Some of it’s the lighting, some of it’s the TV facepaint, and hi-definition video does the face few favors, even for the photogenic. But Bowie, for the first time in his life, looks frail and old. He looks as if something’s been wrung out of him. The band Arcade Fire crowds him on the stage but he’s happy for the company, happy to be mistaken, at a distance, for one of them.
It’s September 2005, Bowie’s first live performance since his heart operation. It’s “Fashion Rocks,” a ceremony in which the fashion industry toasts itself and donates money to a catastrophe somewhere far away (post-Katrina New Orleans, in this case). Strumming a 12-string acoustic, Bowie takes the first verse of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” his phrasing little two-beat jabs. Something…filled up…my heart…with nothing…Now that….I’m older..my heart…colder…I can…see that it’s a lie.
His body, which he’d always been able to manipulate as he’d like, his happy soldier, now seems guarded, wary. He nods on the beat, sways on the snare hits. On the ragged communal chants (even the unmiked string players howl along), he holds back, sometimes stepping away from his mic, then joins in, a shaky higher flavor in the mix. After some lines about children growing bigger but never growing up and out of it, the song shifts into the “You Can’t Hurry Love” (and “Lust for Life”) beat, sounding scattered and diffuse here, with Bowie taking the lead again on a line about becoming a rain god and meeting Death.
He’d opened his set with “Life on Mars?,” with just Mike Garson on piano. In diminished voice (the vault on “Sai-LORS” now a modest lift), he took the song at a distance, appraising it, wondering at it. He sang its cut-up nonsensical second verse solemnly, as if offering recollections from a dying language. Then he did “Five Years,” with Arcade Fire brought on as backing band, which he delivered as a missive from a future that never happened. Too bad (in gleeful John Cale voice). “Five years! God, that’s all we got!” Bowie shouted towards the end, his voice fraying, Win Butler taking over the harmonies. Then he gave the stage over to Arcade Fire.
I don’t wanna live in America no more
Because the tide is high
And it’s rising still
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill
Arcade Fire, “Windowsill.”
By the time of the presidential election of 2004, the image that many Americans (often younger ones, but not always) had of their northern neighbor had changed. What once had been genial indifference became a sense of longing, of envy, even. O Canada, country with a nationalized health care system, no Patriot Act, no Iraq War and run by a benign-seeming Liberal Party, of which most Americans knew nothing (but, hey, they had “liberal” in their name). Canada became a dreamland for alienated Americans: an alternate country above the 49th Parallel (are the winters really that bad?), a U.S. shed of its less desirable elements.
It didn’t help that were all of these Canadian collectives roaming around—the seven-member New Pornographers, the eight-person Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the sometimes-19(!)-strong Broken Social Scene. I knew a guy in an American indie rock band at the time, and he was bewildered by the logistics. “Do they all go broke on the road? Who can carry two violin players?” Canadian indie rock had a layer of unseen supports, its tours seemingly the beneficiary of the Canada Health Act and generous government arts grants.
“We should just go to Canada”: a sentiment heard around the country on the night after the election (I heard it at the West Village bar Fiddlesticks on that crashed-out evening). (“The American people have spoken—is that certain? Maybe those nice Midwestern folks were just jokin’!” Nellie McKay sang.) Arcade Fire, arriving right at this time, was the culmination of the fantasy. Win Butler was an American, from Texas, no less, home of the president; his father had even worked for Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. He’d run off to Canada, fallen in love, had formed a band in Montreal with his wife, his brother and some friends.
So Arcade Fire offered an American-Canadian bohemia—a popular bohemia, even (they won some Grammys). They drew from and trafficked in childhood: the flip-books in the Neon Bible box, the corroded Yellow Submarine graphics of their videos, the neighborhood jamboree feel of their live performances, where they came off like a better-rehearsed Portsmouth Sinfonia––it was as if they’d taken up their instruments at random, that the next night Sarah Neufeld would play drums and Regine Chassagne would be on lead guitar.
