Sunday, March 7, 2021

March 7th 1990, David Bowie at the Skydome

I've been a David Bowie fan since I was ten years old and I saw the video for Ashes to Ashes for the first time. I don't know the exact date that it happened, but it was in the early evening and I was looking for something to watch on TV. Somewhere around this time I had just discovered that if I could get away from the dinner table before anybody else I could commandeer the TV remote and decide what to watch by myself. That was an exciting development for me and even though it sometimes meant missing dessert, it gave me an opportunity to watch whatever TV shows piqued my own fancy, instead of what the rest of the family were interested in watching.

I imagine that a lot of children have their tastes and interests molded and shaped by whatever their parents expose them to, and they share those interests with their parents for however long until they have the opportunity to develop tastes of their own. Presumably a certain number of children are probably content to maintain those same interests into their adult lives and that probably explains the enduring popularity of The Beatles and AC/DC, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I also imagine that some children independently discover something wonderful and new and Awesome that's totally different from anything else they've seen or experienced with their families and that causes those children to head off in a new direction all their own. 

That's what happened to me when I saw the video for Ashes to Ashes.

It was one of those days when I had control of the remote and the rest of the family were eating maple walnut ice cream, and I stumbled across this amazingly surreal landscape of flowing colours and fluid shapes paired with an alien soundtrack unlike anything I'd ever heard. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced up to that point in my life, and I distinctly remember a deliciously cold rush down my spine, a completely new feeling that I really Really REALLY liked. I still get that same cold rush whenever I see the video, even after all these years.

And in that moment my life was changed. Completely and irrevocably changed. I was introduced to a whole new ideal of beauty, the Pierrot costume, the space suit, Bowie tethered to the frame of a decaying spaceship, the bulldozer, all of these images and so much more. I was seeing a whole new world for the very first time, images that resonated with me on a particular frequency that I'd never been exposed to prior, a frequency that I would be attuned to for the rest of my life. For those three and a half minutes the world was filled with beauty and possibilities that I'd never considered and I can honestly say that I would never look at anything the same way again.

For years I've struggled to try and explain the significance that video had in my development, but I just don't have the vocabulary to put it in words beyond what I've already said.  This was a profound moment, a mind-blowing revelation that completely redefined the way I thought, the way that I looked at the world. And yes, I realize that at ten I hadn't really had much experience with either of those things, but damn it, even at ten I knew that I had gone through a change that was an important first step in becoming my own person. No, I wasn't inspired to become a strung out astronaut or a beach combing clown, but it was the first time in my life that I had ever thought of myself defined by my own terms.  I wasn't really sure what those terms were, but I knew that Ashes to Ashes was somehow connected in an abstract way to a new ideal of "me" that was starting to develop in my head. I resolved to find out more about David Bowie, reasoning that if he could do something as incredible as that video then maybe he might have done other incredible things, and in learning about those I also had a vague notion that I might find out a little bit more about this new concept of "me" that was starting to take shape.

It took a while to amass a collection of his work, this was before the internet and Spotify so I had to track down vinyl and rare CDs at physical stores, but slowly I was able to pick up an assortment of releases from the Bowie catalog, and as I discovered more of his music I started seeing more and more of myself in what I was hearing. It seemed as though every song offered a new piece of advice or new context for the world around me or a valuable new secret that I could learn from as I was stumbling through my own teenage wasteland. The more I listened to it, the more I started to see this music as a blueprint for the life I wanted to live, a road map for a future where I could grow up and become the adult that I wanted to be. Being young and bisexual in the suburbs of Toronto in the eighties had it's own unique set of challenges, and Bowie's music helped me find comfort with who I was, helped me gain the confidence to deal with all the scary monsters and changes that I was going through at the time. Among many other things, Bowie's music taught me that it was okay to be bi, and even more importantly it was okay to be me.

In addition to this liberating new sense of self-awareness, Bowie opened strange doors that would lead me to new musical discoveries, new art, new literature, new movies and more, pathways that would further lead me towards a better understanding of myself as a person.  His music inspired discovery and exploration and sex and adventure and a million other things. Bowie was the catalyst for so many of the things I discovered growing up, and I'll always be grateful for those introductions. Through his music I found myself exposed to a multi-faceted carnival of wonders with myriad layers of discovery that shifted and grew with me as I got older.  His music spoke to my nascent interest in science fiction, songs of tragic and beautiful worlds filled with heroes and villains and everyday people thrust into new situations they had to deal with. There was a feeling of strength in his songs, a sense of fragility too, but mostly a shared belief that we were all part of something bigger, we could all be something better if we tried a little harder and hoped for the best. Bowie's music taught me to look for the beauty amidst the dirt and grime, taught me that even amid the existential torment of impending doom there was always something worth living for, something that made everything alright. 

