MUSIC

Golden years

David Bowie sings his old hits one last time

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 12 1990
MUSIC

Golden years

David Bowie sings his old hits one last time

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 12 1990

Golden years

MUSIC

David Bowie sings his old hits one last time

A mock-Gothic frieze decorates the lip of the stage. Like a strip of stonework from a medieval cathedral, it features kneeling cupids and

jutting, long-necked gargoyles. The rest of the stage is bare, except for four tall lighting scaffolds, standing like totems of gnarled technology. David Bowie steps onstage wearing dark suit and a white ruffled shirt, his pale hair swept up in a low-rise pompadour. On an acoustic guitar, he strums the opening chords of Space Oddity—the hit that launched his career two decades ago. And as he drones the familiar refrain, “Ground control to Major Tom,” a projected film of his own image, a face more than three storeys high, floats across the

stage. Larger than life—and as otherworldly as ever—David Bowie is back in orbit.

With his March 4 appearance in Quebec City, the first of seven Canadian concerts this week and next, Bowie launched an eight-month tour that will touch down in 14 countries on five continents. After the Rolling Stones, The Who and Paul McCartney—all of whom staged megatours in the past year—Bowie is the latest superstar from Britain to cash in on the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for retro-rock. Dubbed “Sound and Vision,” the tour is an undisguised greatest-hits package. But, with a characteristic flair for drama, Bowie has vowed that it will be the last time he performs his old hits. “I am deliberately painting myself into a

corner,” the 43-year-old singer said in an interview. Unlike other superstars, who follow “in the tradition of Sinatra and drag their legacy along behind them,” he added, “I want to finish off that old phase and start again. By the time I’m in my late 40s, I will have built up a whole new repertoire.” While Bowie exhumes his past in a white spotlight, the show’s adventurous style undercuts any suggestion of cozy nostalgia. The performance itself is a no-frills affair—a five-man band without dancers or backup singers— and the barren staging has none of the bombastic gimmickry of Bowie’s 1987 Glass Spider tour, which featured a huge mechanical bug. But it breaks exciting new ground by integrating film and video with five performance. And its mastermind is Montreal’s Edouard Lock, artistic director of the innovative dance troupe La La La Human Steps.

For the Bowie tour, Lock, 35, created an elaborate array of images on 35mm film—most of them showing a black-and-white Bowie, costumed exactly as he is onstage. Tightly synchronized with Bowie’s live performance, the images are projected onto a huge transparent screen that hangs at the front of the stage for much of the show. Performing both behind and in front of it, Bowie interacts with giant images of himself singing, dancing— or floating upside down.

In some songs, the projections feature the platinum-haired Montreal dancer from La La La, Louise Lecava-

lier—who also makes live stage appearances with Bowie at the Toronto and Montreal concerts. During Bowie’s performance of his sultry China Girl, the screen shows silhouettes of him and Lecavalier in a dreamy shadow play of kisses. On the eve of the tour, Lock described the show as “a painter’s look at rock.” He added: “It doesn’t deal with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the crowd. It tries to draw the audience into the stage, rather than push them reeling back into their seats.”

Melding influences from dance, theatre, mime and the visual arts, Bowie—a former art student—specializes in the art of deflecting emotion. He is rock’s chameleon prince. Instead of accepting the romance of rock stardom at face value, he has explored its poses from behind an ever-changing series of masks— characters ranging from the androgynous Ziggy Stardust to the neo-fascist Thin White Duke. In 1969’s Space Oddity, he was astronaut Major Tom spinning irretrievably into space. With 1980’s Ashes to Ashes (“We know Major Tom’s a junkie”) he dashed his rock-star persona like a mirror to the ground. And over the past decade, he has evolved from the spooky shadow man of 1980’s Scary Monsters to the dapper showman of 1983’s Let’s Dance: (“Put on your red shoes and dance the blues”).

With the current tour, the chameleon’s colors have turned to stark, sensible black-and-

white. Adrian Belew, the brilliant lead guitarist in Bowie’s new band, last toured with him in 1978. “I’ve noticed a terrific difference in David in 12 years,” said Belew. “Back then, he was playing the part of a superstar. He was unapproachable. Now, he’s more relaxed, more fun to be with—almost one of the guys.”

In his life, as well as his career, the singer who wrote Changes (“Look out you rock ’n’ rollers, pretty soon now you gonna get older”) seems a changed man. Reflecting on his past, Bowie said: “There’s a whole period between late ’74 and ’76 which is very hazy. I was doing excessive amounts of cocaine, sitting in rooms in L.A. just staring at huge bowls of the stuff—I was addicted in a very dangerous fashion.” Bowie has since sworn off drugs and now drinks only occasionally.

The singer has also formed his first stable relationship since the 1980 breakup of his nineyear marriage to Angie Bowie (their son, Zowie, 19, has changed his name to Joey and lives with his father in Switzerland). He is engaged to be married to Melissa Hurley, a 23year-old American ballet dancer whom he met during the Glass Spider tour. The singer dismisses the 20-year gap in their ages. “I’ve known many couples far closer in age who have absolutely nothing in common,” he said.

While creating order in his personal life, Bowie has consolidated his commercial future. In 1985, he regained rights to all his old albums from RCA Records. And, to meet the demand for compact discs, he is now reissuing his back catalogue on a small American independent label, Rykodisc. The marketing blitz began last fall with the release of David Bowie: Sound and Vision, a deluxe set of recordings from 1969 to 1980, including a variety of previously unreleased tracks. Meanwhile, digitally remastered versions of 18 Bowie albums are being issued over the next two years, including a greatesthits compilation, CHANGESBOWIE, which was released last month.

Onscreen as well as on record, Bowie has slipped in and out of bizarre poses—from the alien of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) to Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). But it is in Bowie’s music that his disparate personalities finally merge. He sings like a wary explorer, his voice filled with both yearning and calculation. It can be cold and jangly—running scared through the upper registers—or dark with menace in the lower ranges. It prefers strangeness over familiarity.

While such blue-denim populists as Bruce Springsteen have fanned the campfire flame of rock’s folk roots, Bowie has cruised its cold stratospheres, recombining sounds and fashions. With his self-conscious, distanced style, he was the forerunner for such new-wave bands as Talking Heads. More than anyone, Bowie has served as a satellite link between the old rock and the new. And even now, as he hauls out the old songs one more time, he still seems to be braving new terrain.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

ROBIN EGGAR