SEPTEMBER 8th 2005
SEPTEMBER 15th 2005
MAY 29th 2006
NOVEMBER 9th 2006
MAY 19th 2007
David Bowie: Vocals
Mike Garson: Piano
Arcade Fire, David Gilmour and Alicia Keys
Life On Mars? | Five Years | Wake Up | Queen Bitch | Arnold Layne | Comfortably Numb | Wild Is The Wind | Fantastic Voyage | Changes
Following his return to New York in July 2004, David Bowie's profile remained understandably low-key but by no means reclusive. His first public appearance after his heart operation took the form of a stroll in the city's Chinatown district on July 27th. In September and October he attended concerts by rising Brit stars Franz Ferdinand, while on November 11th he was among several famous faces in attendance at a Bowery Ballroom gig by the Montreal band Arcade Fire, whose album Funeral David had been championing for some time. Over the winter he continued to see concerts and shows on and off Broadway, and in the New Year he made a brief appearance in a spoof Comic Relief "video diary" shot in New York by Ricky Gervais and screened on March 11th as part of BBC1's Red Nose Day, the joke being that Gervais's overexcited voice-over drowned out everything Bowie had to say.
Rumours that David would perform at one of the Live 8 concerts on July 2nd 2005 turned out to be unfounded, but later the same month came the welcome announcement that he was to return to the stage for the first time since the premature conclusion of A Reality Tour. The occasion was the latest Fashion Rocks event at Radio City Music Hall on September 8th, marking the opening of the New York Fall Fashion Week. At the end of August the Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and it was announced that all proceeds from the event would be donated to the relief fund. Introduced by Alicia Keys, Bowie took to the stage in an outlandish outfit perhaps intended to offer a lighthearted reflection of his recent health troubles: like the Lodger sleeve come to life, he wore a charcoal suit with trousers so absurdly short as to resemble those of a Dickensian urchin, a bandaged left hand and a right eye blackened with make-up. In this memorable form he sang "Life On Mars?" to the accompaniment of Mike Garson's piano, leaving the stage to tumultuous applause. Later in the show David returned in a more conventional black shirt, tweed trousers and waistcoat, the bandage and eye make-up now removed, and strapped on a 12-string guitar to perform a barnstorming "Five Years" with his new best friends Arcade Fire. This was followed by the band's own number "Wake Up", on which David shared lead vocals with singer Win Butler. The show was broadcast on CBS the following day, and Bowie's three live tracks were later made available for download in aid of Hurricane Katrina charities.
"It's great to be back," David told reporters after the show. "I loved every minute of being back on stage. I didn't want to come off - I could have stayed up there all night. I feel fantastic at the moment." Inevitably, he was quizzed about his health. "After I had the heart attack I decided to take a year off and do nothing," he said. "I didn't do any work and just made sure I looked after myself. I go to the gym, I don't drink and I'm feeling really good today. I gave up smoking six months before I had the heart attack - so that was worth it, wasn't it! I started to give up when my daughter was born because I wouldn't smoke in the house with her there so I had to go outside. It's bloody cold in winter in New York, so I just quit. As far as I'm concerned I lead a healthy lifestyle now, so it did come as a bit of a shock to have a heart attack, but I feel on top of the world after tonight."
A few days later on September 15th David made a second appearance with Arcade Fire, joining the band during the encores of their concert at New York's Central Park SummerStage. Wearing a lilac suit and Panama hat, David led a rousing "Queen Bitch" followed once again by an ecstatically received "Wake Up".
In February 2006 David was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Grammys ceremony, but remained reassuringly true to his traditional attitude to such backslapping events and neglected to show up for the occasion.
In London on May 29th 2006, a week before shooting his cameo appearance in Extras, Bowie took even his most devoted fans by surprise when he made an unheralded guest appearance during the encores of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall by Pink Floyd alumnus David Gilmour, then touring his solo album On An Island. The show had already boasted guest spots from David Crosby, Graham Nash and Robert Wyatt, but the biggest treat was kept until the end, when Gilmour introduced the third famous David of the evening. Wearing a charcoal suit, burgundy shirt and black scarf, Bowie entered to a standing ovation and proceeded to join Gilmour for the Floyd classics "Arnold Layne" and "Comfortably Numb", later declaring that he had " had a ball." Remarkably, it was his first appearance at this most famous of London's concert venues since 1970. It was also his first encounter with Robert Wyatt, a songwriter for whom he had often expressed his admiration. Wyatt later described David as "an extremely nice young man...and what he was doing on stage was blindingly good. All due respect to Syd, but his songs couldn't have been realised any better. David's voice is terrific now - it's got a warm weight to it, and real authority."
