Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Roseland Ballroom, NYC, 11 June 2002).
Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Meltdown, London, 29 June 2002).
Half-complete Low (live, E-Werk Festival, Cologne, 12 July 2002).
Near-complete Low (live, Montreux Festival, 18 July 2002).
The closest Bowie has come to being the curator of himself was the 2002 tour to promote Heathen. This was first intended as a minor tour of the European summer festival circuit, with a few TV dates between gigs, but soon Bowie’s theatrical instincts kicked in and he devised the most fannish set-list of his life.
He would perform all of Low in sequential order, wearing a (slightly) looser version of his Thin White Duke outfit. Then, after a change to Burberry tweed, he would perform all of Heathen in sequential order. The albums “feel like cousins to each other,” he said. “They’ve got a certain sonic similarity.” His recent work with Lou Reed (see “Hop Frog“) may have been an influence, as Reed had performed full-album live sets for New York and Magic & Loss.
But Bowie was also doing a bit of trend-chasing. Around 1998, it became increasingly common for bands (especially older bands) to play their “classic” LPs in sequential order live. The trend ballooned in the 2000s once live performance became a primary way for musicians to make a living. (“You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen,” Bowie told the New York Times in June 2002). You could see why the “play your whole LP” shtick worked: get the old fans who’d stopped buying CD reissues out of the house to hear It Takes a Nation of Millions or Fun House or Entertainment! on stage.
Was choosing Low a cynical touch? The album had little to do with Heathen besides some superficial resemblances (it’s as if Bowie recalled Low being eleven variations on “Warszawa” and had forgotten the little fractured funk tracks on its first side). But 2002 was the apex of Low‘s critical reputation: it was now considered, in the Pitchfork age, to be his masterpiece and most influential release. So there was some ad man’s hustle (“Heathen is the new Low“) and keyed-in nostalgia in the mix.
The full performances of Low were tailored to what fans wanted (on the Montreux tape, you can hear some guy lose his marbles when “Breaking Glass” kicks in)—the performances were sung well and played well, with Earl Slick tracing over his old nemesis Carlos Alomar’s guitar lines, Gail Ann Dorsey singing “Warszawa” like a muezzin and Sterling Campbell as a dynamic foundation (he’s a monster on stuff like “Speed of Life”). The guitar-heavy arrangements (Slick on lead, Mark Plati on rhythm and acoustic, Gerry Leonard on what Bowie termed “atmos”) and the supplemental vocals of Catherine Russell and Dorsey gave a density to the sound.
But there’s a constriction in some of the performances: there’s a sense that Bowie’s working with a common audience memory of each song and feels unwilling to challenge it. This was most noticeable in the instrumentals, which cried out for some sort of revision, some fresh improvisation or just an instrument swap. Instead Bowie kept reverent, a tour guide pacing his audience through an old cathedral of his making.
The track-by-track album live homage also suggested a sad endgame for Bowie: to be doomed, ever so often, to trot out another classic to showcase to fans. The Second Year of the Diamond Dogs. Major Tom’s 40th Birthday Party. Hunkier Dorier 2011.
Boredom (the most constant of Bowie’s muses) soon put an end to it. After playing Low and Heathen in their entirety at a BowieNet-only show at the Roseland in NYC, he began monkeying with the song order, first jumbling the Low songs to break up the run of instrumentals. By his 1 July 2002 performance in Paris, he’d made a salad of the set-list, also throwing in oldies like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fame.”
On he went, through Horsens and Oostende, from Manchester to Cologne to Lucca, earning the sort of reviews that had become de rigueur by now. “The hits were pitch perfect” (Daily Star). “An incredible rebirth as a performer” (Daily Telegraph), “More relaxed than he’s been for years” (Manchester Evening News), “His voice: that indispensable sound which ricocheted against the square’s walls like some operatic singer” (Sunday Times of Malta). Having done enough, he sailed home to New York on the QE2.
I Feel So Bad (Chuck Willis, 1954).
