Bowie Hits A Fab 50 -- Rock's Enduring Chameleon Celebrates With A Vital New CD

David Bowie turned 50 last month, and invited the world to celebrate with a gala show broadcast live on the Internet from New York's Madison Square Garden. Bowie performed with such old colleagues as Lou Reed, as well as members of The Cure and Smashing Pumpkins, who were undoubtedly inspired by the "thin white duke."

In the early 1970s, when he was the spiky-thin, pallid auteur of glam rock, it was hard to imagine Bowie ever being anything as mundane as "middle-aged." Looking 20 years younger than he is, his hair bleach-blond and cropped short, his body bulkier with muscle but still elegantly taut, at Madison Square Garden Bowie seemed to have little reason for a midlife crisis.

"Fab, I feel fab but you know, I don't feel 50. I feel . . . ," Bowie pauses as if he is about to impart something important. ". . . Not a day over 49!"

Bowie spoke from Virgin Records' office in New York, one week after his bash, laughing at the brouhaha surrounding his birthday. You can bet he's enjoying the attention - one thing this theatrical chameleon thrives on is attention.

"It's incredible. I'm bouncy, I feel bouncy," he laughs. Indeed, Bowie has recently been more active, playing live and recording, than since the early 1980s. As soon as he finished touring to promote his '95 postmodern, conceptual album "Outside," he was in the studio recording his latest, "Earthling," which was released this week.

"We did an extremely hard year last year," Bowie recalled. "We worked our way through Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, and into Europe. We ended up doing the festival circuit there, which sometimes meant working with up to 14 other bands. We just got really good."

Co-written with his guitarist of 10 years, Reeves Gabrels, "Earthling" was a natural progression for Bowie and his touring band, which also includes drummer Zac Alford and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. Nearly two years of more or less playing and living together honed them into a tight, interactive unit.

"I really thought it would be great if we could do a photo, almost a sonic photograph of what we were like at that time. So, Reeves and I started writing immediately after we finished on the road. We went in (the studio) about five days after we finished our last gig, and wrote and recorded in a 2 1/2-week period, frankly; the whole thing was put down that quick," he says.

"Earthling" is a passionate and complex album that mixes the industrial-rock sound that Bowie pursued in the late '80s with the ultra-rhythms of the British "jungle music" movement.

"We knew we wanted to produce some really dynamic, aggressive-sounding material," he explains. "The arrangements and the structure of it was between Reeves and myself, but the band's individual responses to it were interesting. With Zac for instance, unlike most drum and bass things, we didn't just take parts from other people's records and sample them. On the snare drum stuff, Zac went away and did his own loops and worked out all kinds of strange timings and rhythms. Then we speeded those up to your regular 160 beats per minute.

"That's very much how we treat the album. We kept all sampling in-house and created our own soundscape in a way."

That Bowie should be influenced by jungle-dance music is not unusual. In the late '70s and early '80s, he had hit singles with the disco tributes "Fame," "Fashion" and "Let's Dance."

"Who could not be influenced by it?" Bowie asks. "It's the most exciting rhythm of the moment. New musics generally, plural, are what I've always listened to. It's always been the stuff that I thrive on."

Most people know Bowie as a singer, but on "Earthling" he adds his own individual instrumental touches.

"There are some things that I do quite well. Maybe it's because of my lack of expertise, but they have a certain brutal integrity to them that worked quite well. Particular chords, guitar runs and stutterings on the sax. I know that nobody else could do them in quite the same way," he says.

As ever, Bowie is focused on the task at hand - next comes an extensive world tour for "Earthling," which starts in May and lasts until Christmas.

"We shall definitely be taking in your neck of the woods," Bowie promises. "This one is a long, long tour." Bowie is not at all daunted at spending at least another year on the road and having the next 12 months of his life mapped out for him. He seems enviably in control and content with being "David Bowie at 50."

"I don't think there is much in my life that I would change. I don't think there is anything really. Over the last 10 years or so it's just gotten to a place that I could honestly say that I probably enjoy myself more now than I did 25 years ago. I can quite definitely say that."