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Yes, Michael Jackson may have sold more records, and yes, the Police can sell out Shea Stadium. But Bowie, in many ways, can meet them and match them both, and offer something else too. A Bowie concert, shorn of excessive theatrics, is a raved-up tutorial in rock-'n'-roll survival, a history lesson with a horn section and one of the best bands this side of E Street. This show is about the fall and rise of David Bowie. A little regeneration and a little dancing in the aisles, a touch of optimism and a double dose of rhythm and blues and, as the man himself once said, wham bam, thank you, ma'am.
New music and old, all sound on this concert tour compact and soul heavy, spirited but not demented. Bowie and band locomote through a decade's worth of favorites, from Ziggy Stardust through Young Americans, "Heroes ", and beyond, with an all-pro fervor that is deep into funk and goes very light indeed on the old druggy dolor. Bowie's voice is like pulverized gravel. It can give a strong foundation to a desperate love song like "Heroes," or lead straight and true to the tough core of Fame, with its nervy, insolent last line: "What's your name?" Onstage, he seems taller than his 5 ft. 10 in. because he uses his body like a precision instrument, posing, preening, driving the song along not just with an inflection of voice but with an indentation of hip, an undulation of hand. The artificiality of some of his stagecraft is a deliberate distancing device. He must be the only rock superstar who wears a wristwatch onstage.
Musically, however, Bowie always seems to know what time it is; no need for verification. His new material is unabashedly commercial, melodically alliterative and lyrically smart at the same time. Bowie made some of the most adventurous rock of the past decade. When it did not work, it sounded trendy or tuned out. But when it did hit, which was most of the time, it laid down rules and set new marks for others to follow. Bowie kept the cutting edge keen. There are few punks or New Wavers or art rockers or New Dancers dancing to New Music who do not owe him an abiding debt. Everyone from Gary Numan to Talking Heads and Human League and Culture Club ought to make a deep bow in his direction. If the success of his new album and the galvanic concert tour are any indication, then Bowie is setting the direction once again.
Movies. Records. Mime. Broadway stage. Video. Painting. Bowie has done them all, spinning off in so many directions that he looks like a loose compass searching for magnetic north. The striking thing is how often he finds it, and how, when the needle settles, so many diverse directions have been blended into one. His rock videos are state of the art, partly because Bowie has always been a witty accomplice in his artifice. "David's a real living Renaissance figure," says Nicolas Roeg, who directed Bowie in the formidable 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. "That's what makes him spectacular. He goes away and re-emerges bigger than before. He doesn't have a fashion, he's just constantly expanding. It's the world that has to stop occasionally and say, 'My God, he's still going on.' "