I had all these thwarted dreams of what I’d tried to do with rock ‘n roll in the early ’70s, and I was trying to do all that a bit late.
David Bowie, 1991.
Glass Spider was a supernova of a concert which saw the old version of Bowie finally explode under the weight of self-parody, only to shrink to the red dwarf of Tin Machine.
The Glass Spider tour, 1987: 86 shows, six months, three continents. The spider itself, designed by Mark Ravitz, was 60 feet high and 64 feet wide, spun out of fiberglass and metal, with vacuum tubes for legs. Bowie began each concert by descending in a chair from its maw, while on the encore (“Time”) he sang from atop the structure’s head, precariously standing on a three-foot-square steel plate. When the winds were up, it was too dangerous for him to be there; after a while, Bowie began hoping each night that the winds would be up.
The summer of 1987, in Europe and the UK, was soured by winds and rain, and as it generally stayed light until 10 PM, it meant that the Spider often wouldn’t be fully lit until the concert was nearly over, while the video-projected backdrops were often hard to see (worse, many of the open-air arenas that Bowie played in Britain had strict 10:30 PM or 11 PM curfews, causing Bowie to sprint through his encores). Most concertgoers just saw an enormous, immobile, occasionally-glowing spider and, beneath it, some dozen performers running around in circles. Bowie wore bright red and gold suits in part so that those in the nosebleed seats could at least determine which speck he was. (See below, a photograph from a Manchester show in July 1987.)
The tour was plagued by technical foul-ups. The limitations of the sound system and of the headsets that Bowie and his dancers wore meant that their spoken “dialogue” often sounded like babble punctuated by the occasional burst of feedback. Bowie took to miming a pre-recorded vocal track on his opening “Glass Spider” as he was generally inaudible singing into his headset mike while in his chair. Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton groused that the dancers kept pushing them up-stage and sometimes stepped on their effects pedals—once, during a quiet song, a dancer turned on Frampton’s fuzzbox by accident. There were also a string of greater disasters—a lighting engineer fell to his death in Florence, there was a riot in Milan, Bowie was sued for sexual assault in America (a grand jury later cleared him of all charges).
And the mood backstage was raw at times. Carlos Alomar, at last fed up with being the eternally-agreeable sidekick, gave a few truculent interviews in which he emphasized his importance to Bowie’s records (undeniable, but this was never a good thing for your long-term health in Bowie’s organization), and he asked to start off the concert with an extended squalling guitar solo to show that he was Frampton’s equal: “On that tour I was tired of being the sideman. I wanted my place. Give me a bone, Jesus!” he told David Buckley years later. Alomar and the bassist Carmine Rojas formed a hard-partying, irreverent faction (much to the alleged ire of Coco Schwab), while Frampton and Erdal Kizilcay, by contrast, were reserved and often worn out, and even thought about bailing once the tour had reached America.
And Bowie? He was both tour manager and ringmaster, dancer as well as director: painstakingly mapping out choreographed dance and lighting sequences during soundchecks. He had to sing while performing like a triathlete (climbing up to a catwalk on “Scary Monsters,” being thrown around like a sack of grain by his dancers on “Fashion”). To no surprise, Bowie grew exhausted and irritable, especially once the bad reviews poured in (the NME: “unmemorable tedium,” Melody Maker: “the paucity of ideas is quite incredible,” Sounds: “frenzied schlock”), and his voice occasionally gave out as the months wore on. A member of Big Country, one of Bowie’s opening acts, recalled to Marc Spitz a time when Bowie had a “volcanic” meltdown because the hair stylist had used the wrong lacquer on his mullet. Bowie publicly dressed down Alomar, even once the genial Kizilcay.
Bowie had never put on a show on the level of “Glass Spider” and he soon came to feel trapped within it. In 1974, he had ditched the Diamond Dogs concept three months into the tour, scrapping the Hunger City sets in favor of soul-inspired group performances. But now Pepsi was footing much of the bill, and everyone expected the spectacle: the giant spider, the routine where Bowie pulled his girlfriend out of the crowd on “Bang Bang,” the abseiling and kickboxing dancers.
