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(Credit: John Hutchinson)


Listen to an amazing ultra-rare acoustic David Bowie performance of ‘Dead Man Walking’


When it comes to David Bowie, there is often so much razzmatazz in the mix that the fineries of his performative brilliance often get absorbed by the blinding mire. For instance, he is the perfect example of a musician dubbed “such an underrated singer” so many times that you can’t be sure where the baseline of his current rating even lies. The same can be said of his lyrical ability too, rendering him as artistically obscured in some sort of alien way that he no doubt would’ve loved. 

Part of the reason for this welter of hidden treasures is not just because the gaudy surface proved so dazzling that there was no real need to delve beneath it but also because of the sheer number of influences in the mix. From the soulful piano stylings of Nina Simone to the wild avant-garde ways of Klaus Nomi, the wild vaudeville show of Bowie’s artistry made the difficult to appraise the individual elements and as such he was simply celebrated as a whole. 

In some ways, the song ‘Dead Man Walking’ is a paradigm of that. For starters, it has a title that could come straight from the songbook of Robert Johnson and the delta blues past of rock ‘n’ roll, which seems a paradox in itself for a man who was all about the future, particularly on the 1997 album Earthling which spawned the track. However, Bowie forever dabbled into the history of music as a way to see what might happen next. As it happens, ‘Dead Man Walking’ also had a much more literal connection to the past.

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The guitar riff used in the song actually goes back to the mid-1960s when Jimmy Page taught Bowie how to play it. Naturally, when Page teaches you a guitar riff, you make good note of it, regardless of how intoxicated you may or may not have been at the time. “Jimmy said, ‘I’ve got this riff and I can’t do anything with it. Do you want it?'” Bowie once recalled. The ‘Starman’ originally used a version of the riff for the track ‘The Supermen’ featured on the 1970 release The Man Who Sold the World

However, it remained at the forefront of his mind thereafter and when Earthling came around almost 30 years after he originally heard the riff, he teamed up with guitarist Reeves Gabrels (former Tin Machine, current the Cure member) to repurpose it once more. “It does sound fairly Page-y, like a mutated Johnny Burnette Trio thing,” Gabrels would later opine. 

In the ultra-rare acoustic performance below that Page-y swamped blues sound might be detectable, but what is most notable is yet another Bowie paradox: When everything is stripped back even more depth seems to come to the fore. Bowie’s singing is soaring, his textured strumming work gives the song great intonation alongside Gabrels more thunderous lead-line and the lyrics weave through the old bluesy past into the world of intertextual remarks. At first, it shocks you because of how rare it is to hear Bowie stripped back, then it shocks you because you wonder why he didn’t do it more often, but ultimately you are reminded ‘It’s Bowie, he’ll forever be shocking any which way!’