Of all the glamourous celebrity birthday parties, David Bowie’s 1997 one, the Starman’s 50th, was the most electrifying. While the Thin White Duke mesmerised the audience with his performance in New York’s Madison Square Garden on the night of his birthday, the second night was all about “getting partyfied” as the birthday boy stated himself.
Bowie’s 50th birthday party was as sparkly as the milky way being attended by the stars of the music industry. Among the A-list artists who graced the event were Lou Reed, who was also one of Bowie closest mates, the Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Pixie’s Frank Black, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and so on.
The night turned out to be the most amazing jamming session, where the special guests joined Bowie one by one to sing his popular as well as obscure songs. Though Bowie refrained from performing some of his biggest hits such as ‘Modern Love’, ‘Let’s Dance’ or anything from the Ziggy Stardust series, he didn’t deprive the party attenders from the pleasure of listening to ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘Space Oddity’, and ‘Heroes’.
He said to the New York Daily Use, “I wouldn’t have expected to have such an appetite for life at this point, I had assumed, like romantic poetic heroes, that I would burn it all out. But nothing has been quenched. I’m still feeling fiery.”
Here are the top five performances from Bowie’s 50th birthday party:
‘Fashion’ with Frank Black
Bowie’s 1980 single featured in the Scary Monsters album was inspired by ‘Golden Years’, a 1975 hit. The song’s arrangement tilts towards funk and reggae with occasional mechanical riffs by guest guitarist Robert Fripp. Though a rhythmic catchy number, the song’s subject is a serious one that talks about fascism and a “goon squad” that all play into the juxtaposition of fashion as a throwaway concept. In truth, Bowie was highlighting the growing constrictions in fashion and art in general.
The live performance was different from the recorded version in some aspects. The guitar solo sounded more engaging and there were a few harmony lines that added extra oomph. But more noticeable was the contrasting stage presence. The simply-attired Black, lead singer of the Pixies and one of Bowie’s own favourite performers, stood stoically beside the glamourous Bowie. But despite such varying personalities and styles, the two pulled off the song in the most harmonious way.
‘Hallo Spaceboy’ with The Foo Fighters
First released in his 1995 album Outside, the song was a remix version of 1996 featured The Pet Boys. Bryon Gysin is said to be the song’s influence and said “Moondust will cover me” before his death in1986. After finishing the track, Bowie said, “I adore that track. In my mind, it was like Jim Morrison meets industrial. When I heard it back, I thought, ‘Fuck me. It’s like metal Doors.’ It’s an extraordinary sound.”
Before the vocals appear in the recorded version, the rhythm created by the shredded electric guitar pattern and the snare of drums gives a thrash metal vibe. The live performance with the Foo Fighters is a less intense one which helped to draw attention to intrinsic guitar lines that were shrouded in the original due to heavy instrumentation.
It’s a powerful number featuring two of the rock world’s best. Dave Grohl and David Bowie would go on to share a trusting friendship throughout the years that followed.
‘Quicksand’ with Robert Smith
One of Bowie’s flawless compositions, the song was first released in the 1971 album, Hunky Dory. Tinged with a folkish tune, it features multi-tracked acoustic guitars along with string arrangement by Mick Ronson. Lyrically it explored the concepts of Buddhism, occultism and Nietzsche’s theory of “Superhuman.”
While the ballad in its recorded version captured the metaphysical state of Bowie, the live performance creates a completely different soundscape. The additional drums and electric guitar delivered a peppier version that though not as hauntingly beautiful as the original, is fit for a birthday concert.
There is perhaps no clearer line drawn between inspiration and artist than Bowie and Rober Smith. It’s clear to see that without the Starman an artist like Robert Smith would struggle to exist. It’s also clear, from the footage below, that Smith knows this.
‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ with the Sonic Youth
Co-written by Bowie and Brian Eno during the studio sessions of Outside, the song was released in the 1997 album Earthling. This was also Bowie’s last hit single apart from the posthumous ones.
Talking about the thought behind the song Bowie said, “It’s not as truly hostile about Americans as say ‘Born in the U.S.A.’: it’s merely sardonic. I was travelling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, for fuck’s sake. The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.”
Sonic Youth were huge Bowie admirers and this is probably why they kept composition and arrangement intact. The only small addition was the siren-like tone produced with the electric guitar. Star-struck Thurston Moore said while recalling the event, “He asked Sonic Youth to play ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ with his band at his 50th birthday party at Madison Square Garden in 1997. We met and rehearsed a couple of times and played the gig and it was all amazing.”
‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ with Lou Reed
Originally a Velvet Underground song, it was written by Lou Reed and released in their 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico. The man in the title of the song is a drug dealer, waiting at the corner of the street in Harlem to purchase heroin. A typical Velvet Underground song, it didn’t receive much attention during its time like most of the lot.
Bowie who was a close friend and admirer of Lou Reed however didn’t fail to notice the song’s potential. He later recorded the song interpreting it in his own way. His addition of melody shifted the song’s mood. On Bowie’s birthday night Lou Reed played Bowie’s version of the song.
This was probably the most precious gift for Bowie — a chance to perform a song he loved alongside a man he admired with a crowd who adored him. Perfection.