Now, because David Bowie is so cool, he can do absolutely anything he wants. Like decline an interview request from the Pitch. (Not that we're bitter. Nope.) Furthermore, he could tour and play two hours' worth of klezmer death metal with an encore of French ballads from the 1960s and still charge $75 a ticket. Why? Because what he accomplished in the '70s and '80s has given him unparalleled freedom.
In other words, he has nothing more to prove. He doesn't have to trot out his star-making 45s like a classic-rock jukebox (though when he does, the retreads are far from tired). At the Boston stop of his Reality tour in March, the Queen collaboration "Under Pressure" featured dynamo bassist Gail Ann Dorsey solidly subbing for Freddie Mercury. A slowed-down, funked-up version of "Fame" and a Bic-flicking "All the Young Dudes" revealed Bowie's ability to kill with epic chords. Even the thundering industrial maelstrom "I'm Afraid of Americans," which dates from his ill-advised 1990s attempts to become the Chemical Brothers, sounded relevant.
Still, not all tunes are shipshape in Bowieland. The hand claps in the middle of a rearranged version of "Rebel Rebel" made the song's swagger seem more like game-show audience participation. "Heroes" turned into a dad-rock boogie, complete with embarrassing AARP-age-group dancing and the feel-good fuzziness of an Oprah episode. And the über-dated 1984 soul debacle "Blue Jean," all '80s-sitcom-theme tackiness, almost negated the coolness of hearing Ziggy Stardust's glittery "Hang On to Yourself."
These schmaltzy moments sounded particularly anemic given that Bowie's most recent disc, Reality, is actually quite a strong slab of rock. The 9/11-referencing "New Killer Star" (See the great white scar over Battery Park) swings with grand whiplashes of guitar and computerized twangs, and a cover of the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" is an art-school dropout's glam spaghetti-western wet dream. Bowie plays an excellent sad clown on "The Loneliest Guy" and even steps up the sass on "Never Get Old" -- half of the aforementioned new single -- which struts with gentle Chic robofunk.
Nevertheless, excellent new music doesn't always translate into a fresh-sounding concert. Bono has charisma and goodwill spilling out of his pores, but the U2 live extravaganza nowadays -- based on the band's gee-whiz-we're-going-back-to-our-roots mantra -- seems chock-full of paint-by-numbers earnestness and forced emotion. The same perfunctory feeling plagued Madonna's last tour, in which rigid choreography and a loopy, electronica-skewed set list made for a wooden show that lacked the playful spunk of her earlier work.
It's no accident that U2 and, with her upcoming Reinvention tour, the Material Mom are reaching back to the things that first made them popular. Madge is expected to be a promiscuous, squeaky-voiced boy toy, and Bono a chest-beating, bleeding-heart politico. These personas are the enduring public faces that brought them success; deviations from the norm (U2's Pop; Madonna's American Life) have led only to embarrassing trysts with gigantic lemons or laughably lame Gap commercials.
And Bowie? Well, maintaining a permanent identity isn't a necessity; he's expected to be elusive and slippery with his image. Therein lies the secret of why Bowie's arena act has escaped the bloated fate of other geezer stadium bands. Although he relies heavily on his back catalog to pad his show, people anticipate him to be a Mighty Morphin' Power Rocker, a chameleon who switches personas, from the androgynous mullethead Ziggy Stardust or the skeletal Thin White Duke to the soulful cheese-funker of "Let's Dance" or the grandfatherly alien of 2002's Heathen. With no standard image to pigeonhole, it's nearly impossible to criticize Bowie for not being "himself." As quickly as he creates a persona, it's superseded by something else.
Bowie has reached the point in his career where he knows he's turned into a Vegas cheeseball, and he's OK with it. In fact, he seems to enjoy poking fun at himself. In Boston, he commanded the crowd to sing "China Girl," a scenario that, in most cases, would have turned into the sort of lame audience-participation moment that aging rockers use when they can't hit the notes or just need their egos stroked.
Instead, Bowie lounged at the back of the stage like he was sunbathing in the Caribbean as his band played the intro and the arena halfheartedly mumbled along. With cheeky "Do I have to do everything myself?" exasperation, he stopped the atrocity, approached the microphone, said, "That was fucking tragic," and proceeded to sing the song himself.
Bowie isn't pandering to the fans when he plays all of the songs they know or bows to the trappings of superstardom. With a sly wink, a Bowie concert is more like a raucous soccer match, a we're-in-this-together shot of hilarity and solidarity.
Subverting his mythic image with self-deprecation is also a shrewd psychological defense mechanism. By acknowledging and joking about his status as a heritage act, he one-ups critics who might lambast him as an old git before the attack even happens. And he becomes accessible and unpretentious to new generations of fans in the process. In Boston, whippersnappers wearing shirts touting the Darkness deigned to sit in public with their dads, and Hot Topic-bedecked goths and punks sat next to accountants whose idea of a big night out is a trip to Wal-Mart.
Meaning something to both bankers and beggars has always been Bowie's forte, and the Bowie of 2004's Reality is no different. But, more than at any time in the recent past, the man who sold the world is having fun with his music and his legend. Because he can, and because ch-ch-ch-changing into the down-to-earth dude that he is today has simply solidified his position as one of music's most phenomenal figures.