by Bill Flanagan / GQ
David Bowie is about to turn 50, but he’s having a good time anyway. He’s in a Times Square recording studio mixing tracks for his new album, Earthling, and sits on the sofa crouched like an elegant mantis, his orange-blond hair sticking straight up in front and the first wisp of a goatee creeping around his chin. He’s dressed comfortably in brown and khaki except for his white T-shirt, which is decorated with a baby picture of his son, Joey. Joey is now 25, the same age David was when the photo was taken.
Bowie plays one wild, impressive sonic collage after another, sits back and smiles. The stuff sounds great, and he knows it. He has a superb new band; he keeps their energy up by alternating the recording sessions with weekend club dates. To keep things really unpredictable, he asks the band to play along with tape loops, samples and the cut-and-paste rhythms of Britain’s jungle-music underground. Judging by the six tracks — some finished, some still in progress — that Bowie blasts out of the studio speakers, everyone’s rising to the challenge.
This is where you might expect to hear “Bowie is back!” It’s tempting to say, but it wouldn’t be true. Because Bowie was back when he made the unjustly maligned Tin Machine II in 1991, when he released The Buddha of Suburbia and Black Tie White Noise in ’93 and again with Outside in ’95. All were good albums, full of smart and innovative rock. They earned a few “Bowie is back”s and then sank without a commercial trace.
Bowie released each of those albums on a different small record label. Though he licensed his back catalog to Rykodisc, Tin Machine came out on Victory Music, Buddha as an import on a subsidiary of BMG and Black Tie on the short-lived Savage Records. The upside was that there was a lot of quick money to be made in being the star attraction for these start-ups. Rich investors who wanted to buy into the music business were willing to pay Bowie big bucks for the use of his heavyweight credibility. The downside was that some of those newcomers were not masters at marketing records.
Now he’s returned to the majors, having signed with Virgin Records, but that does not guarantee Bowie an easy ride to the top of the charts. Once you’ve become a big star, most of your big audience wants you to keep doing the thing they love over and over again. Bowie shares a problem with Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne and a dozen or so other grown-up talents in the rock world: It is very hard for an artist who got to the top by pushing in new directions as a kid to stop pushing in new directions as an adult.
Bowie compounds his problem by making albums that demand a lot of attention at a moment when attention spans have become as constricted as radio formats. Even among arts writers, opening grosses, chart position and units scanned get more attention than creativity does.
Playing one of his keep-the-band-hot club shows at New York’s Roseland Ballroom last September, Bowie really did seem to be back in a sense even Entertainment Tonight would understand. He did a new song called “Seven Years in Tibet” that was deep, hypnotic and full of the sort of promise of a light at the end of the spiritual tunnel that the Beatles used to conjure in their psychedelic days. He also played a blinding rock song called “Little Wonder” that sounded like a surefire hit. You can guess what jumped from the lips of every schnorrer at the aftershow party. Yep, “Bowie’s back!”
On the studio recording of “Little Wonder,” however, he’s emphasized the staggered rhythms, a breakneck guitar solo and several sonic left turns, making the song more interesting and almost surely killing its shot at chart success. Does he do himself a commercial disservice by exploring such interesting ideas?
“That often happens to me,” Bowie says, shrugging. “I am quite used to things not necessarily being as successful as I imagined they would be. But the only way to break new ground is to be prepared to put an awful lot at risk. If I felt my job was to please other people and meet their expectations, I don’t think I could continue working. I’d just be a full-time painter or something.”
Bowie, after all, doesn’t need to do this. His past work has made him wealthy, and his twenty-year-old second career as an actor hit a high point with his critically acclaimed turn as Andy Warhol in last summer’s Basquiat. He loves music most but has no illusions about the realities of the pop marketplace.
“In commercial terms, if you want an album to sell, you must make things graphically clear and keep them as simply defined as possible so that it’s fairly easy to pop them into a category,” Bowie says. “You can pretty much thumbnail-sketch each album on the charts. In one phrase, you can say what it is and what it represents. Anything that starts to explore falls into that periphery area.”
