The Last Tour

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some postcards from a very long trip:

Song 2 (Rotterdam, 15 October 2003).
It Can’t Happen Here (Vienna, 29 October 2003).
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (San Jose, 27 January 2004).

“A Reality Tour”—nine months, 22 countries, 59 songs (+ more snippets*) performed, 112 shows—may be Bowie’s last. Even should he play live again, he won’t undertake the relentless global campaign that his 2003-04 tour was. The people of Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong may never see Bowie again and in North America, it’s fair to say Uncasville (CT), the Quad Cities, Manchester (New Hampshire), Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Hershey (PA) have seen their last Bowie concert.

Tour in capsule: The 57-year-old Bowie, playing markets that, in some cases, he’d last visited in the Eighties, embarked on a grueling schedule that, originally planned for seven months, soon grew to span nearly a year. Each night he played at least two hours and up to 35-song sets. There were a few signs of wear—a bout of flu caused Bowie to cancel a run of shows in December 2003, highly unusual for him (Lou Reed once said that “David never seems to exercise, but he never gets sick”) and his voice was frayed in some mid-winter shows. Upon finishing the last US tour leg, he moved directly to a run of European summer festivals in June 2004. In Prague, he appeared to have a heart attack and after getting through one more show in Germany, he had a heart operation and was forced to cancel the rest of the tour.

He’s never headlined a full concert again. His live appearances dwindled to a handful of guest spots and small sets; after 2007, he was no longer a public performer.

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The future distorts the past. The “Reality” shows now seem hubristic in their energy, pacing and length—why was Bowie pushing himself so much? Take it easy, man! you want to yell at the computer screen when you see a concert clip. But this belies the evidence of the time. Fan reports, newspaper concert reviews, tour diaries of players like Gail Ann Dorsey, video footage of the shows—all document a man seemingly in robust health, in fine voice, eager to play each night.

He said he really was, at last. He’d been wary of singing live since the Sixties. “It was not something I looked forward to very much,” he told the Weekly Dig in late 2003. “I’ve always loved the putting together everything. I love the idea of making albums and writing albums and conceptualizing and all that side of the thing, you know? The actual going out on the road side of the thing—one, I never thought I was that good at it, and two, I just didn’t enjoy the process too much. I don’t know, maybe because I didn’t feel competent as an artist.”

But after Tin Machine and his road-heavy mid-Nineties, he’d developed a taste for the stage. “We did a lot of festivals throughout Europe. I mean, heavens, over a two-year period we did so many,” he told an interviewer. “We were working with really top-rate bands like The Prodigy, bands of that ilk, and we were going down really well. I hadn’t been amongst that many bands continually so it was like, ‘Phew, got to measure myself against this every night’. And it was like, ‘You know what, we’re going down really well considering all these bands are like half my age, some of them a third of my age.'”

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Touring as “himself” to say goodbye, if unknowingly, to the world, Bowie quietly solved the problem of how to reconcile his hits (“singalong time,” he called it) with newer, lesser-known material by just putting the songs cheek-by-jowl in a set, sequencing them so that the crowd wouldn’t get restless and he wouldn’t get bored playing too many old chestnuts. “I can’t do a full evening’s worth of those songs [like “Starman”] because I’ll go barmy. You become a karaoke machine,” he said in 2003 (“look mum, I’m a jukebox!” he snarked after singing “Starman” one night). On stage he used the image of travel to describe his sets to crowds—you’ll go down an unfamiliar road for a while, so just enjoy the sights, and soon enough “you’ll recognize a street, then a house.” (“You’ll recognize this house,” he said, introducing “Ashes to Ashes.”)

He didn’t go easy on his audiences: “Heathen (The Rays)” was occasionally a set-closer or encore piece. “Sunday,”The Motel” and “The Loneliest Guy” (the latter a bathroom break for some griping concertgoers) were regulars. Nor were the oldies only his top-charting hits. There was no “Space Oddity” or “Golden Years,” but plenty of “Fantastic Voyage” and “Be My Wife” and a somber “Loving the Alien.” Over the months, Bowie slowly reshaped his sets into being more retrospective—by spring 2004 he was playing only a handful of Reality songs while cycling in “Queen Bitch,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Five Years,” “Quicksand,” “Panic In Detroit” and “Diamond Dogs,” mainly for encores.

Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I’ve done the right thing,” he told a reporter midway through the tour, in February 2004. “I think I’ve chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows.” That said, fan recollections of the shows recounted a fairweather portion of audiences growing impatient at times. “Give us some hits, Davy!” one man loudly yelled in Toronto between songs.

