All the gigs of my life

All the gigs of my life: Gig 81 – David Bowie, Wednesday, November 26, 2003, Wembley Arena

The end of an overwhelming, emotional rollercoaster of a Bowie tour.

My last gig on the A Reality tour, and it’s safe to say, I was completely exhausted. From my diary: ‘I managed three hours at uni before coming home to collapse for a bit. In truth, I was almost glad my tour was nearly at an end – not because I was sick of the gigs by any stretch, but just because I was starting to feel quite mentally and emotionally drained by it all. I had been overdosing on anticipation, excitement and adrenaline for ten days, after all.

But undaunted by knackeredness, I strode off to Wembley again, carrying an inordinate amount of tickets for this one show. ‘I had three tickets upon my person. One, my new one in block A2. Two, my old crap one, just in case my new one turned out to be a dodgy fake. And three, Kathryn’s front row ticket from Tuesday.

I needn’t have worried about my new ticket, for I got through without a problem, and made my way to precisely one seat in front of my initial position for the previous night. I was expecting to find myself next to the pink-haired lady who’d sold me this ticket the night before, so I was somewhat surprised to find myself next to a large affable bald bloke. ‘Scanning the crowd, I spotted a pink wig in the second row, to the far left. Interesting.’

My gig neighbour turned out to be quite talkative. ‘Bald Guy chatted away about how good last night’s gig had been and how he’d recognised some of the songs and he had a mate who was a complete “lunatic – he’s even on bowienet!” “A bit like me then”, I cheerfully replied, which seemed to throw him slightly.

Then it was the Dandy Warhols for the last time. ‘Well, that is, until their gig next Monday. Ha! They were still great and I can’t wait to see their own show and finally boogie madly to “Bohemian Like You” as any sane person would when they’re not likely to get disciplined by tetchy Wembley stewards. “Remember, no dancing in the aisles until David Bowie comes on!” was Courtney’s parting shot.’

And then it was Strategy Time. How could I make use of Kathryn’s ticket to get myself to the front?

I wandered up and down the aisle a few times, but it was clear any attempt to take my place at the front early would be futile. Two stewards stood like statues blocking the way to the front. So I adopted a new strategy of actually sitting obediently in my seat, laying low, until the lights went down. My god, that was a bit tense. I knew I had one chance only of getting close to the front, and that chance came the moment the arena went dark and the intro started. I leapt up and dashed down the aisle hoping I appeared to be a latecomer, and flashed Kathryn’s ticket at the steward. He had no torch. He peered at the ticket. He let me through!!! Elation!

Kathryn’s Tuesday ticket – my passage to the front on Wednesday!

The barrier was full but I had an ideal spot just behind the people lining it, slightly towards the centre of where I’d been the night before. It was indescribably brilliant to find myself in this position for the last night of the tour. ‘The sheer joy of being so close AGAIN, when lest we forget I should have been at the very very back, was incredible. I could not help leaping and waving and shouting and dancing and oh! Just a complete joy. And David seemed on top of it all from the start, and we were treated to almost the best gig of the five I saw (Birmingham 2 only wins ‘cos of the smile).

Oh yeah, it was a blast. ‘There seemed to be an unspoken agreement between me and the girl next to me that we’d match each other in pogoing, waving, clapping etc, which was fun. Nutter’s corner.’

David claimed early on that his voice was a bit shot – though it wasn’t really noticeable – and that he’d need help from us later on in the gig. ‘Then he launched into a raucous “Fashion”. Fantastic to hear that again. “Do you like Pixies? what about elves? Gnomes?” Ha! “Hang onto yourself” came early in the set, perhaps because it’s not too hard on his voice, or perhaps just for the hell of it. Made me worried it would be a truncated set for a short moment, but these fears were soon swept away! Then it was our turn to sing – I thought it’s be the shoutalong “Dudes” but no! It was “Starman”! And oh, the many thousand did warble their little heads off. Dude behind me was particularly loud, which was annoying, but I shouldn’t complain, seeing as he was probably a proper front row person (cough).

The only time any minor vocal gremlins were apparent was during “The Loneliest Guy” where he sounded ‘a bit husky’, but it didn’t detract from the song at all. ‘“What a lovely attentive audience you are!” he exclaimed afterwards, and offered us all milk and cookies. Bless. “Hallo Spaceboy” was once again unbelievable with him directly above, seemed to be staring right down at me in the second verse.’

From the programme

Everything was a bit more emotionally charged for me that night, knowing that it’d be my last time seeing David, at least for the time being. ‘I had a few more teary-eyed moments than usual, “Sunday” and “Life On Mars” in particular, but it was all in a happy way.’

