All the gigs of my life: Gig 77 – David Bowie, Monday, November 17, 2003, MEN Arena, Manchester

The start of an amazing adventure: Five David Bowie concerts in three different cities over the course of ten days.

‘It has begun. It’s real. It’s happening!’

When I think back to the best times in my life, it’s hard to top this fortnight in November 2003. I took time off from both my job as a clinic receptionist, and my part-time Psychology studies, so that I could race round England to see David Bowie as many times as possible. A couple of months earlier, I’d finally had my chance to see him live for the first time after fifteen years of waiting, at an exclusive event to launch his new album “Reality” at Riverside Studios. That had of course been incredible, but what I’d really longed for since I was 13 was to see a proper Bowie gig, full of the classic songs I’d spent hours listening to and watching him perform on my concert VHS tapes. Here, finally, was my opportunity to experience that, not once but five times in a row. It’s hard to think of a better time in my life than this.

And so it began this Monday in Manchester. Unusually for me, I had a gig friend: my fellow Manics and Bowie obsessive Kathryn, who I’d met at the Riverside show. And there was a surprise in store for us both. From my diary:

‘Met Kathryn round 5 and we wandered to the food hall in the Arndale centre for a baked potato and a chat about all things Bowie and Manics, of course. We were plunged into the realm of spooky coincidence: her ticket just happened to be for the seat right next to mine. I mean, exactly. I was 6, she was 7. Now that’s just downright freaky. I mean, it was as though we’d booked the tickets together, but we hadn’t even met then! How utterly bizarre.’

After our dinner we walked to the MEN, which I recognised as ‘the glorious Nynex‘ of my incredible Manics/Mansun gig six years previously. We took our seats, and I was very happy with them. ‘Fifth row, and excellent view. I was glad I’d decided to risk bringing a camera with me, especially as no one had made the slightest move towards searching us as we entered.‘ How gigging times have changed!

I was also very happy that the support band was one that I loved: the Dandy Warhols, who I’d seen earlier in the year at the Brixton Academy, and had a ticket to see again at an upcoming gig at the Kentish Town Forum.

‘Wondrously, support for the tour comes from the Dandy Warhols, and they were on at 7.30, launching the evening with “Not if you were the last junkie on Earth”. And fine form they were on too. The arena was disappointingly empty as they started but people trickled to their seats as the Dandy’s set progressed. The band didn’t seem put off by this in the slightest, and gave a great performance. For such a druggy, spaced-out band image-wise, they are remarkably tight. I really wanted to be up and dancing for tunes like “You were the last high” , “Boys Better” and “Bohemian Like You” but was too inhibited by the static nature of the crowd around me. In a strange kind of way it was a treat to see them like this though, with such an uninterested crowd – it felt as though I’d stumbled into a rehearsal or something. Still, if I don’t get to dance to the Dandy’s at any of the DB gigs, I only have to wait ‘til the first of December to see them properly at the Forum. And that is, mind-bogglingly, less than two weeks away. Gig overload, anyone??!’

After the Dandy Warhols we took a last minute trip to the loo – ‘perhaps the only advantage of the reserved seating thing‘ – but on our return, the crowd was starting to make moves towards the front. ‘We noticed that a growing number of people were chucking reserved seating out the window and huddling against the barrier. On my own, I’d have been there like a shot, but I didn’t want to abandon Kathryn, so I spent a few minutes convincing/cajoling her to join to me in moving to the barrier. Finally we moved and found a spot 2nd row, right in front of the huge catwalk on the left hand side of the stage (there was another on the right). Security made no attempt to return people to their seats. I guess they knew a lost cause when they saw one.

And so it was from this position I witnessed my first ever full David Bowie concert.

My first glimpse of Bowie. Can you spot yourself in this crowd??

‘I saw the lights go down and an animated version of David and his band appear at the back of the stage, playing some groovesome instrumental. From right to left the image turned into video footage of them all as the band took the stage from an elevated platform at the back. I was watching this, waiting for David to appear, but as I realised later, he must have come onstage from under the catwalk in front of me. For when the lights came on to the ricocheting intro of “Rebel Rebel”, there he was centrestage! Singing “Gotyer mother in a whirl” etc as those plinging chords bounce about before the magnificent riff crashes in as it does so spectacularly in this new version of the song. “Bon soir, Manchester!” hollered David cheerfully, obviously not completely out of French mode as it was not the only time that evening that he shouted out a few French phrases.

A few tracks from his new album followed as I tried to come to grips with the reality of Reality. ‘Oh it was “New Killer Star” and “Reality” complete with raunchy gestures for the “going down on me” bit. I was still in a kind of is-it-really-happening? mode at this point and not really taking it in.‘ “Fame” went some way to curing that, ‘especially when he came over to my side of the throng to apparently sing a verse to the top of the catwalk (I think there must have been a camera there, beaming his face to the screens above which I could not see).’

Unusually for me, I was quite restrained with the lust in this diary entry, and I had my only outburst here: ‘Oh god, the body on that man.’

But it was more than just his body that made it hard to tear my eyes from him, of course. After years spent glued to the TV watching the videos of Bowie tours like Glass Spider or Serious Moonlight, it was bizarre and wonderful to actually find myself inside one at last.

