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DAVID BOWIE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

By Mark Hendrickson

 

Trying to encapsulate David Bowie's phenomenally varied career in a few paragraphs is both an exercise in futility and misleading, because while we can recount his history (and we will try, briefly) the only way to understand the various permutations and machinations of Bowie's life is to listen to his music. To simply state that David Bowie is influential would not do either; the list of musicians he's touched would take this entire magazine to list. So how do we contextualize David Bowie without denying him his complexity?

The answer to that questions is, in essence, the one that David Bowie has struggled his entire life to avoid. He doesn't want to be explained, or even understood. He wants to shock and entertain, to stimulate, but never be mearly summed up. Musically, he has recorded songs that sound a little like rock 'n' roll, a little like Philly white-boy soul, a little funky, a little jazzy and a little techno. Publicly, he has adopted so many personae that you never know which mask you'll see today. So who is the real David Bowie?

All of these and none of these, of course.

One thing is for certain, however; few artists have been so connected to the cultural zeitgeist as Bowie. His ouvre has foreshadowed nearly every musical artistic trend of the past 25 years. Beginning with 1969's "Space Oddity," Bowie established his first public image by capturing the space lunacy of the time. Then with 1973's Ziggy Stardust, he created glam rock while simultaneously crystallising the 60's malaise that was just becoming apparent. Then the (drug-fuelled) changes came frantically: his Thin White Duke period, where cocaine was the hallmark of the decade; his perfectly-timed bicentennial-year Young Americans, Philly soul at its most chaotic; his Berlin Phase, the quasi-punk disillusionment that crapped the end of the 70's.

It was during this last incarnation that Bowie seemed to find his perfect foil in the guise of ex-Roxy Music member and producer Brian Eno. Together they created the triumvirate Low, Heroes and Lodger, a trio of ambient/dance/techno masterpieces that still managed to contain enough good songs to sound like pop records.

Then it was on to Scary Monsters - the last great Bowie record. That was followed by 1983's Let's Dance, a very good album that, with help of MTV and Top 40 radio, capsulated Bowie into the one place he had always shrunk from: the mainstream. At first, the adulation of millions (as opposed to the hundreds of thousand who already knew better) must have been intoxicating to Bowie, who, nevertheless, quickly learned the painful lessons of success. For the next six years, he struggled through lackluster albums and unreasonable expectations, trying unenthusiastically to re-create the commercial peak of Lets Dance.

But as Bowie explains in the following interview, what led him, finally, to reclaim his avant-garde sensibilities was the disingenousness of the very decade that made him a pop hero. Only through the rebellion of Tin Machine did he find artistic salvation. Now, in 1995, he has again teamed up with Brian Eno to record Outside, a concept album of sorts that is Bowie's most challenging work since, well, Heroes.

Happily married to model Iman, finally clean and sober, with a son in college studying for his Ph.D, David Bowie would appear to be the very picture of the contented man. But his new album is almost frenetic, clearly the work of an artist dissatisfied with both himself and the moods of the culture - which makes for great Bowie music.

How appropriate.

TMP: David, much has been made of your collaborating with Brian Eno again for Outside. Why the decision now to go back and work with Brian?

DB: I think both Brian and I went through similar changes in the 80's, then had an epiphany in the last few years. I've always worked best when I've someone to challenge me, to push me to greater things. So has Brian. And during the 80's there was so much bloody crap being put out that I felt totally uninspired. After the Let's Dance box I had put myself into, there didn't seem anything else I could do. So I just floundered until I hit upon Tin Machine, then Black Tie White Noise and now finally, Outside.

But I think Brian was going through a lot of the same things, actually. Until he began working with U2 and some of those people, I know he felt very artistically dead. Then when the 90's rolled around, things seemed to open up again. Suddenly, new possibilities were on the horizon and interesting people were starting to create interesting music again.

TMP: You mentioned the box of Let's Dance. For a few years there, the Bowie of old - the avant-garde, push-the-envelope artist - seemed to disappear.