The songs on their first record were worlds depopulated of adults and given over to children. Streetlights out, power failures, empty highways, snowdrifts. Lost brothers and vampires. Tunnels, legends and maps, tribal boasts: “‘cos nothing’s hid from us kids,” or, in one of their first songs: “us kids know.” The school music room garnishes—the sleigh bells on “Neighborhood #2,” the accordions, harpsichords and xylophones. In their video for “Rebellion (Lies),” they’re a pied piper collective, parading down a suburban street and waking up slumbering kids, who fall in line behind them.
It was a world shaped by distorted memories of Richard Scarry and Maurice Sendak books; it was the ideal of a reconstituted childhood as a form of protest against the adult world. Arcade Fire was the musical analogue of Dave Eggers (who’d soon adapt Where the Wild Things Are), who’d raised his eight-year-old brother after their parents had died, who’d written a book about it and who, with McSweeney’s, offered another childhood order suited for adults: the Secret Club, with its stamp books, membership cards and shibboleths (“that is all”).
Bowie was fascinated. “Arcade Fire has a very strong theatrical flair, a boisterous, college kind of feel to what they’re doing, and also there’s a wave of enthusiasm to it,” he said in 2005. “But their show is theatrical nonetheless, because it doesn’t alter much from night to night. I’ve seen them many times, and I love them very much. I think they’re exhilarating.” He joined the band again live the following week, singing “Queen Bitch” and “Wake Up” in their encore at SummerStage.
Then he went away; Arcade Fire kept at it. Neon Bible was an expatriate’s curse on America (its title taken from a John Kennedy Toole novel that was, in Toole’s words, ” a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South”), with some back-channel communications via Springsteen and John Cafferty tributes. The Suburbs found Butler returning home, a poseur snapping at the generation of poseurs coming up after him (see “Rococo”); the album ended with what sounded like their last song, their credo piece for suburban misfits, the band’s natural constituency (“come out and find your kind!”), its music a mingle of an MTV-fed youth (the beat of “Come On Eileen,” the hook of “The Safety Dance”), its video a tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (there’s also a bit of “Wish You Were Here” in “Wake Up”). The band got tighter, their records became more spacious, if losing the edge of Funeral, where the guitars sounded as if they’d been strung with baling wire.
Reflektor was a band’s midlife crisis: a labored attempt to change the palette while layering on the mythology thicker (see the respective Orpheus and Eurydice songs on Disc 2; see also the idea of a “Disc 2”). It was their go at doing a Remain In Light; it only worked on their Haitian-inspired piece “Here Comes the Night Time” (yet another Eighties tribute—here, the Cure’s “Close to Me”).
The title track was a hidden reunion with Bowie (only credited in the “thank you” section of the liners), who’d kept on being a fan during his absent years. He visited the band in a New York studio while they were mixing Reflektor. “It was just after The Next Day had come out,” Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry told the NME last year. “He offered to lend us his services because he really liked the song. In fact, he basically threatened us—he was like, ‘If you don’t hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!’ So we thought, well why don’t we go one better, why don’t you sing on our version? Thankfully he obliged.”
“Reflektor” wasn’t that radical a shift, as the band had always tried to dance, in their way (there’s a frenzied disco hi-hat in “Neighborhood #1”) and the track fell in Arcade Fire’s tradition of being happily shameless in their dork-theater routines—see its performance on Saturday Night Live, where Chassagne got into a glass box and did a sort-of mime routine, or Butler sporting raccoon makeup in its video. Arcade Fire perseveres, having grown up to be Bowie’s contemporaries where they once were his charges. They’re the closest thing that indie rock has to an institution these days, God help them.
Recorded: (Fashion Rocks) 8 September 2005; (live) 15 September 2005. The Fashion Rocks recordings were issued as a digital single on 21 November 2005. “Reflektor,” the lead-off single of the LP it titled, was released on 9 September 2013.
Top: Daska, “Children,” 2005.