My appreciation for Bowie continued through the years, I kept listening to his records, I saw him play at the CNE on the Glass Spider tour in 1987, I kept poring over used record bins looking for elusive seven inches and bootlegs from past shows. And then in 1990 Bowie announced the Sound+Vision world tour. Timed to promote the release of his back catalog in CD format on the Rykodisc label, Sound+Vision was marketed as a greatest hits tour that would simultaneously celebrate his entire career, and serve as an opportunity to retire a decent chunk of his back catalog from live performances. Bowie explained at the time that he didn't want to be playing Space Oddity and Fame and all the hits for the rest of his life, so he was going to use this retrospective tour as a last chance to play them live, and then move forward with new material in the 90s. The way he was saying it, if you wanted to see Ashes to Ashes or Fashion or Young Americans or any of the other hits, this was going to be your last chance.

Needless to say, I was all in for this idea.

It should be noted that around the same time that the show was announced I had just started dating Mara, and I was head over heels in love with her. She was smart and engaging, she was fun to be around, and she had the most beautiful smile of anybody that I had ever met up to that point. My heart filled with light every time that I looked at her, and being able to spend time with her was the greatest joy I had. Admittedly, Mara didn't like David Bowie quite as much as I did, but she was still a big fan and we were both pretty excited about the possibility of seeing him live. And normally this would be the part in the story where I told you about lining up for a week behind a trash compactor to get tickets, or about selling a kidney to raise some extra cash so I could buy us a pair of tickets from a scalper, or something equally as interesting and compelling that would make for good blog reading. But unfortunately this part of the story isn't as interesting as that. It was really just a simple case of having a friend with connections who knew that I really liked David Bowie and he very kindly and very thoughtfully helped me get tickets for the show. 

Tickets in the first row as a matter of fact

When he handed them to me he apologized saying that they weren't dead centre, they were actually on the left side of the stage, but I knew that Bowie moved around a lot at his shows, so certainly there would be times where he'd make it over to where we were sitting. My friend also told me that he had gotten a third ticket and his Mom was going to be sitting with us. And that was totally fine because his Mom was pretty cool and she was almost as big of a David Bowie fan as I was, so, y'know, Mara and I would be in good company.

Leading up to the show I didn't tell Mara where we were sitting, 'cause I thought it would be more fun to surprise her when we got there. And on the night of the show when we arrived at the Skydome we kept walking deeper and deeper into the depths of the venue, through the stands, past the last section of floors, past the middle section, and past all of the first section until we were pressed up against the barrier just three feet away from the stage, along with my friend's Mom who had gotten there ahead of us, already bursting with excitement about being so close. And as we sat down and waited for the show to begin, Mara smiled wider and brighter at me than I'd ever seen her smile before, the kind of smile that stays with you forever.

When the lights went down the Skydome erupted with cheers, and after a couple of minutes of build up, the darkness was broken by a single spotlight that shone on David Bowie, strumming the opening bars of Space Oddity at a microphone three feet in front of us. All of a sudden, everybody else in the audience vanished, and me and Mara and my friend's Mom were three feet away from David Bowie. And while he would walk around the entire stage over the course of the show, he would spend a better part of the next two hours singing directly to me and Mara and my friend's Mom. 

I'd like to take this opportunity to extend a heartfelt thank you to my friend with connections. You truly outdid yourself that evening, and there will always be a special place in my heart for you for making this moment happen for the three of us.

Bowie was dressed in a pair of black slacks and a white shirt with a black vest that evening. I was pleased to see that he was no longer wearing the mullet that he had sported on the 1987 tour, and his hair was styled in a very fashionable short but sassy cut that was both sophisticated and flattering. I should point out that the white shirt he was wearing was kind of a frilly pirate shirt, but seriously, I'm not going to hold that against him, he still looked fucking awesome. The stage was stark, with microphones for Bowie and guitarist Adrian Belew at the left and right side of the stage respectively, and a drum kit in the back. Erdal Kizilcay played bass on that tour and I have a vague recollection of him being on the right side of the stage. Behind the band there was a large video screen that stretched from the floor to the lighting rig, and many of the songs had really cool black and white videos that played along with the band. 