I Feel So Bad (Elvis Presley, 1961).
One Night (Smiley Lewis, 1955).
One Night (Elvis, 1958).
One Night (Elvis, 1968).
I Feel So Bad/ One Night (Bowie, live, 2002).
[Elvis was] a kid who was monstrously acquisitive, but also fundamentally passive, looking to be counselled and led. In his own wholly pragmatic way, Col. Parker foresaw several future directions that showbiz would take. He saw how Elvis, the real Elvis, with all his moods and problems, could be left to sit at home and do whatever he did, while the spangly, malleable Elvis image could be sent out into the world to work…
Ian Penman, “Shapeshifter,” London Review of Books, 25 September 2014.
The next leg was an alternating-headline slot Moby’s Area 2 Festival, a three-week cross-country North American tour that also included Busta Rhymes (sometimes a no-show) and the Blue Man Group. (“What’s most striking about this collection of acts is the lack of novelty,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his review of a Holmdel, NJ, stop.) Bowie said he didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Moby on some nights, as it let him cut out early and (if he was in the Northeast) get home to say goodnight to his daughter.
The set-lists were essentially the same as the latter European shows: a mingle of Low and Heathen tracks, with some popular oldies for seasoning (“Fashion,” “Life on Mars?” “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance”). Bowie was drawing the sort of crowd for whom the appearance of “Stay” in the set-list “generated a bit of puzzlement,” according to a review of a Toronto gig. “Bowie devoted two-thirds of his set to songs that were 20 or even 30 years old. But the move didn’t seem like a surrender to the commercial reality that fans want to hear the familiar,” wrote Robert Hilburn, reviewing the LA stop. On and on it went, in the pages of American and Canadian papers: Timeless perfection. A still-commanding voice. He’s still beautiful. As steely as sinuous as ever. A nearly flawless musical time capsule.
On the last night of the Area 2 tour, at the Gorge Amphitheatre east of Seattle, Bowie did something different at last for the encore. He noted that it was the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death (which he’d learned about while on safari in Kenya in 1977). He mock-griped that Presley’s birthday had always eclipsed his own. “He gets all the birthday shit and nobody knows that I ever got born…Jimmy Page was born on the 9th: you can make something out of that. But the 8th of January? You lose out, innit.” And he sang two Presley songs in commemoration.
Like any British rocker born in the Forties, Bowie was fascinated by Elvis, who’d seemed like an extraterrestrial to him at age 10. Elvis was a swiveling mass of American bad intentions. There’s even a touch of Elvis in Bowie’s singing at times, in the swagger of “Janine” and, oddly enough, in some of his “Song For Bob Dylan.”
At first Bowie seemed to be paying tribute to the pantomime Elvis, the dead Elvis of common tabloid memory. Fat, pilled-up Elvis, the sweaty kung-fu-chopping “thankyouverramuch” Elvis: rock and roll in its buffoonish red giant phase. But the songs that he chose were a fan’s picks.
“I Feel So Bad,” which Presley cut in Nashville in March 1961, was Presley’s take on a Chuck Willis R&B number. It was fitting for Elvis at the time, about to vanish into a morass of cheap, endless movies and soulless soundtrack LPs (“sometimes I wanna stay here/then again, I wanna leave“): its moroseness chased away by an alliance of Floyd Cramer’s piano and Hank Garland’s guitar, and capped with a Boots Randolph saxophone solo that Presley walked over to cheer during the take, as if he’d bet on Randolph in a horse race.
“One Night” was a dirty Smiley Lewis song, an open account of a man caught in an orgy (“the things I did and I saw/would make the earth stand still“), that Elvis cleaned up (slightly) in his 1958 take, a minor hit. Elvis went back to “One Night” in his 1968 TV special, where he tore into the song, retrieving the original Lewis lyric. You can see in the clip what made him maddeningly, exotically Elvis. He’s joking around, mugging for the camera and his friends, parodying himself, not seeming to give a shit about the song and then suddenly in a breath he’s there, committed like a zealot, screaming BEEN TOO LONELY TOO LONG! like he’s confessing to a killing. He lurches up, forcing one of his buddies to rig up a mike for him, and he stands there, balancing his weight with his foot, slashing at his guitar as if he wants the strings to snap off in a pack.
