OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Topping this assault would have been all but impossible, so Bowie didn't try. Instead, he joined Reznor for four selections--two from each of their pens. The first, Bowie's "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)," from 1980, made for a rough beginning--the arrangement flattened out the melody, leaving little else in its place. But NIN's "Reptile" was a thud-and-boom spectacle, and "Hallo Spaceboy" (a standout on Outside) was better than that; Reznor's and Bowie's bands, which pounded in unison, spewed out a noise that did justice to both artists' visions. "Hurt," on the other hand, may be Reznor's worst composition (it multiplies whininess to the tenth power), but he and Bowie gave it a relatively subtle and effective reading.

After Reznor gave a tiny wave and departed, Bowie tried to maintain the extravaganza's energy level, with erratic consequences. He had promised to add a few old songs to his set when it became clear that ticket purchases were soft, but the ones he selected never made Casey Kasem's heart flutter. The first ditty, for instance, was "Look Back in Anger," an impressive Lodger album track that was never released as a single (had it been, it would have flopped); later, he crooned "The Man Who Sold the World"--which was covered by Nirvana on its MTV Unplugged platter--but he rearranged it so radically that many members of the crowd didn't recognize it until it was over. The result was intriguing for aficionados, somewhat puzzling for others.

As for selections from Outside, they stood up fairly well; if versions of "The Heart's Filthy Lesson," "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town" and the title cut lacked the carefully designed murk that characterizes their studio renditions, at least they retained big beats and a passable intensity. But because Bowie, who was clad for a time in what looked like a cross between a trench coat and Mom's robe, did more standing around than boogying and hardly interacted with his supporting players, the proceedings eventually began to bog down. By the time he concluded the evening with "Under Pressure," whose pop-based structure clashed terribly with the previously established mood, and a gutless, emasculated take on 1980's "Teenage Wildlife," a goodly percentage of the NIN fanatics had abandoned the arena for the comfort of their cars.

Still, Bowie's experiment didn't entirely blow up in his face; he may not have inspired thousands to pick up copies of Outside, but he had moments when even the black-lipstick set acknowledged his credibility. He would have made more money, and probably received more acclaim, had he taken the lowest-common-denominator approach of, say, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and played familiar material. Instead, he rolled the dice--and as long as he continues to do so, there's a chance he'll come up with the sevens he deserves.

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