David was back on form with the playful japery this night. First, Gail came in for some teasing when he introduced the band. ‘He got up to the point when he would announce Gail and said “… and that’s it.” Ha! I guess she got to announce herself with her storming vocals on “Under Pressure”.’

And later, after “Ashes to Ashes”, David decided to drive his band insane by making last minute alterations to the setlist. ‘For a little while, you never knew what was coming next, which made it one of the most exciting points of my tour, never more so than with the first of his random inclusions: “Be My Wife”. One of my personal faves, with its desolate urgency, and despondent plea for an end to loneliness, “I’ve lived all over the world, I’ve left every place…” Oh yes. Then, the gorgeous “Fantastic Voyage” again (“no, let’s do “Days”… no, let’s do “Fantastic”!”) Then he whipped out his harmonica and attempted to do “She’ll Drive The Big Car”, but had to stop the song due to sound problems. Apologised to the crowd, explaining in a voice somewhere between Ramona and Baby Grace that he’d had voices in his head telling him things, before launching into the songs again. And then we had the other great harmonica song “Jean Genie”.

During “I’m Afraid of Americans” someone threw a little teddy bear on stage, which provide more opportunity for frolics. ‘He first sat it up on the stage, then kicked it away and pointed to it in disdain as he sang the chorus. Another great live track, this one, excellent for pointing and punching the air.’

The main set ended with more than the usual emotional intensity. ‘“Heroes” had me all teary again, inevitably. Watching from the side as I was I had a great view of the crowd all around as the lights went up at the end, truly one of the biggest memories I’ll take away with me from this tour.’

From the programme

We waited for the encore. ‘I remember turning around, looking at the thousands hollering and stamping and clapping and trying to hold on to every minute of it. The encore began with another surprise: “White Light White Heat” which was a complete joy, leaping about and hollering “OHH OHH WHITE LIGHT!” etc. And following it, the inevitable end “Five Years”, “Suffragette City” (introduced by David vocalising a little of the riff) and “Ziggy Stardust”. As ever, a wonderful, joyous finale, David with his arms outstretched as “BOWIE” appears in he letters behind him, before linking arms with the band for a few bows.’

And with that moment, my A Reality journey ended.

That, then, was the end of my tour, but what a great way to end it. I no longer felt gutted that I wasn’t going to the last Euro date in Glasgow, as Wembley 2 had been as brilliant a finish as I could have hoped. (Except that Glasgow got “Let’s Dance”. Bastards.)’

But even though I never got to see David perform “Let’s Dance”, I was as far from disappointed as it was possible to be. Reflecting on my Bowie tour at its end, I marvelled at how fantastic it had been.

‘I cannot quite get to grips with how lucky I’ve been on this tour. Everything just kept falling together to make it the best possible introduction to the world of David Bowie live that I could ever have hoped for. It’s as though greater forces were conspiring to get me as close as possible to David every single night.’

And although I had one more Bowie gig ahead of me, at the following year’s Isle of Wight festival, this final gig of the A Reality tour feels like a full stop, an end to one phase of my life. Fifteen years on from discovering the life-changing wonder of David Bowie – and of music in general – I had finally fulfilled my dream of seeing him live in the most spectacular way possible. And without me knowing, my life at this moment was in a period of change. At 28, my youthful all-encompassing obsession with music and bands was coming to an end. And although I still had many great gigs ahead of me as my 20s ended and my 30s began, they were no longer my lifeblood, my reason for living. As I sailed towards 30, I finally made an attempt at Growing Up, and this last 2003 Bowie gig at Wembley feels, in retrospect, like the last gig I ever attended where the music was all that mattered in my life, where I lived and died for each note.

I have of course, rediscovered my musical obsessions during my 40s, and this very blog is a product of that rediscovery. But nothing can ever compare to the power and significance that your favourite music holds when you are young. It shapes you, inspires you, and makes you a better person – at least, that’s what Bowie did for me. And so I feel immensely privileged to reflect that this most intensely charged era of my life, where universes opened up before me and everything was mine to discover, was ignited by that most wonderful man David Bowie, and that, at its end, he was right there in front of me, affirming all that love a thousand times over.

He may no longer be here, but he’s still with us all, each and every one of us who he touched during that time when we shared our planetary journey. A huge part of the person I am today was, and continues to be, shaped by David Bowie. And if we’re talking about luck, I don’t think it gets any better than that.

He was our Starman. And boy, could he play guitar.

Click here for links to all my writing about David Bowie!

Categories: All the gigs of my life

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