Bowie Keeps Swinging

by Jim Farber / The New York Daily News

9th June 2002

The 55-year-old star asks some ‘big questions’ on his new LP

IN CONVERSATION, David Bowie tosses around terms like futurism, generalism, relativism, 19th-century romanticism and existentialism. He alludes to Baudelaire, Matisse, Martin Amis, Anthony Burgess and George Orwell, and holds court on topics like the end of the music industry, the state of the novel, the role of the cult artist and the connection between identity and pop culture.

But try calling him an intellectual and he flinches.

“It’s not a term I apply to myself,” he says. “What I have is a malevolent curiosity. That’s what drives my need to write and what probably leads me to look at things a little askew. I do tend to take a different perspective from most people.”

No kidding.

Call David Bowie Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, just don’t call him an intellectual.

After more than 30 years in the public eye, David Bowie has managed to keep his mind alive and his music ever-changing. Even when his albums have not clicked creatively (and in the last 20 years, many haven’t), no one could accuse him of standing still or of taking the well-traveled path to success.

In the last half-decade, Bowie has enjoyed a creative comeback by reuniting with fellow restless soul Brian Eno (on the 1995 LP “Outside”), collaborating with Trent Reznor on a 1996 Nine Inch Nails tour and by creating the best rock/electronica synthesis to date, on his 1997 album “Earthling.”

At the same time, Bowie has seemingly found a way to halt the physical aging process. As he bounds into his downtown New York hotel room, the 55-year-old appears 20 years younger. “And you know,” he winks, “I don’t even moisturize.”

Call it a genetic gift or credit it to his high creative metabolism, but in middle age Bowie not only looks smashing, he retains a knack for whipping up lots of attention around himself. He has a new album out this week, “Heathen,” which reunites him with his classic ’70s producer Tony Visconti for the first time in 20 years, a new label (Columbia) and a special show at Roseland on Tuesday (where he’ll perform the whole new CD, chased by a complete performance of his 1977 experimental album, “Low”).

Then there’s this summer’s Area2 tour with Moby and Busta Rhymes, and a four-month retrospective of his video images at the Museum of Television and Broadcasting, which opens today.

Bowie performs in the early ’70s…

The extensive museum show doubles as a toast to the 30th anniversary of Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” character and the birth of glam, seminal events in both his career and in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. With the creation of his interstellar, bisexual “Ziggy” conceit, Bowie challenged the demand for naturalism and literalism in rock, substituting something more theatrical, mercurial and free.

“In hindsight, you can see it was incredibly shrewd for him to have created a character like Ziggy,” explains museum curator Allen Glover. “He gave the character a mythology, then he inhabited that mythology. He became a legend by creating a legend.”

“You can still put on ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and it (sounds) like it could have come out last month,” commented Reznor, for a Bowie “Biography” to run on A&E later this year. “It set the foundations for a lot of trends that are happening now.”

Following “Ziggy Stardust,” Bowie began shifting personae “like an actor rather than a singer,” as Glover puts it. Without such moves, a later changeling like Madonna would have been unimaginable. Small wonder it was she who inducted Bowie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

“He’s one of the guys who wrote the book on rock ‘n’ roll,” explains producer Visconti. “And he’s the only 55-year-old whom even kids consider cool. Mick Jagger tries, but he’s slipping.”

In 1978, Bowie was asked by a British journalist to assess his greatest contribution to rock. “I’m responsible for starting a whole new school of pretension,” he famously quipped. But looking back now at his first theatrical elaboration of the music, he reacts with both bemusement and pride.

“It’s 30 years ago,” he says. “But it feels like 60. Everything, and everyone, has changed. I was recently looking at an old cover of New Musical Express from 1973. It’s me and Mick (Jagger), and he’s just found glam – a little late. He’s wearing this jumpsuit with epaulets, and he’s dripping in makeup and mascara. And I’m on the other half of the page with this net costume with hands stuck everywhere. You look at it and think, ‘What was that all about?’ But it really did look great, and it was so exciting. My God, that period will never be repeated. It was a hell of a f**k off to what came before.”

To be specific, to hippie-dom.

…and in 1996 in Denmark.

“God, I hated the hippie period,” Bowie says with a laugh. “They talked about being so creative, but there was so little creativity to it. Glam really did plant seeds for a new identity. I think a lot of kids needed that – that sense of reinvention. Kids learned that however crazy you may think it is, there is a place for what you want to do and who you want to be.

“And I needed that myself,” Bowie continues. “Even though I was very shy, I found I could get onstage if I had a new identity. And then I learned to discard that identity to become a real self – maybe not real to the point of Bruce Springsteen,” Bowie pronounces with sarcasm. “But at least an approximation of reality on stage.”

Stardust Memories

Bowie again alludes to the glam era on the new album, by covering a song from the man who inspired Ziggy’s last name: the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. A deeply obscure figure, he’s also one Bowie has never spoken about before.

