David Bowie starred in the first movie I ever took a date to: Labyrinth. In the entertaining but totally ridiculous 1986 Henson/Lucasfilm fantasy epic, Bowie played Jareth, the Goblin King — and did so with more debonair charm than anyone cavorting with Muppets in a blond fright wig should be allowed to have.
I already knew who David Bowie was, of course, and liked some of his songs. “Modern Love,” in particular, was my jam (and still is). But for some reason it wasn't until I saw him hand-jiving with crystal balls and singing songs about kidnapping babies that I became a full-fledged fan.
When Bowie died one year ago today, I didn't feel capable of adding my voice to the chorus of tributes and remembrances that flooded the media. Partly, like many, I was just too shell-shocked to muster the words — but partly, I think I also felt unworthy of the task. Because my Bowie was not the cool Bowie of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane and the Berlin trilogy. I knew about those Bowies, too, and over the course of my fandom, I plucked my favorite bits from those incarnations — a little “Queen Bitch” here, a little “Boys Keep Swinging” there. But I was a latecomer to '70s Bowie and he never quite felt like mine. In a way, he still doesn't.
Instead, my Bowie was the late-'80s Bowie of Labyrinth and Never Let Me Down. Hollywood Bowie. Burnt-out superstar Bowie. The cynical, running-out-of-ideas Bowie. The Bowie who would eventually abandon his solo career — and his devoted fan base — in favor of an impenetrably gloomy rock band called Tin Machine and the role of Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ.
I didn't care. I loved everything my new rock hero did. Apparently everyone at the time thought the Glass Spider Tour, the 86-date stadium run supporting Never Let Me Down, was awful, but I was enthralled. Who wouldn't be? The stage was a 50-foot spider with light-up legs. Bowie entered by descending from the spider's belly in a silver chair, singing into a telephone. His lead guitarist was Peter Frampton, because why not? He was David fucking Bowie, the biggest star of the '80s this side of Michael Jackson, and he was clearly enjoying the fact that nobody was around to say, “David, that idea sounds both expensive and terrible.”
It's difficult for me to explain why I loved this incarnation of Bowie so much at the time — and why part of me still does, even though I can look back on Never Let Me Down now and see that, with a few exceptions like the sighing title track, it's not a very good record. The music, much like the tour that accompanied it, too often feels hollow and overproduced, suffering from that late-'80s Trevor Horn thing where everything's slathered in gated reverb and devoid of soul, even when individual components of the track — a saxophone burst there, a funky bass fill there — are clearly meant to signify something resembling soul music.
But I think what I still love about Bowie from this period is that, while he was clearly becoming bored with making this kind of slickly produced pop music (and even later admitted, “My lack of interest in my own work was really becoming transparent”), he couldn't resist the impulse to see how far he could take it. Instead of backing off from Never Let Me Down's most ridiculous, poorly conceived moments, he doubled down on them, making elaborately staged versions of several of the album's tracks the focal points of his 1987 world tour.
The Glass Spider Tour was named after Never Let Me Down's worst track, a clunky curio called “Glass Spider” that sounds like it was written by Jareth after drinking too much goblin wine. During the show, besides singing into a telephone and crawling around in a straitjacket (an obvious metaphor, intentional or not, for his career at the time), he did a lame parody of the pull-a-girl-from-the-audience bit from Bruce Springsteen's “Dancing in the Dark” video in which the girl (shocker!) turned out to be a planted backup dancer. For the encore, he'd come back out and play Stooges and Velvet Underground songs dressed in a gold lamé suit and gold-winged cowboy boots. The Goblin King had become a troll, seeing how far he could push the absurdity level before his audience called bullshit.
After the Glass Spider Tour concluded, Bowie did an about-face and retreated into the “just one of the blokes in the band” anonymity of Tin Machine, his hard-rock folly with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and bassist/drummer brothers Hunt and Tony Sales. Though I loved the impulse behind this gesture — “Fuck everything! Rip it up and start again!” — I couldn't quite hang with the actual music, which was even more poorly conceived than “Glass Spider.” I bought the first Tin Machine album and listened to it obsessively for a few months, but I could never connect with its mix of overcooked guitar histrionics and half-baked social commentary. (“Right-wing dicks in their boiler suits”? Seriously, David?) This was Bowie giving in fully to his cynicism, no longer toying with his audience but simply telling them to fuck off.
