I didn't take this picture (I got it from BowieNet), and it wasn't even actually taken last night, but it was taken on Wednesday and that's close enough for me. It is of course David Bowie with his current band. (Left to right: guitarist Earl Slick, drummer Sterling Campbell, guitarist/keyboardist/drummer/everything
The owner of my company sent us all home from work half an hour early, as he sometimes does on Fridays, and I was considering using the extra time to stop for dinner but I ended up just driving all the way to Berkeley and eating there. And I was glad I did, because if I'd arrived anything less than the one and a half hours early that I did (it was a two-hour drive), there wouldn't have been any parking space left in the parking garage. Since I don't think I've ever been charged $10 just to park for 6 hours before, the fact that the parking garage still filled up so fast is a real testament to the power of monopolies.
I do not know how anyone can stand to live in Berkeley. Perhaps more to the point, I do not know how anyone can manage not to die in Berkeley. Their traffic lights are insane! Instead of having separate traffic lights for the left-turn lane versus the cars going straight, every single intersection in the entire city of Berkeley contained only a single green light for both. This light would always turn green for the cars on the opposite sides of the street simultaneously, which meant that every single car in the left-turn lane would pull out into the intersection when they received a green light, only to find that the cars on the opposite side of the street were driving straight through the area to be turned through. The cars from the left-turn lane would then have to stop in the middle of the intersection and wait for a break in the line of cars going straight before they could continue. I did not see any crashes, but I saw well over a dozen left-turning cars stopped in the middle of various intersections. (I did manage not to be one of them, but this is probably because I happened not to be at the front of the line until after I'd seen this happen and had figured the system out.) Perhaps the traffic light system is another reason the parking garage got away with charging $10: once anyone found anyplace to get off the streets into safety, further driving in search of cheaper parking would have required them to value their life at less than $10.
Anyway, I parked and wandered the streets to pass a little time and find something to eat. I absolutely love the feeling of walking around knowing that a majority of the people around me on the streets are David Bowie fans. I mean, I think there was a time, when I was a little kid, when my default assumption when walking down the street was that with most strangers, even though it was an unacceptable risk to talk to them or accept candy from them, the odds were still in favor of them being people I'd get along with reasonably well. That default assumption was eroded a little bit when I realized that everyone in my third-grade class sincerely believed I would and should burn in hell for not believing in their god (someone asked the class to "raise your hand if you believe in God" and when I was the only person who didn't, they assumed I must not have heard the question and tried to raise my hand for me, acted shocked when I refused, and then everyone avoided me for days afterward), and it was eroded a whole lot more after I turned queer and became an object of homophobia, and it was eroded even a little more by the slow confirmation that there are an awful lot of queers who'd rather not have anything to do with me either after they find out I'm not willing to deny having made a choice about being queer. Now, the mere fact that I know the people around me are Bowie fans doesn't eradicate all of those concerns, but it does at least increase the sense that there's a significant portion of them who I'd be able to connect with at least somewhat.
So I went inside. There was a table with posters, keychains and tour programs being sold, and next to it there was a table full of political petitions to sign on behalf of various mostly female political prisoners whose imprisonment is being protested by Amnesty International, plus a petition to free Tibet from the Chinese government's human rights abuses (a longtime pet cause of David Bowie's, written about in songs like "Seven Years in Tibet"). The petitions were accompanied by a wide variety of leaflets from Amnesty International and similar organizations, but there didn't seem to be a very large number of any individual leaflet, so I just signed all the petitions and left the leaflets for other people to take who won't have already read most of the same stuff on the Amnesty International website.
