I’m getting ready to move house. Everything is in boxes; even if it isn’t, assume you can’t find it. Packing is best accompanied by loud music, so I decided to embark on a somewhat futile project appropriate to the otherwise unproductive moment: the compilation of a representative version of every David Bowie tour.
However outlandish Bowie’s drag, bizarre his poses or alien his chic, the run of hits he enjoyed throughout my youth – from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – was unbeatable. He was always a step ahead. Then came the mid 80s: after ‘Let’s Dance’ he seemed out of ideas, ruined by success. But throughout all the subsequent ups and downs (until our total reconciliation, ‘Heathen’ in 2002), Bowie never let me down live, whether he was playing new songs for the first time, classics for ‘the last time ever’, or those same classics again a few years later. (One of Bowie’s most endearing traits is his blithe refusal to be taken at his word. The future is always proving him wrong.) Each tour was unique in image, personnel, instrumentation, repertoire and arrangements. When he toured a bad record, the songs were inestimably better in concert; when he toured a good one, the old songs, however mediocre, were neatly reinvented in his new idiom.
In my teenage years, I could have dedicated this kind of energy only to Bob Dylan. Various bearded teachers confirmed that Dylan was what mattered, lyrically speaking, and that speaking lyrically was all that mattered, pop music being essentially silly. I have an image of my teenage self on a train from Canterbury with an attaché case full of cassettes, spines identical but for a catalogue number. Perhaps I hoped that someone would catch sight of, and enquire about, the contents (rather than, say, laugh at me, as I might have laughed at someone with a similar briefcase full of Bowie).
I wasn’t a Dylan completist but my quality control was low. I fought tooth and claw for every C-90, each a dirty cassette head away from extinction. Nowadays they’re downloadable at the click of a mouse. It’s difficult to pick and choose when it’s all there: why bother? I remember an older collector blithely admitting that he hadn’t listened to any of his massive library: he was saving them for his retirement. He’d never catch up. Completism is doomed, particularly if the artist in question is alive. Mark Chapman may have felt that frustration and taken it out on John Lennon.
And now I find myself trying to make an informed decision on the relative quality of Hartford 14/9/95 and Dublin 24/11/95. It’s crucial because the particular versions of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and ‘Andy Warhol’ from that tour, redelivered via the speeding electronica of ‘1.Outside’ (a ‘Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle’ – or ‘album’ – that I proudly ignored on its release), bear little resemblance to any other versions of the songs. It isn’t Bowie’s voice that has changed – his vocal power remains miraculously undimmed. And he hasn’t refigured the melody, a tactic employed by of many of his contemporaries whose voices are irretrievably diminished, nor the lyrics (Dylan’s sometimes unwitting M.O. for stirring things up). It’s the songs themselves.
Listening to these tapes, without the distracting costumes and lights of the concert, we hear the subtlety of the changes more clearly. In this live progression, Bowie reveals himself a canny singer-songwriter, giving his audience regular updates on his state of mind, representing old material in light of new discoveries, often explaining with reference to his previous incarnations. ‘Do you remember a guy that’s been in such an early song?’ is the first line of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ referring to Major Tom from 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’. As a fourteen year old, it didn’t cross my mind that Bowie was giving a frank report on his drug addiction: pop music didn’t do that kind of thing. The video, all solarised colour and surreal imagery, was so sensational that I hardly heard the words.
Recently, I wandered down to the beach at Pett Level in Sussex, five minutes from my family home, to work out precisely where the video was filmed. Easily done. But it was listening to a definitive live version (BBC Radio Theatre 27/6/00) that it struck me: the chorus may be ‘Ashes to ashes/Funk to funky’, but the burial rite in the Book of Common Prayer begins ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes . . .’ Bowie omits the point of the song: he’s calling from earth to earth. He may have presented Major Tom as a spaceman, and since then painted himself as an alien, a chameleon and an androgyne, but the travelling has, like any other singer-songwriter’s, been terrestrial and interior.
The fear for Bowie fans is that completism may already be possible. Bowie remains visible but hasn’t played a concert since the emergency heart operation that curtailed ‘A Reality Tour’ in 2004. His audience has never previously had to wait so long for a new record. Perhaps my imperfectable project is unconsciously inspired by ‘Walking On Ice’, Werner Herzog’s account of his journey by foot from Munich to Paris to visit his perilously ill friend, the filmmaker Lotte Eisner. He believed she would survive as long as he was walking. She didn’t die for nine years.
Whether I think it is David Bowie or I in danger, however, I couldn’t say. We don’t move for another three weeks. Viva Bowie.
Photograph © Piano Piano!