Appearing in this month’s FilmInk is the following article. Handed a pre-release video of the new David Bowie concert DVD and a copy of the press release that I could re-write as I saw fit – with the understanding that I include some quotes from the Sydney press conference of Bowie’s recent world tour – I decided to re-write a decade-old (more-or-less) piece celebrating the great album that was Outside. Writing from the position of arrogant self-righteousness is remarkably easy, particularly when you believe it to be justified. However, in ‘reality’ (so to speak) I like Bowie’s ‘Tin Machine’ output a lot more, and Heathen slightly less than I make out below. However, if you don’t care enough to own a lot of David Bowie music (more the fool you, I say!) the essential releases of the last decade or so are the soundtrack to the BBC miniseries Buddha of Suburbia (not covered in the article), Outside, Earthling and the new David Bowie: A Reality Tour DVD. Oh, and of course, if you live anywhere else than Australia, where the DVD has already been available for at least a fortnight, you’re probably already over it. That’s just the nature of DVD consumption in the modern age.
In 1995 David Bowie served notice with the single ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’, the opening salvo of his greatest return-to-form album in just about forever. The album was 1. Outside: The Nathan Adler Diaries, the first in a proposed series of concept albums set in the future and featuring detective Nathan Adler. On Outside, Adler was in pursuit of a serial killer who perpetrated ‘art murder’ – the ritualistic re-arrangement of the victim’s body parts in a pretty pattern. Whatever you think of the concept, any Bowie fan will tell you Outside was a brilliant album – bringing together some of Bowie’s best collaborators.
Bowie’s next album Earthling was not part two of the Nathan Adler diaries but was still a fantastic album, even if some people want to dismiss it as merely ‘Bowie’s drum ’n’ bass album’. (Ask them to define ‘drum ’n’ bass’ and see if you get a decent answer. Then ask them if the Beatles are now ‘drum ’n’ bass’ since they’re down to just the rhythm section: Paul and Ringo. And then tell them to piss off; Earthling is a fantastic album.)
By the new millennium, David Bowie had inked a deal to form an all-new label (ISO) with a new distributor (Sony), the first release tipped to be Contamination – part two of the Nathan Adler diaries. The deal went ahead, but the album never eventuated. Instead Bowie released Heathen, reuniting him with Tony Visconti, a producer he seems to return to whenever it’s time to regroup. ‘Heathen’ was universally dubbed a fantastic album (true!), a ‘return to form’ (true!) and Bowie’s best album in the last decade (Ba-bow! Thanks for playing. That prize goes to ‘Outside’). Heathen was followed by Reality, and David Bowie did something he hadn’t done since Earthling: he’d produced two fantastic albums in a row. Then the announcement came: David Bowie was embarking on his ‘Reality Tour’, his most extensive trip around the world in about a decade, and his first tour to Australia since the 80s.
At the press conference the most important question, “You used to record concept albums about the ritual art-murder of children – before you had one of your own in the house. Will Contamination ever see the light of day?” wasn’t asked. But “How has being married and becoming a father changed and influenced you this time around?” was. Bowie had married supermodel Iman at the front end of the 90s, his 1993 album Black Tie, White Noise, opening with the celebratory instrumental ‘The Wedding’. It was a new beginning: his 1990 ‘Sound + Vision’ world tour had put all of his previous stage personae – and (thank God!) his erstwhile ‘heavy metal’ band Tin Machine – to bed. But, David pointed out, he hadn’t changed because he got married and became a dad again, he got married and became a dad again because he’d changed.
“I seemed to have come to a place where I felt grounded and I understood a lot more about myself and my immediate environment and how I react to things,” he said, “and my writing has taken a turn for the positive.” Readily admitting a tendency to vacillate between good and bad moods, the decade’s domesticity had enabled David Bowie to avoid a “pessimistic, negative, even nihilistic frame of mind”. Clearly then, there would be no Contamination or any other continuation of the Nathan Adler diaries. David Bowie may have begun his career as an outsider, a space oddity loving the alien, but the man had finally fallen to earth. Reality was an attempt to ensure that he remained grounded.
“It’s been pretty depressing in New York over the last two or three years,” he said, “and I really wanted to put something out that had some strong positive point to it and that was just a joy to play on stage.” The result was an exciting live show that concentrated on the music. According to Bowie, his performances had “never been so clean and so unencumbered.” Considering, particularly, that our last view of Bowie in Australia was with his ‘Glass Spider’ tour, this was an amazing proposition. “I’m up with there with a really, really, great, strong band,” he insisted, “just interpreting my songs that I’ve done over the last thirty-five years.” From a rotating set list of sixty songs, some of which haven’t been performed live in the last couple of decades, the ‘Reality Tour’ offered over two hours of hits, significant album cuts, and the best bits of his last two albums played by an excellent band that featured some of the best musicians he’d worked with throughout his career. They even taped a gig – in Dublin, two months into the tour.
Unfortunately, before the tour ended, David Bowie was taught his own heart’s filthy lesson: he stopped mid-show due to pain from a ‘pinched nerve’ in his shoulder. Then the final eleven dates of the ‘Reality Tour’ were cancelled as Bowie underwent emergency heart surgery to clear a blocked artery. Who knows how long it will be before he prepares a band and a tour like that again? You’ve just got to be grateful that you got to see it – if you did get to see it. And if you didn’t, you’re about to get a second chance: David Bowie: A Reality Tour is being released on DVD, mixed in 5.1 surround sound by Tony Visconti. Think about it: David Bowie, live in concert with one of his best bands, on his best tour, at one of his best gigs. The release of Contamination notwithstanding, it couldn’t really get much better than this.