How will David Bowie face up to his unmasked, lined face at 50?
“I shall welcome it, Lord yes,” he said. “Pop stars are capable of growing old. Mick Jagger at 50 will be marvellous—a battered old roué—I can just see him. An aging rock star doesn’t have to opt out of life. When I’m 50, I’ll prove it.”
Jean Rook, “Bowie Reborn,” Daily Express, 14 February 1979.
His other milestone birthdays had passed privately, but for his 50th Bowie threw himself a celebration at Madison Square Garden; it was simulcast via pay-per-view television. As a consolation prize to Britain, he, Gail Ann Dorsey and Reeves Gabrels cut ten songs during rehearsals to be played on a Radio One special to air on the same day as the New York show. ChangesNowBowie was ruminative and fresh, a paging through the back catalog: he revived “The Supermen,” “Lady Stardust” and “Quicksand,” pulled “Repetition” from out of nowhere, rehabilitated Tin Machine with “Shopping for Girls” and “I Can’t Read.”
The big party itself was another matter: its location and guests were chosen for practical reasons. Most of his musicians and support staff were based around New York, and Bowie was still doing final mixes on Earthling while rehearsing the show.* Two weeks after the concert he would release the new album and he was planning to tour it for much of 1997. So the concert’s organizing theme was to offer audiences a preview of Earthling and to establish Bowie as an “alternative rock” icon, with most of his guests a generation younger than him.
Bowie opened with “Little Wonder,” dug into “Hearts Filthy Lesson”. Some guests were a subtle nod at Tin Machine’s influences: Frank Black, who came on to sing “Scary Monsters” and “Fashion,” and Sonic Youth, who bloodied up “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Dave Grohl (seemingly a stand-in for the late Kurt Cobain—a Cobain/Bowie duet on “Man Who Sold the World” would’ve been inevitable) added munitions to “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Hallo Spaceboy.” Robert Smith, the most inspired guest choice, sang “The Last Thing You Should Do” and an oddly heartening “Quicksand” (Smith had lobbied to sing “Young Americans”). Billy Corgan helped close out the show like a kid who’d won a contest.
For some fans, this immersion in the present tense was disappointing. The biographer David Buckley made a case for the prosecution: Just for once, it would have been a poignant and magnanimous gesture to have filled the bill with musicians who were actually part and parcel of [Bowie's] history. Imagine Bowie singing “Breaking Glass” and “Station to Station” again with Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. Bringing John Hutchinson on stage to sing “Space Oddity,” Luther Vandross to sing “Young Americans” or “Fascination.” Playing “Moonage Daydream” with Bolder and Woodmansey. Playing live with Iggy Pop for the first time in 20 years. Playing live with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno for the first time ever. Bringing on Nile Rodgers for “Let’s Dance.”
Alomar, for one, was irritated. “I wasn’t asked to play,” he told Buckley. “He could have had asked Luther Vandross, who’s now a superstar. But that whole thing was a political thing for him, to get together with the people who he thought would project him into the future…Sonic Youth? Come on, give me a break! They’re brain dead!…Who are these people?”
“David is generally more about the present than the past,” Gabrels told Buckley, adding that, contra Alomar, “I was concerned that the list of participants would end up being too mainstream. For the longest time Madonna was expected to perform.”
So you have the case of a fanbase (and a peer group) whose nostalgia for Bowie’s past was apparently far greater than his own. Or the case of a fanbase that, despite how long they’d been dealing with Bowie’s zigs and zags, still fundamentally misunderstood him. The idea of Bowie doing a Last Waltz-style “This Is My Life” retrospective (Buckley even suggested that the Lower Third should’ve been there) was an improbable conceit. Bowie would catalog his past, keep all his old reviews and stage sets and outtakes, and he would shamelessly raid from his past whenever it suited him. But he wasn’t going to star in a revue about himself (it’s telling that during Bowie’s comeback year of 2013, people will stand in line for hours to see an exhibit of his clothes).
The only person who’d been invited that night who actually hailed from Bowie’s past, who had been Bowie’s influence, was Lou Reed. Introduced as “the king of New York,” Reed played “Queen Bitch,” Bowie’s annexation of his and Sterling Morrison’s sound. He looked bemused, as if wondering whether he’d written the song (he had, in a way). Gail Ann Dorsey wore a smile that could’ve powered the Chrysler Building. “Waiting for the Man” seemed freighted with history. It had been 30 years since Bowie had first heard it and he still seemed in awe of the song. Then, with one more duet to go, the choice was obvious: something from Transformer. “Walk on the Wild Side.” “Perfect Day.” “Vicious.” Instead, Reed and Bowie went into “Dirty Boulevard,” a track off Reed’s 1989 New York.
Reed had had a stronger Eighties than Bowie (even his “sellout” pop album, Mistrial, seems like Haydn compared with Tonight). He’d gotten married, moved out to New Jersey. Rather than putting a chill on his writing, domestic suburban life seemed to liberate him. The records came out at an almost yearly clip, like issues of an anthology: The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations.
So New York wasn’t the “return to form” of, say, Neil Young’s Freedom: it was a mild course correction rather than a career revival. But it was lumped with the other albums of the Boomer Counter-Reformation (Steel Wheels, Oh Mercy, Now and Zen, Flowers in the Dirt, etc etc.); it was another example of an older legend bringing things back to basics (“nothing beats 2 guitars bass drums,” Reed wrote on the liner) after the fey, synthesized Eighties. “Dirty Boulevard,” the lead-off single, had a thick muscle of a guitar riff that compensated for a lyric whose last verse is so on the nose that it feels like it was workshopped (in another life, Reed was a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa).
The performance of “Dirty Blvd.” at Bowie’s concert had the feel of Bowie guesting at a Reed concert: at times, Bowie appears to have learned his verses during the soundcheck. Still, there was the riff and the visible enjoyment the two of them took from their mere proximity. Maybe doing “Dirty Boulevard” was a whim (or a requirement by Lou), and Bowie considered that following a whim on stage would make a far better self-tribute than reuniting the Spiders.
At the end of the show, Bowie made a concession: he came out alone with his 12-string acoustic guitar and sang “Space Oddity,” the song that made him. Without Major Tom, without the sway on guitar from F major 7 to E minor, none of it—the show, the crowd, the life—would have existed. “I don’t know where I’m going from here,” he said. “But I promise I won’t bore you.” Then he was off for another year of tours and TV spots. He’d dodged the snare, at least this time.
Performed at Madison Square Garden, 9 January 1997. The complete concert was never issued on CD or DVD, though plenty of “official” bootlegs are out there.
* Thurston Moore, to Marc Spitz: “We just sort of sat down and he blasted the track to us.” Rehearsals took place in an empty sports arena in Hartford. “They were pre-creating the show. Who the fuck rents out a fucking arena? People with his kind of revenue…they have airplanes…they rent out arenas.”
Top: birthday imp; crowd’s eye view of birthday imp (via turistadeguerra).