Bowie’s Best Birthday

Remembering the dearly departed Duke’s blockbuster 50th trip around the sun

Bowie and his birthday cake

As we hit upon the date David Bowie was born 72 years ago – and nearly three years after his death – I thought I’d take a look back at two of my Bowie experiences from 1997.

The first, a big one: His birthday bash at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Second: An intimate, radio station invite-only gig he did in a recording studio just outside Boston.

At the Garden: “It’s not much of a tribute, in a way,” said Bowie, before the concert celebrating his 50th-birthday. He and a bunch of his famous pals were readying to perform in front of 14,500 people. That is, he wasn’t going to sit in the wings and watch his hits get played by admirers. See: Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1992.

“I wanted to be very actively participating in it,” Bowie said. “And I invited my guests to work along with me, and I was very fortunate that they all said yes. It’s more of a dream concert for me. It’s like if I sat down and said, `What would be a really cool show to do?’ and I just wrote names down that I really like.” Enter Lou Reed, Robert Smith, Frank Black, Billy Corgan, Sonic Youth and the Foo Fighters. They joined Bowie and his longtime backing quartet. The show was a benefit for Save the Children, a favorite Bowie charity for the past 15 years.

If the two-hour-plus show was not what we had expected — and it wasn’t — it was nevertheless a stunning, star-studded performance. And a risky one, in a way. Bowie played seven new songs (previously unheard except by critics with advance tapes) from an upcoming (and challenging) album, Earthling. He played three from his last record, the difficult, harsh Outside. (Most of the familiar songs — “Queen Bitch,” “Moonage Daydream,” “All the Young Dudes,” “The Jean Genie,” “Space Oddity” — came during the encore segment.) This was far from a representative sampling of Bowie’s career or a “proper” retrospective.

The startling triumph of this set, though, was that Bowie’s new material is his strongest in years. He’s got hyper-fast “jungle” rhythms snaking in and out of these resplendent melodies, making the music both edgy and imminently accessible. With Bostonian Reeves Gabrels, Bowie’s veteran guitarist and co-writer of much of Earthling, he’s got someone who can lift any song off the launching pad and into the stratosphere. Bowie occasionally employed the translucent scrim with huge projected images surrounding him, last seen on his Sound + Vision tour. He also had some giant bouncing eyeball balloons (anybody remember the Residents?) during “Telling Lies.”

David Bowie Earthling, Virgin 1997

The matchups: Frank Black for “Scary Monsters” and “Fashion”; Foo Fighters for “Hallo Spaceboy” and the band’s guitarist Dave Grohl for “Seven Years in Tibet”; Robert Smith for “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Quicksand”; Sonic Youth for “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” and “I’m Afraid of Americans”; Lou Reed for “Queen Bitch” and the Reed songs “Waiting for the Man,” “Dirty Blvd.” and “White Light / White Heat”; and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan for “All the Young Dudes” and “The Jean Genie.”

There were some sweet moments — the breezy, optimistic “Quicksand” and the wistful “The Man Who Sold the World” among them — but Bowie’s emphasis here was on his harder-rocking, more progressive side: artist more than pop star. They sped up the churning, paranoid “Scary Monsters” with Bowie and Black shouting “Go! Go! Go!” at the close. “Heroes” was shimmering, transcendent. Bowie’s band and the Foo Fighters doubled the crunch factor of “Hallo Spaceboy”; Sonic Youth added just the right distortion values to “Voyeur . . .” “Moonage Daydream” was a rocket back to the Ziggy Stardust era, with Bowie shifting tenses: “I was a space invader.” And Reed, introduced by Bowie as “the king of New York himself,” well, he and Bowie share so much. Reed took the “There’s a taste in my mouth / And it’s no taste at all” verse in “Queen Bitch,” and the two shared leads on the others. Hearing “Waiting for the Man,” the futile drug-copping plaint, played as arena-rock was a weird kick.

