Los Angeles City Beat - 9th October 2003

LA City Beat: Issue No 18

WHITE HEAT

By Dean Kuipers


The band is already scraping the gutters of Manhattan with a version of "White Light/White Heat" as we walk, David Bowie and I, into a Chelsea rehearsal room. Waving me to a couch, he hustles over and grabs the microphone. I get the headphones on just in time to hear that voice erupt out of nowhere, nothing ironic or sublimated about it, the genuine sexual howl of rock 'n' roll, the Queen Bitch, the quasi-operatic chronicler of "Life on Mars?" shutting them down with a final two words - "WHITE HEAT!"

The hairs on the back of my neck gradually settle back into place as he un-humbly turns a couple knobs, introduces me all around, and then turns to me and asks into the P.A.: "Dean, anything you'd like to hear?"

My God, I think, with this band - maybe the best rock band Bowie has had since the Spiders, and even he thinks so - what it couldn't do with "Watch That Man" or "Panic in Detroit." Mike Garson is looking at me, Aladdin Sane himself, the king of cracked piano. Earl Slick, the prodigal son of Young Americans and Station to Station, returned. Gail Ann Dorsey is wearing a Partridge Family T-shirt. The albums flip through my mind like calendar pages, but I'm on my best behavior, so I ask for the new one - the new one that sounds like an old one - "New Killer Star."

The lead song on the new Bowie disc, his 26th studio album, "New Killer Star" is obviously about his experience with the 9/11 attacks - the first lines: "See a great white scar/over Battery Park" - and every publication from NYC to London has seized upon the album as a way to talk about everyone's new favorite subject: New York. But, as usual with Mr. Jones, there's more going on here than hometown blues. The album dips heavily into the zeitgeist, into what we can't even know about ourselves in this paused-apocalyptic moment, when we've lost a sense of whether the near future holds some especially searing brand of hell or just the ordinary kind - to which Bowie responds with a forced positivity. But a pep talk, it ain't. It's just the kind of reverse-engineered uplift to let you know that, philosophically, from him to you, wink-wink, Bowie's thinking it's not just him that's feeling alien these days. Now it's the world that's gone pear-shaped.

The song comes in as a mid-tempo rocker, just this side of forgettable, giving way to a chorus like something from his 2002 album, Heathen - fine, but not transcendent - and then it happens. It's like the room doubles in volume, like the furniture lifts off the floor. There's a third tier to the chorus that goes off into territory that belongs to him alone, and it's all still there, everything he's ever done. Like some lost cut off Station to Station or Scary Monsters, Dorsey and others chant, "I've got a better way," as he modulates up into a chorus: "I've discovered a star."

His voice achieves a kind of consciousness-expanding timbre, and it's easy to forget the message. He just slips it in there with a line that repeats in the quiet verse, the real key to the song and this album: "All my idiot questions/Let's face the music and dance."

Face the music and dance. What does that mean, especially in the context of 9/11?

"I use it as the cliché it is," Bowie says later, sitting on the stage while the band breaks for lunch, "from those old Fred Astaire movies or whatever, [sings] ‘Well, times can be real bad, but we'll work our way through this.' Because it brings all that luggage with it."

The luggage, meaning dancing in the face of death, meaning a willingness to accept a less-than-satisfactory grip on reality as a terra infirma just solid enough to hold up a life. In an era when pop keeps getting more and more absurdly kid-like (American Idol Juniors?) and less about anything in particular, Bowie has found yet another new persona: grownup. Well, a grownup whom out-sings any of the prepubescents trying to get their Britney-and-Justin on. Still, what a funny thing to say at age 56. It's not a given. For instance, one wouldn't say it about his pal, Mick Jagger.

"I'm feeling a little... I guess paranoid is the best word about the current situation," Bowie says. "But I'm trying to defend myself against that. And how I feel about having to be positive. It's not a begrudging kind of positivity, but it's not a natural one. It's forced. It's a labor of love... led by the fact that I'm a father, you know? I can't allow myself to color my daughter's life with my potential feelings of despondency."