An inspiration was Bob Dylan, who in 2003 was well over a decade into his “Never Ending Tour.” Learning that Dylan made his band keep 70 songs in their repertoire, so that if the mood struck him one night he could play “Lenny Bruce,” Bowie pushed his band to learn around 60 songs and he altered set lists regularly to bring in new pieces and shuffle out old ones. At first this churn was trying for the band—Dorsey wrote in her tour journal that after one show in Paris where Bowie swapped in a bunch of under-rehearsed songs, the band “all felt as if we had fumbled through a tough football match we knew we had lost from the beginning.”** But soon they had it tacked down, capable of playing any era that Bowie threw at them.

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In the works since 2001, the tour’s impetus was in great part financial (which, of course, is the impetus behind every rock tour in history). Despite high chart placings in Britain and Europe, Bowie’s later albums had sold relatively modestly and he got scant airplay for his new singles. It didn’t help matters that the music industry was in free-fall, tottering thanks to Napster, plummeting once the iPod hit critical mass in 2004. Making a living by selling albums was for suckers, Bowie said. “I don’t see any hope for the industry at all. We’re watching it collapse—it’s definitely imploding—and it’s become a source of irrelevance.

So touring was Bowie’s main source of new revenue (at the time, all earnings from much of his back catalog were going to Prudential Insurance, holder of the Bowie Bonds). And his Area 2 festival shows of 2002 had grossed $4.7 million, with attendance down from earlier “mini tours.” Bowie’s people surveyed fans and found them unhappy with the recent shows, which had been built around festivals and sharing the stage with other headliners. There was a hunger for an undiluted Bowie, by a global market. He hadn’t been to Singapore and Hong Kong since 1983, Australia and New Zealand since 1987, Japan since 1996, South America since 1997 (and he never would make it back to South America).

Using goliath Clear Channel Entertainment, Bowie and his advisers drafted a flexible tour schedule—he’d play the arenas he knew could sell out (like Wembley) but he’d also book 2,000-seat theaters in less predictable markets. And he often underestimated demand: he booked the 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre for his Chicago stop, but sales were enough to justify playing the Rosemont two more nights. The tour wound up grossing $46 million, even with its premature end.

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I know I’m a solo artist, but there are aspects of being a solo artist I don’t particularly enjoy, being separated from the others. I don’t like the feeling of being closeted somewhere on my own. I’ve always liked being part of a band—I did with the Spiders, I liked it with Tin Machine and that feeds back into the music. It starts to take on a coherence and a solidarity within the seven of us.

Bowie, Scotland on Sunday, June 2004 (his last newspaper interview to date).

His band was the “Hours” tour rhythm section (Dorsey and Sterling Campbell), old standby Mike Garson, guitarists Gerry Leonard (playing the “Fripp,” “Belew” and “Gabrels” roles) and Earl Slick (playing himself) and the most recent addition, from 2002: Catherine Russell, a utility player who sang, played keyboards, percussion and guitar. They were a no-nonsense crew who’d worked with Bowie, in some cases, over decades. If they lacked in improvisation, mainly keeping to established arrangements, they made up for it in power and precision, aided by a cracking sound mix in which “David’s voice sits on top, but this is not a Vegas-style show. The band is every bit as present as they need to be,” said front-of-the-house engineer Pete Keppler.

The aim was to make the band heard clearly throughout the room, even the largest stadium gigs. So Keppler and monitor engineer Michael Prowda used a JBL VerTec PA system, with 14 cabinets and subwoofers on each side of the stage and Prowda mixing each song live with a 14-track console (“Every song is a scene and I have some 50-odd scenes”). Bowie used a vocal effects system that included a Digitech Vocalist and a Moog moogerfooger to alter his voice on a whim. “David has two volume pedals onstage where he mixes his own distortion and doubling and sets his volume level. He’s hearing the balance in his head and wants it to sound similarly in the house,” Prowda said.

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Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and scarf, leather boots or Chuck Taylors and a tattered jacket to be discarded after a few songs*** (“it’s a T-shirt and jeans type show, believe me that’s what it is”), Bowie became something of a traveling politician and emcee, pulling the same jokes each night, gurning, pantomiming (doing a runway strut for “Fashion,” Pierrot-isms for “Ashes to Ashes,” drag queen moves for “China Girl”), bantering with the crowd (“how DO you get your hair that color? What product do you use?” to a fan in Copenhagen; calling one guy in Atlanta “fancy pants”), having the crowd sing verses of “All the Young Dudes” and “China Girl.” “Constantly grinning,” Billboard noted of Bowie’s performance in New York. In Berkeley he “pranced theatrically, calling himself the Artful Dodger, imitated Americans and Americans imitating the British,” a reviewer wrote. In Denver, he did a bit of his old Elephant Man performance. He usually opened shows with “[YOUR CITY HERE] you bunch of crazy motherfuckers!”

It was all his “schtick,” as he described it to journalists. “I just want to have a laugh with the audience. I don’t want it any other way,” he said. “If there’s a sense of seriousness, that comes in the songs themselves….Performing isn’t a life-threatening situation in the scheme of things.” Or as the Kinks once sang, it’s only jukebox music.