Bowie closed with a gorgeous “Space Oddity,” and his line “I’m floating in a most peculiar way / And the stars look very different today” conveyed the lovely out-of-body state rock ‘n’ roll occasionally induces. This night was one of those.



Three months later, Bowie was in Cambridge, Mass. playing on a much smaller stage on a much smaller scale to far fewer people. Man, did he dig it!

And I wondered: Was Bowie the hardest-working man in showbiz? James Brown had surrendered the title — at least for one day — who had to be the most effervescent 50-year-old in pop music.

Bowie, along with longtime collaborator, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, came to Fort Apache Studios for a WBCN-FM-sponsored (and simulcast) mini-concert/Q & A session with lucky contest winners. It was Bowie’s second music-and-chat session of the day, having done something similar in Atlanta in the morning.

David Bowie and Reeves Gabrels on WBCN-FM circa 1997

Call it the re-return of the Thin White Duke — all acoustic, warm, genial, and at ease with his surroundings, which included candles and big bouquets of flowers.

I talked to a couple of the contest winners. Jane Gilmartin, in the front row, called it “the icing on the cake, the cake being a Bowie fan.” “A miracle!” added Melanie Maung, of the opportunity to view Bowie — usually spotted more distantly in hockey arenas — at such close range. WBCN gave away 52 pairs of passes to the people who sent in the most interesting questions. Program director Oedipus said the station received more than 1,000 entries.

Winners got to ask things like “Do you have a pet?” (A: He once owned a German shepherd), “What books are you currently reading?” (A: Life of Picasso and a biography of Marcel Duchamp) and “If you could visit any moment in history, what would it be?” (A: 1907-1913, Paris and London, because it was the most exciting time for music and art — and before World War I). One especially good one: If an asteroid was certain to hit the earth in a week, wiping out civilization, how would Bowie spend the time? “Apologizing,” he said, after a pause. “Just in case . . . “

Bowie, who said after the set he admires how Ray Davies weaves music and stories, proved a master at it himself. He was in full raconteur mode and he was one funny, self-deprecating chap. The guy wrote “I’m Afraid of Americans” seemed to spend a lot of time here. Why?

“Do you have a problem with that?!” Bowie blustered, before praising an American pop landscape full of rebels: James Dean, the beatniks, “the dear-departed Allen Ginsberg.” He discussed Buddhism and history; he praised Neil Young’s dignity and grace.

The lucky fans — another 50-plus VIPs joined the winners, yeah, I was one, a journo — were treated to a C&W version of “Scary Monsters” (Bowie as Johnny Cash?), “Seven Years in Tibet,” a snippet of “The Supermen,” “Dead Man Walking,” “The Jean Genie” and the Tin Machine song “I Can’t Read.”

The sun-glassed Gabrels added tasty slide guitar to the latter and was an amiable foil throughout the hourlong set. Bowie discussed mysteries large and small, from the genesis of the songs to the role of art. He said he drew ” `Heroes’ ” from the “hokey” situation of a couple that met at the Berlin wall every day, but said he believed it has turned into an extraordinary song. His Ziggy Stardust character was partially based upon a real-life delusional performer named Vince Taylor, who once performed a rock show as Christ and ended up a maintenance man for Swiss Airways. Art? “I’m not sure any kind of artwork has to have intentions behind it,” he said, explaining his frequent use of science fiction allegories and modern man’s distance from traditional religion.

Say this about Bowie: He recently released Earthling, his best album since Scary Monsters, but we live in a world where the Spice Girls and Blur, both acts on his label Virgin, sold more albums — a world where Earthling was not even on Billboard’s Top 200. It’s to his credit that Bowie does not want to let it die on the vine. The best Earthling song, “Dead Man Walking,” is the current single and is also featured in the movie “The Saint.” He planned a summer tour overseas, and a return to the States in the autumn. As to this little shindig, he said, post-set “We [he and Gabrels] “are enjoying the hell out of it.”



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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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