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  • Live: Madison Square Garden, New York – David Bowie’s 50th birthday concert

Live: Madison Square Garden, New York – David Bowie’s 50th birthday concert

David Bowie and guests performed at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997, for a 50th birthday celebratory concert.

Billed as ‘David Bowie And Friends: A Very Special Concert’, Bowie shared the stage with Foo Fighters, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Pixies’ Frank Black, Sonic Youth, and Lou Reed. The support act was Placebo.

The concert was filmed by director Tim Pope, and broadcast on pay-per-view television in the USA. Proceeds from subscribers and ticket sales were donated to Save The Children.

David had asked me to film a variety of live shows across the years, and he seemed to like what I brought to them. It was the natural progression that he asked me to film his special birthday party. It was all put together by him, I have to say. He was very detail-oriented, but he wanted me to be his eyes and ears in the development of the show.

I went to New York pre-Christmas and spent some time with him. David had this model theatre made of cardboard, and he had this little version of himself. He said: ‘This is me, right,’ and he had this little character. And I was lighting it with a hand-held projector on this scrim, along with images of him from Space Oddity. He played the CD of ‘Space Oddity’ and I sang along in harmony with him, which was hilarious because I can’t sing. After Christmas, more and more bands came into town to rehearse with him.

I remember watching David and Robert Smith performing together for the first time, and Bowie said: ‘Oh, Smith and Jones back together again!’ David also said to me: ‘Madonna is probably coming. But we won’t know until the night.’

Bowie asked me to introduce the show, so I went on and said something like: ‘I’m from Enfield, he’s from Bromley.’ I don’t think they knew who I was.

I had some roving cameras, including David’s son Joe [aka film director Duncan Jones]. I said to him: ‘Go film your dad at the office,’ which I thought was great. I said: ‘You’ll get stuff that no one else will get.’ So Joe was doing stuff as well.

There was a wrap party at [artist] Julian Schnabel’s house. It was the best queue for a loo I’ve ever been in – something like Christopher Walken, Lou Reed, Iman, me and so on.

I think he knew he’d pulled it off. He’d phone me in my cutting room and go: ‘It’s rock ‘n’ roll Dave for cinema Tim.’ He pretty much let me have free rein. I think once he saw that I got it how he wanted he was happy. He said: ‘I was really clever to get you to do this, wasn’t I?’ Which I thought was quite a compliment.

Bowie’s guest acts were mainly from the American alternative scene, rather than grandees of the rock world. The first guest act was former Pixies frontman Frank Black, who performed ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ and ‘Fashion’ with Bowie.

Foo Fighters were Bowie’s backing band for ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, after which Dave Grohl sang ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ with Bowie.

It was kind of a milestone for us, because it ended up being the last time William Goldsmith, our first drummer, played with the band. It was our first time in Madison Square Garden, first time we met Bowie, first time that we probably played a stage anywhere near that big. We were about halfway through the recording of The Colour And The Shape, so it was pulling us out of the studio, going to New York, meeting a legend and just having all these firsts. It was pretty monumental. We were excited to be there.

I don’t recall exactly how the songs we ended up playing came down. I assume, based on where we were at the time, that it was probably more of an assignment; they weren’t gonna ask the Foo Fighters what they wanted to play!

In comparison to what we would do now, which is listen to a song on an iPhone in a car on the way to whatever we’re going to do, we’d rehearsed a bit. We were doing ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, and we came in having prepped a little.

The day of the show, I remember seeing everybody backstage and being kind of intimidated but feeling the positive vibe in the room. Everybody was very supportive. I was quickly able to kind of get over those nerves of having been asked to do this thing. Bowie was so gracious and kind and approachable, so I just remember good vibes. And seeing my first rock legend snorting cocaine in the bathroom also. Like: ‘Oh, I’ve heard about this, I’ve read about this in books, and there you are doing it.’ Who was it? Yeah right!

