My first Bowie gig. I’d waited 15 years for it, and it did not disappoint.
‘He was there! David Bowie, the man who changed my life more radically than anyone else on this planet, as close as if he were standing at the other end of my room! I could see the oddness of his eyes in real life!‘
To fully understand the importance of this, my first ever David Bowie gig, you need to zip back nearly fifteen years to December 1988. 13 year old me, newly a pop kid thanks to my recent discovery of the Pet Shop Boys, sat down one day to watch “Labyrinth”, which my mum had recorded from the TV a few days earlier. It’s hard to think of anything in my life that has had a greater impact on me. For the next few years of my life, nothing in the world meant more to me than David Bowie, and I wanted nothing more than to be able to see him live.
But it would be a long wait before I got that chance. His first world tour after my conversion to Bowie Obsessive was 1990’s Sound and Vision, which neglected to make its way to Australia, where I lived then. And by the time I made it to London at the end of 1996, I’d become a bit too distracted by the sparkly delights of the 90s indie scene to prioritise Bowie gigs. Even so, I still tried to get a ticket whenever a London date occurred – but these were usually in smaller venues, and Bowie’s older, credit-card-owning fanbase had always snapped them up before I had a chance to sprint to the relevant box office after work to try and pick up a ticket.
By 2003 – even though I was now adult enough to own a credit card myself – I’d pretty much assumed I’d never see Bowie live. I certainly wasn’t expecting a massive new album campaign with a world arena tour attached, and when the November 2003 Reality tour was announced that June, my excitement knew no bounds. I immediately snapped up tickets for every gig in England – one in Manchester, two in Birmingham and two in London.
But then, as if to reward me for my diligent fifteen years of waiting, the universe threw this extra treat at me – or rather, Bowie’s groundbreaking, proto-social media site bowienet did. We were invited to submit our names into a draw to come to this very exclusive album launch show, with only three hundred people in attendance, which would be beamed live to cinemas around the world. I put my name in the draw, and my name was one that was picked.
So off I went to Hammersmith on the 8th of September, a night on which Mars was due to be at its highest visibility for many years. I did peer into the sky that night, but really, it wasn’t high on my list of concerns. From my diary:
‘Unfortunately, I did not see Mars. But what do I care? I saw the only Star that matters.’
(Yes, I know Mars is a planet, not a star.)
I went to this gig alone, but I very quickly found a new friend. ‘Would you believe the woman I found myself next to in the queue was also a fellow Manic Street Preachers obsessive?! She even went to Cardiff last year, the night before I did, and met James afterwards, just like I did. How unlikely is that!?‘
(Not quite as unlikely as what I would find out the coming November, when we’d meet up again to attend Bowie’s Manchester gig, to find we’d somehow managed to book ourselves seats right next to each other, despite never having met at the time of booking – but that’s a story for a post to come!)
So we queued a bit then finally got in. My diary entry tell me that all we had to do upon entry was give our bowienet name in order to receive our ticket, which seems a bit reckless in hindsight given that all the winners usernames had been displayed in a forum post. (Mine was goodlysin, after a Nick Drake lyric, which I used a lot online at the time).
Then we were inside, huddled in the bar area, and waiting to see David Bowie. My anticipation by this point was pretty stratospheric. ‘Bloody hell, the whole two weeks since I found out I was going to this gig passed quicker than the half hour we waited ‘til 7.30 to get into the stage area. Needless to say, I was more excited than I’ve ever been, by the time they let us in I was wondering whether I’d pass out before he even came on stage. I think my body was 98% adrenaline by this point.‘
Finally we got into the area in front of the stage. ‘Me and my new mate Kathryn got to third row on the left and waited the last bit of wait until! Some techy dude came up and gave us a fire exit lecture and introduced Jonathan Ross, who came on, said some amusing things no doubt, and introduced David Bowie.’
And now I’ll just hand over to my diary entry to describe the first part of the evening, as I think no words can do justice to this event better than the ones I scribbled down immediately upon returning form it.
(Warning: this report contains an outburst of Unbridled Lust)
‘He came on to the far left, I saw the silhouette of him, before I knew it really was Him, and when I knew, god, hysteria is not the word, I screamed, I screamed, I cried, I screamed (okay, so maybe hysteria really IS the word!) There were a few minutes before going live to the cinemas. David asked us what day it was, and did “A New Career In A New Town” playing harmonica, and random stuff like a bit of Blur’s “Song 2” and things. And Mike Garson was there! Greatest pianist in the history of the universe ever, and Earl Slick! It was like being in one of my Bowie live videos!
