MANY ROCK STARS are like the old prospectors with mules and pickaxes. They wander among the bleak hills of obscurity, searching desperately for a style of music that will capture the public's fancy. They strike it rich. Then they feverishly work their mine until it is exhausted of all its gold.
David Bowie is different-more like the slick, city gambler at the saloon who deals, then rakes it all in. He is not so much a creator as a recreator: he attaches himself to an existing musical style, distills its essence, smoothes out its rough areas and presents his impression of it. But, unlike his dastardly counterpart, Bowie is able to give as much as he takes, often popularizing a style and providing a ferment of ideas for its future growth.
From the heavy-rock sexual ambiguity of his "Ziggy Stardus" days, to the soul-based "Young Americans," to the starkness of "Station to Station" and most recently, to his dense dabblings in Art Rock on "Low" and "Heroes," Bowie has displayed a desire for change that borders on obsession. He seems to prefer surprising and challenging his followers rather than allowing their tastes to dictate his own.
However, there is a certain consistency of presence that is undeniably Bowie's alone. The voice is the most obvious, sharp and emotional, yet with a smoothness that allows it to retain its basic character. His songwriting is the same. It doesn't evolve, it explodes in all directions with a refinement and sensitivity that subtly highlights the strengths of the style of music that he is pursuing. Beyond these, is the Image. Whether clad in slashed leather, with tousled hair, or in sleek sailor-boy attire, there is a detachment and wit to his appearance that makes it as much a comment as a whim of fashion. Like a chameleon, Bowie moves with ease from one surface to the next, only he forces them to change their colors to blend with his.
Bowie's newest release, "Stage" (RCA-CPL.-2913), is a live, two-record set that is taken from his 1978 world tour. Wisely, he includes selections from each of his "styles," but most of the emphasis is placed on the newer, electronic material. Yet the earlier songs are given fresh interpretations that, at times, differ greatly from the original versions.
Bowie, now the immaculately groomed, decadent artiste, casts and affectionate eye on his former flaming-haired, vampish self, as he storms through several songs from "Ziggy Stardust." The machine-like trill of "Ziggy's" voice is gone but several of the songs are speeded up and given a more high-powered accompaniment that reawakens them. Former guitarist Mick Ronson's blazing tributes to '60s-rock are sorely missed, but the songs themselves display a raucousness that demonstrates Bowie's early contributions to what eventually became Punk Rock."Soul Love" has more energy and power than the original and "Hang On to Yourself," with ists wall of guitar sounds and thudding drums, could be a song by the latest New Wave sensation.
The fury of the "Ziggy" numbers is in contrast to the plastic gaudiness of "Fame" (which Bowie co-wrote with John Lennon) and the clinical harshness of "Station to Station." The funky rhythms of "Fame" and the melodic complexity of "Station" seem , at first, far removed from the blaring rockers; yet there is a lyric intelligence and direction that is common to each.
When Bowie began his collaboration with Brian Eno, it wal like the proverbial irresistible force meeting the immovable object: Eno's cybernetic approach to composing and recording altered Bowie's music just as Bowie redirected that approach to his own ends on the records, "Low" and "Heroes." "Stage" features selections from both and points up the dual nature of Bowie's current work-ethereal, moody electronics on some songs and exxagerated rock devices on others. The driving beats, almost caricatured vocals of "Beauty and the Beat" and "What in the World" are rough equivalents of the studio versions yet they seem garbled and lack crispness. The electronics numbers such as "Warszawa" and "Art Decade" also suffer from a lack of polish, suggesting that Bowie is increasigly becoming a creature of the studio. The sounds produced by Eno's intricate recording methods can only be approximated on stage and, while Bowie and his musicians simulate the effects, they are incapable of reproducing the luxurious layers that envelope the listener on the earlier records.
"Stage" appears to be a tentative step in Bowie's career, perhaps a brief moment of relaxation before his next move. While a third record with Eno should be released soon, it is unlikely that Bowie has embraced the chilly arms of Art Rock for good. For the time being, "Stage" is a welcome look at the oast, before the next step forward-whatever that may be.