David Bowie and his contingency of superstar guests blew the big steel doors off of Madison Square Garden on January 9, 1997 during his 50th birthday bash. The supporting cast included such luminaries as Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Robert Smith of the Cure, and Lou Reed.
The only damper on the show was the venue itself. There's something very synthetic and strange about the Garden. Maybe it's the sheer size of the place -- intimate it is not. Or perhaps it's the security guards who prowl the bleachers looking for any possible breeches of the Garden's no-smoking policy. They do such a good job, in fact, that it appeared Bowie himself was the only one who managed to enjoy a comfortable smoke during the course of the night.
All this notwithstanding, the show was clearly a knockout. One really has to see Bowie live to appreciate him. He's a startling blend of man and woman, performing a startling blend of rock and cabaret. He has a presence that captivates and seduces. Although his movements do appear choreographed, they are executed smoothly nonetheless, with a sense of timing that is nearly perfect.
During the opening number, "Little Wonder" (from the forthcoming Earthling album), a transparent screen, on which videos were superimposed, hung at stage front. Midway through the song, the screen lifted, allowing a clearer view of the band. Bowie looked elegant as hell, dressed in a knee-length jacket over an otherwise all-black outfit, sporting a well-trimmed goatee and a spiked coif of flaming red hair.
After a couple more songs, among them "Scary Monsters," the guests started to filter in, including the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Robert Smith. Needless to say, the biggest response was awarded to "the King of New York" (Bowie's words), Lou Reed.
Reed and Bowie performed Velvet Underground classics "Im Waiting for the Man" and "White Light/White Heat," in addition to "Dirty Blvd." from Reeds New York album. The performance of "White Light/White Heat" was phenomenal due in large part to the obvious relish that Bowie took in singing the song. It occurred to me that Reed has forever been Bowies idol, a fact that may not be apparent since Bowie has always sold more records. Bowie's commercial appeal is easy to peg: he's prettier and safer than Reed and has a more marketable voice (i.e., he sings in tune). Reed's biggest talents, a brilliant mind and a masterful gift for songwriting, are harder sells.
Following the obligatory birthday cake (trick candles and all), Bowie performed an encore with his final guest, Billy Corgan. The crowd brought Bowie back for a second encore, during which he appeared on-stage alone (backed by a few layers of synthesizers) for a sizzling rendition of "Space Oddity."
His delivery of the classic tune was well received by the crowd after an evening of precious few nuggets from his catalog of hits. More than ever before, it felt as if Bowie were singing about himself. He's always been a guarded individual, someone who might be told "to leave the capsule if you dare." However, in recent years, Bowie's personality has taken on a definitive aspect of warmth, it appears that he is finally, "stepping through the door."
In 1979, Jean Rook, of the Daily Express, asked him how he would face up to being 50 years old. "I shall welcome it, Lord yes," Bowie responded. "Pop stars are capable of growing old. Mick Jagger at 50 will be marvelous -- a battered old roué -- I can just see him. An aging rock star doesn't have to opt out of life. When I'm 50, I'll prove it."
Happy birthday, David. Right, you were.