Macy Gray had been the opening act for David Bowie up until just recently, but last night the opening act was a band called the Polyphonic Spree. I had not heard of them, but I had heard of their lead singer, Tim DeLaughter, and his previous band, Tripping Daisy. The Polyphonic Spree consists of 24 people all dressed in white robes, with different brightly-colored longer robes showing along the bottom edge of the white ones, and they perform all their songs jumping up and down excitedly the entire time. They give the visual impression of being some kind of high school talent show choir performance, except their music is more listenable. I found it hard to judge whether their music was actually distinctive enough to be of great interest if I had heard it without the visual impression to go along with it, or whether it was merely pleasantly bland, but either way, they weren't painful to listen to. They were über cheery and sunshiney (half the songs they played had the word "sun" in their chorus: "Hey, it's the sun and it makes me shine/Hey now, it's the sun and it makes me smile" in one song and "Follow the day and reach for the sun!" repeated over and over in another) and unpleasantly fond of blinding the audience by shining all the stage lights into the audience's eyes repeatedly each time they sang about the sun, so I'm not sure this band would be capable of making any song work that wasn't all about sunshine and happiness, but within the one particular theme they're obsessed with, I found no fault other than their failure to warn us ahead of time to bring sunglasses. And if nothing else, I couldn't fail to admire their athleticism in being able to keep jumping up and down the entire time they played. Until I witnessed it being done last night, I would not have believed it was possible to play the violin while jumping up and down. Although the members of the band who were singing did of course have to tone down the jumping up and down during the times they were singing, they still waved their arms around and did their best to create much the same impression as jumping up and down. I'm sure I couldn't have maintained all that activity for so long without getting horribly sore muscles.
Last Monday, David Bowie made an entry in his own online journal (which you can't see unless you're a BowieNet member like I am - but don't worry, he hasn't exactly been updating it very often lately anyway, so you're not missing much) about how, he says, "Last night in Kelowna I got the surprise of my life when Polyphonics broke into a smart sample of 'The Sun Machine' at soundcheck. It sounded really beautiful and I thought it worked well in their set." The sample referenced is of course the closing lines of David Bowie's ancient and rather obscure 1969 song "Memory of a Free Festival," in which he and the fictitious so-attenders of the Free Festival (which was based on a real Free Festival he helped organize, but apparently he spent the real Free Festival glowering at everyone morosely because they failed to live up to his mental image of the perfect Free Festival that he wrote about) sing over and over, "The sun machine is coming down, and we're gonna have a party!" Anyway, the Polyphonic Spree did indeed sing this last night, and it did indeed work well in their set, since they're so obsessed with sunshine and it gave them more opportunities to blind the audience by shining all the stage lights in our eyes. It also gave Tim DeLaughter (who, incidentally, I spent the entire concert thinking was a woman with a mildly hoarse voice, until I got home and looked up the name of the lead singer - apparently robes and long hair are quite sufficient to throw off my gender perceptions) a chance to profusely thank David Bowie for inviting the band to tour with him - which David would later reciprocate by heartily praising the Polyphonic Spree and telling everyone how he listens to them play while he's backstage preparing for his own set, and how their music always cheers him up.
Eventually the Polyphonic Spree left the stage, and there was an intermission for changing the set's props, and then a posterized, cartoonified image of David Bowie and band playing was projected onto the screen behind the stage. David Bowie's voice was heard telling Gerry Leonard, "That's good Gerry, keep going," but it was several more minutes before the band took the stage, and another minute before David Bowie came out. Nothing was said then - they immediately launched into the song "Rebel Rebel."
I found a copy of last night's set list posted on BowieNet today, so I'm going to record it here and also use it as a way to remind myself of the between-songs banter. "Rebel Rebel" was followed by "New Killer Star," and then some insignificant banter ("What were you doing in the '90s, Daddy? Here's what we were doing in the '90s!") introduced "Battle For Britain (The Letter)," which was followed by "Fame." He paused to praise the Pixies before launching into a cover of their song "Cactus," then said they were going to do a silly song which turned out to be "Fashion."
I believe it was after "Fashion" that he asked the audience whether we liked his effort at an Alabama accent. This didn't get much response (it was unclear why he would have been randomly imitating an Alabama accent in the first place), so he sarcastically and very petulantly declared, "Well, don't be so forthcoming!" and turned on his heel. Then he stopped, looked back over his shoulder at the audience, and slyly announced, "I'll make you forthcome!" This brought giggles, so he came out to the very front of the stage and asked increasingly flirtatiously, "Are you ready to forthcome?" and then slowly, with the tone of having suddenly figured out what people want and being almost too flattered to believe it, "Would you like to forthcome with me?"