So the “Glass Spider” tour became an extended acting-out of the conflicting impulses that had bedeviled Never Let Me Down. On one hand, the tour was meant to be an arena-based summer hot-ticket event (and the shows generally sold out—Bowie didn’t lose money on it, by any means), but Bowie also intended it to be a traveling performance-art show, an avant-garde rock and roll circus, featuring modern dances inspired by Pina Bausch: he originally wanted the Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps to be his dancers, but they were unavailable (he would work with them in 1988).
The band generally turned in solid, even inspired performances (“Heroes” in the Berlin concert in June 1987 remains one of Bowie’s most resonant moments), while the set list was fresh, with few nostalgic favorites or greatest hits on the bill. In the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie had performed only the hits off of Let’s Dance and had filled the rest of his set with classics. Even in 1978, he had leavened the Low/”Heroes” material with Ziggy Stardust songs. But “Glass Spider” featured almost all of Never Let Me Down (except, wisely, “Shining Star” and “Too Dizzy”), while its older songs were as much obscurities (“Sons of the Silent Age,” “All the Madmen,” “Big Brother”) as they were hits (“Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Fame”).*
As the tour wound down in Europe, Bowie began swapping out some of his new material for storied rockers (“Jean Genie,” “White Light/White Heat”), in part because he didn’t have to dance during the new numbers: he could just stay in one place on stage and even strap on a guitar. And soon into the American leg of the tour, he began playing the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in encores (the first set list that I found with it is, appropriately, Iggy Pop’s backyard: Pontiac, Michigan, on 12 September 1987).
It’s not that Bowie’s performances of “Wanna Be Your Dog” were revelatory—in fact, they were often dull, especially compared to the caustic performances that he and Pop had unleashed a decade before. The all-star celebrity revue performance with Charlie Sexton (filmed in Sydney for the Glass Spider video), with its almost cheery uptempo rhythms, and with Sexton and Frampton vying to out-cliche each other, is particularly grating. But reviving “White Light” and “Wanna Be Your Dog” served a purpose for Bowie: it let him revel in a fantasy that, for a moment, he was happily reduced to being in a rock band again, that the only spectacle he had to pull off was the song itself.
The tour ended in Auckland on 28 November 1987. Bowie would never attempt anything of its like again (though “Glass Spider” would be the template for a host of succeeding tours, from Paula Abdul‘s abseiling dancers to U2’s PopMart and 360 tours). It had been a long, hard purging of illusions. Bowie would never again attempt to so fully reconcile his avant-garde theatrical side with the hard business of filling arenas. He had been ridiculed for it, the process had nearly broken him, and now he was done. Bowie the global pop icon died on the same night that he torched the spider in a New Zealand field.
Still, there were a few moments during 1987 when Bowie stumbled upon his future. At a party to celebrate the end of the tour, a depressed-looking Bowie saw Hunt Sales across the room and embraced him like a lost brother. And before he left for the last leg in Australia, his publicist Sara handed him a cassette. It was a few demos by her husband, who Bowie had befriended during the tour. Bowie was bemused: he had thought that Reeves Gabrels was a painter. He put the tape in his coat pocket and soon forgot about it. Six months later, back home in Switzerland, Bowie came across the tape and figured it was worth a listen…
*In rehearsals, Bowie tried out “Scream Like a Baby” (Frampton again taking part of the vocals), “Because You’re Young,” and “Joe the Lion.”
The version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” linked above was filmed by David Mallet in Sydney on 6 November 1987, and released as part of the Glass Spider concert video.
Photos (top to bottom): unknown show/photog. (let me know); pommieken (Manchester,UK, 14 or 15 July 1987); Wikipedia (Nürburgring, Germany, 7 June 1987); Turistadeguerra (Madison Square Garden, NYC, 1 or 2 September 1987).