This was a return to an old form: the fey, witty folk musician of “Bowie and Hutch,” who’d made his hippie audiences crack up between numbers. Or the would-be cabaret star of 1968, the “all-round entertainer” persona that his old manager Kenneth Pitt had believed was Bowie’s best bet for stardom. Reviving this glad-handing figure for the “A Reality Tour” (the indefinite article, mind) was a theatrical bit, a way for Bowie to serve as stage manager and frontman.

But he also seemed intent on de-mystifying “Bowie” at last. I’ll do songs I like, I’ll play songs you like, let’s have fun. The only stage props were catwalks, video screens and some tree branches suspended in mid-air. Each night of the tour found a magician walking on stage in shirt sleeves, showing you how he made his assistant disappear via a set of mirrors, recalling favorite sleights of hand. And then still making you fall for the trick.

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Then his luck turned.

Early summer 2004 was dismal in northern Europe, with nearly every Bowie festival appearance that June plagued by rains and wind. At the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, on 18 June, he was struck in the eye by a lollipop, causing him to understandably lose his shit for a moment. Gerry Leonard said a fan had somehow hit a bullseye (the thrower was a mortified thirtysomething who claimed she’d just been waving her hands when someone knocked into her and caused her to project the lollipop). The next festival, in Finland, passed uneventfully in rain. Then came Prague.

He opened with “Life on Mars?” for the first time on the tour, and eight songs in, while singing “Reality,” it was obvious to fans in the front rows that Bowie was in pain, struggling to finish the song. He left the stage, the band keeping going with “New Career In a New Town” and “Be My Wife” (sung by Cat Russell). “‘That’s not supposed to happen,” Leonard recalled thinking. “He was really feeling terrible. it happened right there on the stage: that’s showbiz.” Returning to apologize, Bowie blamed a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He sang “China Girl,” still in noticeable pain, and left the stage again after an aborted “Station to Station.”

It was as if the persona he’d developed for the tour, the music man who gave you a bang for the buck, wouldn’t let him end a set early. So he went back out again to finish “Station” and sing “Modern Love” and “The Man Who Sold the World” while sitting on a stool and clutching his arm. Finally he pulled the plug. Our Czech correspondent, longtime commenter Maj, was there: she told me that the crowd soon grew aware something was wrong: “There might have been a few boos because it got cut short, but I think mostly we were confused & a bit worried.”

While not confirmed, it seems apparent that Bowie had a heart attack that night, possibly while singing. It may not have been the first time, either. Gabrels told Marc Spitz, one of Bowie’s biographers, that “I knew for years that he was having some chest pains, but he swore me to secrecy, and I should have told Iman.”

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If all this turned out badly and I didn’t enjoy it, I’d just have to create a character to get out of being me again, I suppose. Now there’s a story! There’s an album there (laughs).

Bowie, Weekly Dig.

There would be one more show.

The annual Hurricane Festival is held on a motorcycle racetrack in Scheeßel, a German village southwest of Hamburg. An unassuming place to close a story that began on Bloomsday, 16 June 1962, with 15-year-old David Jones’ first-ever public gig, playing Shadows covers at the Bromley Tech PTA Fete.

Fans noticed nothing amiss during the set, with Bowie moving around on stage and playing some guitar (he did seem to have a moment of pain during “Ashes to Ashes,” clutching his arm again). As evening drew in, it got colder, the North Sea winds coming across the Lower Saxony plains, and Bowie donned a simple grey sweatshirt. It’s poignant: Bowie finally reduced to the human, looking like a handsome, tired dad at a football game. Or a fishing boat captain weathering a storm (via Chris Barrus).

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“Heroes” (Hurricane Festival).

He closed the set with “Heroes.” Leonard starts with an ascending, choppy figure on guitar, jabbing against a backdrop of Sterling Campbell’s snare and cymbals. Bowie holds back, knotting his fingers below his chin, as if he’s outside looking in, even slightly bemused by his old dramatics (he does a little dolphin dance). Dorsey’s pensive, working down the song. Slick comes in, cool and indifferent, chewing gum. At last, the wailing Fripp riff (courtesy of Leonard’s E-bow) appears and Bowie starts drawing power from somewhere in him, diving into the song, resurfacing, torching through its last verses. And the SHAME spread on the OTHER SIDE!, gesturing off towards a lost Berlin to the east. And NOTHING and NO ONE will HELP us! while Campbell plays hard enough to power a city.

Do they, does he, know it’s the end? But it is the end. An end, at least. The moment has chosen itself. This is the wake for David Bowie. We’ll never see his like again. Nor will he.

UK: The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004 - Day Three

He encored with “Life On Mars?” (opening with it was bad mojo), “Suffragette City” and he closed the show, as he had for almost every other show on the tour, with “Ziggy Stardust.” The next day, at St. Georg Hospital in Hamburg, a surgeon performed an angioplasty to treat a blocked artery in Bowie’s heart, inserting a stent to open up a blood vessel narrowed by plaque.

