Fans agree with Bowie's view of 'Reality'
As one of only a handful of artists who debuted in the 1960s and continue to make records that are as vital and challenging as their early music, David Bowie knows what it takes to remain relevant in the youth-obsessed world of rock 'n' roll.
The key, the 57-year-old Bowie said in a recent phone interview, is to not pretend to still be young rockers and write about issues and emotions that matter in their lives at the moment and remember the passion one felt for music from the beginning.
Bowie is qualified to offer such theories, not only because of his continued artistic vitality, but because he believes the one period where he went off track was when he forgot to stay true to himself as a songwriter. His 1983 CD, "Let's Dance" became a mega-hit when the title song and "China Girl" both became hugely popular singles.
His next two CDs were the albums where Bowie said his music hit a low point.
"There were two albums in there in the '80s that I feel were barren. Creatively I was pretty indifferent to them, and they were 'Tonight' and 'Never Let Me Down,'" he said.
The trouble, Bowie said, was his newfound popularity caused him to stop writing music to please himself first and foremost.
"I think it was popularity and facing a new kind of audience that I hadn't experienced before. Kind of my audience had been pretty 'culty' and maybe a little obsessive with the kind of thing that I did. This was a far more general, easygoing family, I guess, good kids," Bowie said with a hearty laugh. "And I didn't know who they were. I kind of, I guess I thought well, I had better learn to write for these people. I wonder what they would like to listen to? And it kind of came out of that kind of thought. I really struck a bad note by doing that."
Bowie broke out of that rut by making a radical decision. After compiling his career-spanning box set, "Sound + Vision," Bowie went on tour in 1990 and announced this would be the last time he would perform songs from his back catalog.
Not only that, he essentially put aside his solo career and formed a band, Tin Machine, with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the sibling rhythm section of bassist Tony Sales and drummer Hunt Sales.
Bowie said the group — and in particular his creative relationship with Gabrels — rekindled his creativity and put his career back on track. In essence, Gabrels told Bowie he needed to go back to being the musical risk-taker and remember the artist who reinvented himself at will during the 1970s, morphing from androgynous Ziggy Stardust into the sophisticated soul-inflected character, the "Thin White Duke," and then reinventing himself yet again at the end of the decade with the moody, more minimalist electronica-tinged music of "Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger."
"Probably if Reeves hadn't come along at the exact time he did, I think I would have gotten back on course again, because I'm a fairly bright boy and it would have occurred to me that I was just killing myself and wasting my time, that I should just get out," Bowie said. "But I think it would have taken probably quite a bit longer."
Tin Machine broke up after three CDs, but the creative juice Bowie got from that band has carried over to the solo records he has done since.
"I like all of the stuff I've written since around 1991," Bowie said. "I think the last 10 or 12 years have been really good to me as a writer."
Some observers even consider Bowie's two most recent CDs, 2002's "Heathen" and his current CD, "Reality," to be his finest work since the "Heroes" and "Low" period in the last half of the 1970s. There's certainly credence to that view, as both "Heathen" and "Reality" have been compelling from start to finish.
Where "Heathen" was more lush and introspective, "Reality" finds Bowie getting a bit edgier with his sound. The edge is most blatant in tracks like the title song, which recalls the brashness of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust-era, and his spunky cover of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso." Other standout songs, such as "New Killer Star," "Never Get Old" and a version of George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some" rock only slightly less briskly, but have dynamic melodies and plenty of attitude. Ballads such as "The Loneliest Guy" bring an effectively moody dimension to the "Reality" CD.
Again, Bowie, who is happily married to the model Iman and has a 3-year-old daughter from that marriage named Alexandria, credited his musical rebirth to his decision to be creatively selfish and let his own impulses guide his work.
"The more that I write mainly just for me, so that I can tangle with my own problems and use myself as an audience of one and see if it has an effect on me, if my songs have an effect on me that's emotive on me or keeps me challenged in some way, then my writing is good," he said. "When I start writing for an audience, it drops off considerably and it's not good."
David Bowie plays Tuesday, May 11, at the Fox Theatre. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show, which also features the Stereophonics, cost $78, $51 and $38.50.