some postcards from a very long trip:
“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.
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.'”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.