Bowie was in hospital for over a week. One by one, his appearances at the remaining June festivals and the eleven July festival dates were cancelled. Scotland’s T in the Park, where Bowie had hoped to meet one of his new favorite bands, Franz Ferdinand. The Xacobeo Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where he would have shared a bill with Iggy Pop again.

He gave a public statement, said he was irked that the tour had to end this way but that he was feeling better and hoped to “get back to work” within a month. It would be a touch longer than that.

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Following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version was released on CD in 2010).

Of immense help to this entry was the site Bowie Wonderworld, which provided a day-by-day account of the tour while it happened, compiling set lists and fan testimonies.

* No clips on YT, but Bowie also sang bits of songs like “Puppet On a String,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Here Comes the Sun” at other dates.

** Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004.

*** In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie showed up in a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom.

Photos: a curtain call (unsure from which show); Melbourne, 26 February 2004 (Trevor Wilson); Pittsburgh, 17 May 2004 (Keith Sparbanie); Bowie and Debbie Harry backstage in Manchester, 17 November 2003 (Ian Hodgson); Houston, 24 April 2004 (Mark Jeremy); Kansas City, 10 May 2004 (Deryck Higgins); Indianapolis, 20 May 2004; Isle of Wight Festival, 13 June 2004 (Anthony Abbott); Hurricane Festival; Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1972.

59 Responses to The Last Tour

  1. david says:

    Some fans may bemoan his absence from stage-unbelievably, I actually read on a message board somewhere that ‘he owes us’-as if he were a Sainsbury’s reward card or something. Anyone who doubts that he has earned the rest in the intervening years should read this post, because it’s beautifully sad and poignant catalog of the final leg.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Agree wholeheartedly. Bowie owes us nothing, and I’d prefer it if he never toured again if it was to affect his health so adversely.
      Of course I’d love more albums, and media visibility.

      • Maj says:

        Right. I don’t think I ever realised just how huge and tiring that tour was.
        I’m totally OK with him never touring again. I’d rather sit at home watch Musikladen from the 70’s than go to another gig where he almost dies. I didn’t realise it at that time of course but in hindsight, had the luck turned even worse and he actually died in Prague….fuck. Would have been scarred for live (even more that is😉 ).
        B even if he ever decided to do a tour of some kind he sure won’t come here, so I guess I’ll be fine.

    • alexandriadouillette says:

      So true. I don’t even want him to think that anybody requests anything. I completely trust Bowie to do the right thing…
      and yes, this post is so touching, so on-point. It literally brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Deanna says:

    Heh, funny, I just finished looking at my “A Reality Tour” CD before seeing this entry. I actually thought about the tour a lot today: when I put on my Chuck Taylors, when I decided against wearing a ratty scarf, and when I had “Never Get Old” hopelessly stuck in my head to the point where I couldn’t really hear my professor’s lecture.

    It’s the tour that makes me the happiest and saddest at the same time. He was so goddamn pleasant through every show and I just fed off watching the backstage videos throughout it; it was such a perfect little world he had going on… A great escape for a few hours.

    It’s especially dear to me because the footage of this tour is what got me through the dark few days when a loved one was having heart surgery. I knew how it ended okay in the end for Bowie, so I desperately forced myself to believe it would be okay for my family member, too. And so far he’s okay, just like Bowie, a year later.

    But even despite the joy of escaping death, there’s still a huge shadow that sits over the tour in hindsight. Bowie wanted to make it “real” through his own behaviour, the way he dressed, the openness he had with the press. But in a sick, cruel way, he got the other side of reality, too. Things like freak accidents that injured him (minor) and killed a stagehand (traumatizingly major) He had to force himself out of his “real” (naked? Unpretentious?) renditions of his songs to face the true reality. The tour is a little too good metaphor for life for my liking, and it’s eerie.

    I think if Bowie ever played live again, the most beautiful thing he could do is “finish” the tour. Play in all the spots he had to cancel in the end. It would be a way of having the last word against the cruel nature of reality he mistakenly thought he could control even on a small scale.

    But I doubt he will. So I guess the take-home message will have to remain a little tinged with disappointment.

  3. Patrick says:

    The irony is that reality (ie personal health and to an extent, age) did end up defining the Reality Tour.

  4. gnomemansland says:

    As ever a wonderful write up but it is further evidence of the way in which the change in the music industry from being focussed on recordings to now being all about live work has been in many ways so negative. For those who can’t get enough of sleeping under canvas or of getting pissed and moshing about in a sweaty pit (ticket prices aside) you have never had it so good but for those of us who find that live gigs in big arenas encourage even the best artists into being bombastic and overblown it is all such a retrogressive step. Unlike say Iggy who is natural exhibitionist and seems to have the constitution of an ox Bowie is at his best in the studio. These grinding tours were just a distraction but unless we all learn to pay for recorded music again we will get more boom and less bliss.

