Entertainment

David Bowie’s love letter to New York and fatherhood

Rocker David Bowie felt revitalized as a songwriter and performer, he said in a 2003 interview with the Miami Herald. Here he is seen performing at the Bell Center in Montreal, Dec. 13, 2003.
Rocker David Bowie felt revitalized as a songwriter and performer, he said in a 2003 interview with the Miami Herald. Here he is seen performing at the Bell Center in Montreal, Dec. 13, 2003. AP

This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on Sept. 8, 2003. David Bowie, with his album Reality just out and with rehearsals for a tour underway, was eager to talk about his life as a new father for the second time and his current persona: family man in the Big Apple.

Bowie died Sunday in Manhattan at age 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer, his publicist said.

Reality for David Bowie: He's a contented — but busy — family man. Reality, his new CD, will be in stores Sept. 16, a mere year after his last one. The man who fell to Earth and gave us Ziggy, the Thin White Duke and a plethora of personas is also gearing up for the October start of his first major world tour in a decade at the age of 56 — 30 years or so after vowing to retire from the concert stage.

He's also going to perform many of his hits despite another pronouncement he may wish he never made: that one about never playing familiar songs like Modern Love, Rebel Rebel or The Man Who Sold the World again in concert.

So much for believing a rock star.

Despite a pretty decent present spent living in style with wife Iman and their 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra, in New York City, Bowie is no longer running from his past.

“I feel more confident in the writing now,” he says on the telephone from their home. “In the early '90s, I didn't feel that confident about doing the old stuff again because it would be measured against whatever it was I was going to be writing and I didn't know if I still had it in me.”

In the early '90s Bowie was in a rut that had lasted for at least 10 years. The '80s yielded only one critical favorite album, Scary Monsters (1980), and only one legitimate commercial smash, Let's Dance, a 1983 collaboration with producer Nile Rodgers. Yet Bowie devotees and the critics recognize that this mainstream effort was the start of a dreadful run marked by forgettable projects such as Tonight, Never Let Me Down and Black Tie, White Noise. Even worse, the two ill-advised metal excursions with his offshoot group, Tin Machine.

Music from '70s landmarks such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Alladin Sane would put that other stuff to shame, of course.

THE ENO REUNION

Bowie's revival began slowly with 1995's difficult, but oddly compelling Outside, a reunion with Brian Eno who had collaborated on Bowie's acclaimed Berlin-era trilogy Low, "Heroes" and Lodger in the late '70s. His next release, 1997's Earthling, found Bowie trend-hopping on the drum-'n'-bass bandwagon but it suggested that the artist was interested in remaining competitive. hours…, his final album of the 20th century, proved he could still bait a convincing pop hook.

And then last year came Heathen. The CD cracked the Top 20, brought producer Tony Visconti back into the fold for the first time since Scary Monsters, and earned Bowie his best reviews since Scary Monsters.

With each listen, Reality feels stronger than Heathen. That's two good ones in a row.

Even though I seem to be the one that changes all the time, actually there is a signature style to my work and I think it does come through in the writing.

David Bowie in 2003, on songwriting in the new millennium

“As I've gotten more into the '90s and [now] I'm so happy with the way things have been going for me as a writer,” Bowie says. “I now have no problem going back to the old stuff and featuring it. Honestly, I feel the new material, in its own way, with its own character, has a strength that balances well with the old material. Even though I seem to be the one that changes all the time, actually there is a signature style to my work and I think it does come through in the writing. That is definitely the case with Reality and Heathen.”

NEW YORK MINUTE

If Low, “Heroes” and Lodger represented Berlin, Reality is Bowie's New York record. Lyrics touch on Battery Park, Ludlow, Grand and Riverside streets and the Hudson and the album resonates with a big-city drive. New York is home for this British rocker, it's where he says he now has spent more time living than in any other city.

Downtown New York affords a sense of “anonymity” Bowie says he relishes. “It's so easy to be a person here, a regular guy. The family and I have no problem going out and eating.”

The city has long held a fascination for British rockers like Bowie. His friend Mick Jagger, for one, often drew elements grimy and ebullient from New York on Rolling Stones albums such as Goats Head Soup, Some Girls and Emotional Rescue. Elton John, the other Brit icon of the '70s, offered an affectionate ode to the quintessential American city on Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.