Bowie’s been in that periphery area for more than a decade now. He had a nice ten-year stretch from the early ’70s until the early ’80s when he was a hugely influential cult figure — the vaguely menacing chameleon who introduced androgyny, space music and German Expressionism into rock. Then, in 1983, he released the multiplatinum album Let’s Dance, which contained a string of slick hits and moved him up to the football stadiums. For the rest of the ’80s, through Tonight and Never Let Me Down and tours with giant spiders descending from the rafters, Bowie seemed to be trying only halfheartedly to keep afloat in the million-dollar mainstream.
It took him a while to figure out that reaching the top of the charts did not mean he had reached the end of his creative journey. “You sort of think, Well, hey, I’ve made it. Made what exactly? If your ambition when you began was to be really, really famous and really, really rich, then yes, you’ve made it. You’ve got what you wanted. But if you were stupid enough to believe you were an artist, you’ve got to understand that has a different set of values attached to it. And commercial acceptance can be very painful….” Bowie catches himself and apologizes. “You think, How can he say that?”
He is encouraged to lay it out so the rest of us can understand. “The three or four years that followed Let’s Dance were for me particularly tough about reevaluating what I wanted. I thought, Who are these people? They kind of look like a Phil Collins audience. Suddenly, I had all these people for whom the songs on the radio — ‘China Girl,’ ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ — had become my oeuvre. That was all they knew of me, and it was MOR enough that it encouraged this enormous audience. And I started thinking, What kind of music would they like? I was bastardizing who and what I am and didn’t know how to break out of it.”
It was during the Glass Spider tour in 1987 that Bowie was confronted by his conscience, in the form of guitarist Reeves Gabrels, the husband of a friend. Gabrels called Bowie out for mortgaging his talent, and Bowie responded by suggesting he and Reeves start a four-piece rock band and play only music they truly liked for whoever was willing to listen. Thus was born Tin Machine; thus died Bowie’s mass audience. It’s no surprise that Gabrels is the linchpin of Bowie’s new band, too. When Bowie is complimented on Gabrels’s madly exuberant guitar solo on one new song, “Looking for Satellites,” Bowie admits that he challenged the guitarist to play the whole solo on only one string — he could not move to a new string until the chord changed, and he had to stay on that next string until the chord changed again. These cats are playing musical tennis at a very high level. And if his game goes over the heads of the old “China Girl” fans, Bowie will accept the consequences.
Bowie turns 50 on January 8. There are plans for a celebratory concert with guest stars. “I’ve met so many older guys I have the deepest respect for, and their energy hasn’t been dampened at all,” he says. “When I think about getting old, I see Bill Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and I see that there are options, there are choices. It’s good to have some alternative role models other than ‘What you do is cash in and just do the odd big-hits tour every couple of years.’ ”
Bowie has renounced playing most of his old hits in concert. He refers to that self-imposed abstention as “taking away the safety net.” His righteousness is admirable in these days of ’70s package tours, of getting David Lee Roth back in the band, of putting the makeup back on.
“If I started doing the Ziggy Stardust stuff right now, it would make sense,” Bowie laughs. “It’s the rational, obvious thing to do. At last — twenty-five years — Ziggy on Broadway! It would be money for life. And God, it would be wonderful to earn that kind of income. I mean, absolutely fantastic. But I know what it’s going to do to the other side of me. I hope I have quite a few more years left on this planet, and I can’t go through the rest of what life I’ve got left trying to fill it up with chairs and carpets. Jimmy — Iggy Pop — put his finger on it when he said, ‘Here comes success! Here comes my Chinese rug!’ I should have listened.”
After a couple of hours of philosophy and tape playback, it’s time to leave Bowie to his work and head downtown, with a stop to get groceries along the way. In a supermarket on 14th Street, the Muzak playing is “Young Americans,” ringing up another 25 cent sale for David Bowie’s past. His future is being laid down in a Times Square recording studio thirty-five blocks, twenty-one years and a million miles away from here.
Bill Flanagan is the author of U2 at the End of the World and is the editorial director of VH1.