  5. Stolen Guitar says:

    Great ‘ending?’ to a fabulous story, Chris, and you’ve captured, I believe, the sadly elegiac tone that the effective end of his performing life demands.

    You’re absolutely right; we won’t see his like again.

    I feel incredibly fortunate to have witnessed many of his live incarnations and can’t imagine ever forgetting any of his awed entrances and triumphant departures.

    Thank you for so much, David, and many, many thanks to you, Chris, for reminding me never to forget.

  6. RLM says:

    Lovely entry. I’m Australian and despite being a fan since teenage years it was my only opportunity to see DB – once in Sydney and again in Perth. I’m very grateful it was such a generous and satisfying tour. In contrast to the “play more hits” brigade I was super-impressed by the power of the unfamiliar (to me) later material and particularly feel a closeness to the Heathen LP for having experienced Sunday, 5:15 and the title track for the first time live.

    I wonder, the cheerful little recorded jam that opened the shows – will this warrant an entry? I thought the opening was very effective, with the mediated images of DB and band replaced by the real thing.

    • col1234 says:

      the little jam was “Queen of the Tarts,” I believe, which I did a couple of months ago–just search for the title & you should find it.

      • RLM says:

        Thanks for the reply… Queen of the Hearts doesn’t sound like what I was thinking of – this track was a much more laid back, harmonica led instrumental – can be heard 20 secs into this clip: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7ZM0XQb1r4 – just a studio jam worked up into feel good walk on music I guess (this played under the video intro and the long walk on stage in the shows I saw) – but it worked very well to set the tone of the shows.

      • col1234 says:

        oh yeah, that. I think it’s just a studio jam thing, as you said. not sure it even got a title

  7. Jack SS says:

    Are u doing The Next Day or is this it? i really hope you continue

    • col1234 says:

      no, more to come! more “interregnum” songs and then all of Next Day. so we’re not done for a while yet

  8. Jasper says:

    Thanks, great write-up on the tour
    I was at the concert in Copenhagen, I recall it as a really great show, with a very happy Bowie, I was very excited that he played Breaking Glass and Fantastic Voyage and a good version of Let’s Dance.
    I don’t recall the magician you mention, maybe he was added a bit later on the tour, he did wish somebody in the front row happy birthday thou😉
    Of the shows I have seen with him in Copenhagen or Malmö, it was the first time where he brought all the videos and stuff on stage, the other times they were not there at all or in scaled back versions, I’ve seen the shows since 1990 just missing one, when he did his small promo tour just playing ridiculous small places, (I’m still green with envy on everyone who got a ticket).
    I would love to see him live again, but I really doubt he will do a large tour, if he does play live again, it will properly be small stuff like for a fashion award show or for some tv.
    But hopefully we will get some more new music, besides all the recycling as compilations or picture discs.
    Best
    Jasper

  9. I went to Missoury as part of the summer exchange program from my college on summer 2004. I remember looking for concerts in the area and realizing, to my dismay, that the Bowie shows were a couple of weeks before my arrival (and there was no way I could have afforded two extra weeks of lodging). Knowing that Bowie had been very active at the time, I figured a future opportunity would come. Well, things didn’t turn out that way and I never got to see him play live. I understand and respect his decision not to perform anymore but, if he changed his mind, I would go wherever in the world he played.

  10. Ididtheziggy says:

    I ended up going to two dates on that tour, Vancouver and Edmonton. The Vancouver stop was outstanding. The edmonton stop, which was three or four months later, was still good. Bowie seemed to have a little less energy (and the set looked tired. Those trees were half as full as the were at the earlier stop). Those shows did have a great set list though. As Chris talked about, he mixed up new and old and popular and deep cuts. Nobody lost interest at any point.
    The Vancouver show just felt more alive. Bowie seemed like he was having a great time and the band seemed to feed off of it. After playing “A New Career In A New Town” he stopped the band from changing instruments so they could play “Breaking Glass”. It felt genuine. Edmonton felt more like a professional rockstar playing just another stop on his tour.

    • Ididtheziggy says:

      Actually, the highlight of that Vancouver show for me was the lady next to me. She was there on her own and when the band started up on “Panic in Detroit” she absolutely flipped out. It was te best thing ever. Just pure joy at was clearly her favourite artist playing her jam. I loved her for her unbridled enthusiasm.

  11. roobin101 says:

    I see on the Wikipedia entry for the tour there’s a ton of covers, I guess most of them were actually busked little snippets. It was a little trend in stadium rock shows that started then. The clip of Song 2 I guess was a joke at Blur lifting the beat to Fashion for Girls and Boys.

  12. Peter Ramsey says:

    To your knowledge, has DB ever checked out the site?

