Dirty Blvd.

bdaybowie

Dirty Blvd. (Lou Reed, 1989).
Dirty Blvd. (Bowie and Reed, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).

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).

97andcry

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).

16 Responses to Dirty Blvd.

  1. Don’t forget that Lou was also playing the guitar (albeit almost inaudibly) on the night’s performance of White Light/White Heat.
    Bowie’s White Light had ad-libbed and rearranged the lyrics to such an extent that it’s not surprising that Lou didn’t sing anything on that one.

  2. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Thanks for pointing out that Reed had a strong eighties — a point taken for granted then, dismissed now — and New York was no comeback but a return to making material as strong as The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations

    • s.t. says:

      I’m really not fond of ’70s Lou. Apart from Transformer and The Bells, his albums are patchy at best. His 80’s albums are far more consistent, and actually worthy descendents of his VU work.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        What do you think of Berlin?

        I seem to remember it being fantastic, but it must be 20 years since I actually listened to it.

        Must dig out the LP to reassess.

      • s.t. says:

        I like some songs. My favorites are “Men of Good Fortune,” “Caroline Says 2” and “The Bed.” And I like “Lady Day” performed live. But most of the album suffers from Lou taking Phil Specter’s “Wagnerian approach to rock’n’roll” comment a little too far. By the 80’s, he had stripped himself of the production or stylistic gimmickry that plagued a lot of his 70’s work. Maybe an Eno collab (or a reunion with John Cale) would have brought out something interesting, but simpler is usually better with post-Velvets Lou in my book.

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        I like “The Kids” and “Caroline Says II.” The rest is a guy trying way too hard to sound “decadent.”

  3. sinj says:

    a little dismissive? I listen fairly regularly to this performance as it strikes me as a mice combination of a Jim’l’fix’it dream for Bowie and a cool improv.. what Lou and Iggy have is relaxed realism, with Bowie, all is artifice. Even relaxed Bowie is artifice. I really love this song, so to hear Lou and db karaoke-ing it was joyful. That is all.

  4. Maj says:

    Ah, just listened to it earlier today, Lou’s version that is.
    Ages since I’ve seen the 50th birthday version. Again, have the whole thing on a DVD somewhere, I don’t think I’ve watched it more than once. Can’t say I found the concert particularly interesting, mostly because I don’t care much for all of the guesting artists, except Lou.

    Blvd. is a good song. I can’t quite understand the praise the New York album gets but I guess I’m just not in the right state of mind and the right age to quite “get” it yet.

    I do have a soft spot for Lou. And he obviously was a huge inspiration to DB, so I’m glad Bowie did ask him to do guest – this bit of the gig was quite cool,

  5. s.t. says:

    Like many Bowie fans, I’m sure, my awareness of Lou and the Velvets is thanks to David’s championing of his hero. And this 50th Birthday concert may have been my first real exposure to Lou and his songs (though I would soon learn that Sweet Jane by the Cowboy Junkies was in fact a VU cover). Interestingly enough, Dirty Blvd was the one that seemed coolest to me. The others sounded more like friendly, conventional rock ‘n’ roll, whereas Lou’s cynical poetry slam style shined on Dirty. I soon got a copy of “VU & Nico,” though, and was blown away by the sound: all of the 80s/90’s indie rock bands I was getting into just seemed instantly redundant. And the original version of Waiting for the Man is far cooler than any version that I’ve heard Bowie do.

    David Buckley was crazy to make such suggestions about this event. The last thing Bowie would want to do is offer a wax museum tribute to his “better” years (though it sounds like the Sound & Vision tour was close enough). I thought Bowie’s picks for guests were excellent. Skewing somewhat younger, but still: 4 of the 6 picks had albums out in the ’80s, so not a desperate grab for the youngins.

    Notably, it was not an eclectic bunch: very alternative rock. No Keith Flint, Beth Gibbons, or Moby, to say nothing of Luther Vandross or Nile Rogers. Most of the guest performances were fine (Hallo Spaceboy with the Foo Fighters was magical) but the focus of the night was, fittingly, on Bowie. He did some great renditions of his songs, and was in fine form throughout.

    Since the event aired shortly after I first started to get into Bowie, it almost seemed to welcome me officially into his world. As such, it holds some special sentimental value.

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      But Keith Flint, Moby, and Beth Gibbons were alternative rock in 1997!

      • s.t. says:

        I guess so, but more on the electronic side of the fence, whereas the guests he picked are primarily from guitar-based acts. Almost looks like he was trying to de-emphasize the “electronica” associations for this event, and trying to play up the rock aspect. But, that said, all of the songs retained their electronic flavors; it certainly wasn’t a back-to-basics stripped down sound.

  6. Mike F says:

    I haven’t seen any 50th birthday footage before. I’m struck by how “on” Bowie is — totally focused and energetic. Lou looks like he just wandered on stage with no idea what was happening. The contrast between the two of them is amusing.

    • Maj says:

      That’s typical for Lou. Or at least when I saw him live last year he came off similar to this performance, only older and more fragile. And yes, the contrast is funny.

  7. CosmicJive says:

    I absolutely love the gig. This one and Stage I probably listen to the most.It’s probably still my favorite Bowie concert. I have very fond (and nostalgic) memories of this concert recording. As a 14 or 15 year old kid who wanted to learn to play the guitar I would jam along the concert recording in my room almost every night.

    Zach really stole my heart with this show. His drumming on Last Thing You Should Do is phenomenal. Also love the reworked older tracks.

  8. sidthecat says:

    This is as good a place as any to say goodbye to The King Of New York.

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