The 1990s saw Billy Corgan become one of the decade’s defining characters as the lead singer of The Smashing Pumpkins. The band, along with Nirvana, helped grunge go mainstream then established the alternative rock scene too. David Bowie, meanwhile, had quite the opposite decade and found his career in an unfamiliar stagnant position, where he somehow fell out of vogue. However, an electric performance of ‘All The Young Dudes’ alongside Corgan shows that, despite losing music press favour, he never lost his special touch.
The performance took place in 1997 at Madison Square Garden, the night was a celebration of Bowie turning 50 and the birthday bash reads like a who’s who of rock royalty. The legendary singer welcomed Frank Black, the Foo Fighters, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Sonic Youth, and Lou Reed to the stage for a series of impressive performances. During the encore, Corgan had the unforgettable pleasure of getting to set foot on Madison Square Garden’s hallowed stage alongside the Starman and, together, tearing the roof of the New York building during the encore.
This period of Bowie’s career, in truth, was a very odd time for the singer. It’s strange to imagine a mercurial talent of Bowie’s excellence suffering from a career lull, but people had started to write The Thin White Duke off. He hadn’t been a darling of the musical landscape since 1983 effort Let’s Dance, and a month after this performance he released Earthling which was routinely loathed by critics following the release. That said, one night at Madison Square Garden proved everybody wrong.
Corgan poignantly talked about their friendship following Bowie’s sad death in 2016 and the difficult time that The Thin White Duke was going through when they shared the stage. With his own eyes, he saw how the music industry was attempting to spit out arguably the greatest artist of all time and taught him a harsh lesson about how the business operates.
“I got to know David Bowie a bit in the ’90s,” the singer recalled at a San Francisco Smashing Pumpkins VIP pre-show Q&A. “We were on the same label, we would cross paths here and there. He was treated horribly in the ’90s. It was really hard to watch. As he tried to find, and he did, eventually by taking that journey into whatever he needed to do. Towards the end of the ’90s, he started dialling back into this other thing, let’s call it the third version of himself.
“When you’re David Bowie and you’ve had incredible critical and commercial success through the first phase of your career, and don’t forget he had 12 or 13 failed singles before ‘Space Oddity’ became a hit song. He was considered a nobody then he was a somebody,” recalled the Pumpkins singer. “He was somebody through a very interesting period, then at the end of the ’70s [Bowie recorded] Low and Lodger, went very arty…I might be telling this story wrong but from what I understand he was basically broke at the beginning of the ’80s and that’s what brought on Let’s Dance. ‘I’m gonna back to the larger than life’ and you know, he was playing stadiums, he was massive again. So, that’s ‘Phase One’ and ‘Phase Two’.”
“The expectations and the weight of your legacy is so immense,” Corgan continued, “This is my own interpretation…[that] struggling very publicly to find a new voice in relation to the old one or find this sort of balance between things, he was treated very, very horribly. What I’m trying to say in my own language is that he wasn’t treated with the respect he was due. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t like it,’ but people treated him poorly like they forgot the guy he was.”
Corgan then concluded: “So it was amazing he was able to go through that and persevere towards the end of his life and make this great music. [To] draw people back to him to where they started realising, ‘Oh my God, he really is that fucking guy’ and unfortunately that was the end of the story or as much as we know now. Thank God he wound back to it, I can’t imagine what people would say.”
It’s almost unfathomable that Bowie went through a period of being seen as a ‘has been’ and that his best years were firmly behind him. The music industry is always looking for the next best thing, and even Bowie couldn’t escape its ghastly wrath. Earthling was Bowie keeping up with the times and putting his spin on the contemporary industrial rock movement. Looking back at the LP in 2020 and there’s certainly a lot of value to the work which leaves us to conclude that, during this time, he seemingly could do no right.
This night at Madison Square Garden was a pivotal one in his career by reimagining his classic hits with some of the world’s biggest stars such as Billy Corgan. Bowie’s career soon was rejuvenated as fans and critics alike realised what an incredible genius he was, which released him from this state of purgatory the industry had locked him in.
Check out the wonderous duet of ‘All The Young Dudes’, below.