After “Heroes” David took a break and had “some throat coat and a cigarette,” he says. He seems very British in that moment, though in fact he had already been a New Yorker for several years.
I wrote several versions of the segue from that to Lou Reed’s appearance onstage, but they were all hacky. Suffice it so say, if you were going to pick one person to embody New York City and all it entails, you could do worse than Lou. Even though he was actually from the suburbs, he became one with NYC in a way that Bowie, as an Englishman, never could.
Their first song together is David’s tribute to the Velvet Underground:
For the first half Lou just stands there looking bemused, possibly trying to remember if he wrote this song. Then suddenly the band drops out and Lou is singing over some kind of jungle breakdown. Why? Well why not? It was David’s birthday and he wanted it that way. There’s a great moment where Lou glances down and to his right to check the lyrics, then looks back to his left at David and grins, as if to say “I got it now.”
When Lou looks at David it’s like the weirdest human on Earth, who always thought he was as far out as it gets, gazing for the first time at an actual extraterrestrial. It’s as if a lizard creature from another solar system learned “Johnny B. Goode” off the Golden Record, then came to Earth and got onstage with Chuck Berry. Although now that I think of it, we’ve already kind of seen that:
In any case, I must confess that “Queen Bitch” has never been one of my favorites. It starts with a lot of thrust, and the riff is a solid one, but it doesn’t really go anywhere; two minutes in I’ve had enough. Not so the next song which, simple as it is, I never get tired of.
Bowie did “Waiting for the Man” many times over the years in many different ways, but I don’t know that he ever quite conquered it; he’s just a little too British for it somehow. Having Lou there certainly helps, though, and they do a cracking version; if you were in the audience I bet you felt like you’d gotten your money’s worth at this point.
But there’s more! For some reason a decision was taken to do “Dirty Blvd,” which in this context passes for a “new” song, though New York was already three Lou albums in the past at this point. It’s a mildly perplexing choice but comes off well, and Reeves Gabrels — perhaps in deference to the sometimes terrifying Mr. Reed — plays it completely straight for once.
Finally, it’s back to the VU songbook for “White Light/White Heat,” another song that Bowie covered numerous times over a span of decades. As with “Waiting for the Man,” it was never quite a comfortable fit for him; he was always a little too… professional? dignified?… for the kind of noisy abandon the song demands. But that never stopped him from trying, and he has another valiant go at it here.
The arrangement is the same one Bowie and his band had been doing for a couple years, one that owes more than a little to the Pixies. It starts sparse and bouncy, ramps up for the choruses, and builds to a satisfyingly boisterous conclusion. Reeves is completely off the leash for this one, while Lou is barely involved — he stands at the microphone at times, but never appears to open his mouth. He looks happy enough to be there, though. David, meanwhile, seems to be quite enjoying himself — and it’s his party, after all.
At this point we’re more than an hour and a half into the show. That’s a lot of music and it might well have been enough; but there are still four more songs to go, and we’ll cover those in the next, and mercifully last, installment of this series.