‘Ah, “Cactus” and “Afraid” were fab, but I did get excited at the start of “Afraid” ‘cos the band had launched into “China Girl” instead. Before David stopped them and indulged in a bit of banter about which song they wanted to do. “Afraid” won, but “China Girl” came next, and despite it being on record a song I’m not overly keen on, it was kind of thrilling because it’s The Ultimate Big Bowie Hit and calls to mind all those many millions of times I sat watching him do it on the “Glass Spider” and “Serious Moonlight” vids except this time, I was THERE! Plus, it’s actually quite brilliant live, showcasing his soaring vocal prowess with the dramatic “she saaaaaaaays” bits. And he even changed that annoying “oh baby, just you shut your mouth” to “shut your fucking face” or similar, which was a vast improvement.’

I was very taken with his performance of “The Loneliest Guy”. ‘Not one of my “Reality” faves, but it turned into something different here, the fragile verses were almost scarily intimate until suddenly, for the line “not the loneliest guy”, his tone of voice changed completely to all out belter, as though he wanted to emphasise the point. A strange rendition, but very affecting.’

But it was the older songs that had the most emotional impact. Having become a fan in the late 80s, my introduction to Bowie’s back catalogue had come with the Ryko reissues in the 90s, and one of the albums that had grabbed me the most was “The Man Who Sold The World”. So to hear Bowie sing the title track to this album was a highlight among many.

‘Words cannot express how “The Man Who Sold The World” moved me. that album means so much to me, those winter days of 1990, staring at the sunset out my bedroom window, listening to that song… and there he was, singing it. So very, very powerful. The same could be said of “Ashes to Ashes”. So amazing, to finally be witnessing these songs live. I believe it was during this song that he apparently left the stage after the “my mother said…” bits. Was it a Glass Spider-style costume change? No! He was lurking at the back, under the catwalk, so naturally I watched his vague silhouette instead of paying attention to what the band was doing.’

But more recent songs from his past few albums were almost as thrilling.

‘“Hallo Spaceboy” must be one of the greatest live songs ever, with its pounding thrashing guitars and demente “bye bye love!” shouts. David did this whole song on the far catwalk, all menacing and godlike. God, it was great. “Sunday” he sang from the platform at the back, amorphous shapes and colours on the screen behind him. This was astonishing, so powerful, “for in truth, it’s the beginning of the end…”, his voice soaring and heartbreaking. And that moment, in the chanting section, where it suddenly, shimmeringly seems to go from dark to light. Truly breathtaking.’

Not quite as breathtaking as “Life On Mars” which was then and remains to this day my favourite song of all time. ‘Heartstopping. Nearly in tears, but too elated to cry, really. And there was the utterly joyful “Under Pressure” with Freddy’s bits sung magnificently by Gail Ann Dorsey, whose voice is truly stunning. What a fantastic tune to warble triumphantly along to.

“The Motel” from one of my favourite Bowie albums “Outside”, was ‘a song that for me seemed to melt into the background on the album, but live it really came into its own, and like many songs he’s chosen to play on this tour, showcased how amazing he is vocally at the moment.’

“Changes” was another highlight. I’d been impressed a few years earlier watching the footage of David headlining Galstonbury, and how the teens of the day seemed to have taken him to their hearts – a marked contrast to the sneering reactions I’d get from my teen peers at the beginning of the 90s when I said he was my favourite singer.

‘Just made me think about how wonderful it was seeing the kids moshing to this song on the Glasto 2000 footage, and how even more wonderful it was to now find myself doing the same! I think it was in this song that bathed him in blue light very effectively for the verses. Took quite a few pics then, it looked so dramatic.’

Then there was “Loving The Alien” which was a song I was most looking forward to hearing, due to it being on one of the few albums I could listen to in the early years of my obsession before the Ryko reissues started. ‘I didn’t realise it was in such a stripped down version – just David and the guitarist Gerry with a few spooky noises. It was stunning, just so stunning. Again, with the untouchable voice. Again, with the words failing. ‘

A few more recent songs followed – “Never Get Old” was ‘a fun’n’bouncy break from all this epic movingness. “I’ll never get old” he said at the end, “and you’ll never get old either, will you?” Oh! And around this time, he got us all to shout our names in unison. “I wanna see what it sounds like” he said. Ha!‘ And then “I’m Afraid Of Americans” was ‘fab‘. But neither of these could quite compare to the song that followed them.

‘But it was the song that closed the main set that was, perhaps, the highlight among highlights. It was, of course, “Heroes”, a truly heart-squeezing rendition, just unbelievable. To finally, finally witness this song live. I don’t think I ever truly believed I would. And the end, when it kicks back in for the rousing finale, and all the lights came on and I could see every one right up to the toppest top of the tiers all standing, arms aloft, caught in the moment. That is something that will stay with me for a long time.’

While waiting for the encore I managed to get one, then two hands on the barrier. ‘Again, I stared cluelessly at the place where the rest of the band emerged, forgetting that David, ever tricksy, would come on the way he had before – under the catwalk in front of me. And as an encore, we had a Ziggy threesome: the wondrous “Five Years”, “Suffragette City” and finally “Ziggy Stardust” itself, for which I latched myself to the barrier, so I can now say I’ve been down the front for David Bowie! He thanked us for welcoming him back to the UK so fervently, and he and the band did a theatresque linked bow before departing.’

‘And thus ended the concert I have been waiting 15 years for. Riverside was very special and something I am incredibly lucky to have attended, but this is the concert, by and large, that I yearned to see way back when the wonder of Bowie was still unfolding before me. As it continues to do, miraculously.’

And the miracles would indeed continue for the whole course of the ten days ahead.

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