Philadelphia Inquirer - 5th December 2003
Thoroughly modern Bowie
By Dan DeLuca
David Bowie's new album is aptly titled "Reality." The album tries to make sense of the world since the terrorist attack on the Englishman's adopted hometown of New York.
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, who will begin his American tour with a sold-out show at the Borgata hotel and casino in Atlantic City.
"My thing was never about sex and girls and being young and teenage," says the 56-year-old Englishman, talking last week before a show in Glasgow, Scotland.
"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 new Bowie album produced by longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, which may be his best since Let's Dance. 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 this 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," which is in his current set, they live in Lower Manhattan with their 4-year-old daughter, Alexandria. (Bowie also has a son, Duncan, 33, with his first wife, Angie.)
The Bowies reside less than a mile from ground zero, and seeing a part of the city turned into a bombing site reminds him of growing up in London in the 1950s.
"When I used to go into town, I remember very clearly blocks and blocks of bombed houses, a landscape looking quite T. S. Eliot. It really was the wasteland. It wasn't poetic when you were 8 or 9: It was just scary."
Living with his daughter so close to the Sept. 11 carnage, Bowie says, "really drove it home, that no one is safe, anywhere."
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) at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby and Young Americans (1975) - which included his first big U.S. hits with the title track and "Fame" - at Sigma Sound Studio in Center City.
"My memory is so terrible of that time," he says with a groan. "I do remember going to clubs with Teddy Pendergrass and [guitarist] Carlos Alomar, and all the kids who used to stick around outside the studio when we were making Young Americans.
"Oh, and I remember Springsteen coming down," he says of the then-young Jersey songwriter whose "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" he recorded. "He was a very modest guy, and I liked him such a lot."
Bowie admits that he lost his way after his commercial success in the 1980s, 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."
Bowie believes Tin Machine, a mediocre band at best, had a positive impact on his songwriting, though it is hard to hear the evidence of that on 1995's experimental Outside or the drum-and-bass-influenced Earthling, released in 1997. With Heathen and Reality, though, the aging rock star seems less desperate to latch onto a current trend and again able to 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 - who will turn that old next month - 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?"
TO CLOSE WINDOW