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The Rocker Who Fell to 'Earthling'

David Bowie
The Man in the Window: David Bowie has never hidden his aging process from the prying eyes of rock fans.

Photo by Nina Schultz

On his new album, David Bowie--like a vampire--refreshes his music and persona by dipping into modern currents of techno rock

By Gina Arnold

What do Sonic Youth, the Foo Fighters, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Cure and the Pixies have in common, besides being among the most influential names in alternative rock in the last 10 years? The five bands aren't really linked musically in any significant way, nor (with the possible exception of the Cure) have they professed a great love of the work of David Bowie. Yet the core members of all five groups appeared as special guest stars at Bowie's recent 50th-birthday party/concert at New York's Madison Square Garden on Jan. 9.

You have to hand it to David Bowie. While other rock stars of his peer group like to keep the evidence of their increasing age in the dark, he not only celebrated it publicly but also infused his party with an element of contrasting youth.

Many rock stars prefer to surround themselves with members of their own sonic era, but Bowie does exactly the opposite. It's as if he feeds off youth, like a vampire, acquiring some of his guest stars' verve--and perhaps, when word gets out, their audiences as well.

The "party," which will be broadcast as a pay-per-view TV special on March 8, doubled as a splashy bit of advance publicity for Bowie's newest album, Earthling (Virgin), which was released earlier this month. Bowie has always been his own best publicist, as well as a canny user of other people's talents.

Not to denigrate his own considerable contributions to rock, but where would Bowie be now without Lou Reed, Mick Ronson, Brian Eno or Iggy Pop? And what, of value, has Bowie personally contributed to the canon of rock in the last 20 years? Sadly, only Nirvana's haunting cover of his early-'70s song "The Man Who Sold the World," which the band included on its 1994 album, Unplugged in New York.

Otherwise, Bowie's work over the last two decades has been less than stellar. His nadir, of course, was 1983's disco-y "Let's Dance"--which was also his last hit album. Since then, he's released a stream of forgettable LPs, including Tonight, Never Let Me Down, Outside and two by the Tin Man project.

Earthling, his first major-label release in eight years, is more mainstream than any of the above-mentioned works, but it's not exactly a blockbuster. There seems to be a cold and deep wellspring of techno-nerd in Bowie's work that defies even his most honest admirers to embrace him.

IT WASN'T always like this. Bowie's early albums--particularly Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973)--were both inventive and highly influential.

Although he's often praised for having brought androgyny, space music, glam rock and German Expressionism (whatever that means in a music context) to rock, what Bowie really did was acknowledge, for the first time, rock & roll's innate theatricality.

By taking on compelling personae--Ziggy, Major Tom, et al.--which came complete with whole sagas and costumes, he defied and exposed the then-prevalent hippie-rock ideals. Those ideals, of course, constituted a stance that was just as contrived as Bowie's own more bizarre undertakings.

Happily, these albums--which described the pain of being an outsider in more literal terms than, say, the Allman Brothers' contemporary Eat a Peach--contained many wonderful and memorable songs (a few of which Bowie performed, unplugged, at last fall's Bridge benefit). But even then, Bowie was more actor than singer.

Compared to most rock stars, he's both an intellect and an aesthete. More unusual, he is somewhat practical (without, however, being a corporate whore; his last few records have been released on independent labels.)

Alas, these admirable traits don't translate into "great musician." In many ways, his career after his makeup era is exhibit A for anyone making the argument that rock, like lyric poetry, is the province of youth, that its best moments emerge from the quick creative burst of the neophyte.

ONE HATES to relegate David Bowie to playing "greatest hits" sets, and yet the fact is, with all the good will in the world, with the most genuinely broad, experimental and forward-thinking attitude toward new rock of anyone of his era, Bowie can't make a truly compelling record, and Earthling is a case in point.

To his credit, Bowie always looks outward, to the cutting edges of rock, for inspiration, and this time around, he is avowedly plundering the underground club scene in London, which has recently generated a type of dance music called "jungle."

Nothing wrong with that in theory, but Bowie's version is much too white to really qualify as such, and to American ears, it all just translates into click tracks and that annoying disco beat. The single "Little Wonder" is a catchy but facile number; the rest of Earthling is cold and uninventive.

To me, the biggest drawback to Bowie's music is his detachment. He's still creating characters, but these characters have less in common with his own soul. On "Battle for Britain," for instance, he sings, "And a loser I will be ... for I've never been a winner in my life." On the even less believable "I'm Afraid of Americans," he puts himself in the shoes of a xenophobe (something he himself is anything but) and delivers lines like "no one needs anyone, they just pretend" and "I'm afraid of the world."

"Law (Earthling on Fire)," a similarly disingenuous track with ironic lyrics, begins with the faint yelp "I don't want knowledge!" and shifts into a heavy techno beat. "Dead Man Walking" and "Telling Lies" are heartfelt, but "The Last Thing You Should Do" is just Bowie intoning over one long techno dance track.

Like all Bowie's undertakings, Earthling is a complex, well-produced work; it's just that, at bottom, its songs are not very memorable. Even the beats aren't syncopated in a particularly creative way. The thing to remember, however, is that Bowie is utterly genuine in his appreciation for and use of other musicians.

About five years ago, I met the man himself in the Pixies' backstage trailer at a stadium show in Germany that Bowie was headlining. In person, he was a slight, ordinary-looking guy with tousled hair, utterly unrecognizable as the elegant dandy who would step on stage a few hours later; when he heard that I was from San Jose, he eagerly asked me if I knew how he could get back catalog of the bizarre cult act the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Later, during the Pixies' set, he stood at the side of the stage singing along to every song, for all the world like their biggest fan. Unfortunately, Bowie was at a time in his career when he could be of little help to the Pixies, whose groundbreaking but little-heard music preceded Nirvana's in so many ways, but no doubt he would have been if he could have been.

Whether you like David Bowie's music or not, you have to respect Bowie for being one of the very few rock stars of his era to have aged with dignity and intelligence, for keeping his ears open and his mind broad, for really seeming to still enjoy rock & roll.

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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