I’ve been listening more to the recent data dump of 1971 Bowie material, and what really strikes me is the live performance from September of that year. David had chosen the Friars Club in Aylesbury, about 50 miles northwest of London, for his first live performance after recording Hunky Dory. The show became fairly legendary, and was bootlegged for many years before finally being officially released on Divine Symmetry.
The surprising thing about it is how uncertain Bowie sounds. At the beginning of the show he is fairly stammering. After introducing “Michael Ronson,” he says, “I don’t do many gigs, and this is one of the few exceptions. So we’re gonna start slowly.” After some hemming and hawing, they launch into “Fill Your Heart,” which is different with just acoustic guitars but quite lovely.
Afterward David addresses the audience:
We didn’t know what kind of songs to do tonight, so we just decided to endeavor to sing the kind of songs that we hope you’ll enjoy. This is what we call “entertainment,” we want to entertain you… entertain you… it’s an old word. We want you to enjoy the songs and we want to make you happy because we want to be happy doing them.
I find this painful to hear. Not only does David sound like George Bush the Elder at his most mealy-mouthed, what he says amounts to a confession of pandering. He continues:
The next one to follow that is another Biff Rose number. I’m a bit keen on his songs, I think they’re very good, very funny. He’s very overrated… (corrects himself, laughing:) Underrated!
A Freudian slip, perhaps? Two Biff Rose tunes is, frankly, one too many. “Buzz the Fuzz” is as annoying as “Fill Your Heart” is charming; Bowie never recorded a studio version and you can see why.
Only after the two Rose covers do David and Mick launch into the opening chords of “Space Oddity,” which David prefaces by saying, “This is one of my own that we get over with as soon as possible.” I guess that two years on he found his hit song something of an albatross, a novelty number that he was now forced to play despite having outgrown it — not an uncommon sentiment for evolving artists. (He would later change his mind.) But still it hurts to hear him put himself down this way; apparently he had not yet learned that what we pay for is to watch a performer believe in himself.
Was this really the same person who would be dominating stages as Ziggy Stardust just a few months later? What the hell happened? I guess he needed that extra layer of protection that the Ziggy persona provided. Mind you, “David Bowie” was already a persona, but apparently that was not enough.
“Space Oddity” is followed by another cover, which Bowie introduces while humbly apologizing for the performance so far.
It’s by a French composer called Jacques Brel, who was writing a long time ago, and he wrote this song about 15 years ago. And it was called “Port of Amsterdam….” If we’re slow, I haven’t been up very long, you see. I’m very bad at getting up…. When I was at school my mother could never get me up. She got over it. She found out the trick of getting me up is to put on a black dress and sit on he bed and cry.
David brings out the rest of the band for “The Supermen,” which is his most Spinal Tap song, but they carry it off well here; it swings a bit more than it did on the album.
At this point we’re a half-dozen songs in and David still hasn’t played any of his new compositions. Let’s take a deep breath here… I didn’t necessarily set out to do a song-by-song dive into this show… but that seems to be where we are. Might as well hang it up there and plan one more post to finish up. I should probably change the name of this category of the blog to “Too Much David Bowie” — or maybe “(There’s No Such Thing As) Too Much David Bowie.” Yeah, that’s more like it.