Then we took that photo where everyone’s in black and looking like they’re in a rock band. And I get seated directly behind Bowie for the photo, which is unfortunate because I’m in a white button-up short-sleeve shirt that’s like ten times too big for me. It’s a bad look, and it’s a very prominent look due to the scope and the sizing and the colour. Every once in a while my wife will pull up the photo and just have a good laugh.

I was a little nervous, but I remember it going well, actually being fun in the moment. I was able to focus on the fact that: ‘I’m twenty feet away from Bowie and we’re playing a song together, and it’s actually fun and it’s working.’ As opposed to: ‘What am I doing here?’ and ‘Let’s not fuck up!’

David said to us: ‘Nice job, kids. Keep at it and maybe you’ll figure this shit out in a few years.’ I’m kind of paraphrasing, I’m sure he said it more artfully than that.

Nate Mendel, Foo Fighters

The Cure’s Robert Smith was the next guest. He duetted with Bowie on ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ and ‘Quicksand’. Bowie’s guitarist Reeves Gabrels later joined The Cure.

My job was to teach all of the guests the songs, or make sure that they knew the songs, or at least make sure they knew what songs they were expected to know when they showed up. So I had been in touch with everybody. Robert Smith and I were faxing back and forth and calling, and he was sending me chord diagrams for ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ and ‘Quicksand’ because he wanted to make sure he had the chord voicings correct.

We had two days of runthrough rehearsals. Robert Smith was the last one that I actually got together with. It was pretty obvious he had done his homework.

Reeves Gabrels

Sonic Youth joined Bowie’s backing band for ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’. The main set ended with Bowie performing ‘Looking For Satellites’, ‘Under Pressure’, and “Heroes”.

Lou Reed joined Bowie for the first encore. They performed ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, Reed’s ‘Dirty Blvd’, and ‘White Light/White Heat’, before Bowie closed out the encore with ‘Moonage Daydream’.

Gail Ann Dorsey and Mike Garson led a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ while a cake with five candles was brought to the stage. They were relighting candles, to which Bowie remarked: “Oh I see. Thank you Reeves! I ain’t competing with that.” He then said one of his most famous – and often misquoted – phrases: “I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t bore you.”

The final guest was Billy Corgan, who performed ‘All The Young Dudes’ and ‘The Jean Genie’ with Bowie and his band. The concert closed with Bowie performing a version of his first hit single, ‘Space Oddity’.

We began working on the Birthday Show right after the album was mixed. We created several new arrangements of songs. This was an amazing thing to work on for me technically as I hadn’t done much work with video. Some things were incredible – everyone involved know that this was something special. All the musical guests were so glad to be there, the feeling backstage was genuinely warm. At the party afterward, David seemed very, very happy, which was a nice thing to see. On a more personal note, I did the backing arrangement for the solo version of ‘Space Oddity’, which meant a lot to me. Some things were downright pathetic, like keeping on schedule with the video people, who’d move the goalposts every other day while I was mixing, and not supply us with up-to-date edits, and really had zero interest in the audio quality of the project – they’d just assume use the rough mixes from the night of the show (and indeed one of the broadcasts did, by mistake – they couldn’t hear the difference). Tim Pope was great, but at times the rest of the video team treated us like an unnecessary pain in the ass, which is not that unusual in those situations, so I’m told.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Bowie had first performed at Madison Square Garden on 19 and 20 July 1974, during the Diamond Dogs Tour, and again on 26 March 1976 for the Isolar Tour. He returned there on 7, 8, and 9 May 1978 for the Isolar II Tour.

He played another three dates there at Madison Square Garden during the Serious Moonlight Tour, on 25, 26, and 27 July 1983. The Glass Spider Tour saw a further two concerts at the venue, on 1 and 2 September 1987.

He returned there for a final show during A Reality Tour on 15 December 2003.

The setlist

Last updated: 4 December 2023
Rehearsal: Madison Square Garden, New York
Single release: Little Wonder
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