In the news today was a story saying that David Bowie has officially retired from live performance. This comes as no huge surprise, as David has not played a gig since 2004, nor has he shown any particular inclination to do so.
And it’s probably just as well; Dave is creeping up on 70 now, and though his voice still sounds pretty good on record, it might not be able to stand up to the rigors of a lengthy performance, to say nothing of an actual tour. I had been holding out some hope that he might see fit to favor with us one last show, hopefully simulcast worldwide, but seemingly it is not to be. Though, of course, it is Bowie’s prerogative to change his mind; remember when he said he would never play his hits again after the 1990 tour? “Going back on my word is part and parcel of what I do for you,” said Mr. B back in 2003. “Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”
I was fortunate enough to have him lie to me in person four times: once with Tin Machine, once on the Earthling tour, and twice on the “A Reality Tour.” The first two were, on the whole, disappointments. I liked Tin Machine more than most people, but their live show (at the Warfield in SF) was a bit of a slog. I remember that they did a noisy version of the Pixies’ “Debaser,” which was pretty cool, and that “If There Is Something” sounded good. Other than that it didn’t leave much of an impression.
The Earthling tour was that period when Bowie was burnishing his indie cred by traipsing around joined at the hip with Trent Reznor. This meant that we had to endure an opening set by Nine Inch Nails, who then shared the stage with Bowie for a couple of songs. When Reznor and co. departed, so did a sizable contingent of the audience, mostly the younger folks. This sucked a lot of the energy out of the show, which was at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, not the most exciting venue in the world to begin with. And Bowie’s set was heavy on Outside and Earthling material, which made things a bit…murky. He did do updated versions of “Andy Warhol” and “The Man Who Sold the World,” but overall the experience was underwhelming.
The Reality shows, which took place at the Berkeley Community Theater in 2003, were much more satisfactory. The BCT is a great place to see a concert – big enough to feel like an event, but small enough to retain some intimacy. The fact that Bowie was playing there, rather than at some Enormodome like Oakland Coliseum, felt like something of a miracle. And on this tour he was at his most audience-friendly, in terms of both jokey banter and song selection, mixing recent material from Heathen and Reality with a solid cross-section of classic stuff.
Through good luck I was able to score tickets to both shows, and so spent two consecutive nights in The Presence. I wouldn’t say this was a life-changing experience, necessarily – not a shocking bolt from the blue like a Bowie show in 1972 might have been – but it was a rare chance for me and my friends to spend some quality time with one of our heroes. And yes, he did play “Heroes” – which over the years has shed all its levels of irony to become a crowd-pleasing anthem, but it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Or at least it did. Apparently, never again. Well, so long, David Live, and thanks for the memories.