The Times - 14th November 2003


Doting father David Bowie still feels he's a rock 'n' roll rebel at heart

By Paul Sexton

FOR A MAN who spent some golden years constantly creating new personae, these days David Bowie seems to be a very happy sum of all his parts.

Boosted by a creative purple patch - two fine albums within 15 months, Heathen and Reality - there's little sign now of the androgynous outsider, burdened by expectations that he'll invent next year's sound and vision.

When we meet, Bowie, now 56, and dressed simply in white T-shirt and trainers, is a generous, engaging conversationalist and a much better listener than your average mega-star. He describes his current mood as "a kind of extended positivism", a door unlocked by domestic stability. Bowie is settled in New York with his wife of 11 years, Iman, and their three-year-old daughter Alexandria Zahra ("Lexi", as he calls her, who has his real surname, Jones).

In Paris, last month, that new-found positivity manifested itself in the sheer exuberance of his performances of Fame, Fashion, Ashes to Ashes and others, creating a show which is now much less about solo interpretations and more like superior jam sessions by a jobbing seven-piece band. With his latest seven-month world tour, Reality, Bowie has struck a compromise between his past and his present that seems to work for everyone.

"As much as I like my old songs, I don't want to be saddled with having to do only those on stage," he says. "So I've really pushed it a bit. I might do eight really well-known songs in the course of a show, but with the rest of them I'm very aware that only a third of the audience is going to know them. But I'm determined to make the audience listen to my newer material." He laughs, heartily.

New music isn't the only thing we can expect. Bowie has taken on a new medium - the historical novel. Or historical research, anyway. "I have not got past structure," he smiles. "I think it's just an excuse to research. But I find I can devote an hour a day to tinkering with the idea." By which, he admits, he often means moving from one internet link to the next. "It is fabulous. I'm trying to find a new kind of radical London that isn't always obvious when you read the histories of London."

You might wonder where he finds the energy, but the new Bowie is a paragon of discipline - even avoiding the post-gig drinks in Paris in favour of an early night. At home he is an early riser, practically greeting the dawn with a session online at BowieNet. He pioneered the service as the web's first big artist-based service provider in 1997 and takes a highly active part, encouraging the website's community feel by dropping in most days to take part in on-line chats.

Inevitably BowieNet can occasionally feel like a mutual lovefest, but the chatroom mood is often less deferential than you'd expect.

Taken playfully to task for continuing to perform China Girl, of which many followers are not fond, the singer responds in a mock headmaster tone: "For a number of you I will be doing songs with which you may be bored. I, on the other hand, am not bored. And, unlike you, I am at every show."

Continuing the point with me, he says: "See, some songs are great, but if you play them over and over again they don't have that much in them. It just becomes singalong time, and it's not much fun for us as musicians. Like Starman, it's a nice song, and we'll do that occasionally, but to do that every night, it really doesn't draw upon your prowess.

"I can't do a full evening's worth of those because I'll go barmy. You really become a karaoke machine. It's great to be able to do The Motel (from Outside) and 5:15 The Angels Have Gone (from Heathen) and things like that, because they really push you as a performer and a musician."

And yet, for Bowie, performing live is still a challenge despite having been on stage for the better part of 40 years.

"If something went wrong, my self-confidence would disappear," he recalls. "I was so fragile that way, at being a stage performer, because I didn't actually believe I was one. I thought I had to do it because ‘they're my songs and I've got to sing them'. I'd always been a performer in isolation. I'd never done festivals or anything like that, and I was measuring against myself all the time. I'm one of these guys that, until recently, everything had to be right.

"Then we started doing festivals in the mid-Nineties. We were working with top-rate bands like the Prodigy. I hadn't been among that many bands, continually, so it was like: ‘Phew, I've got to measure myself against this every night.'

"And, you know what? We were going down really well, considering all these bands were half my age, some of them a third of my age. I think that did such a lot for my self-confidence as a performer. I'm getting older. I don't want to be out on the road and not enjoying myself."

David Bowie's UK tour starts on Monday at Manchester MEN Arena (0870 1908000).