“He came from Lubbock, Texas, and he told everyone he was going to New York to get on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,'” the star explains. “This was before he had bothered to write any songs. The legend goes, he was standing on a car in 1968 playing his music when a vacuum-cleaner salesmen thought, ‘Hmmm, this kid is interesting.’ He took him to a record producer he knew, who turned out to be T-Bone Burnette” (whose most recent success is the “O Brother” soundtrack).

Bowie was introduced to the singer’s “strange, loud, ranting music” by an A&R guy on his first label, Mercury, in 1969. “He said to me, ‘Here, you like weird shit.'”

Apparently, the Cowboy still plays around Texas and has a Web site, which, according to Bowie, features a note reading “This Englishman David Bowie took my name. I think he owes me something for it.” So, he says, “the (cover song on the new album) is my payback.”

It’s Bowie’s championing of, and identification with, such odd characters that keeps his attitude, and his image, fresh. On the new album, he covers a song by another undersung writer, ex-Pixie Frank Black, as well as a 1969 cut from fellow long-in-the-tooth nonconformist Neil Young. None of these songs sound like the originals. They’re seamlessly worked into the flow of Bowie’s album.

In general, his new songs favor fairly conventional song structures but they also feature some of Bowie’s most dramatic vocals, exploiting the theatrical range of his patented bellow.

The word theatrical makes Bowie just as itchy as the term intellectual. “It seems synonymous with pompous to me. And I didn’t want that. But I did hope the album has some weight about it. In coming into this album, I thought, ‘What’s the best way of approaching big questions without being too grand?'”

His conclusion was to conceive the record as a collection “of serious songs to be sung,” rather than as one of his more abstract musical forays, or as a work corralled by a single lyrical through-line.

He also wanted to make sure that his reconnection with Visconti didn’t “smack of trying to recapture anything we’d done before. And I wanted us to do something that wasn’t overly representative of music in 2002, either. I wanted something a little timeless.”

If the music isn’t tied to any time, Bowie’s lyrics can seem unbound to literal sense. As is his wont, there’s a vagueness about the words, a sometimes frustrating airiness.

At first, Bowie seems disappointed to hear this. Then he cops to it. “I’m not good at world overview,” he says. “My writing is almost impressionistic. It’s about the feeling. I’m not good at articulating specific situations.”

Happy Together

However obtuse this can render his writing, Bowie has achieved a clarity in his personal life that fires him with as much enthusiasm as his work.

In an interview I did with the star around his 50th birthday, he said he had “stumbled onto bliss. And I have no intention of finding my way back out.”

Today, he says, “I’m frighteningly happy. I don’t see ever wanting to change things in my personal life. Iman and I are very happy, and we have the most fabulous baby.”

Yet, as a consequence, he says, he’s lost what younger men have – namely, “a sense of becoming. At a certain age, you realize you are no longer becoming. You are being. I like knowing what’s up. But I do miss the excitement of not knowing quite what’s around the next corner.”

However content he is in his day-to-day existence, and while he may have “fewer and fewer questions about life,” Bowie says this has focused him on “the questions that are unresolvable.”

Namely, the existential ones. “I’m approaching those questions in the new songs,” he says. “At first, I thought, ‘Well, if I write about this, I won’t have anything left to write about.’ But then I realized that what life is about is quite a subject to take on.

“And at the moment,” he says, “I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.”

Best of Bowie

“HUNKY DORY” (1971): Bowie’s first sustained winner of an album moves gamely from the floridly theatrical melody of “Oh! You Pretty Things” to a cool rocker like “Queen Bitch.” It kicks off with the song that became his mantra, “Changes.”

“THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS” (1972): A classic concept album, “Ziggy” cemented Bowie’s glam persona and became the crown jewel of the whole glitter-rock movement.

“ALADDIN SANE” (1973): Contains rockers as charged as “Watch That Man” and ballads as yearning as “Drive In Saturday,” plus his deathless ode to Iggy Pop, “The Jean Genie.”

“DIAMOND DOGS” (1974): Bowie’s made-for-the-stage concept album includes “1984” and the gender-bender’s national anthem, “Rebel Rebel.”

“YOUNG AMERICANS” (1975): Bowie introduced a new persona, the Thin White Duke, and sang American soul on numbers like the title track, which became his first American No. 1.

“HEROES” (1977): On the best of his collaborations with sonic innovator Brian Eno, Bowie here forged a disruptively dense sound. But it’s Robert Fripp’s soaring guitar line in the title track that steals the show.

“LODGER” (1979): A perfect synthesis of accessible rock and the Eno experiments. The album also inspired Bowie’s best, early short videos.

“SCARY MONSTERS” (1980): Closing out Bowie’s golden age, this ghoulishly invigorating album capped a decade of nonstop creativity.

“OUTSIDE” (1995): For his reunion with Eno, Bowie regained his sense of adventure, wiping away the memory of his commercial compromises in the ’80s (like the tedious “Let’s Dance”).

“EARTHLING” (1997): While it may have seemed as though Bowie were jumping on the electronica backwagon, he and guitarist Reeves Gabriel managed to cook up an original melding of guitar rock and synthetic drum-n-bass. Not bad for a bloke in his 50s.

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