Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - 23 May 2004

Bowie's non-stop flair has stretched his fame

By Ed Masley

At this point, David Bowie may be best remembered for the role he first developed on 1972's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars," a decidedly British rock opera steeped in fatalism, decadence and science-fiction imagery that somehow stalled, despite its now-iconic status, here in the States.

His U.S. breakthrough came the next year with a single first released in 1969. While "Ziggy Stardust" chronicled the rise and fall of a rock 'n' roll messiah who "took it all too far," in "Space Oddity," Bowie used the space race as a disconnected backdrop for the lonely tale of Major Tom, whose only contact with the human race is Ground Control.

As different as those records may have seemed, though, both releases found the singer, a natural pop star, weighing in on fame, the title subject of his first chart-topping single from '75, and the often-tragic consequences of finding it.

Unless, of course, you're David Bowie, whose career since "Fame" has seen him flirting with mainstream acceptance while making his home on the fringes of popular culture, where his legacy has fueled young kooks from Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor to Moby and Beck.

He followed "Fame" and the plastic soul of the "Young Americans" album with the artiest string of albums - from "Station to Station" through a trilogy of avant-garde-inspired electronic music cut with Brian Eno in Berlin to "Scary Monsters" - that a chart-topping artist had made since those experimental records Lennon followed up with primal screams on "Plastic Ono Band."

And then, at the risk of losing all those New Wave fans he'd won with "Scary Monsters," "Let's Dance" put the singer back on Main Street USA with a chart-topping single, Nile Rodgers production and several hit videos tied to songs that felt like they were written and recorded with the charts in mind.

But in a good way.

A former mime who used his pop hits as a back door to the silver screen, you could say he was born to the stage. And not just Broadway, where he played the title role in 1980's "The Elephant Man." He clearly ranks among the more theatrical performers in the history of rock 'n' roll, on a level with Alice Cooper, adopting then discarding onstage characters that ranged from Ziggy Stardust's futuristic rock god in an orange mullet to the Thin White Duke, a Philly soul man clad in baggy trousers.

At 57, Bowie hasn't lost his flair for keeping up on all the latest trends, inviting fans recently to do a "mash up" of the music on his latest disc, "Reality," with any other Bowie song and offering to place the strongest entries on his Web site, www.davidbowie.com. He performed Friday in Indianapolis.

He swore he'd never play the early stuff again after touring in 1989 with a set list based on fan requests phoned in before the tour.

But Bowie reconnected with his fame in 1997 while throwing a 50th-birthday bash at Madison Square Garden surrounded by icons paying tribute, from Lou Reed and Sonic Youth to Billy Corgan, Robert Smith, Frank Black and David Grohl. The set list featured songs from "Earthling" side by side with classics from his golden years ("Space Oddity," "All the Young Dudes," even "Fashion," all of which he's played on his first North American tour in seven years).