By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
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By Nathan Smith
Now, because David Bowie is so cool, he can do absolutely anything he wants. Like decline an interview request from an alternative weekly. (Not that we're bitter. Nope.) Furthermore, he could tour and play two hours' worth of klezmer death metal -- with an encore of French ballads from the 1960s -- and could still charge $75 a ticket. Why? Because what he accomplished in the '70s and '80s has given Bowie unparalleled musical creativity and freedom.
In other words, he has absolutely nothing more to prove musically. He doesn't have to trot out his star-making 45s like a classic-rock jukebox -- although when he does, these retreads are far from tired. At the Boston stop of his Reality tour in March, the Queen collaboration "Under Pressure" featured dynamo bassist Gail Ann Dorsey solidly subbing for Freddie Mercury. A slowed-down, funked-up version of "Fame" and a Bic-flicking "All the Young Dudes" revealed Bowie's ability to kill with epic chords. Even the thundering industrial maelstrom "I'm Afraid of Americans" -- which dates from his ill-advised '90s attempt to become the Chemical Brothers -- has never sounded more relevant.
Still, not all tunes are shipshape in Bowie-land. Like a rearranged version of "Rebel Rebel" with handclaps in the middle that make its swagger seem more like game-show audience-participation time. Or "Heroes," which turned into a dad-rock boogie complete with embarrassing AARP-age-group dancing and the feel-good fuzziness of an Oprah episode. Or especially the über-dated soul debacle, "Blue Jean," whose '80s-sitcom theme-song tackiness almost negated the coolness of hearing Ziggy Stardust's glitter-glammy "Hang on to Yourself."
These schmaltzy moments sound particularly anemic in light of the fact that Bowie's umpteenth solo disc, Reality, is actually quite a strong slab of rock. The 9/11-referencing "New Killer Star" ("See the great white scar/over Battery Park") swings with grand whiplashes of guitar and computerized twangs, while a cover of the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" is an art-school dropout's glam-western wet dream. Bowie plays an excellent sad clown on "The Loneliest Guy" and even steps up the sass on "Never Get Old" -- one-half of the aforementioned new single -- which struts with gentle, chic robo-funk.
Nevertheless, excellent new music doesn't always translate into a fresh-sounding concert. Bono has charisma and good will spilling out of his pores, but the U2 live extravaganza nowadays -- based on the band's 'gee-whiz-we're-going-back-to-our-roots' mantra -- seems chock full of paint-by-numbers earnestness and forced emotional transcendence. The same perfunctory feeling plagued Madonna's last tour, where rigid choreography and a loopy electronica-skewed set list made for a wooden show that lacked the playful spunk of her earlier work.
It's no accident that U2 -- and, with her upcoming Reinvention tour, the Material Mom -- are reaching back to the things which first made them popular. Madge is expected to be a sexually promiscuous, squeaky-voiced toy; Bono, a chest-beating, bleeding-heart politico. These personas are the enduring public faces that brought both musicians success; deviations from this norm (cf. U2's Pop; Madonna's American Life fiasco) have only lead to embarrassing trysts with gigantic lemons or laughably lame Gap commercials.
As for Bowie? Well, maintaining a permanent identity isn't a necessity, as he's expected to be elusive and slippery with his image. And herein lies the secret as to why Bowie's arena act has escaped the bloated fate of other geezer stadium bands. Although he relies heavily on his back catalog to pad his show, people expect Bowie to be a Mighty Morphin' Power Rocker. He's expected to be a chameleon who switches personas -- from the androgynous mullethead Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke of the mid-'70s, from the soulful, cheesy funkmaster of "Let's Dance" to the grandfatherly alien of 2002's Heathen. With no standard image to pigeonhole him, it's nearly impossible to criticize Bowie for not being "himself" -- because as quickly as he creates a persona, it's superseded by something else.
And really, Bowie has reached the point in his career where he knows he's turned into a Vegas cheeseball. In fact, he's okay with that -- and he even has fun with his iconic stature. During that same Boston gig, he commanded the crowd to sing "China Girl" -- a scenario that, in most cases, would turn into the lame audience-participation moment that aging rockers use when they can't hit the notes or need their egos stroked.
Instead, he then decided to lounge at the back of the stage like he was sunbathing in the Caribbean as his band played the intro and the arena halfheartedly mumbled along. With "do-I-have-to-do-everything-myself?" cheeky exasperation, he stopped the atrocity, approached the microphone, said, "That was fucking tragic" and proceeded to sing the song himself.
In this way, Bowie's not pandering to the fans when he plays all of the songs they know or bows to the trappings of superstardom. He's acknowledging audiences and their adoration of him without being stuffy and arrogant or making them feel like his royal minions. With a sly wink, Bowie makes his concerts more like a raucous soccer match, a "we're-in-this-together!" shot of solidarity. And by acknowledging and joking about his status as a heritage act, he's one-upping critics who might lambaste him as an old git -- before the attack even happens. This self-deprecation has the added bonus of keeping Bowie accessible and unpretentious enough to attract new generations of fans. In Boston, whippersnappers wearing shirts promoting the Darkness deigned to sit in public with their dads, and Hot Topic-bedecked goths and punks sat next to accountant-types whose idea of a big night out is a trip to Wal-Mart.
Meaning something to bankers and beggars has always been Bowie's forte, and his 2004 Reality is no different. But, more than any time in the recent past, the man who sold the world is having fun with his music and his legend. Because he can -- and because ch-ch-ch-changing into the down-to-earth dude he is today has simply solidified David Bowie's position as one of music's most phenomenal figures.