  13. Peter Ramsey says:

    Wonderful post, by the way — as usual.

  14. SoooTrypticon says:

    The tour was a cap to an amazing time. A new album seemed to be around the corner. Rereleases happening on the regular. He seemed so available.

    You’ve captured the excitement, the eventual familiarity, and then the sad conclusion to the Reality Tour, and really, to that era of Bowie. It seemed like he would be around forever…

    After that it was all so strange and disconnected feeling.

  15. s.t. says:

    Wow, excellent post. I really regret not seeing him perform this time around, but I believe it was a festival gig anyway (I’m with you, gnomemansland). The real reason I did not even think to go is because I was still caught up in my disappointment with Bowie’s artistic trajectory from Hours onward. I like most of Reality now, but I was numb to it for quite some time.
    Listening now, “A Reality Tour” is a truly fantastic live album, one of the best, which is damn impressive given Bowie’s age and troubled health at the time. I have retrograde jealousy for you faithful fans!

  16. Anonymous says:

    A few years back I heard a fantastic recording of one of the tour concerts on BBC6 music, the amazing live version of New Killer Star made me rush out and buy the Reality CD. BBC6 regularly repeat quite a lot of their content (if you don’t know this digital station I suggest you check it out, together with Spain’s Radio 3 it’s been my musical lifeline for a long time here in Tarragona) but I’ve never heard it since.
    Love nearly all Bowie’s later stuff, after NLMD and a bit of Tin Machine I didn’t listen to anything at all until I was moved to buy Heathen when I was walking past a music shop; I think it was the tweed jacket actually.

  17. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    The infamous “lollipop incident” happened on my 43rd birthday.

  18. superb as always. looking forward to The Next Day.

  19. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Chris, I spotted a typo:
    After, “then his luck turned”, should read;
    “Early summer 2004 was dismal in northern Europe, with nearly every Bowie festival appearance that June plagued by rains and wind.” (ie/ not “was” plagued..)
    Cheers, Spell-Checking Spider

  20. Mr Tagomi says:

    Very nice piece. Has me feeling a bit melancholy.

    I presume DB didn’t have an actual heart attack. Seems more logical that the stent was a preventative.

    (I’m not a doctor, although I play one on TV.)

    I was at one of those Dublin shows, and I was really struck by how great his voice was. I put it down to his giving up the cigarettes.

    Certainly no evidence at that stage of the health setbacks in the offing.

    • Maj says:

      My uncle had angioplasty done about 2 years ago but in his case the artery was blocked in a place that prevented the brain from getting oxygen (headache, confusion, not recognising his family etc).
      I never quite understood Bowie’s health issues as a heart attack as such. Though I suppose if the blood cloth got all the way to his heart it would probably cause one.
      But as you, I’m not a doctor, so perhaps I’m getting it wrong.

  21. Joe Jones says:

    I got to see this tour in Wellington, New Zealand in the pouring rain. He was fantastic that night, the rain didn’t even seem to bother him too much – at one point he quipped “we got it all here, mops, squeegees”. He played “A new career in a new town” which for me has always been one of my faves, but to hear it live was just fantastic for me. So many great moments, but one of the best for me was the audience singing along with All the young dudes. Very grateful to see him, I had seen him as a 17 year old on the glass spider tour in auckland and been so disappointed. Especially considering what happened later am so thankful that I got to see him. As you say we won’t see his like again.

  22. Ramzi says:

    A Reality Check

    • Ramzi says:

      excuse the glib comment but I’ve been saving it

      It’s such a strange tour to look back on in retrospect. It must have been the best thing imaginable at the time. In 2003-04 I remember being taken to Elton John and Chris de Burgh (lol) concerts by my parents, so it’s strange to imagine seeing him in an alternate reality where my parents were Bowie fans (in this reality both very passively like him).

      I got into Bowie in 2012 so I’ve only known a world where seeing Bowie perform live is a very distant hope, and one where the Reality tour is the last example of what could’ve been. Bowie in fine voice, a great sounding band, a well balanced show and Bowie seeming to finally enjoy starting to play live.

      Part of this is how remarkably chatty he is in the shows: one of the strangest things I’ve seen on youtube is Bowie lamenting the fall of the word “diva” in Borgata after a performance of the Bewlay Brothers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4AsR0bMxUY Bizarre how comfortable he is.

      Another thing about the show is how much of the show is recorded and available on youtube. Beyond enjoying how much of a great show there is to see, there’s a sadness in the quantity, as you said. You wish there was less, you wish the shows were shorter. If he did have chest pains for the past few years then I suppose it would’ve happened sooner or later, but who can tell if he would’ve continued performing if he didn’t push himself so far to the point of a heart attack in 2004. He may have even kept on recording: I know he still considered himself as a recording artist well into 2005 but health must’ve been a factor in not continuing.

