Interview: David Bowie, on a Roll in 2004

By Bradley Bambarger <2004>

David Bowie, who has balked before at replicating his hits on tour like a human jukebox, feels no compunction about trying to please himself as he entertains others.

“I’m not going to trot out the old chestnuts just for the sake of it,” says Bowie, 57. “I don’t think I owe my audience anything but a good, interesting time. That said, I think we do show them a really good, really interesting time. People can tell when we’re having fun up there challenging ourselves, and it’s infectious.

“So, although we dropped ‘Let’s Dance’ from the set early on, we play ‘Rebel Rebel’ — but in a new version,” Bowie adds. “And we just added a couple more obscure numbers, ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ which should be great to play. That makes 59 in the well of songs we have on tap, from a few radio hits to deep album tracks.”

In an interview just before his Memorial Day weekend stand at Atlantic City’s Borgata Ballroom, Bowie was characteristically candid and ultra-articulate, as well as charmingly enthusiastic despite the constant tour rigmarole. The Borgata shows were numbers 99 and 100 on his Reality Tour, with a PNC Bank Arts Center show on Saturday the next stop on a trek that goes on through early August.

“I never enjoyed touring much before, to be truthful,” Bowie says. “The pressure of mounting those theatrically oriented shows in the past was a lot of work and worry. These days, it’s about interpreting the songs in a loose, informal, direct way, and the more we’ve done it over the past few years, the more we’ve gotten into a groove. And I have to tell you, this band is just so damn good that I actually enjoy the hell out of it.

“The challenge with my catalog for both the audience and musicians is that it’s very eclectic,” Bowie adds. “We’ll be doing something in an ambient trip-hop vein one song, then something ultra-pop or really hard the next. The band, though, is super-compatible in all these styles and without sounding like a simulacrum. They’re 100% in the idiom of each song.”

Bowie’s touring band represents some long-accruing relationships, with bassist/vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Sterling Campbell the rhythmic heart of the outfit for the past decade or so. There are also two ties to the illustrious past: keyboardist Mike Garson and lead guitarist Earl Slick, who have played with Bowie off and on since the ’70s. Guitarist Gerry Leonard, who fulfills the atmospheric role taken by guitarists from Robert Fripp to David Torn on Bowie’s albums, has proved an inspired addition.

The early 21st century has seen Bowie deepening his late-period renaissance, with the albums Heathen and Reality marking a prolific return to form with another ’70s collaborator, producer Tony Visconti. As with most veteran rock artists, though, Bowie faces difficulties in spreading the word about his new music, with most radio stations only attuned to a handful of his past hits. Beyond the internet, where Bowie was a pioneer in integrating his website with his fan club, touring is the prime option.

“It’s very, very hard to get any airplay these days in the world of corporate radio and with this fast-food mentality in pop music, particularly in the States,” Bowie says. “But I felt that in the wind years ago. You really just have to get out there, strut your stuff and show that you can still do it. Then it’s word of mouth.”

At the Borgata last Saturday night, an astonishingly youthful, energized — and dressed-down — Bowie showed that he could still do it, in spades. For a nearly 2–1/2-hour set, there were few longueurs, and those came, predictably, when Bowie sang those songs he probably would rather not. “China Girl” was forced and campy; and despite having retooled “Modern Love” into a Strokes-like garage-rocker, the singer seemed tired of it. Where he was inspired, especially on the recent and rarer material, Bowie showed that he is uncommon among his peers, in that his voice has grown stronger with age. And the man wasn’t exaggerating: His band is a sonic force.

With a cool, almost a-cappella intro, the fresh arrangement of “Rebel Rebel” launched the show in high style. (The new version appears on the bonus disc of 2003’s Reality album, as well as on the deluxe anniversary reissue of Diamond Dogs, due June 15.) Of the sharp new Reality songs, “New Killer Star” registered the most visceral impact, as the band charged the tune with a more organic momentum live. Similarly, the ensemble imbued the spectral title elegy from 2002’s Heathen album with an electric edge.

