In June I reviewed on Just Backdated a book called The Who: I Was There, suggesting that it was a tribute to the group that their fans would contribute to a book of this kind and that only The Who inspired such affection from their followers. I was wrong, of course; so did David Bowie as this enjoyable book in the same series by a different author shows. (I contribute the introduction to this book, a slightly amended version of the text I wrote for a songbook that was published by Music Sales shortly after Bowie’s death in 2016, and which you can find elsewhere on this blog.)
This book follows the same format: a chronology of selected concert dates that were attended by fans and, in some cases, associates of Bowie, who offer their reminiscences of the shows, plus additional sightings of Bowie that merit attention. After a few recollections from teenage friends, among them David’s girlfriend Dana Gillespie (who at 14 looks more voluptuous than many women twice her age), we begin with The Konrads in June 1963 and work our way through to May 2006 when David appeared as a guest vocalist at a David Gilmour concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As with the book on The Who, it is the stories from the devoted fans that animate its pages, all of them detailed and affectionate, and in many cases simply offering grateful thanks towards a performer whose brilliance on stage is remembered decades after the event. Some even stray into how seeing and hearing the music of David Bowie had a profound effect on their personal relationships.
Between August 1972 and March 1976 I saw Bowie on six occasions – twice in the UK, thrice in the US and once in Canada – and four of these shows are in the book. Among them is the celebrated July 3, 1973, concert at Hammersmith Odeon when David announced the cessation of The Spiders in terms that could be misinterpreted as if this was his last concert ever and not the last concert by the Mick Ronson-led band that backed him throughout the Ziggy era. An element of mystery has attached itself to this episode ever since, specifically with reference to who knew and who did not know what Bowie was planning. Soundman Robin Mayhew, interviewed for this book, has the last word: “Mick Ronson and [crew member] Peter Hunsley were the only ones who knew it was going to happen. Peter told me that David was going to ‘break up the band’ over the intercom just before the last show began.” Just like the lyric then, except that manager Tony Defries was probably in on it too.
It is surprising that Neil Cossar couldn’t find a witness to the show at the O’Keefe Centre, Toronto, on June 16, 1974, the third concert in that year’s bold, theatrical and hugely influential Diamond Dogs tour. I was among a party of music writers flown from New York to Canada to report on this and I can still recall my amazement at witnessing a show that paid no lip service whatsoever to traditional rock concert presentation. (I can also remember booking a 4 am wake-up call in my hotel room so as to dictate my quite lengthy report on the show down the phone line to the editor’s secretary at Melody Maker, it being a Monday – press day – and Toronto being six hours behind London.) Still, there is a report on a similar concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 19, which I also attended, but the futuristic staging and props were best seen in a smallish theatre and didn’t really work in a 20,000-seat arena. Not long after this they were abandoned, largely due to the expense of carting them around, and the tour metamorphosed into what came to be known as Bowie’s ‘soul tour’.
Another show missing from the book is the one I saw on March 1, 1976, at the Cobo Hall in Detroit, now immortalised as the first ever rock concert that Madonna, then aged 17, attended. “It was a major event in my life,” she said later. “I was wearing my highest platform shoes and a long black silk cape… I don’t think I breathed for two hours. I came away a changed woman.” Regrettably, a similar quote from Madonna is attributed to a concert at the same venue in April 1978, the only mistake I spotted in an otherwise error-free book (unless, of course, Madonna attended both shows, which is unlikely since she moved to New York in 1977).
That show was on the Isolar tour, with its dramatic black and white lighting and a besuited Bowie coolly puffing on Gitanes throughout. The ice-blue of the cigarette packet in the pocket of his black waistcoat was the only colour on stage. Though not as visually memorable as the Diamond Dogs show I saw in 1974, from a musical standpoint it was the most enjoyable Bowie concert I ever saw, the Station To Station material translating wonderfully to the stage, along with the same show on March 26 at Madison Square Garden, which is covered in the book.
From then on David Bowie just got bigger and bigger, and all the subsequent tours are covered religiously: Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Tin Machine, Sound + Vision, Outside, Hours, Heathen and Reality, which takes me up to the last time I saw Bowie, again at Hammersmith (now the Apollo) in October 2002. Bowie certainly worked hard, as this book testifies, and due attention is also paid to one-off events such as his four-song set at 1985’s Live Aid – still Bowie’s greatest ever big show concert appearance for my money – the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992, and his Sunday night headlining appearance at Glastonbury in 2000. Missing, however, is the Concert For New York City at Madison Square Garden in 2001 when Bowie opened the show by sitting cross-legged and singing Paul Simon’s ‘America’, minimally accompanying himself on an Omnichord, a tiny portable keyboard. This prefaced a reading of ‘Heroes’ that, because he was singing for the firemen of 9/11, just about matched the emotional punch of Live Aid. Either way, Bowie – a consummate professional as well as pioneering visionary – always rose to the occasion when part of a multi-artist bill at era-defining events.
The final Bowie concert covered in the book, as opposed to the David Gilmour show mentioned above, is at Prague on June 23, 2004, from which David Mackuu reports, sadly, that after 15 minutes he left the stage. “Shortly afterwards David came back on and tried to sing ‘Life On Mars’, but then suddenly apologised for being in pain and that was the end of everything.”
It wasn’t quite the end of everything. After a concert at Scheeßel in Germany the following day (not covered here) he was taken to hospital for emergency treatment. He would live on for 11-and-a-half more years and make a handful of guest appearances but his career as a live performer was effectively over from that night. From that point on David Bowie went into virtual hiding, so the book closes with a few random sightings and, appropriately, a series of heartfelt tributes from fellow performers and musical associates.