“Downtown was always mythological,” Bowie says. “This is where the beatniks were and the Beat poets and the early songwriters and the Dylans and jazz started here as well. It's a musician writer's dream to go and live in the Village.”

Reality is ultimately the realization of that early fascination.

“It's a New York record in as much as it was the location geographically. It was written here. I'd be the last person to say it's an album about New York, it's an album written under the influence of New York. It stretches from that narrative to personal songs,” Bowie says.

If so, Bowie seems in a healthy place and is back to making music for the joy of it. Even new songs with downbeat titles and minor keys such as The Loneliest Guy in the World sport optimistic lyrics.

All the pages that have turned / All the errors left unlearned / But I'm the luckiest guy / Not the loneliest guy in the world / Not me.

Reality is also a departure from much of Bowie's work in that there is no underlying concept.

“I see it as nothing more than a collection of songs I wrote immediately after leaving the road after doing the Five Boroughs Tour last year,” he explains. “I was back at home with the baby and wife and doing daily things and I started writing immediately. Because I have a loose and comfortable contract with my new record company it was great to be able to go in and start recording as it was percolating.”

FAMILY GUY

The songs' upbeat outlook is also a result of Bowie's current lifestyle. His son, born Zowie Bowie (and now answering to the more reasonable Duncan Jones), is 31 and a filmmaker in England. The two are close but Bowie acknowledges that he wasn't able to take “full responsibility” in rearing his son at the time. Playing the rock star game, especially in the '70s when major artists released two, sometimes three, albums per year and toured behind them, didn't afford Bowie much time to play papa. Personal excesses also acted as a distraction to traditional child-rearing.

Somehow, Bowie came through. He looks younger than his years, his deep voice sounds clear. He's giddy about being a parent again, a role he says surpasses the highs of past successes.

It behooves me to keep an optimistic bent because of my daughter more than anything else. I brought her into the world and want her to have the most fulfilled life possible and there is no point in having a dad talking only in negatives. So there's a sense of responsibility.

David Bowie in 2003, on how second-time fatherhood impacted his songwriting

“One measures everything by the events of the last couple years in New York City, but it behooves me to keep an optimistic bent because of my daughter more than anything else. I brought her into the world and want her to have the most fulfilled life possible and there is no point in having a dad talking only in negatives. So there's a sense of responsibility.”

Bowie will reveal a secret, though.

“To be quite honest, I don't feel particularly positive or optimistic about things,” he says, “but I try to redirect that energy.”

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

BOWIE AT HIS BEST

Here is a suggested list of Bowie's best. His catalog has been recently remastered so the sound and packaging on all of these essentials is improved.

Let the arguments begin.

▪ Hunky Dory (1972). Accessible and well produced, with Changes being the enduring highlight.

▪ The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972). A defining album in the early '70s glam-rock movement. Now available as a 30th Anniversary two-CD package with extra tracks.

▪ Alladin Sane (1973). Bowie's commercial breakthrough became his first U.S. Top 40 album. An extension of Ziggy Stardust, it may even surpass that landmark thanks to Mike Garson's tasty jazz-inspired piano playing. Also available as an expanded two-CD anniversary set. Cool cover design.

▪ Station to Station (1976). A transitional album bridging Bowie's previous glam persona and the chillier Brian Eno phase to come. Includes Golden Years.

▪ Low (1977). The first of three Eno-Berlin albums, mixes vocal tracks with instrumentals.

▪ Scary Monsters (1980). The singles, Fashion and Ashes to Ashes, a sequel to 1969's Space Oddity, are terrific.

▪ Outside (1995). Not an easy listen. Music for the proverbial dark and stormy night. No wonder the single, The Heart's Filthy Lesson, worked so well in the creepy movie, Seven.

▪ Earthling (1997). Yeah, this former leader was trend-hopping here, adopting drum 'n' bass rhythms. Some good songs, though, like the edgy I'm Afraid of Americans, a fixture of recent Bowie concerts.

▪ hours… (1999). Underrated. The tunes Seven and Thursday's Child boast Bowie's deepest hooks in recent years.

▪ Heathen (2002). He's back. Slow Burn, with Pete Townshend's slashing guitar, cooks.

▪ Best of Bowie (2002). Available as a one- or two-CD set, this features all of Bowie's greatest hits in one compulsively listenable package. Includes irresistible singles such as China Girl, Let's Dance, Fame, Blue Jean, Rebel Rebel.

HOWARD COHEN

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