The Rocker Who Fell to ‘Earthling’

by Gina Arnold / Metro

20th February 1997

What do Sonic Youth, the Foo Fighters, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Cure and the Pixieshave in common, besides being among the most influential names in alternative rock in thelast 10 years? The five bands aren’t really linked musically in any significant way, nor(with the possible exception of the Cure) have they professed a great love of the work ofDavid Bowie. Yet the core members of all five groups appeared as special guest stars atBowie’s recent 50th-birthday party/concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Jan. 9.

You have to hand it to David Bowie. While other rock stars of his peer group like tokeep the evidence of their increasing age in the dark, he not only celebrated it publiclybut also infused his party with an element of contrasting youth.

Many rock stars prefer to surround themselves with members of their own sonic era, butBowie does exactly the opposite. It’s as if he feeds off youth, like a vampire, acquiringsome of his guest stars’ verve–and perhaps, when word gets out, their audiences as well.

The “party,” which will be broadcast as a pay-per-view TV special on March 8,doubled as a splashy bit of advance publicity for Bowie’s newest album, Earthling(Virgin), which was released earlier this month. Bowie has always been his own bestpublicist, as well as a canny user of other people’s talents.

Not to denigrate his own considerable contributions to rock, but where would Bowie benow without Lou Reed, Mick Ronson, Brian Eno or Iggy Pop? And what, of value, has Bowiepersonally contributed to the canon of rock in the last 20 years? Sadly, only Nirvana’shaunting cover of his early-’70s song “The Man Who Sold the World,” which theband included on its 1994 album, Unplugged in New York.

Otherwise, Bowie’s work over the last two decades has been less than stellar. Hisnadir, of course, was 1983’s disco-y “Let’s Dance”–which was also his last hitalbum. Since then, he’s released a stream of forgettable LPs, including Tonight, Never LetMe Down, Outside and two by the Tin Man project.

Earthling, his first major-label release in eight years, is more mainstream than any ofthe above-mentioned works, but it’s not exactly a blockbuster. There seems to be a coldand deep wellspring of techno-nerd in Bowie’s work that defies even his most honestadmirers to embrace him.

IT WASN’T always like this. Bowie’s early albums–particularly Hunky Dory (1971), TheRise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) and Aladdin Sane(1973)–were both inventive and highly influential.

Although he’s often praised for having brought androgyny, space music, glam rock andGerman Expressionism (whatever that means in a music context) to rock, what Bowie reallydid was acknowledge, for the first time, rock & roll’s innate theatricality.

By taking on compelling personae–Ziggy, Major Tom, et al.–which came complete withwhole sagas and costumes, he defied and exposed the then-prevalent hippie-rock ideals.Those ideals, of course, constituted a stance that was just as contrived as Bowie’s ownmore bizarre undertakings.

Happily, these albums–which described the pain of being an outsider in more literalterms than, say, the Allman Brothers’ contemporary Eat a Peach–contained many wonderfuland memorable songs (a few of which Bowie performed, unplugged, at last fall’s Bridgebenefit). But even then, Bowie was more actor than singer.

Compared to most rock stars, he’s both an intellect and an aesthete. More unusual, heis somewhat practical (without, however, being a corporate whore; his last few recordshave been released on independent labels.)

Alas, these admirable traits don’t translate into “great musician.” In manyways, his career after his makeup era is exhibit A for anyone making the argument thatrock, like lyric poetry, is the province of youth, that its best moments emerge from thequick creative burst of the neophyte.

ONE HATES to relegate David Bowie to playing “greatest hits” sets, and yetthe fact is, with all the good will in the world, with the most genuinely broad,experimental and forward-thinking attitude toward new rock of anyone of his era, Bowiecan’t make a truly compelling record, and Earthling is a case in point.

To his credit, Bowie always looks outward, to the cutting edges of rock, forinspiration, and this time around, he is avowedly plundering the underground club scene inLondon, which has recently generated a type of dance music called “jungle.”

Nothing wrong with that in theory, but Bowie’s version is much too white to reallyqualify as such, and to American ears, it all just translates into click tracks and thatannoying disco beat. The single “Little Wonder” is a catchy but facile number;the rest of Earthling is cold and uninventive.

To me, the biggest drawback to Bowie’s music is his detachment. He’s still creatingcharacters, but these characters have less in common with his own soul. On “Battlefor Britain,” for instance, he sings, “And a loser I will be … for I’ve neverbeen a winner in my life.” On the even less believable “I’m Afraid ofAmericans,” he puts himself in the shoes of a xenophobe (something he himself isanything but) and delivers lines like “no one needs anyone, they just pretend”and “I’m afraid of the world.”

“Law (Earthling on Fire),” a similarly disingenuous track with ironic lyrics,begins with the faint yelp “I don’t want knowledge!” and shifts into a heavytechno beat. “Dead Man Walking” and “Telling Lies” are heartfelt, but”The Last Thing You Should Do” is just Bowie intoning over one long techno dancetrack.

Like all Bowie’s undertakings, Earthling is a complex, well-produced work; it’s justthat, at bottom, its songs are not very memorable. Even the beats aren’t syncopated in aparticularly creative way. The thing to remember, however, is that Bowie is utterlygenuine in his appreciation for and use of other musicians.

About five years ago, I met the man himself in the Pixies’ backstage trailer at astadium show in Germany that Bowie was headlining. In person, he was a slight,ordinary-looking guy with tousled hair, utterly unrecognizable as the elegant dandy whowould step on stage a few hours later; when he heard that I was from San Jose, he eagerlyasked me if I knew how he could get back catalog of the bizarre cult act the LegendaryStardust Cowboy.

Later, during the Pixies’ set, he stood at the side of the stage singing along to everysong, for all the world like their biggest fan. Unfortunately, Bowie was at a time in hiscareer when he could be of little help to the Pixies, whose groundbreaking butlittle-heard music preceded Nirvana’s in so many ways, but no doubt he would have been ifhe could have been.

Whether you like David Bowie’s music or not, you have to respect Bowie for being one ofthe very few rock stars of his era to have aged with dignity and intelligence, for keepinghis ears open and his mind broad, for really seeming to still enjoy rock & roll.

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