The job, he says, is to rock 'n' roll. To create the culture we've always seen as ancillary, as merely products of our real moral or spiritual work here. Now we've had a bit of a jolt, and we find - like one of Bowie's earlier heroes, Bertolt Brecht - that that's all there is.

Welcome to Reality

This is a job, by the way, that Bowie's been ready to quit for years. During his 2002 tour with Moby, he sat in his bus at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine with several books (he's always reading more than one at a time; then it was Ian McEwan's Atonement, Martin Amis's Koba the Dread, and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex) and said he didn't think he'd do solo tours anymore. His daughter by supermodel Iman, Alexandra Zahra Jones ("Lexie"), was then two years old, and he was flying home most nights to see them. He was more fascinated by the Internet.

"Music is as available as water. When you can just turn on the tap, why do you need us anymore?" he asked then. "Musicians who take on these kinds of responsibilities are not only irrelevant, but they might be in the way of what's coming next."

Bowie so embraces What's Coming Next, so much wants to be a part of it, it seemed plausible at that moment that he'd throw himself out of the way. Maybe it was just Irvine. Happily, the Virtual Bowie thing was just a phase. Though his Bowie Net (davidbowie.com) website remains one of his driving passions, on October 7 in Copenhagen, Bowie embarked on one of the most ambitious tours of his career, already at least seven months long and hitting 17 countries. He was spurred into action by the wise recognition of the sheer horsepower of this band - put together for the Moby dates and a Heathen mini-tour, it also includes drummer Sterling Campbell, guitarist and bandleader Gerry Leonard, and bassist Mark Plati - and his enthusiasm for "Reality."

He seems to have come to grips with something on this album: Like Cezanne with his Tahitians, it's time to home in on the most fertile subject matter in the Bowie ouevre. Sex. Death. Madness. The outer-space thing.

"Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" picks up where "The Man Who Sold the World" left off, lo, these 33 years ago. "She'll Drive the Big Car" and "Days" circumscribe madness. "Bring Me the Disco King," "The Loneliest Guy in the World," and "Never Get Old" detail phases of death.

But the most interesting piece on the album is the title track, "Reality," because it seems to be about all of these things and an answer. A high-energy, big-'80s-style rocker from end to end - which even quotes briefly from the Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" and talks about tragic youth "going down on me" - the piece hurtles along as a candid celebration of life-as-rock-star. As he talks about how he "built a wall of sound to separate us" and "hid among the junk of wretched highs," it becomes clear that the "reality" of this life beloved of tragic youth is an illusion, if not an illness, for which there is a solution. Or at least a prescribed action. He arrives at a howled confession:

"I still don't remember how this happened/I still don't get the wherefores and the whys/I look for sense but I get next to nothing/Hoo boy, welcome to Reality/Ha ha ha ha"

The search for absolutes undertaken by David Bowie, the reader of religion and philosophy, the space oddity, the syncretic stylist, the man not wanting to hinder the New, the dad, has arrived at a message: All I have is this song.

"As I get older, I'm less interested in writing about the erotic and sultans and whatever," Bowie says, chuckling. "I'm more interested in writing about: Is there a God? That may be an approach to finality, or it may be because I'm maturing into that kind of writer.

"The thing, probably, that keeps me writing is this awful gnawing feeling that there are no absolutes," he adds. "That there is no truth. That we are, as I've been thinking for so many years now, fully in the swirl of chaos theory. That's it!" He laughs again. "Which looks all very fine in a book. But then you start to believe: ‘Oh, God, we actually are living this thing.' Which all really amuses me."

But that would mean we're only guided by culture. That the things that really are important are the stuff we think is least so - the clothes, the songs, Christina Aguilera's latest hairstyle.