And David? My god, the body, the body, the hair, the body. SEXY! Thin and lean and not too tall and just the right ratio of muscle to skinniness. Well, seeing as David is the man from which my ideal of male beauty was forged, it’s not surprising that I could not for one second tear my eyes away from his gorgeousness. But that’s not the only reason; there’s also the Presence, the sense of being something Other – no matter how he joked and chatted with us, he was not one of us. He was special, a better model, superior quality. He makes you think there’s something in this “homo superior” notion. He shone.
He said, “I’ve got a voice in my ear telling me 30 seconds”, and the crowd went wild as we went live and the band launched into “New Killer Star”, the utterly classic new single. It’s stomping, punching anthem which sees some hands aloft but not as many as I would have expected. There was no barrier, just a white line telling the front row how close they could go. You might have thought it’d be inviting chaos but everyone was very well behaved, there was no crush whatsoever.
As this was the first tune of the night in which he was actually singing, I spent a good part of the song in awe of that fact alone, that he was here, that he was singing. The next song was the groovesome cover “Pablo Picasso” and it was already clear that the “Reality” songs were gonna all be utterly storming live. “Never Get Old” is a wondrous tune with a classic triumphant pointing moment “forever!!!” and excellent shoutalong chorus “never gonna be enough money! never gonna be enough drugs!” etc. After this was the ballad “The Loneliest Guy”, a slow aching number for which David came out on a short catwalk in the middle of the stage (which I didn’t realise was there ‘til afterwards – I wondered how he got so close!) So far it’s not my fave of the new tunes, but it improved by hearing the whole thing, and you could tell by the way David Sang that the song means a lot to him.
“Looking For Water” was next, and one of the most powerful live, all dark and menacing and disjointed and disturbing. And “She’ll Drive The Big Car”, perhaps a bit pale and interesting in my fuzzy MP3, was also much more powerful live. Can I just take a moment to rejoice in the inspired use of backing vocals on so many of these songs?? “Days” is a lovely, sweet little number, and “Fall Dogs Bomb The Moon” is already a classic and received rapturously. “Try Some, Buy Some”, a George Harrison tune, was spectacular, its spiralling uplifting melancholy all exploding in a glorious majestic moment when suddenly the lights came on and it was the greatest gig ever.
“Reality” is a storming rock monster not unlike “You Love Us” with a fantastic bit where David goes “ha!ha!ha!ha!” And the last song was “Bring Me The Disco King”, a jaded and sad and utterly beautiful song that sounds like the end of a lonely night. Oh yeah, this is one amazing album, one of those greatest albums of all time type albums. I can’t wait to hear these songs live again in November.’
The first part of the evening now being over , it was time for a Q&A session with Jonathan Ross, where there was live link ups to cinemas round Europe, which were ‘plagued by highly amusing technical probs.‘ My diary doesn’t recount the details of the things said, just ‘how surreally wonderful it was to be standing a couple of metres away from David Bowie as he chatted away in that untouchably sharp and witty and intelligent way of his.‘
After this came the part of the gig I’d been most eagerly anticipating – a second set comprised of classics and rarities from Bowie’s untouchable back catalogue.
‘First up was the massively thrilling and scary “Hallo Spaceboy”, a total monster and again, coming into its own in a big way live. Then, of all wondrous things, “Fantastic Voyage”. The crowd was by now devoid of all reserve and this was a total arms in the air tune, triumphant and beautiful. And “Hang On To Yourself” was a complete rush, so exciting.‘
Then it was “Modern Love”, which was wonderful to hear given that the first David Bowie album I ever bought – after the “Labyrinth” soundtrack, of course – was “Let’s Dance”. It was ‘nostalgic fun, and touching to see him laugh at himself when he forgot the lyrics at the end‘. There followed two songs from “Heathen”, which was an album that hadn’t really clicked with me on its release the previous year. I vowed to listen to it more ‘as it’s going to feature heavily in the forthcoming tour. “Cactus” is a bouncy little Pixies tune, and “Afraid”, which I didn’t even recognise, to my shame.’
Finally, we went back to the beginning with another rendition of “New Killer Star”, presumably an alternate take for the video release. ‘It’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite songs ever, and the crowd was by now completely up for it, pogoing and pointing along to the shouty chorus. “I’ve got a better way! Ready! Set! Go!” And how badly did I not want to see him go.‘
Revisiting this gig, and the other Bowie gigs that I’ll write about in the coming weeks, is full of intense emotions for me. The untouchable joy that these gigs evoked in me comes flooding back, mingled with the pain of losing Bowie that still feels fresh after four years. Add to that our current situation, where there’s no knowing when gigs will be a regular occurrence again, and it all feels very strange to be blogging about this right now.
But most of all, I just feel incredibly lucky to have been there, and to have had the chance to experience something so special. I had the best time possible at this gig, and the five to come in November 2003. My season of seeing Bowie live was a short one, ending at the Isle of Wight festival the following year. But it was, without a doubt, one of the most wonderful times of my life.