Bowie’s versions of the songs (respectful, even modest) couldn’t compare. Elvis was too high a cliff to climb, to even consider climbing. He paid his respects and called it a tour.
The New York Marathon:
Music Hall at Snug Harbor, Staten Island, 11 October 2002.
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 12 October 2002.
Colden Center at Queens College, Queens (queen borough of the 5), 16 October 2002.
Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, Bronx, 17 October 2002.
Beacon Theater, Manhattan, 20 October 2002.
Well, not yet. Bowie seemed unwilling to stop playing. He went back to Europe in September for more TV and radio spots, some record store signings. At a Radio 2 concert he filmed some of the audience with a handheld camera (“to show my daughter exactly what sort of person I associate with”). He offered more prizes for lucky winners, like the first-ever live performance of “Bewlay Brothers.”
On 22 September he played Max-Schmelling-Halle, his first concert in Berlin since 1995. The hall, built in 1996, was at the edge of the Mauerpark, near where the Wall once had cut through Prenzlauer Berg. “Half the audience [that night] had been in East Berlin that time way before [in 1987],” Bowie told Performing Songwriter in 2003. “So now I was face to face with the people I had been singing to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together.”
It was as if his tour had become a leyline of his past lives. A stop in Munich, where he’d recorded some of The Idiot. A return to the once-Hammersmith Odeon (in 2002 it was “the Carling Apollo”; it later became the “HMV Hammersmith Apollo” and is currently the “Eventim Apollo”), with Eno, Bowie’s old schoolfriend George Underwood and his once-drummer John Cambridge in attendance. This gig, finally, was supposed to be the finale.
But back in New York, Bowie realized he still had some TV appearances booked for October, so why not keep the band together a bit longer (“before they drifted off to family and friends for the winter“)? Bowie credited a friend “Bill” (likely his financial adviser, Bill Zysblat) with the idea of doing a set of shows that roughly followed the route of the New York marathon. It would be a tribute to his still-recovering adopted city, with Bowie playing clubs.
First Snug Harbor, a park two miles west of the Ferry terminal on Staten Island (“Earl Slick country,” Bowie wrote. “Earl was freaked and excited at the same time. ‘Oh God, I’m gonna see some really old faces. We’re gonna get Joey Bag-a-Doughnuts…And then there’s family. I’m never gonna survive this.”). Then up to the rapidly-gentrifying DUMBO (one sign of gentrification: getting an acronym like “DUMBO”) neighborhood of Brooklyn, at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I’d seen Joe Strummer play there earlier that year: he’d been late, complaining his cab didn’t know where to go, then ripped into “Bank Robber,” singing it like Elvis.
Colden Center at Queens College, which the band likened to a high school hall. Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, visited by everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby (and which would close its doors in 2004). Finally the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. Bowie closed with “Ziggy Stardust.”
“When Gail Ann and I slow-danced through ‘Absolute Beginners’ that night…it didn’t seem like the end of a long and grueling year, but a new time with a horizon that went on forever,” Bowie wrote in 2003, when he was making a new album and planning a global tour. Was this hyperbole? Of course not. It would go on forever. Wouldn’t it?
“One Night” and “Feel So Bad” were performed 16 August 2002, The Gorge, WA.
Photos: “Elvis Bombay” and “Vigil One: Elvis Death March, Memphis,” Ted Barron, 2002; Giacomo Pepe, “Bowie in Lucca,” 15 July 2002; Adam Bielawski, “Bowie in Chicago,” 8 August 2002. The other shots of Bowie in NYC, mid-October 2002, are from David Bowie: Live in New York, a fine photo collection by Myriam Santos-Kayda.