Down to earth

by Jane Stevenson / Jam Music

2nd February 1997

Ground control to Major Tom. The mothership is calling you home.

That would appear to be the case with David Bowie’s new album, Earthling, which will be released Feb. 11 at a time when aliens, UFOs and all things sci-fi dominate pop culture and everyday life like never before.

Except that it’s Bowie. The male master of reinvention and manipulation in rock music (Madonna gets the female crown) has always been ahead of his time.

“Rather than life on Mars, I think water on the back of the moon is more interesting,” says Bowie, 50. “I think that was an extraordinary find. Water on the dark side of the moon, that’s really scary. ‘Cause you know that that contains life without doubt. If there’s water on it, my God! Don’t bring it back here! That’s what I say. There was a film on the other week on television, a science-fiction film, and it looked at the invasion of the bowel syndrome. Did you see it?”

Now Bowie’s starting to sound downright enthusiastic.

“It was this huge, great organic thing that looked like I don’t know, it was probably the most repulsive-looking object that I’ve ever seen in a film. And it was a mutation of a germ that had arrived from another planet!”

Decades ago, the cutting-edge singer-songwriter-guitarist had his first-ever hit with 1969’s Space Oddity, and later came up with the concept album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, in which he adopted an alien-turned-rock-star persona. He even starred as an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s truly weird film, The Man Who Fell To Earth.

“I really do support that theory whole-heartedly,” says Bowie of extraterrestrial life. “But for my writing, I used it merely as imagery, as symbolic generally of some kind of spiritual search. And it was the idea of whatever that Godhead or the higher being or whatever that could be. It manifest itself in my songs as saucers or aliens or otherness, so really it was used as a subtext more than anything else. It wasn’t used as hardware.

“I guess on Earthling I’m trying to emphatically get across the idea that I’m actually extremely happy in these surroundings. Probably (he adopts an American radio announcer accent), `A happier, wiser, and more contented kind of guy.’ As trite as it seems. Unfortunately, when you do get happy everything seems trite. You can’t have a contented rock God, they’ve got to be dripping in angst and anguish.”

But part of his newfound happiness Bowie attributes to his wife, supermodel Iman.

“Naturally, but I would also feel that I would not have been able to construct our relationship as physically fulfilling as it is if I weren’t ready for it. I mean I was ready for a long-lasting relationship before I met her, and I think I had had to change before it would have ever had worked. If I’d met her say, 15 years ago, nothing would have happened. We wouldn’t have gotten past the first date.”

Now, the couple is planning a family.

“Yes we are. Absolutely. That’s our next project,” says Bowie with a chuckle. “That’s hateful. I didn’t say that!”

Back to Earthling, which features him, not surprisingly, in new music mode.

He incorporates the latest subgenre in techno dance music, known as “jungle” or “drum-and-bass,” with rock ‘n’ roll to come up with a wonderfully joyous sound that he began exploring on 1995’s Outside.

“I thought it was the best new rhythm that had come along probably since reggae, and it was something that I thought was so adaptable, that you could do such great things with it, I couldn’t wait to kind of experiment with it,” says Bowie. “And when we went out on tour, we started converting a lot of my older material, like The Man Who Sold The World, and hybriding that with a jungle underpining.”

When asked how a 50-year-old, happily married man still gets exposed to the latest music coming from the underground club scene, he initially jokes. This is, after all, a man who experimented heavily with genderbending, bisexuality and drugs in his early career and life.

“I live at the top of a mountain in Switzerland and there are a series of ivory towers which go down to Geneva and gradually parcels of new sounds are ski-lifted up to me,” says Bowie with a hearty laugh before getting serious.

“I get out and about. I listen to as much Radio One as anybody. The alternative scene always has been fascinating to me. When I was real, real young, I wasn’t buying the Beatles, I was buying the Velvet Underground. For me it was always the underbelly of what was popular was the thing that I found exciting because I always found that that which went into the mainstream had to become mediocre to be accesible on a large scale, and I think that one always found a real purity in the music that was on the fringe, or anything actually. Whether it’s film or theatres or art, I was always drawn to the outside. I always went to what was on the edge of society rather than what the big hub in the middle was ’cause that always ended as being Disney World or McDonald’s in some way, shape or form.”

Spring tour plans for Earthling remain sketchy, but judging from the impressive multi-media show at Bowie’s recent 50th birthday party bash at Madison Square Garden, which included appearances by the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Sonic Youth and Foo Fighters, Bowie seems like a revitalized live performer.

“We’re very up for it,” says Bowie, who thinks he’ll be in Toronto by the summer.

“We had such a great time this last year on the festivals throughout Europe. We’re doing exactly the same kind of thing but we’re coming further afield and coming back to Canada (which he endearingly pronounces Can-a-der) and North America and doing as much as we can do in a festival situation because we were really happy in that context. We really felt comfortable. It’s almost like a communal thing. The social requirements of doing a festival is so different. You really feel as though you’re there for the audience’s needs as opposed to the audience coming to see what the rock God has to offer, what important words of wisdom and all that. I found it very exhilarating being able to talk and just be with all the other bands as well.”

In fact, Bowie says the obvious and unrelenting energy found on Earthling can be directly attributed to some East Coast club dates that he and his band performed while making the album.

“The energy level on the album is almighty,” he says, starting to laugh again. “The thing hits the ground at 100 miles an hour. It’s bloody enthusiastic. It’s terribly excited about itself. I find it quite hard to put on in the mornings. `Oh, for Christ sake?’ I look at the speakers and go, `How much coffee have you had?'”

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