(This was far more flirtatious than I ever saw him get at the last concert I saw, in August 2002. I think it helped that in this one he was the exclusive headlining act, instead of sharing the stage with Moby, Busta Rhymes, Blue Man Group and Ash, so this time he could feel confident that practically everyone there was in fact there to see him.)
He sang "All The Young Dudes" next. When it ended, he told the audience to get ready to sing along with the next one, and announced that he was going to sing "China Girl" in Mandarin Chinese. He did sing the first verse of it in Chinese, but then stopped and exclaimed, "What am I doing? You probably know the words to that better than I do! Shall we do it in English instead?" and sang it in English. (He was wrong though - the only song I'd previously heard him sing the Chinese translation of was "Seven Years in Tibet," so I quite definitely did not know the words to "China Girl" in Chinese.)
After that came "The Supermen," which he introduced by saying it was the first time they'd played it on this tour and the first time they'd played it in years, but that they'd rehearsed it that afternoon and he decided it sounded okay. (It sounded, in fact, much better than okay - really better than the original 1971 version. Every song he sang in the whole concert sounded quite good enough to compete with the recorded versions.) When this song was finished, he declared, "Sophomoric slush! I can't believe I used to write like that! What kind of lyrics are these - 'When all the world was very young/and mountain magic mystic hung'???" (He misquoted 'mystic hung' for 'heavy hung' - not that it makes much difference.) "And what about this - 'Where all were minds in uni-thought'? What the hell is a uni-thought??" He turned sideways and mimed riding a unicycle: "Oh look, it's a thought! I think I'll ride it! Look, it's a uni-thought!" Then, realizing of course that his audience wouldn't let him get away with insulting his younger self too much, he waved a hand dismissively in the air and declared, "But hey, as long as it rocks . . . !" which got a laugh.
The next song was "Never Get Old," which was then followed by an extremely emotional version of "The Loneliest Guy," during which David Bowie somehow managed to sound like he was barely suppressing tears with every word he sang. (He sounds that way on the album too, but it seemed more impressive to see him do it in person. I actually rather dislike the album version of the song, but even though the concert version didn't sound particularly different, I somehow liked it much better.) When he finished it he announced, "You've just witnessed an example of interpretive movement." (Pause for audience bemusement.) "See, tonight I made that song about an abortive suicide attempt, but tomorrow I might make it about an unrequited love for one's mother. It's all in the interpretive movement." He turned around with his back to the audience and did that thing where he hugs himself and makes it look like his hands on his back are someone else's hands caressing him. Then: "Not my mother. Your mother!"
Next came "Modern Love," "The Man Who Sold The World," "Hallo Spaceboy," "Sunday," "Heathen (The Rays)," and the duet "Under Pressure" with Gail Ann Dorsey singing Freddie Mercury's lines. Since I already owned a recording made 9 years ago of that same duet with Gail Ann singing Freddie's lines, I already knew that she possesses a miraculous ability to sound so exactly like Freddie Mercury that I couldn't possibly distinguish whether it was her or him if not for the fact that Freddie's dead. But that recording is not widely available (I bought it as a B-side to the "Hallo Spaceboy" single), so most of the audience hadn't heard it and were quite properly astounded by Gail Ann's voice.
Somewhere in here, David paused to ask the audience members in front whether their ears were doing okay. He noticed that the speakers were positioned literally inches from the seats of some of the people in the front row and exclaimed, "Look at this - this is insane!" He was right, it really was insane - I had wisely brought my own earplugs, but if I hadn't, I'd have been deafened even from halfway back in the room and very, very far from any of the speakers. "See, I knew it was going to be bad when I saw it was handled by Clear Channel." (Pause for much booing of Clear Channel from the audience.) "I always like to say those two words together, Clear Channel, for American audiences just to get their reactions. Anyway, I brought some earplugs, anyone need them?" He trotted to the back of the stage and got a few dozen little boxes of earplugs from a bag and started asking who wanted them. "You? You already have earplugs in. You're just asking for them to put them in your bag as a souvenir. Aren't you?" He held out the microphone to her and she admitted that yes, she was. "Thank you for being honest," he told her, then paused and reconsidered. "In fact, I'll give you some for that." And he did. He got out another few dozen sets of earplugs from the bag and threw them to the people in the front few rows until he ran out.