A really sweet run through Changes followed after Space Oddity, and then Rebel Rebel was up next. I've always loved that song and I was really impressed that he played the single version of the track with the "La la la lala la la la la laaaaa" intro rather than the album cut with the "Doo doo de doo doo de doodoo" opening, I've always preferred the single version. And as the song progressed he spent most of it looking at the three of us, Mara and my friend's Mom and I, staring at me directly and even pointing at me when he sang the line "Hot Tramp! I love you so...". When we talked about it afterwards Mara was pretty sure that he was pointing at her, but I was certain Bowie recognized me as the bigger fan. It just seemed more reasonable that he thought I was a Hot Tramp and that he would love me. Mara and I never settled that debate, but to this day I remain sure that he was talking to me.

So yeah, Bowie called me a Hot Tramp and told me that he loved me, so I've got that going for me.

And that's pretty good...

During Be My Wife, Bowie came up to the very edge of the stage and started reaching out to the crowd. And part of me really wanted to shake his hand, but I just couldn't do it, I just couldn't reach out. As much as I enjoyed the connection we had with him during the show, as much as Bowie's music meant to me, I just couldn't reconcile the idea of him being a flesh and blood human being. I wanted to keep some distance between the idea of David Bowie as the artist that I had constructed in my head and the person that he really was, and while seeing him perform live was in keeping with the Bowie construct I had imagined in my mind, shaking his hand just didn't work for me. I guess a lot of people would have felt differently if they had the same opportunity, certainly a number of people had no qualms reaching out and shaking his hand that evening, but even after all these years I still think I did the right thing. Or at least I did the right thing for me.

As expected, he played Ashes to Ashes shortly after that, and seeing that song performed live was everything I had hoped for and more. The live version maintained the haunting quality of the original but added a certain raw element that made it more visceral and present. It was an inspired performance, and if the show ended then I would have been ecstatic.

But it had only just begin.

Fashion was amazing, Blue Jean and Let's Dance were punched up and made all the more cool. Stay was ferocious and huge, and Bowie's voice was particularly stunning on that one.

After that there was a short intermission and I ran to the bathroom. I bumped into some friends on the way back and they agreed it was one of the best shows they'd ever seen. We spent some time guessing about songs for the second set, and I was pretty sure that we'd hear Station to Station and Scary Monsters among other things. We hadn't heard Fame or Young Americans yet either, those were probably going to be there too, and after a couple more minutes of speculation I headed back to my seat to find Mara and my friend's Mom comparing notes on the high point of the first set. My friend's Mom suggested that Bowie actually pointed at her during Rebel Rebel, and out of politeness I was willing to entertain the possibility to make her feel better, but in my heart I knew that Bowie was singing to me.

And then the lights dimmed again and the second set began with the sound of steam and a swirling guitar, and a smile grew on my face as Station to Station slowly began to take shape. Definitely a high point of the show, Station to Station was epic and enormous, and Bowie and the band ran through the song's movements like the consummate artists that they were. It was incredible, absolutely incredible.

Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City followed, garage-y versions of both of them that Iggy and the Stooges would have been proud of. There was a fantastic version of Panic in Detroit, that one has always been a particular favorite, and of course Young Americans and Fame rounded out the set as expected. The second set ended after that and then we headed into the encores, which started with a hauntingly beautiful run through Heroes. It truly is one of Bowie's best songs, isn't it? Jean Genie and Modern Love were played as encores as well, along with a track that Bowie sang on Adrian Belew's new album at the time called Pretty Pink Rose. The night closed out with Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, with Bowie reminding us all that we were wonderful. Such a fantastic ending to a fantastic concert. There was no sign of Scary Monsters, but after everything else we'd seen that night I was totally fine with that.  

My friend's Mom and Mara and I all left the show with ringing ears and perma-grin faces, and a feeling of shared experience that I've never been able to replicate in quite the same way again. I can't speak for my companions, but that show set the standard by which I've compared every other gig I've been to after that. And while I've been to hundreds of concerts since then, none of them have ever been able to capture that perfect combination of elements that made the Sound+Vision show such a perfect night. You know how certain moments stay in your memory forever? David Bowie at the Skydome with Mara is a night that I'll always remember.

I mean, really, David Bowie called me a Hot Tramp and told me that he loved me.

How could I ever forget something like that?

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