New York Times SEPTEMBER 10, 1995 - by Rick Moody


David Bowie, whose album Let's Dance was one of the hippest of the '80s, couldn't feel worse about that decade now. "The worst thing that could have happened to me was to have a big hit with Let's Dance," he said. "I had never been popular with the masses, and suddenly I was in this place where I was on bubble gum wrappers. I thought, 'What do I do with this?'"

In the '70s, of course, Mr. Bowie, who was born and raised in London, turned out some of the most innovative popular music on either side of the Atlantic, beginning with the aptly named Space Oddity in 1972 and culminating, in 1977, with a pair of albums that rank among rock-and-roll's most inventive, Low and "Heroes". In New Hampshire, where I was warehoused (at boarding school) for the '70s, no party was complete without a succession of Mr. Bowie's funk-modernist grooves. Suffragette City, Rebel Rebel, Fame - all his hits adorned our gymnasium dances.

This period of great fertility in which Mr. Bowie inspired a thousand bands (from Duran Duran to Elastica) and acted memorably both in film (The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hunger) and on stage (The Elephant Man) seemed to reach its zenith with the blue-eyed soul of Let's Dance (1983).

I never liked Let's Dance much either. It was slick, calculating, and it wasn't dark. In the '70s, Mr. Bowie's songs had titles like Rock 'N' Roll Suicide and We Are The Dead, and these tragicomic grooves made popular music seem more ambitious, worldly, vigorous. As a fan of his earlier work, therefore, I was excited to find that Mr. Bowie's forthcoming Virgin release Outside not only reunites him with the producer Brian Eno - collaborator on Low and "Heroes" - but also recaptures the cool menace that propelled Mr. Bowie's music two decades ago. Outside, in fact, is an album fashioned entirely of Mr. Bowie's fragmented and grim meditations on the murder, in 1999, of a young girl named Baby Grace Blue, whose body is thereafter exhibited by an unknown "artist/assailant." (The album reaches stores on September 26, a day before Mr. Bowie's fall tour, with Nine Inch Nails, arrives at the Meadowlands Arena.)

Trying to get Mr. Bowie, at forty-eight, to answer a question about this new work, though, is a little like trying to get a jazz saxophonist to finish up a solo - he riffs and extemporises, veering passionately from opinion to opinion. Yet as I spoke with Mr. Bowie in his Fifth Avenue office, it became evident that his conversational eruptions revealed as much about his recent music as the substance of his remarks.

To avoid the mass-market calculation of his recordings in the '80s, Mr. Bowie and Mr. Eno created for Outside an atmosphere of play and improvisation using a crack band of longtime Bowie collaborators: Reeves Gabrels, the guitarist in Mr. Bowie's late-'80s band, Tin Machine; Mike Garson, the pianist on the album Aladdin Sane; Carlos Alomar, the session guitarist of choice on hits like Fame and Golden Years, and Mr. Eno himself, on synthesizer and digital sampler.

Outside began in early 1994 with a sort of a fact-finding mission by Mr. Bowie and Mr. Eno to the Gugging psychiatric hospital near Vienna, where they interviewed and photographed its celebrated artist-patients. The artwork of these men ("massively free and improvised," Mr. Bowie said), sometimes referred to as Outsider Art, had a powerful influence on production strategies for the new record. The recording sessions for Outside began immediately afterward, and even included some of the artistic materials favoured by the Gugging's residents. "I made sure there were lots of paints and charcoals and drawing things around," Mr. Bowie recalled, "so that people could just stay in a place they wouldn't normally be in a recording studio."

Thereafter, at the beginning of each session, Mr. Eno presented each of the musicians with a "flash card." "Each card would determine their character," Mr. Bowie said, "for at least the beginning of the improvisation. Things like: 'You are a disgruntled ex-member of the Clash and are wanting to set up a competitive band.'" One of Mr. Bowie's own flash cards was more direct: "Mine said I was a soothsayer or town crier." The technique, Mr. Eno explained, was based on party games: "When you give people a game role, you say to them, 'Oh, go on. Try something.'"

Iggy Pop, an American musician who hired Mr. Bowie as a producer ("because he was doing better work than anyone else") on two assaultive albums in the '70s, Lust For Life and The Idiot, also remembers from his own sessions a studio chemistry founded on the spontaneous and the impulsive. "That's what made those records great, and I certainly credit him," Mr. Pop said of Mr. Bowie. "For a song like Fun Time, I had the idea and the vocal, and he came up with the advice, 'Don't sing it like that, sing it like Mae West.' And that was a great stage direction."

Mr. Bowie's lyrics for Outside were also improvised. "I work about forty percent of the time with the William Burroughs/Brion Gysin cut-up method," he said. In the digital age, this cut-and-paste process relies on a Macintosh computer. "I feed into it the fodder, and it spews out reams of paper with these arbitrary combinations of words and phrases," Mr. Bowie said.