Released: 15 September 2003
David Bowie: vocals, synthesizer
Earl Slick, David Torn: guitar
Mark Plati: bass guitar
Sterling Campbell: drums
‘Reality’ was the title track of David Bowie’s 23rd studio album. It was the first song recorded during the album sessions.
The first song that I decided to do for this album was called ‘Reality’, so I thought, Well, that’s a good enough catchall. It was really nothing more than that. The album’s packaging has a Hello Kitty feel to it – it’s an anime – or a manga-type character in an abstract background that plays off the whole inappropriateness and lovability of that whole cartoony world with the word reality slapped against it. It is kind of a cheap punch, but it looks right. The typography for the album, too, looks almost hammy. It’s just this idea that the word reality has become so devalued. It’s like it has been damaged, so we reconcile it, or we put the word virtual in front of it to give it any sense. I don’t know – maybe the word reality has outlived its use.
Interview magazine, October 2003
The lyrics of ‘Reality’ deal with life’s search for meaning (“I look for sense but I get next to nothing”), the ageing process, and impending mortality. From the …hours album onwards Bowie increasingly wrote about the frailty of man, which culminated, of course, in his final work Blackstar.
On ‘Reality’ Bowie sang “Hey, now my sight is failing in this twilight/Now my death is more than just a sad song” – a nod to the Ziggy-era ‘My Death’. He also refers to his drug-taking years (“I built a wall of sound to separate us/And hid among the junk of wretched highs”). Yet although the master of disguise appeared to be casting off his costumes, Bowie revealed in an interview that ‘Reality’ was yet another persona, the latest in a long line of illusions.
I guess I was annoyed about how the word ‘reality’ has been appropriated for so many other things now. It’s almost losing its pure definition. The cover of the album is a cartoon, so I think that underpins my real intention, that it’s nothing like reality (laughs). There’s an amateur-looking typeface for the word ‘reality’. The whole thing has a subtext of ‘I’m taking the piss, this is not supposed to be reality.’
Performing Songwriter, September/October 2003
‘Reality’ was performed throughout David Bowie’s A Reality Tour in 2003-4.
It was first played on 19 August 2003 as the opening song at a pre-tour warm-up show at the Chance Theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, before an audience of BowieNet members.
The final performance of ‘Reality’ was on 23 June 2004, the penultimate show of A Reality Tour, at the T-Mobile Arena in Prague, Czech Republic.
During the song Bowie struggled for breath and clutched his shoulder and chest, and did not sing the final lines. He left the stage afterwards, with the band taking over without him.
I remember him being ill onstage. The venue was very, very hot. The place felt like a big club. It had a very low ceiling and was this long, rectangular room, not very wide, with people going all the way back. I remember myself feeling claustrophobic. It was so hot with all those people crammed in with the lights and everything. I was like, ‘Gosh, this is gonna be a tough one tonight. There’s no air. It’s stifling.’
I don’t remember how many songs we got to, but I remember we were playing the song ‘Reality’. He was supposed to be singing at the very end of the song, and he wasn’t. I was kind of watching him from behind. Everyone was soaking wet because it was really hot in there, but his shirt was just drenched. He was just soaking wet and holding the microphone out with his left hand straight out. And he was just standing there, posturing, but not singing. And I was thinking, ‘Why is he not singing the last bit?’
Then he looked over his shoulder at me and he was just white, pale, translucent almost. His eyes were wide and he was kind of gasping for air a little bit, having trouble catching his breath. And then I remember looking down at the audience, and I could see their expressions in the front row, looking up at him, had changed. They went from joy and dancing to looking kind of concerned. At that point, his bodyguard and helper guy saw the same thing. He ran onto the stage and took him off.
Rolling Stone, 25 January 2016