"Yeah," Bowie says. "Everything that we do, every move that we make, every construction that we put together, is merely to get us through to the next day. And that's all it is. The morality system and everything is like, ‘How do I get through 'til Friday? I know, we'll develop this morality system.' And indeed it is all bunkum, everything is bunkum."

He laughs then, entertained by this thought that, by giving up his search for absolutes, he's arrived at one at last. The culture is its own justification. And the energy that makes it go is the wondering if that could possibly be enough.

Lapsed Buddhist Society

"David and I go back to the late '60s, when we fancied ourselves as young, wizened philosophers," says Tony Visconti, who produced Reality with Bowie. We trade email from London, where he is producing a record for Tim and Neil Finn. "We talk an awfully large amount when we make a record," Visconti says. "We can talk for hours without recording anything, then suddenly, we strike when the iron is hot and record at a relentless pace for several hours."

Those must be some fertile discussions, as Visconti has walked Bowie through some of his strangest and most critically acclaimed work, and much of it more guitar-rock-oriented than Bowie's Young Americans R&B period or his '80s Let's Dance stuff, which were his bestsellers. Beginning with 1970's The Man Who Sold the World, Visconti has been at the helm of Low, Heroes, and Scary Monsters, and returned again for Heathen. Some of these haven't done particularly well: Heathen has sold 221,000 CDs in the U.S. and a million worldwide. Released September 16, Reality has so far sold 52,000 on Bowie's ISO/Columbia label. Visconti is into it for both the quality of the work and the process.

"We're both lapsed Buddhists, in the sense that we don't meditate in front of a shrine, but we put a lot of merit in that philosophy," Visconti says. Bowie's voracious culture consumption sends him off on long tangents - he seems to know about every book, film, play, recording, and spiritual movement crossing the face of the mediasphere, plus a lot of science stuff that doesn't. (He's a science geek.) He's constantly dismantling things, looking for the god in the details, even if the details themselves turn out to be god.

"Reality, to me, is about the lack of consciousness in people's lives these days; in other words, the denial of what is reality," opines Visconti. "Or maybe it's about being spiritually empty. But I can assure you [Bowie] doesn't phone me up and say, ‘Let's make an album about spiritual emptiness today.'"

Bowie can't help himself. He's got to know about that emptiness, and then he's got to get his hands around it. He's only grown more efficient at collecting the clothes, the sounds, the ideas, the cool. Did you see him cavorting on the cover of Q with a nude Kate Moss? But mostly, after all those costume changes, it's the ideas he wants. Now he's talking about writing a book, or even a series of books, about the real underground history of London's political and artistic avant-gardes and its roots in the early Socialist parties and Jewish society. He doesn't see himself as a part of that lineage; part of him just needs to know where he fits in.

"Which is what I've f**king done all my life, anyway," Bowie says quietly. "But I've written them as albums. It's always been the same process for me. A lot of what I've done has helped me... retain a certain kind of sanity. Maybe normalized my situation to a certain extent, to become what I hope I am today: somebody that has a greater empathy, a wider embrace of friends and family, than maybe I would have had 20 years ago."

So the Man Who Fell to Earth has been wandering around wondering who to trust for at least some of these years. Maybe not anymore. One of his assistants plunks down his lunch on the rehearsal stage, some kind of wrap and a salad on a paper plate. Not a macrobiotic extravaganza or some kind of Freecloud juicebar drink. Just corner-shop stuff, New York City stuff. He says each album is a snapshot of where he's at, emotionally and spiritually. It's a sobering but hopeful place for all of us: He seems to have accepted that he doesn't need to look any further than the exceptional musicians in the break room, or the family on the other end of his cell phone speed-dial.

"Let's go sit in here, Dean," he says, picking up the plate. "I do so enjoy eating with the band."


Dean Kuipers edited a 2001 book for David Bowie's wife, supermodel Iman, titled I Am Iman.


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