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

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'

From "Hunky Dory" (1971)

"I never thought it would become quite so much of an anthem for me. At the time, I saw it as almost a rock parody, musically, of the kind of thing Sinatra would do in a club. I was trying to capture a sort of nightclub atmosphere, a bit of Las Vegas. It'd probably be in the bottom half (of my songs) in terms of personal preference. In fact, some of the lines make me cringe now."

'Life on Mars'

From "Hunky Dory"

"That goes right at the top of my list. I think it captured very successfully the sort of disaffection I was feeling at the time. There was so much that was irrational and irritating in society. I have a strong feeling for the one-man-against-the-universe type of thing and that's what I was trying to capture in the song."

'Rock and Roll Suicide'

From "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" (1972)

"I think this tour is the first time I have sung that since the final Ziggy shows in 1973. It's one of the ones that will be hard to let go of after this tour. It would rank high, probably in the top 10."

'Suffragette City'

From "Ziggy Stardust"

"I think I prefer the stage version to the record. Every time I put the record on, I feel it doesn't have the guts that it should have. It's not a personal favorite. It wouldn't make the top 20."

'Time'

From "Aladdin Sane" (1973)

"Yeah, 'Time.' Hardly anyone wanted that in the (phone poll) we set up to find out what people wanted to hear on the tour. The English wanted it a bit more than the Americans, but even there, it barely made the top 25. I think the song is overly dramatic, but that may be part of its fascination. It is kind of naive, but that made it a great performance number. The fact that it was overwritten suits my type of theatricality very well. But you can imagine how John Denver would probably have a problem with it."

'Rebel, Rebel'

From "Diamond Dogs" (1974)

"Oh, that one. . . . Well, I must say I thought it was a dynamite rock song when I finished it and it is a dynamite rock song, but I'm just not happy singing it anymore. I'm not happy singing hard rock at all at 43. That's the difference between me and Keith (Richards) and Mick (Jagger). They are so fabulously doused in rock that they couldn't really conceive of working or playing in really any other style.

"But for me, rock was a means. Rock was a way of becoming a writer . . . a performer. It was never my foundation. 'Rebel Rebel' was written for a specific time and a specific scene and it has passed."

'Young Americans'

From "Young Americans" (1975)

"It's a much better song than I thought it was originally. It stays quite high on my list. . . . A good piece of writing, if I may say so. But I went through a period in the late '70s where I loathed it. I couldn't stand to hear it because it reminded me so much of the troubles I was going through in those years. I thought, 'Oh, God, it sounds like drugs . . . all that craziness.' It took a long time for me to get enough distance on the song to feel comfortable with it again."

'Heroes'

From "Heroes" (1977)

"It has taken on an entirely different quality for me now that the bloody Berlin Wall (which is mentioned in the song) has come down. It was a song of hope, quite definitely, and me trying to feel hopeful in my own life. I wrote it at a time when I was trying to throw off one very bad set of circumstances . . . a lot of the (psychological) problems I had gotten into in Los Angeles. I had gone to Berlin to get away from it and I felt there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for me after all, because of the way my music was going and my relationships. I felt very good about the future and it is reflected in that song. It ranks very high."

'Ashes to Ashes'

From "Scary Monsters" (1980)

"The idea was to wrap up my feelings about the '70s . . . about trying to figure out just who I was and what I was about--after all I had gone through. I think the song holds up. It's one I will hate to say goodby to."

'Modern Love'

From "Let's Dance" (1983)

"Oh no (grimacing). How could you pick that one? I tried to cover two subjects, one was religion and one was love, and I don't think they (linked) too well. There's a good, '50s-style drum style to the record that makes it interesting musically, but lyrically it was too wishy-washy. Not one of my favorites at all. We don't do it in the show, you'll notice."

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