The next songs were "Days," "Afraid," "Ashes To Ashes" (which he introduced by saying "Somewhere in every concert I always have to play one that you know, so this is that one") and "Quicksand" (which was so exceptionally sung that it improved upon the original). Also somewhere in here, David noticed that some of the few scattered people dancing (it was a crowded indoor venue in which most people remained seated) had been whispered to and had then stopped dancing. From what I saw, it seemed that the hired assistants were not trying to stop the dancing, and that it was only the people whose seats were located behind dancing audience members who had asked them to go dance in the aisles where they wouldn't block other people's view. Some of them did go dance in the aisles for a while, but not all of the songs were especially danceable so sometimes they'd go back to their seats and stop dancing. But David became concerned that the hired assistants were asking people not to dance, and he made a point of saying, "You know, if people want to dance, that's fine. My brother - God rest his soul, he's dead now - used to always dance at concerts, it was what he loved, and people would always ask him to stop. I'd like to think we've come on a little from that in the past 35 years." (David Bowie's older half-brother, Terry Burns, was schizophrenic and after living for years in a mental hospital making numerous suicide attempts, killed himself by throwing himself in front of a train in 1985.)
When he got to "I'm Afraid of Americans," he began by saying that he's lived in America most of the time since 1974, mostly in New York City, and almost everyone he knows is an American, "and even my band - except for that Irishman over there" (pointing to Gerry Leonard). So, he assured the audience, he wasn't afraid of all Americans. "But there are about 12 or maybe 13 Americans that I'm really, really, really afraid of." He added that this song has changed its meaning a lot over the years (he wrote it in 1997) and then began singing. When he finished, he referred somewhat obliquely to its most current meaning - the evils of the U.S. government under George W. Bush - by saying, "People will try to tell you that this is all going to blow over in no time, but it isn't. We're in for a long, troubled future."
He's been being sort of tentatively political lately - I heard that at a different concert recently he asked the audience, "Anyone here for John Kerry?" But he's also skittish about saying too much of what he thinks politically, as is clear from a January interview:
Q. You're married to a woman from Somalia, you've traveled the world, and you've always had a global perspective in your art. What do you think about the current political situation: Is it possible for the West to come to an understanding with the Muslim world?Maybe someone should quote Audre Lorde's "Your silence will not protect you" line to him. Of course, his voicing the fear of getting the Dixie Chicks treatment says, in itself, a fair amount about what his "fairly strong opinions" are.
A. I don't want to get into that! Yes, I've got fairly strong opinions about all of that, but I certainly wouldn't give advice in this country! I don't know if anybody can avoid getting the Dixie Chicks treatment. It's really tough to be in a democratic country and have to be very careful about what you have to say.
Anyway, this oblique political commentary seemed to set off a sudden outpouring of mushy gratitude (perhaps because nobody stormed out in horror at the hint that he's not fond of George Bush's foreign policy?) because he suddenly exclaimed, "I really have to tell you that I really, really, really love you all. It's the one thing that keeps me going, the humanity that I see over and over again in every city I go to . . . I love you all so much." (This, again, was far mushier than he ever got at the previous concert I saw him at.)
The last song he sang before the encore last night was "Heroes," afte which he left the stage, everyone stood up and waited for him to come back, and he obligingly came back and said, "Sure, we'd love to do a few more songs for you tonight." He then introduced "Slip Away" by talking about an old children's television show starring a man called Uncle Floyd and his hand puppet (the video screen behind the stage displayed clips of the TV show, with the puppet asking Uncle Floyd what he would do with his life if he didn't have a TV show to appear on) and how the show claimed to be for children but seemed more like it was just written to entertain the adults writing it, and how David Bowie and his friends used to sit aroud laughing at it. Eventually the show was taken off the air, so David wrote a song to commemorate it. Then one day, David got a telephone call from Uncle Floyd himself: "I hear you wrote a song about me!" "Yes, I did." "Well you know, I'm still performing in bars from time to time. I could be your opening act!" "Errrrrrrr . . . uh, that's great that you're still performing." At this point David indicated a desire to change the subject away from opening acts immediately.