Instead, I retreated into Bowie's pre–”Space Oddity” catalog, which an old high school friend had just turned me on to — 20-odd songs that capture the young David Jones fumbling toward a sound to call his own in a mix of Anthony Newley–esque English music hall romps and psychedelic folk ballads. I found myself connecting with these early tunes more than with Bowie's better-known material — maybe because, after following him through Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine, I preferred Bowie the misunderstood weirdo to Bowie the glam-rock god turned pop star.
Also, not incidentally, his early stuff is nearly all fantastic. The best-known tune from this period is “The Laughing Gnome,” which is unfortunate because it's also far and away the silliest — the “Glass Spider” of Bowie's youth. Most of his early songs (which his first label, London/Deram, has milked relentlessly in a bewildering series of compilations and reissues, of which Images 1966-1967 is probably the best) were far more humane and richly detailed. Barely out of his teens, Bowie was already a master storyteller. I still find songs like “Come and Buy My Toys” totally captivating. The wit and warmth he would later bring even to something as absurd as Labyrinth was already there.
I only saw Bowie live one other time: his 1990 Sound+Vision Tour, billed as his final tour as a solo artist, after which he would never again play his catalog (fortunately, a vow he failed to make good on). I was an exchange student living in London at the time, so that's where I saw him — which sounds way cooler than it actually was.
On paper, the Sound+Vision Tour was a thrilling proposition: The Thin White Duke, trotting out all his greatest hits one last time with a stripped-down but talented backing band, which included Adrian Belew (whom he had worked with during his Berlin period) on guitar. They even offered the gimmick of a “Dial-a-Dave Fave” hotline that fans could call to request which songs would be included in the set list. Inevitably, some wankers at NME launched a campaign to get him to play “The Laughing Gnome,” which he wisely declined to do.
In reality, however, the tour left much to be desired — and not just because I saw it at the Docklands Arena, a cold, miserable shed of a venue with the acoustics of a shipping container, which I was happy to learn, in the course of researching this essay, has since been demolished. Bowie seemed frosty and distracted from the start, ripping through his best-known songs with an air of bitter disinterest. The minimalist band — Bowie's acoustic guitar, Belew's electric, bass, drums, occasionally some keyboard — robbed richly arranged songs like “Young Americans” and “Changes” of their vibrancy. There was zero theatricality, no between-song banter, no joy. Immediately following the tour, Bowie would return to the studio and finish crapping out the second and (thankfully) final Tin Machine album. He was still in “fuck off” mode.
The highlight of the entire show — the only thing I remember from that night, honestly — came during “Queen Bitch,” possibly my favorite song from the Mick Ronson years. About four bars into it, Bowie stopped the band. “Too slow,” he admonished them, close enough to his mic for 15,000 fans to hear him upbraiding Adrian fucking Belew for failing to correctly play a fairly simple glam-rock riff.
The band started up again, and all of them, Bowie included, attacked the song with newfound vigor. Maybe they were all just pissed at one another and channeling that anger into the song's strutting rhythms. But whatever the reason, it was magic.
That live rendition of “Queen Bitch” remains my favorite memory of David Bowie — and as with most things relating to my Bowie fandom, it's difficult to explain why. I guess what I loved about it was seeing his façade of indifference crack. Even when he was trying not to care, Bowie still cared deeply — about his music, his artistry and, above all, his fans, who deserved a properly played version of “Queen Bitch,” goddammit.
I've spent the past year kicking myself that I never saw him live again, especially on his A Reality Tour, which proved to be his last. A few friends of mine were fortunate enough to see him play the Wiltern as part of that tour in 2004 and all said it was one of the best concerts they had ever attended. (Though according to Setlist.fm, he didn't play “Queen Bitch.”)
But I'm still glad I discovered David Bowie when I did. Even when he wasn't at the top of his game, Bowie was a hundred times more interesting that nearly any other artist of his stature, because he was constantly poking at the edges of his talent, seeing where he could take things next. When I saw him, that meant him descending from the belly of a giant spider to the strains of a Peter Frampton guitar solo. Maybe that pales in comparison to seeing him at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in '72, or Wembley Arena in '83, or the Wiltern in 2004. But it was enough to make me a lifelong fan, and I'm grateful that it did.