      This is the end of David Bowie being a public figure. From now on he’d only be seen in sparse performances, on red carpets, and then just in pictures. Perhaps the saddest part of the multitude of recordings of the tour is how it presents so much proof of Bowie being vital and alive, which was to be followed by nothing.

      • Deanna says:

        “Perhaps the saddest part of the multitude of recordings of the tour is how it presents so much proof of Bowie being vital and alive, which was to be followed by nothing.”

        This is the very best summary of the tour you could possibly fit into so few words. You’re absolutely right. The contrast between so much vibrancy and silence is staggering, especially so when you look at his final stage performances after the tour. He looks sort of sad in almost all of them, and he’s visibly aged so many years in such a brief period of time. Watching his performance of “Comfortably Numb” makes me feel strange because he seems so timid and pained. It’s such a far cry from the youthful, bouncy guy we saw not even two years previously.

        And we never really got that back, you know? The aesthetic for The Next Day still seems to play on that sadness… that slow backing away from his happy joking self that, in 2004, was so refreshingly genuine. But he put the mask back on.

  23. Vinnie says:

    A young 15-year-old Vinnie Massimino, who was just discovering David Bowie by chance of the school guidance counselor, who thought he might find something in the music (“Here’s a copy of Low“) desperately wanted to see David Bowie at the Palace Of Auburn Hills, but felt it was OK. He only really knew “Let’s Dance” and “Ziggy Stardust” and “I’m Afraid Of Americans” and didn’t think he was missing out since he didn’t really know any of the discography well, or at all.

    And that was me. I will probably never see David Bowie live, 11 years later. Thanks for the account of the tour. By the time Bowie did the “Fashion Rocks” thing with Arcade Fire, I was a full-on fan, and still thought he might release more music or tour again. But the human body has limits, and a 112 date tour was probably Bowie’s. And the lollipop incident – total disrespect, if it were even remotely intentional.

  24. Phil Obbard says:

    Amazing entry. I saw the show at MSG in December 2003.

    In the summer of 2005, I saw Franz Ferdinand in NYC. Sitting in the balcony, with a full mustache, was DB himself. A murmur went through the crowd as people pointed him out. Later in the set, while the band had the crowd transfixed, I looked up to my left at where DB was sitting, and discretely waved my hand (at chest level). Bowie noticed and smiled right back at me.

    So he did get to meet Franz Ferdinand, after all.

  25. rob thomas says:

    hi Chris, any thoughts on the performance at the BBC Radio Theatre, from 2000? (Been meaning to ask, and this latest fab post reminded me).
    It came as a disc with the Bowie at the Beeb collection, and, personally, I really rate it. Cheers.

  26. rob thomas says:

    p.s. my two copies of ‘Rebel Rebel’ just arrived: one for the loo (quick fact checking) and one for the bookshelves (deep evening perusal). Well, it’s usually that way around…

    I’ve put you in between Norman O. Brown and Des O’ Connor…

  27. Anonymous says:

    I believe his greatest last tour was Glass Spider. Am I the only one? Despite Carlos and the other guy dueling solos. Maybe David is too lazy to fully translate his vision to the stage. Hence, the Reality tour (jeans, jokes and hits) maybe is the best he can offer.

  28. billter says:

    I don’t expect David to tour again. I wouldn’t want him to – I think we’d all be too nervous. But I have a recurring fantasy where he does One More Big Show – perfect set list, loads of special guests – that is simulcast to arenas around the world. If there’s anyone people would pay to watch on a big screen with a few thousand of their closest friends, it’s Bowie.

    As Steve Martin used to say – “One show, goodbye.”

    • s.t. says:

      As much as I like the new material, I’m convinced that he now would not be able to sing his older songs with the power and range they deserve. Better to keep people dreaming than to pinch them into harsh reality.

  29. MC says:

    Brilliant piece, obviously very poignant, though it would have been doubly, triply so if DB really had retired.

    I had a ticket to Bowie’s Air Canada Centre show in Toronto in December 2003 – one of the dates that was postponed until April 2004 due to his bout with flu. Really, the delay was the only indication that anything was amiss on the tour. As I mentioned in an earlier post, DB seemed in great health and spirits, and the band cooked. And the Polyphonic Spree opened – a hell of a show, that. I would have appreciated it more if I’d realized that this would be very likely the last time I’d get to see the man live; at the time, we all took Bowie a little for granted, as he was such a ubiquitous public presence then. I do tend to think his performing live in some capacity is probably inevitable. I understand that he was sighted at one of the Kate Bush shows last year. I wonder if that sort of multi-night extravaganza in one venue is the approach he might take.

  30. As an unapologetic fan of his mid- to late-80’s work, I for one was thrilled that he resurrected “Loving the Alien” for this tour. I was hoping he’d play a few more songs from the era (“Time Will Crawl”? but alas it was not to be). Thanks for the recap. At the time it was just another Bowie tour, who knew it’d be his last?

