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"Ridiculous!" Numan crows. "I had stupid little white shoes on and white socks." Yet Numan's fans remained loyal: They showed up at concerts dressed exactly like him, and they bought enough copies of The Fury to put it at No. 24 in the U.K. album charts. Even Machine + Soul (1992), which Numan considers his absolute worst album, debuted in the U.K. Top 50. "I'm amazed that people stuck with me as long as they did," he notes.
But even his fans, who wanted the "old" Numan back, began to lose patience. In the '90s his career became a case of diminishing returns. He'd been dropped from Beggar's Banquet and was releasing albums on his own label, Numa Records. As his popularity dwindled, he found himself unable to afford the advertising and publicity needed to broaden his audience. Forced to finance his albums through other means, he fell back on his old hobby, flying planes, and earned money as a display pilot and a flight instructor. He toured only occasionally and was limited financially to playing in Britain. He took out a large loan, but a series of subpar, poorly selling albums sank him even further into debt. By 1995 he had lost his studio, his record label, and his girlfriend of nine years.
"It was pretty grim for a while," he says. "And it's kind of demoralizing, because you're getting older and you can see it slipping away from you. And you just begin to think that it's never going to come back."
In 1995, however, Numan received the ultimate tribute: Other people began to play his songs. During their concerts that year, the Foo Fighters revamped "Down in the Park" (and later recorded it), Hole did a version of "Cars," and Smashing Pumpkins chose the obscure "M.E." Marilyn Manson weighed in with his version of "Down in the Park" as well. In March 1996, "Cars" landed in the U.K. Top 20 again, due largely to its use in a TV commercial for Carling Premier lager. In 1997 came the release of Random, a two-disc tribute album featuring covers by Republica, Damon Albarn (of Blur), Dubstar, Jesus Jones, the Magnetic Fields, and the Orb.
Numan, meanwhile, continued to record. Thanks to his soon-to-be wife, Gemma -- a woman ten years his junior who used to ask for autographs at his shows -- he regained some of his confidence and creativity and began work on Exile. The result is an album with all the trademarks of his best work: dramatic melodies, sci-fi lyrics ("Thought I was asleep/Lost to darkness/I was dying in a big machine"), and a dense, heavy sound. Best of all, his strange, fluid voice is up front in the mix. Still, it wasn't easy for Numan to attract a record label.
"I wrote to about 25 labels in Britain and just got turned down or ignored by every single one of them," he says. "Again, [it was] pretty demoralizing, because there was a lot of good things going on." Finally, late last year, he signed with Cleopatra, an American label that specializes in electronica, goth-rock, and industrial music. The label agreed to finance Numan's tour through Europe, America, and possibly Australia and Japan.
Soon after he signed, "Dark," a track on Exile, was chosen for the soundtrack of the film Dark City. Numan will make his acting debut as a drug dealer in the British film Kinsman later this year, and his autobiography is due in bookstores in October.
Numan realizes that his recent successes may amount to just another hump in his up-and-down career. "I don't have any great ambitions inside," he told VH1 last year. "I'm just coasting."
But perhaps he's picking up speed. "It's that second chance that I was beginning to think I would never get," says Numan. "And it's about fifteen years later than I ever thought it would be, as well. But the thing is, you just hang in, you keep working, you keep doing what you do. And hopefully, a situation will come along where luck falls your way a little bit, and you get another chance. And this, to me, is it."
Gary Numan performs with Switchblade Symphony at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27 at the Carefree Theater, 2000 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $17.50. Call 561-833-7305.