Towards the end of the performance, there’s a moment that crystallizes the Glass Spider tour’s aesthetic in all it’s dubious glory: Bowie, outfitted in a silver lamé track suit and a shiny gold lamé sportscoat, wearing what appears to be shiny white patent leather cowboy boots (winged cowboy boots, no less), with a poofy bouffant adding about three inches to his height, strumming on one of those silly headless guitars while singing—heh—“White Light / White Heat”. It’s easy enough to imagine, in hindsight, that no one in the ‘80s really had any idea just how silly they would look just a few years later. I’m willing to extend the benefit of the doubt as far as that goes.
But there’s quite a bit of “benefit of the doubt” required to fully appreciate the material on display in Glass Spider—more than, to be fair, most casual fans or aficionados will be willing to extend. The Glass Spider tour from which this material is taken is already one of the most controversial interludes in a career filled to the brim with controversial interludes. Frankly, at times it’s hard to see just what Bowie was thinking.
The ‘80s were a rough time for Bowie, but he’s hardly alone in that respect—a majority of artists whose careers dated back to the supposed “classic rock” era (essentially, before punk hit in 1977) fell on rough times. The few exceptions to this rule, such as Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, hardly outweigh the massive disappointing performances from the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and their ilk.
Bowie is something of a special case, not so much because the era was any kinder to him—although you can make the argument that it was, if only just—but because his dip in critical esteem bizarrely coincided with his most popular commercial period to date. Bowie only recorded three proper solo albums in the ‘80s: Let’s Dance (1983), Tonight (1984), and Never Let Me Down (1987). While Let’s Dance inspired a decent level of critical acclaim, the two follow-ups were panned. The perception grew that Bowie had lost his way—and considering just how unerring his instincts had steered him through the ‘70s, it was hard not to agree.
The ‘80s would end with Bowie having gone to ground with Tin Machine, an interesting but ultimately frustrated attempt at recapturing the youthful energy of his hard-rock roots. Not exactly a cry for help, but in hindsight not that far, either.
So how to appreciate the spectacle that is the Glass Spider? In this instance I believe it is best to take his intentions at face value. To some degree, Bowie is the victim of his own cult: for a solid decade he manufactured one of the most storied careers in the history of pop music by constructing his output around an intricate series of nested narratives. You can trace the classic era through the iconic symbols he crafted (or were crafted around him) to serve as conceptual vehicles: space-age oddity, Ziggy Stardust, “plastic soul”, the Thin White Duke, Berlin.
The ‘80s brought an end to this constant conceptual leapfrogging. For the first time since he was just a fresh-faced wannabe slumming around London in the late ‘60s, David Bowie was free merely to be David Bowie. Unfortunately, the “real” David Bowie had a taste for garish sportscoats and bad blow-dried hair.
Without the cerebral heft of his best art-school conceits, Bowie became just another pop songwriter and performer, albeit one with a flair for the histrionic that dwarfed anyone short of Iggy Pop. Is it any wonder the fans and critics who had constructed their cult around Bowie’s mercurial personae felt abandoned by the All-New, All-Different Bowie?
Shorn of worrisome subtext and ready-made for the new-wave discotheques of 1985, the new Bowie at least seemed to be enjoying himself a lot more than the peevish, halfway-obliterated Bowie of 1977. Having retrenched his status as a worldwide superstar with 1984’s massively successful Serious Moonlight tour, Bowie seems to be having a grand old time all throughout the Glass Spider performances.
If the phrase had existed in 1987, it would be “multimedia extravaganza”: with dancers, costume changes, video screens and (obviously) a giant glass spider dominating the set, the spectacle minimizes the “rock concert” aspects in flavor of a loose storyline, with science-fiction narration provided by Bowie himself and a handful of seriously daft interstitial passages. For example, take this bit of dialogue, delivered by a chorus of back-up dancers:
Ugly times, like pulling out a knife.
Ugly times, friends taking their lives.
Ugly times, like government men, beating on the door with a no-future plan.
But then there’s Thor, son of Odin, thunder god, heir of the realm eternal, the mightiest warrior in the nine worlds. Woo hoo!
And then the band strikes up with “Fashion”.
