Bowie by the Bay: A brief history of David Bowie's Bay Area concerts

  • by Dave Ford
  • Friday January 15, 2016
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David Bowie's January 10 death from cancer proved shattering to millions of long-time admirers and obsessives, myself included.

I wasn't always a fan. In the early 1970s, when I was a closeted San Francisco Peninsula teenager, I found Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane personae off-putting.

But in 1977, Bowie released the brilliant albums "Low" and "Heroes" in collaboration with Brian Eno. By then a more sophisticated college boy, I got Bowie, and was mostly dazzled thereafter.

Though his recorded work was moving, it was in concert that Bowie shone. His early theater training ensured shows that were fabulous spectacles of fashion, dance and music. I caught him fourteen times between the mid-'70s and the mid-aughts, twelve of those in the Bay Area.

Herewith, snippets:

Feb. 6, 1976, Isolar I tour
I was nineteen, and my college friend Norman —a mad, Los Angeles-born queen— offered a ticket to Bowie's Cow Palace concert. I said sure. Before the show, Norman also offered a quaalude. Alas, I said yes to that, too.

Only fragmented memories remain. Bowie, inhabiting the cocaine-addled Thin White Duke persona, wore black trousers and a black vest buttoned over a collared white shirt. He'd shellacked back his orange-blond hair. Vertical white-light tubes bordered the rear of the otherwise unadorned stage. (All this I took in through binoculars, when I could focus.)

I recall nothing about the music, I'm sorry to say. I do remember being impressed that Luis Bunuel's surrealist film "Un Chien Andalou" screened before Bowie appeared. (Weirdly, the zonked throng cheered.)

I also remember walking the Cow Palace hallways and caroming off the concrete walls. I subsequently swore I'd never be that high for a concert again. (I never was.)

April 5, 1978, Isolar II tour
Typically, Bowie defied expectation at the start of this show. The house lights still shone when the band ambled onstage and launched into the moody "Low" instrumental, "Warszawa." Bowie stood unobtrusively behind keyboards; few in the audience noticed him.

The song finished, the house went black, and the band launched into "Heroes" — to predictable bedlam. A spotlighted Bowie, now center stage, wore shiny high-waist trousers, three-button T-shirt and hooded slicker, all in different hues of blue. His hair was a natural brown, his movements economical but dramatic, his voice strong. The show, encompassing most of the two recent albums and older hits, was transcendent.

Sept. 17, 1983, Serious Moonlight tour
Bowie's creatively innovative albums "Lodger" (1979) and "Scary Monsters" (1980) served as soundtracks to my attempts to figure out early-adulthood gay identity, which culminated in my moving to San Francisco in early 1983.

That spring, Bowie released "Let's Dance," his most accessible album. I liked it well enough, but was miffed that interviews found the formerly self-avowed "bisexual" now claiming heterosexuality. (The May 12 Rolling Stone cover headline said it all: "David Bowie Straight.") Fans like me felt sucker-punched, though his claim no doubt contributed to his mass appeal, and satisfied EMI Records, with which he'd signed a $17.5 million deal.

Still, Bowie looked hale for the tour: tan skin, bright blond curls, suits in yellow or blue. Not that I could see as much from mid-field at Oakland Stadium, in those days before video screens. Nevertheless, the music was fierce, the show a delight.

Aug. 7, 1987, Glass Spider tour
Dark clouds had amassed over the gay community by 1987: U.S. AIDS deaths topped 4,000 that year, and showed no signs of slowing.

Bowie, whose albums "Tonight" (1984) and "Never Let Me Down" (1987) comprise, by his own later admission, his creative nadir, added insult to injury by bringing the ridiculous "Glass Spider" tour to San Jose's Spartan Stadium.

He sported a dreadful mullet (!). He wore winged, gilded boots (!!). Dancers cavorted frenetically. Even with Peter Frampton's ringing lead guitar, the whole proved disappointing.

Oct. 21, 1995, Outside tour
AIDS deaths mounted as the '90s wore on. Even some of those in a new young wave of queers who'd enlivened late '80s San Francisco began to succumb.

Having toured his greatest hits "one last time" in 1990 (I caught the show at the Shoreline Amphitheater), Bowie settled into marital bliss with the Somalian-born model Iman in 1992. Three years later he reunited with Eno to produce the 1995 album "Outside," a sprawling mess that nevertheless had the virtue of being weird and experimental; I loved it.

Bowie's solo stadium-filling days by now behind him, he cleverly partnered with then-white-hot Nine Inch Nails for a tour. After NIN's frenetic opening set, Bowie appeared standing motionless upstage (again at Shoreline), dressed in a snakeskin coat and beige T-shirt, his blond hair spiked up. After NIN leader Reznor's incessant frenzy, Bowie's stillness pulled focus to him: a brilliant showman's trick. He and his band turned in a superb performance.

Sept. 7, 15 and 16, 1997, Earthling tour
After presenting moving five-song acoustic sets at Neil Young's annual Bridge Show in 1996 (I saw both nights, at Shoreline Amphitheater), Bowie toured the following year behind "Earthling," a wild drum n' bass-heavy album.

I attended all three shows at the Warfield Theater. Although by then forty years old, I waited in line each afternoon for a coveted front row spot. Every performance was fabulous. The band nimbly fleshed out tunes old and new, and Bowie appeared happy and at ease.

After the final show, I swiped from the stage a laminated cheat sheet, with lyric prompts and chord changes, for the 1971 song "Quicksand," with which Bowie had begun each show, strumming an acoustic guitar. I still have it, of course.

April 16, 2004, Reality tour
Bowie, by now 57 and touring to promote "Reality" (2003), proved an amiable host for two career-spanning Berkeley Community Theater shows. The high point: a haunting "The Loneliest Guy," from "Reality," and the encore-opening anthem "Slip Away," from "Heathen" (2002), backed by choral opening act The Polyphonic Spree. Matchless.

The "Reality" tour was aborted three months later when Bowie suffered a heart attack. Thereafter he more or less retreated from public life, only re-emerging with the albums "The Next Day" (2013) and, on January 8 this year, his 69th birthday and two days before he passed, "Blackstar," now his first U.S. chart-topping album.

Of all the Bowie shows I saw, two stand out. In 1991, Bowie's short-lived (and quite awful) hard-rock band Tin Machine performed at the cozy South of Market club Slim's. A friend and I wound up in front of the stage.

So what if the music was trashy? David Fucking Bowie was standing a foot away from me! At one point I reached my hand to him. He took it, and shook it.

And so, you see, loyalty is rewarded to he who is patient (and who puts up with a lot of crap from him to whom he's loyal).

The other standout happened on Halloween 1995. My friend Emily and I caught Bowie at the Hollywood Palladium. Near set's end, he sang Jacques Brel's lament, "My Death," an occasional early '70s concert staple.

As the tune drew to a dramatic close, Bowie intoned the final chorus:

"But whatever lies behind the door
There is nothing much to do
Angel or devil, I don't care
For in front of that door there is

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