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Can He Still Be a Hero?

David Bowie turns in an album that some see as a return to his artistic heights

June 16, 2002|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin is a Times staff writer.

It's not quite time to make a reservation at the rest home for Ziggy Stardust, but it's worth noting that David Bowie's landmark album "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" came out in 1972, meaning that the carrot-topped character has now reached the traditional expiration age: Never trust an androgynous pied piper over 30.

Bowie himself turned 55 in January, and while he's fit and personally content, with a 22-month-old daughter and a supermodel wife (Iman) keeping him on his toes, he knows what that age means in his chosen profession. This multimedia innovator didn't even bother making a video for his new record, because the outlets don't play videos by 55-year-olds.

"The ways for me to promote what I'm making become fewer and fewer as I get older, so I have to take advantage of touring and playing things live to people," Bowie says. "I can't obviously bank on any radio or video or anything like that, because I'm not the age for that kind of thing."

What Bowie did or didn't do to promote his work didn't seem to matter much in the past decade. By the early '90s, he had made the transition from the slick, soulless chart-topper of the early 1980s to a rededicated if erratic artist. But such albums for Virgin Records as "Outside" and "Earthling" came and went without causing a ripple. Bowie quietly left the turmoil-racked label last year, he says, after the business department neglected to sign his extension.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Out of the blue, Bowie and his old record producer Tony Visconti, a storied team responsible for such Bowie milestones as 1971's "The Man Who Sold the World" and 1977's "Low," returned to the studio last year for the first time since "Scary Monsters" in 1980.

The just-released "Heathen" intermittently carries whiffs of their past work, but the most obvious references--"Space Oddity" in "Slip Away" and "Heroes" in "Slow Burn"--weren't Visconti productions. "Heathen" is distinctly its own record, and a liberating escape from the heavy concepts and arrangements that encumbered much of his '90s work. It's relaxed, straightforward, quietly intense. Even the electronic adornments sound warm and organic in this melancholy world.

Rich, direct, emotional and sometimes playful, it includes versions of songs by the Pixies, Neil Young and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, along with Bowie originals that recharge his basic themes of obsession, alienation and mortality. The question of whether it will sell better than "Outside" (less than 200,000) or "Earthling" (under 250,000) is intriguing, but that's never really the main point with Bowie, whose influence and impact have always been far greater than his record sales.

The Englishman arrived in the early '70s as a revolutionary figure, a gender-bending harlequin who distilled Velvet Underground rock and an inflated pop emotionalism into a message of personal liberation.

Adopting a succession of theatrical personae--Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke--Bowie popularized glam-rock, championed scrappy outsiders such as the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, and introduced theatrical staging to rock shows.

Later, he would bring elements of contemporary art and literature to his themes and methods in works that often focused on existential isolation and the fragmentation of personal identity. Along the way, he anticipated punk rock, goth, electronica and industrial rock, and became an actor, a painter and patron of cutting-edge art. His younger disciples include Trent Reznor, who co-billed Bowie on the 1995 Nine Inch Nails tour, and Moby, who invited Bowie to play on this summer's edition of his Area2 tour.

"I wanted David Bowie to be involved in Area2, because apart from being my favorite musician of the 20th century, he's a remarkable performer," Moby says. "And almost no one has positively influenced popular music more than he has."

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On the other hand, Bowie has sold a lot of albums in three decades, something that didn't escape the executives at Sony's Columbia Records when they heard some early takes from "Heathen." They soon signed Bowie, through his ISO label, to a three-album deal.

"I'm a huge fan and have followed Bowie from my college years back in the '70s," says Will Botwin, president of the Columbia Records Group. "I was immediately taken with the feeling of this record. It felt like a little bit of a throwback with Tony, but clearly a very current record and a very important record as well.

"It seemed to us that his visibility and the recognition of him having new albums out was fairly low. They weren't events, and they didn't seem to be heralded as much and didn't seem to be talked about as much. We really felt like we could reinvigorate David's career and establish a new level of fans in 2002 that maybe has been missing over the last handful of records."

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