By Brian Ives
I went to David Bowie‘s last U.S. show. It was at Giants Stadium in New Jersey on July 29, 1990. He played pretty much everything I wanted to hear: “Space Oddity,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Blue Jean,” “Let’s Dance,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” “Fame,” “Station to Station” and “Heroes.” He even threw in some surprising choices: I hadn’t expected to hear “Life on Mars?” or “Panic in Detroit.”
After that show, Bowie took the tour to Europe where he played a few more weeks of greatest hits concerts, before closing the book on his solo career, retiring those songs forever and returning to the band he’d recently started: Tin Machine.
Well, that’s what he told us he’d do. Since then, he’s released nine more solo albums (and, as it turned out, only one more Tin Machine album). I’ve seen him at least six more times since.
I had a great time at that Giants Stadium show. I was still new to the world of Bowie fandom. I’d recently picked up the Sound + Vision box set, which contained many, but not all, of the hits. It didn’t have the pop songs that introduced me to Bowie in the first place – “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love,” “China Girl.” And instead of “Heroes,” it had “Helden” — “Heroes” sung in German. But it also drew me deeper in the Bowie catalog, beyond the radio favorites: “Moonage Daydream,” “Drive-In Saturday,” “Panic in Detroit,” “Watch that Man,” “Cracked Actor,” “Sound + Vision,” “Look Back in Anger.” I quickly ditched my ChangesBowie CD and started buying the reissues of his catalog, and learning more about the man. And the more I learned, the more surprised I was at what I’d seen at Giants Stadium. The reason people loved Bowie in the first place wasn’t because he’d show up and play his greatest hits: it was because he wouldn’t.
I learned, for instance, that 1974’s David Live came as fans were getting used to his spaced-out glam rock personas like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. It would have been really easy for him to stick with those personas for his entire career. But he flipped the script completely and recast himself as a suit-wearing “plastic soul” singer. Which seemed like a strange move at the time, but it led to some of his best songs, including “Young Americans,” “Fashion” and “Fame.” That sort of reinvention would be a hallmark throughout his career.
The next time I saw David Bowie was September 27, 1995 at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena. It was billed as a co-headlining tour between Bowie and Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor, one of Bowie’s loudest and most enthusiastic followers, had just remixed the new Bowie single, “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” and this tour was recasting Bowie as creatively vital and in tune with current music. If his last tour was a love letter to the radio programmers who’d kept his songs in rotation for decades, this one was presenting himself to a younger generation who rejected that era. It was incredibly daring: first of all, NIN had headlined arenas on their own. They were one of the hottest bands in the world, and as everyone who saw footage from Woodstock ’94 knew, they were a furious live act, not an easy one to follow. I remember thinking it was interesting that Nine Inch Nails didn’t play “Closer,” their biggest hit. While the Bowie influence on “Closer” was strong, the Bowie influence to not play it was even stronger.
Towards the end of NIN’s set, Bowie and his bandmates gradually joined Reznor and co, for a set that included Bowie’s “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” and a new song, “Hallo Spaceboy” and NIN’s “Reptile” and “Hurt.” And then Reznor and his guys left the stage as Bowie’s set began, which was dominated by songs from Outside, an album that had just been released that week. He opened with six songs from the album, before playing the relatively deep cuts “Look Back in Anger” and “Breaking Glass.” Then he played the title track, followed by “Andy Warhol” and a not-easily-recognizable “The Man Who Sold The World” (a song that had recently been covered by Nirvana). After that, two songs from 1993’s Black Tie White Noise, an album which few fans were even aware of (the record label that issued it folded soon after the album’s release, and Bowie didn’t tour to promote it).
At that point, I remember Bowie saying something about playing something we’d know because we’d behaved, and so he did “Under Pressure” as a duet with his bassist, Gail Ann Dorsey. He closed with “Joe the Lion.”
Now I’d finally seen a Bowie show, a real one. This wasn’t an exercise in nostalgia, this wasn’t one for the fair weather fans, this was Bowie in prime form.
Honestly, Nine Inch Nails blew him away. But still, I had an incredible amount of respect and admiration for him, precisely because he didn’t give me exactly what I wanted. I remember a lot of people left the show early, and many of those who lasted until the end were pretty annoyed. But I realized that this was the Bowie that became a legend. It wasn’t just about the great songs (although there were a ridiculous amount of those). It was about being a misfit and an outsider and calling your own shots… and getting away with it, year after year, decade after decade. It was about being comfortable, and confident, in your own skin. And that’s something that resonates much more than a catalog of hit songs. That’s why, I think, this morning my news feeds were all filled with people expressing genuine respect, and genuine sorrow, over Bowie’s passing.
Here’s another thing that stands out to me about Bowie’s career. After Let’s Dance was such a smash, he followed up with two very middle of the road albums, 1984’s Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down. The latter sported some minor hits, but the tour headlined stadiums and was a smash. It looked like artistically, his story was kind of over; like some of his peers, he’d release a new album every few years, and maybe it would have a good song or two. But they wouldn’t really add anything to his catalog; they wouldn’t really matter. He was becoming a “legacy artist.” And who would begrudge him that?
Ditching his catalog, and his solo career, for Tin Machine—even if the band didn’t last too long—was one of the most effective “resets” that we’ve seen in any major artist. There’s a good takeaway that anyone can learn from, not just legendary artists: it’s that your story isn’t finished when you reach middle age. You can change course. If you’re in a rut, you’re choosing to stay there.
That said, full disclosure: I haven’t always bought into the music industry party line that Bowie kept making amazing albums as his peers became less adventurous and boring. In 2013, I wrote a piece called “What Have You Done For Us Lately, David Bowie?” where I examined all of his albums since 1995’s Outside. While I really enjoyed 1997’s Earthling and 1999’s Hours, I was left cold by Outside, 2002’s Heathen, 2003’s Reality and 2013’s The Next Day. But to say that I was “left cold” wasn’t to say that I felt disappointed in David Bowie. When you veer from safe artistic ground, it’s not always going to work, but it’s worth trying anyway. That’s what artists are supposed to do. And hey, even though I didn’t love his last three albums, I went to pick up a physical copy of ★ as soon as it hit stores on Friday; I’m always interested to listen to what Bowie’s up to even if I don’t particularly like it, and there’s not too many artists I can say that about.
This time around, I’m happy to say, I was pleasantly surprised. On Friday, I wrote a piece on his style evolution over the years, and I noted that ★ “is one of his weirdest albums yet,” which is to say, it’s weird, and wonderfully so. I was blown away that he went with a ten minute song as the lead single from his album, but, hey, he had and has the right not worry about commercial considerations, and it’s a great piece of music (I don’t know if you’d really just call it a “song”).
When my timelines began filling up with tributes to Bowie this morning, many of my friends were posting photos of Bowie in the ’70s and ’80s, and even changing their profile photo to these images. I decided, instead, to go with ★, to pay tribute to the artist he was at the end of his life, instead of something he’d done decades in the past. If I was an artist, I’d think that was the highest praise you could ask for.
And maybe I was being a bit too snarky by using the “What Have You Done For Us Lately David Bowie?” headline. Even if the songs he did on all of those albums didn’t ring my bell, he taught us all that you don’t need to stay still, or stay settled in your ways, no matter how old you are. Whether or not you think Bowie left us too soon, we should all be lucky enough to go out on a high note like ★.