So then he sang "Slip Away" and all 24 members of his actual opening act, the Polyphonic Spree, came out onstage to sing along, this time wearing just their different brightly-colored robes without the white robes over the top of them. The lyrics were projected onto the screen with a little puppet head bouncing on each word to be sung when it was time to sing it, the way that is sometimes done for children's singalong videos. When the song finished, the Polyphonic Spree left the stage again and David Bowie's final songs were "Changes," "Suffragette City" and "Ziggy Stardust."
It was past midnight when the concert ended, and I saw a huge long white limousine with its windows blacked out leaving the premises and suspected that this contained David Bowie and/or his band, but it was impossible to tell for sure.
Then came police annoyances, of which I suffered a great deal. First there was a blockade set up between the concert and the freeway entrance to conduct a "sobriety check," which meant that it took me 45 minutes just to get out of the city of Berkeley because they backed up the traffic so much by diverting all the cars into a single lane and then stopping them all one at a time. Frankly, everyone would probably have been much better drivers if they'd been allowed to get home while still awake, instead of being delayed till 2:00 a.m. by the "sobriety check." I saw the signs announcing a "sobriety check" and wondered what exactly this "sobriety check" would consist of - it turned out to consist of rolling down the window and being sniffed and having the insides of my car looked at through the window and being asked to present my driver's license. Really, I didn't think it was legal to stop people and do things like that unless they've broken some traffic law, but apparently liking David Bowie constitutes an agreement to give up one's constitutional rights and be treated like a criminal. (There were, I believe, drugs at the concert - I do not know what they smell like myself, but David Bowie does and apparently recognized it, because he commented that some people had "been to the botanical gardens today.") Anyway, I was of course quite 100% sober and drug-free and was eventually permitted to proceed. Unfortunately I only got past the Carquinas Bridge (where the toll collector relieved me of another $2 - again I can't comprehend how Bay Area residents can put up with this business of having to pay money every time they need to cross a bridge) and into Fairfield before I was stopped again and given my first ever speeding ticket. This was exceedingly annoying because, in the first place, it was 1:30 in the freaking morning and there were hardly any cars at all on the freeway, at least not in a rather rural area like Fairfield, so it's not like I was cutting in front of other cars or tailgating anyone; and, in the second place, I was only going 11 miles per hour over the speed limit; and, in the third place, I was only going that speed for a few seconds when I looked away from the speedometer, and then I looked back at it and slowed down, and then immediately I get pulled over. And delayed for another good half an hour at least for that, and asked for my driver's license (conveniently, it was still sitting on the seat, not having been put away after the "sobriety check") and insurance and registration and again asked if I've been drinking and again the insides of my car carefully looked at through the window. Has it never occurred to the police that people don't generally plan their sleeping schedules to accommodate two-hour delays and that they're actually making the roads less safe by making drivers sleep-deprived? Apparently it hasn't. And if I attempted to sleep in my car by the side of the road I'd probably get cited by the police for that too, and I don't generally make hotel reservations just to go to a concert that's only an hour and 45 minutes away if it's not rush hour and there aren't any special delays. But luckily I didn't actually feel the sleep deprivation kick in until I was two blocks from my apartment, and I was still quite awake enough to make it that far. It was, however, past 3:00 a.m. when I got home, and now apparently I have to drive all the way back to Fairfield to make a court appearance in a month and a half. Never have my college sociology classes' lessons about how traffic ticket fines constitute an unofficial taxation that disproportionately hurts the poor and is not administered on anything remotely resembling a consistent basis (where all drivers who get given tickets would be driving worse than almost all drivers who aren't given tickets) felt more relevant to me.
All the same, if I'd been told ahead of time that the price of seeing David Bowie would be the price of the concert ticket plus a speeding ticket, I'd still have wanted to go. So it was worth it.