DB: Well, my heart wasn't in it, you see. Let's Dance was a good record, but it was only meant as a one-off project. I had every intention of continuing to do some unusual material after that. But the success of that record really forced me, in a way, to continue the beast. It was my own doing, of course, but I must felt, after a few years, that I had gotten stuck.

TMP: Is that why you went into Tin Machine? Which, by the way, forecasted the whole grunge movement by a couple of years.

DB: Well, that was exactly it. I wanted to get back to real basic noise rock 'n' roll. I could feel that a lot of people were getting sick of the whole 80s techno/dance thing, the sickness. So that was my way of rebelling against that. After Tin Machine, there was no way that anyone could ever really pigeonhole me again. No one knew what had gotten into me!

TMP: All these changes were leading up to Outside. But first you had to go through Black Tie White Noise, where you worked with producer Nile Rodgers again, the man behind the board for Let's Dance.

DB: Yes, and I realised that some people would actually see that as a step backwards in a way. . .maybe trying to recapture Let's Dance's success or something. But nothing could be further from what I was after. Black Tie White Noise is a far different record than anything I'd ever done. It's a shame the record company went out of business the week it was released!

TMP: Some people would say that making Outside a concept album is pretty risky.

DB: Oh, It is! And that's why we did it. But it's not a concept album in the traditional sense. It's more like me playing seven different characters and telling a story, a rather loose story. Really, it's just a forum for me to be as creative again as possible.

TMP: To me, this record is reminiscent, in feel if not form, to Pete Townshend's Psychoderelict in that Townshend felt, at 48, that the traditional rock record was not the best forum for a man his age to communicate his ideas. Is that how you feel?

DB: well, in part, yes. With Peter, I think, he was more tied into that whole rock 'n' roll ethic, which I, obviously, was not. But as you get older, you definitely start to think more about yourself and about how much time you've got left, that sort of thing. And rock 'n' roll is a young man's forum. So, yes, in a way I was inspired by the success of Peter's work because it showed me there were other ways to create.

TMP: Outside was inspired, in part, by outsider art as well; the movement in the 1920s that influenced some of the surrealists like Magritte and Dali.

DB: Yes. Actually, the Outsider Movement, as it was know, was fascinating because it began in a insane asylum. This doctor in Germany, a psychiatrist, noticed that some of his mental patients were extraordinary artists who actually could only communicate through art. So he started as asylum filled with the artists and it's still there! Brian took me to visit this place; it was incredible. All the trees outside of the facility were panted; every inch of the walls were painted. And it was all done by these patients who had no connection to reality except through their art.

TMP: Being raised a strict Catholic, I also noticed some oblique Judeo-Christian imagery in Outside.

DB: Oh, you picked up on that? Must have read the Bible as a boy! (laughs) Yes I've tried to slice those things through my entire career because, as you say. I was raised a Catholic and, you know, there's something about that religion. . . It just sticks with you and you get all these scenes in your brain of blood and dying and salvation. It's actually sort of creepy.

TMP: The sound of Outside is a little like Lodger and a little like Scary Monsters. But I know the way you recorded was very different.

DB: Well, we went in three and had no preconceived notions of what we were going to do, which is very unusual these days. The band - Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar and Sterling Cambell - and Brian and I just wanted to create in the most unorthodox way we could. I wanted to play again, like a child, and I think we came up with some really inspiring things.

TMP: You're going to tour for this album. How is it going to be different from the 1990's Sound And Vision tour, where you played all your old hits, supposedly for the last time?

DB: Well, first off, we have Nine Inch Nails performing as the opening act for us, which will make it different from anything we've ever put on before. And Trent (Reznor) and I will also be doing a couple of duets possibly. We're going to play some older material, sure, but not obvious things. I found, while rehearsing for the tour, that older songs I haven't played for years suddenly fit in with this new material quite well - things like "Time and "Joe The Lion." So I'm quite looking forward to it. I can tell you one thing: It wont be boring!

(From The Music Paper)

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