The State - 7th May 2004

At heart, Bowie says, it's all about solitude

By Dan Deluca

It's been more than three decades since he dyed his hair orange and called himself Ziggy Stardust, and two since he went mainstream with 1983's "Let's Dance." So what makes David Bowie think he can be relevant anymore?

"Fortunately for me, I never put forth any kind of generational attitude in my songs," says Bowie, whose current tour stops at Atlanta’s Chastain Park Amphitheatre on Saturday.

"My thing was never about sex and girls and being young and teenage," he says.

"What I wrote about was really much wider than that, and maybe turned out to be more universal. Why does one feel such a sense of isolation in a crowd, and how is it that you can never feel connected to other people? Playing around with the idea of solitude, that's really been my subject matter over the years, and that's something you can feel at 15 or at 70."

The loneliness of modern life can be felt in "Reality," the latest Bowie album of new songs (there was a "greatest hits" collection in December), which came out last fall.

Like 2002's not-bad-at-all "Heathen," the collection - which includes a revved-up cover of Jonathan Richman's "Pablo Picasso" and a delicate take on George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some" - "Reality" tries to make sense of the world since the terrorist attack on Bowie's adopted hometown and touches on the singer's mortality.

"I lost God in a New York minute. I don't know about you, but my heart's not in it," he sings in that familiar low register in "Looking for Water," and adds, "Now my death is more than a sad song," in the album's hard-rocking title track.

"It's kind of like 'Heroes,’ " Bowie says, referring to the 1977 album recorded in Germany with producer Brian Eno. "That album wasn't about Berlin, but it was certainly informed by Berlin. I wouldn't describe 'Reality' as my 'New York album,' but I wrote all the songs while I was living... with my family there, so New York definitely impacted on it."

The always-stylish Bowie - who came in third last year, behind David Beckham and Jude Law, on the best-dressed list compiled by GQ's British edition - has been married to the Somalian supermodel Iman since 1992. Despite his 1997 song "I'm Afraid of Americans," they live in New York - less than a mile from Ground Zero - with their young daughter, Alexandria. (Bowie also has a son, Duncan, 33, with his first wife, Angie.)

Bowie's long career has been famously marked by chameleonic changes and stylistic turns, one of the most notable being the "plastic soul" period when he recorded "David Live" (1974) and "Young Americans (1975) - which included his first big U.S. hits with the title track and "Fame" - in Philadelphia.

Bowie admits he lost his way after his commercial success in the 1980s ("Let’s Dance," "Modern Love," "China Girl"), and says that his 1990 announcement that he would no longer perform his greatest hits - a threat he has long-since withdrawn - was from lack of confidence in his new material.

"I wasn't certain that my songwriting was going anywhere, or that I could compete with this huge... back catalog. But there was a period in the early ’90s when I was pretty lost as an artist."

He credits Tin Machine, the metal-edged foursome he formed in 1989, with reinvigorating him. "It stripped everything away and put me through the unusual experience of just being a band member. It was a really great toughening-up experience."

The aging rock star seems less desperate now to latch onto a current trend and produce music that captures the unease of modern life.

For inspiration, he thinks of American blues players whom he looked up to as a teenager when they were roughly the age he is now. Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were "guys that could really rock out at a considerable age."

"I've never been 57 before. This is all new to us," Bowie says, speaking for his classic-rock peers. "We're all trying to figure that out: Can you do this to a real hard-rock beat and not look like an idiot when you're 57?"

David Bowie in concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Chastain Park Amphitheatre, 4469 Stella Drive, Atlanta
Tickets: $38-$98, through Ticketmaster
Information: (404) 233-2227.