy, bands of that ilk, and we were going down really well. I hadn't been amongst that many bands, continually, so it was like, 'Phew, got to measure myself against this every night'. And it was like, 'You know what, we're going down really well considering all these bands are like half my age, some of them a third of my age'.

"It seemed to me they were like eight-year-olds, you know? Very talented and precocious eight-year-olds," he chuckles again. "But we were really holding our own, and I think that did such a lot for my self-confidence as a performer. After that stint, I never really looked back. I felt much more at home. I felt, 'I am OK, I can do this stuff, I'm a good performer', and I just relaxed into it. I felt, 'Now let's try and enjoy it', because I'm getting older and I don't want to be out on the road and not enjoying myself."

It is an attractive idea that this, at last, is the real Bowie, unveiled by the sheer openness of his conversation and the fact that he's no longer dressing up to play the part every night. But, at least in his recorded persona, he clearly still feels that part is worth questioning.

"I don't know, is Dylan's last album the real Dylan? He's a writer, and he's doing his best to keep his material interesting, and pushing a little bit every time he makes an album. I don't think my agenda is any different to that. I'm not sure my albums are about revealing me anyway. It's just albums of what I hope and think are small pieces of interesting subject matter. It's not a terribly complicated deal.

"I use the word 'hope' with a sense of irony anyway, because I think we've just lost all claim and all sight as to what our reality is these days. There are so many realities paralleled against each other now, it's like which one do you want to pick? Depending on which part of the world you are and what your political persuasion is, one man's reality is another man's lust."

The occasional esoteric punchline like that is typical Bowie, because for all the everyman exterior, he is still a man apart. Even the young Davie Jones' first memory seems to reveal a singular child. "It was being left in my pram in the hallway of 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, facing the stairs," he has said. "It seemed to be a very, very long time and I was very scared of the stairs. They were dark and shadowy." With early memories like that, perhaps the future Bowie never had an age of innocence like most. By the time he was nine, he'd been bitten by the rock'n'roll bug and was already telling his school chums he was going to be a star.

Watching older artists get back in touch with their younger selves runs the risk of being either interesting or completely tragic. Bowie has managed to do it without any suggestion that he's pining for temps perdu. The most recent example is a new version of 'Changes', a virtual duet with Australian singer Butterfly Boucher for the soundtrack of Shrek 2. Bowie recorded his vocals in Nassau with producer Tony Visconti and invests his lead verse with a new melody that completely re-energises the song.

He's happily domiciled in New York with his wife of 12 years, Iman, and their daughter Alexandria Zahra (Lexi, as he calls her), who has his real surname, Jones, and will be four in August. "What a treat it was to get home for a few days," he wrote in his website journal last month. "All is well and I swear Iman is a couple of inches taller. Lexi and I read loads of the Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit stories."

Indeed, the timing of the current tour was determined by Bowie's insistence that he won't want to pull Alexandria out of school once she's older.

"They're going to be, and have been, coming out on the tour," he says of his family. It's the only time he politely puts up a barricade on any line of questioning. "I'll leave it at that if you don't mind, because it gets kind of private."

But Bowie remains affectionate about his birthplace. "There's so much more diversity in Europe [compared with America] in what you think about on a day-to-day basis, from Proust to Jordan's breast size," he cackles. "I've got to own up to being a Sunday papers nut. In the States I have them on order so I get them on Monday."

A huge admirer too of writer Peter Ackroyd's books on London, Bowie is researching a historical novel about the city. "It's not so moody and sultry as Ackroyd. It's not going for the more pagan elements in Ackroyd's work about London. It's much more about radical thought, which there was an awful lot of in England."

But he admits he's an easily distracted author. "I haven't got past structure. I just get carried away with checking out facts. Developing family trees, as well, is fascinating. There's an appearance in there by a Caribbean bandleader in the Forties called Snakehips Johnson. Unfortunately he and most of [his] band were blown up at the Café de Paris during the Blitz. He probably brought American jazz to Britain and was singularly the most important player at that particular time, so I'm kind of getting off on him at the moment."

If he uncovers gold in his research, could Bowie resist the temptation to use it in a song? "I guess the best thing is to not make rules and say, 'It can only be for the book'. I think it's probably better to just go with the flow. But it is fascinating to start on an epic piece - and it is epic, it would either be a three-volumer or 700-pages. It's got to be because of the scope of it."

That's the vision of Bowie, the individual muse. But the increasingly common vision, and one he's grown to love, is Bowie the band member. "I know I'm a solo artist, but there are aspects of being a solo artist I don't particularly enjoy, being separated from the others," he says. "I don't like the feeling of being closeted somewhere on my own. I've always liked being part of a band - I did with the Spiders, I liked it with Tin Machine and that feeds back into the music. It starts to take on a coherence and a solidarity within the seven of us."

At T In The Park, you'll see a man who's spent 40 years working out who and what he is, and has come to a conclusion he likes. "Before I go on stage, I try and retain the visualisation of what it is I'm doing," he says. "I'm just going out to entertain a few people with some songs that I know are very good, so what's my problem? I'd have to do a real bummer of a show to make it a problem."

David Bowie plays T In The Park on July 10. His Reality album is on ISO/Columbia, and the 30th anniversary 2-CD reissue of Diamond Dogs was released last week by EMI.