Entertainment Today - April 2004

Classics and Classics-To-Be

David Bowie triumphantly finishes what he started 26 years ago, mixing old and new in his acclaimed Reality tour

By Steven Hanna

In 1978, David Bowie toured the world behind his "Heroes" album, a difficult and experimental record which sounded far different from the glam Ziggy Stardust songs that made him a star six years earlier. The open-minded and the hardcore were ready to welcome the new material, but the majority of concertgoers were more casual fans, there to hear the hits, and Bowie faced the problem of appealing to both groups. His solution was of the take-your-medicine-and-you'll-get-a-treat variety, as he opened with an hour-long set of challenging newer tunes followed by a post-intermission mini-suite of Ziggy faves: although nowadays the show, as captured on bootleg, sounds like all your best friends gathered in a room and telling you they love you, at the time the frontloading of unfamiliar new music was a radical approach. The official live album, Stage, even shuffled the song order to make the show seem less starkly divided.

In the 26 years since then, Bowie has tried countless experiments in balancing the old and the new in his live shows, but the current Reality tour has been hailed by everyone - even Bowie himself - as an unusually successful mix. Not that he doesn't have even more tricks up his sleeve for the future, but this tour sounds an awful lot like a triumph. "Without, hopefully, being self-satisfied," he agrees by phone from a tour stop in Quebec City, "I think we've come up with a pretty good chemistry in terms of the songs that we've chosen for this tour. It allows us, really, a very long chronology. I can go right back to the late '60s/early '70s, and I can come all the way back up through to today. Plus, I can do real easygoing things like 'Rebel Rebel,' but then really quite complicated pieces like 'Sunday' or 'Heathen' from the Heathen album. It's a really wide package."

Anyone who saw Bowie's shows at the Shrine or the Wiltern a few months ago knows that his assessment is correct. The two-and-a-half-hour set is astonishing in its breadth, and though it tends to focus - not unlike that '78 tour - on the very old and the very new, its blending of classics with classics-to-be is smooth and confident. Even an encore cluster of Ziggy-era material feels not like a sop to the fans but an eager rediscovery of a period whose greatness has been Bowie's boon and burden. The chance to see this show again, when Bowie returns to town this week for shows at the Greek and the Theatre at Arrowhead Pond, is not to be missed.

Bowie's negotiations with his songbook have run the gamut from 1990's all-the-hits "Sound and Vision" trek to 1995's courting-of-the-Nine-Inch-Nails-fan-base gigs supporting Outside, but the key to his crowd-pleasing triumphs on this tour lies in some of the most unusual, uncompromising shows he ever put up. To promote his very great 2002 album Heathen, the erstwhile Thin White Duke played a handful of dates that summer where he did the entire new record, in sequence, along with another album in its entirety, the 1977 watershed Low. "What we did on that," he recalls, "which was a very tiny little tour in comparison to this one, was we followed Brian Wilson's lead. Brian Wilson had just come over to Britain, and had performed Pet Sounds in its entirety, track-by-track, as it went. It was just a most extraordinary idea. And I kind of ran with it, and it worked really excellently. Because, I mean, to give him his credit, it's fantastic that Brian Wilson actually gets up there and works these days anyway, but still Pet Sounds is only 40 minutes long! And I thought, I'm not going to be able to get away with this, because people are used to seeing me do a lot longer shows. So I had to do two albums. But that in itself became a very interesting prospect, in terms of which two albums do you do side-by-side, you know?"

His decision to "pal Heathen up," as he puts it, with his beloved first Brian Eno collaboration was a brilliant one. The cold atmospherics of the earlier record resonated with the bleak post-9/11 vistas that make the later disc so moving, and the result was what Bowie calls "a chilling experience, in the nicest possible way." Perhaps most importantly, it forced a man fabled for what his marketing team has termed his "changes" to re-evaluate an earlier phase in his career. "We did all the instrumentals and everything," he says with some pride, speaking of the Low album's groundbreaking no-vocals second side, "and it was really very moving for me, because I had never confronted the album in quite that way before. I really must say, those are three or four of the most extraordinary and quite lovely concerts that I think I've ever done. I've got such a warm spot for those songs anyway. I really like the Low material."

This every-nook-and-cranny exploration of a past classic seemed to reinvigorate Bowie, and it's no wonder that rock 'n' roll's great chameleon found his new shows taking on some of his old colorings: several of the songs from Low, which first shyly poked their heads out in occasional '78 performances, have become concert staples since the Heathen tour. The frostily festive instrumental "A New Career in a New Town" has been a particular highlight, wowing old fans and winning over new converts nightly. But Bowie clearly itched to let the light back in to his set lists: in addition to his late '70s work, fan-friendlier favorites from earlier and later have also found a place in the Reality tour's song lineup, and the Ziggy tunes that get the crowd roaring merely cap an evening that sees Bowie completely, gleefully stepping into songs like "Life on Mars?" or "China Girl." These tunes have been performed, if at all, with an odd sense of detachment in recent years, as if Bowie were exhibiting them superficially rather than fully inhabiting them. It seems his experience re-inhabiting Low has freed him of the more stage-bound, performative impulses in his showmanship, investing this tour with what may be the only thing Bowie has never been celebrated for in the past: sincerity.