May 2006 also brought the news that Bowie was to be the curator of the inaugural High Line Festival, a brand new annual arts and music project for New York City named after a massive public works project to create a park on the disused elevated train lines on the city's West Side. Set to take place a year hence, the 10-day event would feature guest artists selected by David, and the initial press announcement included the exciting news that the festival would culminate in a large-scale outdoor concert given by Bowie himself.
Back in New York, on August 17th David saw Gnarls Barkley perform at Central Park, and a month later on September 26th he took to the stage to introduce them at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square. The big event of the season came on November 9th 2006, when he performed at the Black Ball benefit concert hosted by Iman and Alicia Keys at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The event was in aid of the Keep A Child Alive charity, providing AIDS drugs and education in Africa. In the weeks leading up to the concert, both David and Iman were among those featured in the associated poster campaign, depicting various Western celebrities daubed in face-paint above the slogan "I am African".
At the Black Ball, Bowie sang "Wild Is The Wind" accompanied by Mike Garson on piano, before joining Alicia Keys's band to perform "Fantastic Voyage", and finally duetting with Keys herself on "Changes". Rapturously received as ever, it was considered at the time to be a good omen for the following spring's comeback concert.
As David turned 60 in January 2007 there was an understandable surge of interest, and commemorative features duly blossomed across the broadcast and print media. However, on January 22nd came the disappointing news that "due to ongoing work on a new project", Bowie would not after all be performing at the High Line Festival, although he would continue as the event's curator. When the Festival opened on May 9th, it was clear that although David had withdrawn from performing, the line-up was very much his work. There were several of his current favourites (Arcade Fire, TV On The Radio, Deerhoof, Secret Machines) and a number of familiar avant-garde fixtures, some of whom had featured on his Meltdown bill five years earlier: Daniel Johnston, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Bang On A Can All Stars, The Polyphonic Spree, Laurie Anderson, Meow Meow and John Cameron Mitchell. Representing the visual arts were an exhibition of work by the French portraitist Claude Cahun and a series of underwater films by Laurie McLeod, which were projected onto a water tower at the corner of 14th Street and Washington Street. Also on offer to festival-goers were "David Bowie's ten favourite Latin-American and Spanish films". It was a busy time for David: in addition to his festival commitments he filmed his cameo appearance in Austin Chick's drama August during the same fortnight.
Bowie, who attended Arcade Fire's curtain-raiser at Radio City Music Hall and many of the subsequent High Line concerts, proclaimed himself particularly delighted to have booked Ken Nordine, the veteran 87-year-old recording artist famed for his Word Jazz albums. "I remember hearing him around 1960 on the Armed Forces Radio in London," David recalled, "and the effect of his storytelling had me ordering his album Word Jazz. It took what seemed like a year to arrive, but it meant so much to me." Mike Garson provided the opening act for Nordine's shows on May 16th and 17th, unveiling a new composition of his own entitled "Theme And Variations on Space Oddity". Other familiar faces performing at High Line included Air, who had remixed "A Better Future" five years earlier, and Ricky Gervais, returning the compliment of David's guest appearance in Extras. Gervais's gig on May 19th formed the finale of High Line, and David himself took to the stage to introduce him, delighting the crowd at Madison Square Garden with an off-the-cuff rendition of the "Pug Nosed Face" song from Extras. Gervais told the audience that he could already picture the next day's headlines: "The Thin White Duke brings out the Fat White Duck...Piggy Stardust...Chunky Dory."
Over the next few years Bowie would continue to be a familiar fixture in New York society, attending charity galas, sitting on the judging panel of the Tribeca Film Festival, proudly joining his son Duncan at screenings of his breakthrough film Moon, and above all taking in show after show. In January 2011, shortly before beginning work on sessions for The Next Day, he took his daughter to see a preview of the beleaguered Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark ("He sent me the reasons he didn't like it," the show's co-composer Bono later revealed, "and everything he said was really helpful"). Busy in the recording studio, and his thoughts increasingly turning towards staging his own New York theatre project, Bowie no longer had any appetite for live performance. When The Next Day propelled him back into the spotlight in 2013, Tony Visconti told The Times that there was "no possibility whatsoever" of Bowie playing Glastonbury or any of the other festivals for which he was rumoured to be lined up for that summer. "He told me what he wants to do is make records," insisted Visconti. "He does not want to tour. He's been doing it for more than 30 years and he's tired of it."
"Three-quarters through the Reality tour," Mike Garson told Rolling Stone in the day's after David's death, "he said, 'You know, Mike, after this tour, I'm just going to be a father and live a normal life. And I'm going to be there for Lexi while she grows up. I missed it the first time.'"
And so David Bowie's live career ended on November 9th 2006, with a beautiful performance of "Changes" at the Hammerstein Ballroom - or, if you prefer, it ended on May 19th 2007, with an impromptu audience clapalong of "Pug Nosed Face" at Madison Square Garden. Take your pick. I think he'd have been happy with either.