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Can We Trust Bowie This Time? : Rock's Man of 1,000 Faces reminisces about his key songs--which he vows never to sing again in concert

May 20, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Why should we believe David Bowie when he says that he'll never sing any of his biggest hits again in concert after his current "Sound + Vision" tour?

The rock star appeared genuinely surprised when asked that question during a recent interview here.

Is it possible that the master of pop manipulation and image has forgotten that he once promised--17 years and maybe a dozen tours ago--that he was retiring from live shows?

Or was this show of emotion from a man noted for his coolness and reserve simply part of some new Bowie image: Rock star as amnesia victim?

"When did I say that?" Bowie asked pointedly, as if his honor has been questioned. "When did I ever say I wasn't going to tour anymore?"

Reminded of his much-publicized retirement announcement at the end of his "Ziggy Stardust" tour in 1973, Bowie shot back, "People are always saying I went back on my word after Ziggy, but I haven't gone back on anything.

"I just said Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders band wouldn't play anymore, which they didn't. I never said, 'I'm retiring.' . . . Never, ever. . . . And even now, I'm not retiring. I'm just retiring some songs, and I assure you, I won't be playing them again."

During the pre-punk '70s, when a series of neurotic and alienated images helped establish him as one of the boldest and most original figures ever in rock, Bowie seemed so far above the normal pop dialogue that he couldn't care less if his audience and critics misinterpreted his actions or confused him with his characters. He thrived on change--one reason that his song "Changes" seemed such an ideal anthem for him.

Sample lyrics from that 1971 composition:

So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much to fast to take that test.

Despite the brilliance of much of his work, Bowie's constant shifts of direction in the '70s--along with his repeated moves into acting--created the impression that he wasn't really committed to his musical art.

Even as Bowie assumed a more consistent and mainstream persona in the '80s, it was still hard for some observers to shake the picture of him as the Man of 1,000 Rock Faces.

In the interview here, however, Bowie, 43, made a case for his artistic commitment.

"I think I have been quite stubborn in doing exactly what I said I was going to do," he said. "When I made the first album with Brian Eno, I said we were going to make three albums together and we did, even though my record company was absolutely crazed.

"They wanted me to go back to Philadelphia and make another album like 'Young Americans' because it had been such a success. They sent me a long, stiff letter, saying there was no (commercial potential) in the stuff I was doing with Eno.

"And those albums ("Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger") didn't sell as well as 'Young Americans,' but they were what I wanted to do and I think they still hold up. They are not everybody's favorite of the albums I've done, but they might be my favorites."

Bowie was here for two shows at the Forest National arena as part of a worldwide tour that includes stops Wednesday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and Saturday at Dodger Stadium.

Backed by a four-piece band that includes guitarist Adrian Belew, Bowie is doing between 25 and 30 songs in the show, including such anthems as "Changes," "Rebel, Rebel" and "Fame."

"To be quite honest about it, the reason I decided to do this tour was to promote the new greatest-hits album ('Changesbowie')," he said, looking fresh and alert in a sport shirt and slacks as he sat in his hotel suite.

"But I thought the tour could also serve a second purpose. It was a way to finish off the old songs so that I can start fresh in the '90s with my new band, Tin Machine. As long as the songs were around, they made it very safe for me because I could always fall back on them.

"By saying goodby to the songs, however, I am forcing myself to depend on the new songs. I know that's a bit of a suicide mission if I don't write new songs over the next few years, but it forces you to move forward. There'll be a Tin Machine album and tour next year."

The "Sound + Vision" show is considerably more straightforward and intimate than Bowie's horrendously overblown "Glass Spider" tour of 1987. The main theatrical effect is the use of advanced video techniques that allow huge images of Bowie to interact on stage with the singer--adding commentary and ironic asides to the songs.

Like most artists, Bowie finds it difficult to nominate his own 10 favorite songs. But he agreed to react to a list of my 10 favorite Bowie recordings. He was asked to comment on how he would place the songs on his own list of favorites and to volunteer any memories the records bring to mind.

'Changes'

\o7 From "Hunky Dory" (1971)

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