    • Patrick says:

      On his revamped website , after TND came out, there was a page http://www.davidbowie.com/tour with a holding statement saying news of any live dates would appear there but later it was removed completely. It did perhaps suggest that live work wasn’t going to be completely out of the question. The kind of endless circuit of previous tours is probably out of the question but I think a special occasion or benefit or a more off centre arty format might persuade him, far removed from the pop/rock genre, eg providing the soundtrack for a theatre or dance performance. One thing is sure, it will be on his terms.
      I know 2 people who have seem him live, at different career points , my brother caught the Sound & Vision tour ( I think from his description) but like the recent return of Kate Bush, I dont think I could face the rush for tickets should the opportunity be announced. A rare gigger, understandable but it also slightly depresses me how fast these sell out. Wasn’t it 15 mins for Ms Bush’s revival?

      • Vinnie says:

        For the curious, the last time Wayback Machine archived davidbowie.com/tour was December of 2013. It must have went online 3-4 months after that: https://web.archive.org/web/20131203011415/http://www.davidbowie.com/tour

        Bowie doing a series of one-off gigs makes the most sense, and I would prefer it. A long tour would demand that he play Let’s Dance and Ziggy and Changes and the hits. If he did a museum show ala Bjork, it would be a “for the devoted only”. And something to stop scalpers – make people stand in line with valid photo ID (or something). I’ve had to do it several times – for Kraftwerk, Jonny Greenwood, notably – and for a theater of only a few thousand, the line wouldn’t take too long.

  31. Maj says:

    Finally got around to reading this entry! Yay.
    What a great thing to read. At that time I had limited opportunities of following the rest of the tour (for instance had no idea Life On Mars was only the opener at our gig etc.). The lollipop incident was widely reported though…ewww & ouch.

    I like the Bowie of this era. Considering he’s just a few years older than my parents it sort of gave him this uncle vibe…which long-time fans of his who remember the 70’s days of grand theatre might despise but which I really have no problems with. (Frankly, when you’re a teenager and your idol is in his 50’s it’s probably healthier to view him as an uncle figure innit.)
    If anything, it was the Uncle Jones vibe that made it possible for me to see him live on that tour, accompanied by mum (I was 16 & had no friends my age who’d be allowed to spend all that money on a gig they had no interest in). Now, mum liked this jokey guy, so it wasn’t only a parental obligation for her but she genuinely enjoyed both the Riverside cinema thing & the actual gig itself. And the funny thing is Bowie actually (esp now in his 50’s & 60’s) shares some facial features with my mum and real uncle, who are 4 & 2 years younger than him respectively. So Uncle Bowie is a running family joke of sorts.

    The Prague gig is hazy for me nowadays, I was so excited I was finally seeing him play live in person (not just at the cinema screen), and it was my first big arena gig. It was actually my mum (who was not as interested in which songs the band was playing) who took notice of Bowie being in pain etc. I pretty much only remember the confusion of the crowd after the gig was finally cut short, as Chris notes above.

    But we really had no idea a full hiatus would follow did we. No new material for a decade. Us poor things.

  32. James says:

    I was lucky enough to catch the Houston show of this tour. I was a relatively new fan at the time, and the concert helped cement my love of Bowie’s work. Great song selection, great arrangements. It was actually the first concert of note that I ever went to… which somehow makes me feel both really young and really old at the same time.

    Upthread, RLM described the tour as “generous,” and in hindsight (and with the additional context gained from this fantastic post), I think that’s the best way to describe it. There was a relatively fair balance between crowd-pleasers, newer material and deep cuts, and as the post mentioned Bowie seemingly never stopped grinning throughout the show. The banter was warm but pro forma (it doesn’t surprise me that much of it was recycled), but Bowie genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself and soaking up the audience’s positive reactions.

    I’ve come to regard the day of that show as one of the best of my life. Even in the juvenescence of my fandom, it made a huge impression on me. If he never tours again (and I’m not holding my breath for it), I’m very grateful to have had the chance to see him live at least once.

  33. Rob Thomas says:

    Interesting to read about the mixing and engineering of this show.

    I love many of the tracks (although the upbeat chug-version of Heroes is most perplexing/naff, imo), but the whole thing suffers from squally, booming, over-sustained guitars, I think.

    It’s a weirdly *noisy* listen, and, if in need of a ‘live’ hit, I often find myself turning it off in favour of the David Live reissue, which has a much sweeter separation and placement of players and channels (which is odd, given the apparent trouble of recording it originally).

    Anyway, noisiness aside, I’m most struck by the fact that DB seems to be having a great fucking time, and that’s really heart-lifting…

  34. Rob Thomas says:

    And, to be clear, I think the sound quality on the other live albums is great, from the ‘desk-pure’ clarity of Stage, to the vibey-ness of Ziggy Motion Picture.

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