Rocky Mountain News - January 17, 2004
Old songs fit fine with new
By Mark Brown
"I gotta profess that I don't understand why people say I change that much," says David Bowie, which is kind of like the sky saying it doesn't understand why people think it's blue.
Then Bowie contradicts himself, explaining at length why he has never stuck to one musical style or image.
It has become a lazy cliché to refer to Bowie's 30 years of ever-changing music and styles, yet at the same time it's still undeniable.
Fans are happy, however, with the hat he's wearing at the moment - songwriter and rock star. His last two albums have been his strongest in years, and his current Reality tour is earning jaw-dropping reviews.
Enjoying world tour
And even that is a contradiction. Bowie is the guy who did Moby's Area 2 tour two summers ago because it was only 12 dates - he doesn't like to spend time on the road, he explained at the time.
Not anymore. Now he's on a marathon world tour with shows that are a marathon in themselves - 25 or 26 songs a night, even 33 songs at one stop, a number that even Springsteen doesn't hit anymore. He's doing big arenas with only a few smaller venues mixed in. Denver got lucky; he's at the 3,600-seat Fillmore Auditorium on Monday night, and it is stone-cold sold out.
"I think we're just having such a ball with this band. I've never felt so comfortable and actually really contented performing like this," Bowie explains from a sound check in Detroit one day after his 57th birthday.
"The band has matured so much. We've been together for quite some time. We've got such a good outfit; we have great people around us. The whole feeling is one of enthusiasm, and that carries through."
It's the same band that backed Bowie at his stunning 2002 Denver concert, including longtime guitarist Earl Slick.
"The problem is knowing what ones to actually rehearse. For every 25 songs you learn, there are 25 songs you think you should have learned," he says. "We realized we're in Detroit tonight, so we quickly polished off Panic In Detroit in the last sound check."
Bowie has been mixing classics (Heroes, Fame, Ziggy Stardust) with some of his more interesting side trips from his career (I'm Afraid of Americans, Cactus). And fans are clamoring for the new stuff as well. Reality has snared some of the best reviews of Bowie's career, certainly the best of his latter-day work. Heathen in 2002 found him basing the album around strong songwriting again, after the late-'90s soundscapes of Earthling and Outside.
Reality is similarly song-driven, "but it was far more geared toward the band itself. It really was about a kind of thing I felt the band would really excel on. It's great for the stage that way," Bowie says.
Songs are flowing from Bowie at a prolific, Neil Young-like clip; the limited-edition version of Reality contains a bonus track that is one of its best songs, Fly, a frantic look at modern life with lines like "I'll be fine / I'm only screaming in my head."
"I don't have a problem with writing. It's never been something that I've been stumped by. I've never had the blank page in front of me and feel I can't fill it," he says. "I have a more liberal approach from my record company which kind of allows me to put things out faster than maybe the older companies would."
His 2002 return to form, Heathens, had some dark thoughts in it, but he emphasized at the time it was written before Sept. 11. Now comes Reality with its post-9/11 songs being very prominent, whether it's the line "I lost God in a New York minute" in Looking For Water or the frantic don't-look-back attitude in Never Get Old.
This, Bowie says, is what he doesn't understand about people thinking he changes. A mixture of apprehension, exuberance, paranoia and hope have always infused his songs.
"I think if you heard (1974's) Diamond Dogs and I put it out (now), you'd swear that it was about 9/11 as well. There's a certain type of negativity in a lot of my work that registers every time there's a crisis of some kind," he says. There is, in fact, a new version of Diamond Dogs' hit, Rebel Rebel included in Reality's limited-edition double-disc incarnation, and yes, it does fit fine with songs like Looking for Water and The Loneliest Guy.
Thus, "I don't understand why people say I change that much. I've always felt the subject matter that I deal with has been much the same over 30 years. Those things you've just cited, I'd say you would also find that in Ziggy Stardust or Diamond Dogs, or even Low or Heroes. It's not changed over all these years; that's just the stuff I write about."
He does, however, manage to find a fresh approach to it.
"It's like a prose writer. They're really talking about the same thing every time they produce a novel, but they approach the subject from a different perspective each time. I think I probably do that," Bowie says. "I'm also very aware that I'm very eclectic in terms of musical style. I don't feel a particular kind of genre loyalty of any kind. I use what I feel is right for that particular subject matter or the particular atmosphere I want to create. I haven't painted myself into a corner... I'm not this singer, I'm not that kind of writer. I can really access any kind of music and it becomes mine for that particular moment."
Setting the trends
But Bowie took it further than that. Elvis Presley got one style and stuck with it pretty much all his life. The Beatles evolved from album to album, but it all made sense.
Bowie, on the other hand, has taken career changes to whole new levels. He'll stop his career entirely and go in a different direction - killing off Ziggy Stardust in the '70s, forming Tin Machine in the late '80s.
Unlike Madonna who jumped on hot trends, Bowie set the trends, and while the image was what the public perceived the most, the changes were almost always a result of Bowie following his musical instincts; the clothing came afterward.
"I really felt the Beatles opened up a scenario that was an interesting one to explore. They had rock 'n' roll as the root of what they did, but there were so many avenues they were willing to explore," Bowie says. "That was a huge inspiration to me. I just felt it could be taken further. One could work with (rock 'n' roll) in a more plastic way. You could actually make it quite malleable and transpose it to a different setting.
"I was always quite passionate about other forms of music as well. It seemed like a very interesting thing to try and hybridize those different kinds of music, create fusions of different kinds, if you will," he says.
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