I think it would be kind of futile at such a late date to try and parse out just how and why this was as bizarre as it was. Bowie was obviously reaching for something pretty grand. In terms of sheer weirdness, he succeeds. Those who paid their tickets back in the day probably felt as if they got their money’s worth, providing they were close enough to the stage to see some of the intricate dance movies on display (always something I wonder about these expansive arena shows). The sheer size of the Glass Spider setpiece dictates that there are no video screens available to illustrate the action to the cheap seats, as is so often the case with modern arena spectacles. But it’s also not hard to see that the elaborate stage show did a good job of obscuring the music itself.
To put it another way: the Glass Spider template would have worked a lot better if Bowie had waited 20 years and then given the whole thing to Twyla Tharp. His music is practically tailor-made for that kind of extra-musical theatrical presentation, much more so than, say, Bob Dylan’s. Bowie may fancy himself a theatrical performer (and he is), but ultimately he’s still a rock ‘n’ roll singer, and the further he gets away from presenting that in as straight-forward a manner as possible, the more he plays against his strengths.
The best measure of this comes through direct comparison of the Glass Spider DVD with the double-disc live CD included with the deluxe DVD package. (Unfortunately, save for a small gallery of performance photos, this is the only thing in the way of bonus content provided.) It’s not the same show, but the set list is substantively similar, and quite revealing: without the visual falderal, the set is pretty lackluster. Sure, Bowie’s voice is in fine form throughout, and there are some nice solo turns by his band, particularly dueling guitarists Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton, but the presentation here does little to set the show apart from past Bowie live albums. The performance was much more electric on the Ziggy Stardust tour, Bowie’s singing was better on David Live, the conceptual framework was much sturdier on Stage. Even Serious Moonlight featured a looser touring band.
It is interesting, however, to see the cross section of tracks culled from throughout Bowie’s career. He largely eschews his biggest pre-‘80 hits: only “Time” and “Jean Genie” show up from the Ziggy years, while obscure cuts like “All the Mad Men” and “Big Brother” show up (the former being the earliest track here, no “Space Oddity”!). Even the Berlin albums are represented by “Sons of the Silent Age”, which always struck me as one of the odder tracks on an extremely odd album. (“Heroes”, is here too, though.)
Even though the set pulls heavily from his ‘80s material, the live presentation does a good job of highlighting the strengths of this oft-maligned material. “Absolute Beginners” is a gem, and I’ve always been fond of “Never Let Me Down” (even if the tinkly synthesizers do the tune a grave disservice). The uptempo Let’s Dance singles are still the backbone of the show, with the title track, “Modern Love” and “China Girl” eliciting some of the strongest reaction (I don’t know how Bowie got away with the pidgen Chinese accent he adopts on “China Girl”).
All told, I’m glad to have the DVD. Where else are you going to see Frampton singing the chorus to “Sons of the Silent Age”? He does a pretty credible job, too. Bowie always knows when to let his sidemen let loose, and the guitar duel between Frampton and Alomar on “Jean Genie” is pretty fantastic (although the sound mixing on the DVD slightly obscures Frampton’s part, unfortunately). With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the whole thing for what it was: a big fat lark, a chance for Bowie to have some fun with his hits for the benefit of adoring crowds.
Soon enough, Bowie would return to his rock roots with Tin Machine, and many more subsequent attempts at reinvention would follow. However, the ‘80s era did see a definitive end to Bowie’s constant identity crisis: from there on out, the reinvention would be solely musical in nature.
Some have argued that without the crucial element of amorphous identity to fall back on, Bowie has never quite regained the impetus of his ‘70s heyday. Fair enough. But he seems a lot more comfortable now, shifting between blue-eyed soul, hard rock, dance and electronic music with much more alacrity than when every tonal shift was accompanied by jarring, drug-fueled psychoses.
The Glass Spider tour seems to have been a crucial step on Bowie’s road to recovery, revamping his catalogue without totally revamping his psyche, and setting the tone for a more sustained, if more low key, musicianship in the following two decades. Here he seems much more comfortable putting his music into the context of his choosing. So what if the context is a bit silly and occasionally flat-out weird? They’re his songs, he can do what he wants with them.