Rock’s most celebrated chameleon has been
fighting valiantly for the last decade or so to remain relevant and pointing
toward the future, but David Bowie has met with mixed results.
We can debate the merits of 2002’s overrated
“Heathen,” but there simply isn’t much good to say about Tin Machine or the
labored concept albums “Outside” and “Earthling.” But his 26th
studio album, last year’s “Reality,” is a different story.
Recorded with one of his strongest bands ever
(including regulars Mike Garson on keyboards, Earl Slick on guitar and
Sterling Campbell on drums), “Reality” is Bowie’s most consistent and
original effort since 1980’s “Scary Monsters.” It finds him drawing on the
unique tension and energy of post-9/11 Manhattan in the same way that he
found inspiration in the still-walled-in Berlin of the mid-’70s. And when he
sings, “I’m never gonna get old,” for the first time in a long time it
sounds as if we’d better believe him.
Bowie comes to the Rosemont Theatre for a
sold-out three-night stand that begins on Tuesday and continues on Wednesday
and Friday. I spoke to the legendary singer and songwriter from his home in
Manhattan as he was recovering from a bad bout of the flu that caused him to
cancel the first few gigs of the tour.
Q. Hi, David. So how are you feeling?
A. I’m O.K. [laughs] Boy, is the flu tough this
year! We did so well in Europe—the flu really wasn’t a problem over
there—but virtually from the moment I walked through the door at home, I
came down with it. My baby had it. At that age, three, it takes a couple of
weeks for them to recover from it. I canceled four or five shows, and I
never do that. I’ve always been able to work through these things.
Q. “Reality” is a brilliant album. I’m curious
about the uniquely New York energy of it. It seems as resonant of that city
as your trilogy of albums with Brian Eno was of Berlin in the ’70s.
A. I have to agree, very much so. “Heathen” has
some of the same resonance, but kind of from a different perspective,
because it was more New York state—it was done in the mountains. But the
information that went into both those albums, the genesis of them, was the
experience of living in New York. The albums that Brian and Tony [Visconti]
and I did back in the Berlin days were informed by Berlin, but rather like
these two, “Heathen” and “Reality,” they’re not albums about the city,
though there’s definitely a resonance of the cities.
Q. How have you noticed New York changing in the
wake of 9/11?
A. I’m not gonna say that usual line that the
innocence is gone, because you’re talking about America—it’s not a nation
that was built on innocence, it was built on slavery and corruption and a
lot of really extraordinary things evidenced by the first three or four
presidents of this wild and wonderful country. It’s had a pretty insane
history. But there’s a new sense of vulnerability, I guess, and I think that
was a big surprise for everybody who lived here that it can actually happen
in America. I think there was always a feeling that whatever happened in the
rest of the world, one reason why it could be ignored so much at the time,
as it often is in America, is that really nothing was going to actually
happen to America. It’s almost like America’s now been embraced by the woes
that do affect the rest of the world.
Q. But it doesn’t seem like the country has
learned a lesson.
A. No, and I put that down an awful lot to media
and political spin. There’s a certain kind of front that has been adopted
here, and a certain kind of way of looking at the world. The way we over
here—and that’s the American “we”—define democracy is the kind of democracy
that’s going to be given to the rest of the world, whether they want it or
not. But coming back to New York itself, I think there’s just a shadow of a
feeling that it can and possibly will happen again. There’s definitely that.
But there’s nothing that’s going to shift me from New York, because I love
the city, I love the people here, all our friends are here, and this is what
we’ve decided is our home. But one can’t help but think that the way that
things have been replicated in the rest of Europe—the small bombings in
shops and cafes and that sort of thing, the IRA or Basque actions or any one
of innumerable terrorist groups—it is on the horizon for New York or maybe
any other great American city. This is the very unfortunate 21st
Century that we’ve moved into.
Q. What do you think is the artist’s role in
A. Oh, hell, that’s the thing we’re all
struggling with, frankly. I’ve got to say, that is a question that I come to
all the time. What is my role? Is anything that we actually do worth a damn?
But I think firstly before you do that, you’ve got to actually have an
opinion that is worth something. And it’s such a complex situation now, one
feels so often in such deep water trying to talk about it, so I guess one
keeps coming back to just personalized anecdotes of one’s own life—just kind
of sharing your day to day life.
On the other hand, I’ve never known before I’ve
really started recording exactly how I’m going to approach an album with the
lyrical content. Such a lot of what I write and what I do is kind of almost
prescient of things around me. I don’t do long didactic tracts, but I often
find that I’ve succeeded in getting what’s on my chest off my chest by
writing these elliptical kind of descriptions of things.
Q. Is there something about being in intense
surroundings that encourages that? Some artists would go down to the Bahamas
to work for six months, but you’ve done some of your best work in
A. I want to go the Bahamas right now! [Laughs]
But what you say is so true. When I’ve found myself in more luxurious
circumstances, it does seem to nail me. I really can’t produce very much.
Tense situations… I think because you implore the good things to come to the
surface, but in imploring them to do that, you come across all this stuff
that isn’t so great, and that becomes the grist for the writing mill. I
think you probably treasure the life that you’ve been given just maybe a
little bit more than when things are too easy.
Q. You’re married to a woman from Somalia,
you’ve traveled the world, and you’ve always had a global perspective in
your art. What do you think about the current political situation: Is it
possible for the West to come to an understanding with the Muslim world?
A. I don’t want to get into that! Yes, I’ve got
fairly strong opinions about all of that, but I certainly wouldn’t give
advice in this country! I don’t know if anybody can avoid getting the Dixie
Chicks treatment. It’s really tough to be in a democratic country and have
to be very careful about what you have to say.
