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Shortly after David Bowie’s death, the high-culture aesthete Theodore Dalrymple published an essay titled “Not a Fan” in which he pondered why the British daily The Guardian (“a newspaper directed at the most highly educated and intellectual portion of a large population”) “should devote so much space to the posthumous adulation of such a person as David Bowie, and why his activity should be treated with such breathlessly awed veneration.”
As if picking up Dalrymple’s gauntlet, Parlophone Records has spent the last four years putting into circulation special editions of rare Bowie recordings. This year’s bumper crop includes two studio EPs and three full-length live albums. And if the EPs (Is It Any Wonder? and ChangesNowBowie) aren’t substantial enough to change the minds of Bowie skeptics, I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74), Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95), and Something in the Air (Live Paris 99) should at least ameliorate their dismissal of Bowie as a showbiz charlatan.
Interestingly, the most ameliorating quality common to the live albums has nothing to do with Bowie’s music (unless a quarter century of the keyboardist Mike Garson’s holding Bowie’s bands together counts). Rather, it has to do with his onstage manner in general and his onstage manners in particular.
Whether riding his first surge of fame (1974), endeavoring a comeback (1995), or continuing to endeavor a comeback (1999), Bowie can be heard between songs making friendly, self-deprecating small talk with the thousands in attendance (he could always fill arenas) and offering brief but sincere expressions of gratitude to them for their having chosen to buy tickets to his show.
Admittedly, banter may seem like a weak foundation on which to base arguments for a rock star’s redeeming qualities. But given what has become the fore-, aft-, and ’tween-song-banter norm—a tired combination of button pushing, profanity, and grandstanding—Bowie comes off debonair, even gentlemanly.
He comes off generous too, especially on The Soul Tour 74. Recorded when he’d been on the road for a lengthy stretch, it finds him in ragged voice. He has to sing the refrain of “Changes” in a lower octave and blows the climax of “Young Americans” altogether. But like an old-school trouper he knows that the show must go on.
He was in fine vocal form for the ’95 and ’99 concerts. (Despite his reputation as a rock ’n’ roll chameleon, Bowie was clearly comfortable in his own skin.) He was also intent on honoring a promise he’d made at the end of his 1990 tour never again to be a human jukebox simply churning out the hits. So while he includes the occasional “classic,” he focuses on deep cuts and songs from his latest moderately selling albums, rendering himself endearingly vulnerable in the process.
“You might actually enjoy this material,” he seemed to be saying, “if only you have the chance to give it a chance. That chance is what I’m offering. So please take it.
“You never know when it might be your last.”