Also included from Bowie’s past two discs were versions of the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso” and the Pixies’ “Cactus,” both remade into far grander propositions. A Heathen standout like “Slow Burn” might have been nice in place of the Pixies cover, but connoisseurs had the thrill of hearing a tense, glam-metal treatment of “Sister Midnight,” which Bowie wrote with Iggy Pop for his 1977 “Idiot” album. Another composition reclaimed by Bowie was “All the Young Dudes,” a chart-topper for Mott the Hoople. For a surprisingly effective version of “Under Pressure” — Bowie’s cathartic 1982 hit with Queen — Dorsey took the late Freddie Mercury’s high-flying vocal part with aplomb.

Bowie often took time to credit the songs to their decades, wryly apologizing when he returned to the ’80s and insisting that the ’90s don’t sound too bad from a distance. Certainly, the ’90s songs “Hallo Spaceboy,” “Battle of Britain” and the prescient “I’m Afraid of Americans” were more volatile than on record, roiling the air with huge squalls of sound.

Of course, Bowie’s ’70s — which, he rubbed in, “weren’t necessarily your ’70s” — were his most fertile decade, generally speaking. The evergreen individuality of a track like the exotically gothic ballad “The Bewlay Brothers,” from 1972’s Hunky Dory LP, underlines the fact that Bowie’s obscurities have more staying power than the hits of many acts.

The band re-created the classic arrangement of Bowie’s cocaine-fueled Euro-rock travelogue “Station to Station” virtually note-for-note, complete with the hovering intro and Slick’s reprise of his space-blues guitar solo. Looking like a cross between Johnny Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone, Slick sounds far more robust than he did in the ’70s. The band’s most virtuoso feature, though, was the Dorsey/Campbell rhythm section, which powered everything with a groove that filtered metallic art-rock through a skein of Motown-worthy suppleness.

If “Heroes” — one of Bowie’s best, most emotional songs — gave off a disappointing whiff of showbiz at the end, there was a spectacular sequence of gritty, glam-rock encores: “Diamond Dogs,” “Queen Bitch,” “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.” The first two, in particular, throbbed like neon, with Slick embodying the irresistible riff of the freshly rehearsed “Diamond Dogs” with red-hot brio.

Although Bowie looks forward to a post-tour holiday with his family (wife, Iman, and 4-year-old daughter, Alexandria), he already has plans for his next recording sessions with Visconti in New York, where he has lived for more than a decade.

“Taking the times when I lived there off and on in the ’70s and ’80s, I’ve lived in New York City longer than I even lived in my hometown, London,” says Bowie, who is as likely to spend an interview enthusing about his new favorite New York band (TV on the Radio) as he is his own music.

“Downtown is my playground — I love catching shows, going out with my family, just being in the environment. I’ll walk down the street, and by the time I get to the studio, I’m recharged with energy and ideas. . . I do feel I’m on a bit of a roll these days.”

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David Bowie Set List — May 29, 2004, Borgata Ballroom, Atlantic City

1. Rebel Rebel
2. Cactus
3. Sister Midnight
4. New Killer Star
5. Looking For Water
6. All The Young Dudes
7. China Girl
8. The Loneliest Guy
9. The Man Who Sold The World
10. Battle For Britain (The Letter)
11. Pablo Picasso
12. Heathen (The Rays)
13. Hallo Spaceboy
14. Under Pressure
15. Reality
16. Station To Station
17. The Bewlay Brothers
18. Ashes To Ashes
19. Hang On To Yourself
20. Quicksand
21. Modern Love
22. I’m Afraid Of Americans
23. “Heroes”

Encores:
24. Diamond Dogs
25. Queen Bitch
26. Suffragette City
27. Ziggy Stardust

(Originally published in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey on May 31, 2004).

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