Q. What’s most encouraging about your career is
that you’ve always struggled to avoid the dreaded curse of nostalgia.
Sometimes it works fabulously, as with “Reality,” and sometimes we’ve gotten
A. [Laughs] Every artist that I adore has worked
in that way, whether it’s a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan. If I’m going to do
something that is provoking and relevant, I have to be prepared to take
really loony chances, and I have no fear of failure whatsoever, because
often out of that something is salvaged, something that is worthwhile comes
about. The only failures that I think have just not been worth it are the
ones where I’m pandering to somebody else’s tastes, and nothing comes out of
that situation except a kind of an inward humiliation.
Q. Many artists seem hamstrung by having a
following of people who are devoted to them, but you rarely seem to trip
over your fans’ expectations.
A. It’s almost like part and parcel of being a
truly great artist is the ability to be seen to be failing, and just being
prepared to walk about with a red nose. If you keep thinking, “What can I do
to make this audience like me?,” I think you’ve got a major problem. A true
audience is going to like you no matter what. They might not be the most
receptive audience in the world some times—that’s happened to me frequently
throughout the last 35 years or so—but they’re going to kind of give you a
listen. Neil Young’s audience at Madison Square Garden the other night
wasn’t exactly in raptures, for instance, but it was there, and it was
listening. That’s all really that you can expect anybody to do if you’re
producing some interesting kind of art.
Q. One of the chances you take is in giving your
band a lot of freedom. I gather you tried to cut “Reality” as live in the
studio as possible, and you stretch out in concert.
A. Yeah, it’s pretty representative of what this
band sounds like. We’re very happy with it. In terms of what we’re doing
onstage, I don’t think there’s a period that I’m not actually touching on. I
think it’s pretty representative, and it’s not just all the hits—we’ve got a
lot of stuff from these last two albums, “Heathen” and “Reality,” and I’m
also adding stuff from the ’90s, which only some of the audience knows. Then
that’s balanced out with things that obviously they do know, because once
you get past 10,000 people you’ve got to be a little careful. But there
again, we’ve tried to follow both Bob Dylan and Neil Young in terms of
learning as many songs as possible before we came out. We’ve got about 50
under our belt, which is not bad—it means that we can move the set around
from night to night considerably. Usually we do at least 2 hours—it’s not a
short show—and sometimes we’ve been going to 3, 3 ½ hours. But now, thanks
to the damn Internet, they post the set lists and then we get, “How come you
only did 2 ¼ hours here when you did 3 there!”
Q. What do you still enjoy about touring? It can
be such a grind, especially when you have the flu.
A. I like it! [Laughs] It wasn’t actually my
favorite thing to do; I’ve got to be honest, and I think I’ve voiced that
frequently. I never really thought of myself first and foremost as a
performing artist; I can do it, but it’s not the thing I love best. I can do
it, but what I love best is working and experimenting and trying things out
in the studio. That’s really still today what I like best. But I guess it’s
because of the kind of solidarity I now have with this band, which has been
in large part with me for about the last eight years, that I’m really get a
joy from just going out and interpreting the songs. I’m feeling like a
performer at last.
There’s also another thing that’s happened in
the last two or three years, and this may have to do with the world
conditions, but before I go onstage I realize, “This is not a
life-threatening situation. You’re just going out and singing some songs,
and if you don’t enjoy it, then get off the stage!” So I think our attitude
before we go onstage is, “We are going out to have the time of our life for
the next couple of hours.” And I think that being swept along by that
initial feeling before we go out makes us feel pretty good from the off, and
we just relax into it. I never really felt that relaxed before, but these
days, you can almost call me goofy. I really feel at home now, I really feel
comfortable on the stage, and I’m there to enjoy myself. I hope that extends
out into the audience, and they have a great time, too.
Q. I’m curious about your perspective on the
music industry. We’re at an historic crossroads right now, and you seem to
have been ahead of the curve in realizing that.
A. It’s all luck; none of it was planned. I kind
of think it’s a little bit like photography, where the photograph itself at
the beginning of the last century was such an iconic thing. It was thought
of almost in a religious manner, and the people that made it were thought of
in a special way. And now, people just put everything into Photoshop and
change the faces around; they’re their own factories of image. One sees a
certain similarity in what’s happened with music. I think the context of the
music has changed immeasurably since I started making it. Like it or not, it
has become merely an adjustment to lifestyle rather than the kind of manna
from heaven when I was a kid. It just seems to have a different kind of
context altogether—it’s like water from the tap or electricity from the
plug. Kids kind of presume it’s just there for their taking, and you can’t
dispel that idea. That’s what they believe, and they won’t change their
I don’t see any hope for the industry at all.
We’re watching it collapse—it’s definitely imploding—and it’s become a
source of irrelevance.
Q. You saw that coming, with the way you viewed
your catalog as an asset and said, “I don’t really need a label.”
A. Well, one half of me says yes and the other
half says no. I have old-fashioned ambivalence.
Q. Despite the new way that people are
listening, you continue to produce albums as artistic entities, rather than
as collections of songs that can be plucked out and downloaded.
A. I may be producing them like that, but I
don’t think I’m actually feeling that. I’m coming very quickly to the stage
where I’m tempted to just start writing songs and putting them out. I really
like [Apple’s] iTunes—I think it’s a pretty cool idea to just kind of
assemble the album of your choice, and it makes absolute sense to me. These
days I find it very hard to find more than a couple of tracks on anybody’s
album that are something I want to play again and again.