He's been mixing it up in the studio as well, and with an oddly familiar sense of experimentation: just as Low and "Heroes" gave way to 1979's no less demanding but far more freewheeling Lodger, Bowie has moved in the wake of Heathen and its somewhat somber tour into wilder sonic territory. He's stayed close to home, of course, continuing to record in New York, but unlike the previous disc, which was crafted in an isolated upstate studio in Woodstock, Reality is alive with all the sounds and textures and smells of New York City itself.

"The major difference," Bowie sums it up dryly, "is that Heathen was written in the mountains and Reality was written on the street." He's quick, however, to point out the thematic continuities: "I had hoped there was some feeling of, at least, a spiritual positivism about Heathen. Maybe there isn't, though. But there's a visceral positivism about Reality, although I think lyrically it's still, uh, it's still quite barren land. It's not the happiest of albums, lyrically, but I think musically it sets you up with a much stronger feeling of buoyancy." This is certainly true of rip-it-up numbers like "New Killer Star" or a bordering-on-deranged cover of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso," and even the stark piano-and-vocal album closer "Bring Me the Disco King" is somehow jocular, in a spirit-crushing sort of way. Indeed, with its retrospective lyrical tone duking it out with the forward-looking simplicity of the music, the latter song may be the perfect example of what Bowie's been up to in the last few years.

"There's a lot that's tongue-in-cheek about that one," Bowie laughs when asked about "Disco King," "but I suppose it's narrowly within the margins of the 'I did it my way' tradition. It's sort of a dissolute version of that." Lines like "Life wasn't worth... the crumpled paper it was written on" and "Damp morning rays in the stiff bad clubs/Killing time in the '70s" challenge you to laugh at the song's self-mocking glance back at Bowie's constantly-on-the-verge-of-falling-apart first decade of stardom, even as pianist Mike Garson's jazzy keyboard part twinkles sadly and seriously away. The song has been kicking around for more than a decade, since it was first composed during sessions for 1993's Black Tie White Noise. "I wrote it originally as a parody of a real disco song," Bowie recounts, "and we had the funny disco/'80s synth-drums, and it rollicked along. But it never really played well. It just felt too lightweight, and it parodied itself into kind of a nonsense song. So I left it alone. I picked it up again in the mid-'90s, and we tried it a lot harder, as almost an industrial piece, and that didn't work. That really sucked. But I always liked the song, and I always felt there was something there, and I came up with the idea of halving the tempo from what it was originally, and we thought we'd just lay it down, just as a skeleton, and maybe do something with it later. But the skeleton turned out to be so convincing, that I thought it just didn't need anything else. We didn't even put bass on it. It's just Mike against a drum loop. And I have to say, I'm absolutely delighted that although it's very long, about eight and a half minutes long, it goes down very well live."

The song's checkered history reads like a timeline of the last decade-plus of Bowie's career, starting out with tentative nods to yesterday - a la Black Tie's reteaming with Nile Rodgers, producer of Bowie's '83 smash hit Let's Dance - and fitfully moving through a period of trying a little too hard to sound up-to-date - remember Bowie's stab at drum-and-bass, 1997's Earthling? - before culminating in a self-confident willingness to let the music stand on its own strengths, naked and unadorned. Make no mistake, though: Reality, both the album and the tour, is hardly a solemn affair. The nods to yesterday fly fast and furious on a song like "Never Get Old," full of fun lyrical ties to Bowie classics as diverse as "Andy Warhol" and "Fantastic Voyage," while those mid-'90s efforts to sound up-to-date linger in the background, and you can hear thrilling bits of Bowie's industrial period placed elegantly into rocked-out songs like "She'll Drive the Big Car" or "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon." As for self-confidence, can you get any more bold than "The Loneliest Guy," the gut-wrenching hymn to hopelessness recently hailed by Lou Reed in a Rolling Stone write-up as ranking among Bowie's very best songs ever? And then there are all those world-class older hits scattered through the set list, guaranteeing that even the sourest I-only-dance-to-songs-I-know concertgoer won't be sitting down for long at a stretch.

So confident, indeed, is Bowie in the ability of his new material to stand solidly alongside his older songs, that he's allowing fans to create their own mash-ups of his music online at www.davidbowie.com/neverFollow, giving them the freedom to mix old and new willy-nilly. The signature overlaying of the vocals to "Rebel Rebel" atop the beats of "Never Get Old" - tied to an Audi advertising campaign but startlingly good nevertheless - is a far cry from the uneasy divisions of those '78 concerts, a symbol in song of just how far Bowie has come in the interim. You could easily get lost in overanalyzing. But not to worry: if you'd rather not ponder these sorts of things while you're reveling in Bowie's shows next week, you'll have no trouble taking in the concerts on their own party-party terms. Still, if you feel like meditating on it all, Bowie will be very glad for it. "I kind of like to feel that an artist is trying to open me up as an audience when he's working," Bowie notes, "that he's going to demand that I take part in the show, in terms of what I receive and that I'm willing to listen as well. I don't want it to get too bubble-gummy, you know?"

David Bowie plays the Greek on Thursday, April 22, and the Theatre at Arrowhead Pond on Friday, April 23. The Polyphonic Spree opens for him on both nights.