“It’s my birthday — it’s my party,” Bowie told Rolling Stone following the show, which was held on Jan. 9, 1997, a day after his actual birthday. Bowie had, at first, balked at the idea of the event becoming a star-studded affair, worrying that it would take a turn for the tacky. “I just didn’t want the thing to be heavily dotted with people who would cause it to become a nostalgia trip,” he said.
So the likes of Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop were not included, but it was a move that only left more room for other, never-before-seen collaborations. Bowie took an opportunity to play songs with artists who had, compared to him, not been making albums for all that long, such as Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. But he also took time to connect with one his strongest influences: Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, who joined him for several songs during the concert’s first encore. (A full set list can be viewed below.)
Backed by a band of usual suspects – guitarist Reeves Gabrels, keyboardist Mike Garson, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Zachary Alford – David Bowie and Friends: A Very Special Birthday Concert, was also filmed for a pay-per-view TV special and released on DVD in 2005.
In order of original appearance, revisit the collaborations that marked Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration — and the lasting impact the Starman had on his guests.
1. Frank Black of Pixies
“You’ve got to play my 50th now,” quipped Frank Black, lead singer of the Pixies and the first guest star of the evening, after singing the first of two songs with Bowie, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” “That’s about 90 years, isn’t it?” Bowie joked back, before launching into the next tune, “Fashion.” Bowie had been a Pixies fan from the start: “I found [the Pixies] just about the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 1980s,” he said later. “I always thought there was a psychotic Beatles in them.” Bowie also ended up covering their song “Cactus” for his 2002 album Heathen.
2. Foo Fighters
“I always promised myself that I wouldn’t be on a stage playing rock music when I’m 50,” Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl told Rolling Stone in 1997. “But when I see David Bowie so happy and alive, and still so creative, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to stop.’” Grohl, of course, broke his own promise, rocking well past the age of 50. At the birthday celebration, Grohl played drums behind Bowie and the rest of Foo Fighters for a rendition of “Hallo Spaceboy,” a track from Bowie’s 1995 album, Outsider, which had been re-recorded in 1996 with Pet Shop Boys. Grohl then picked up a guitar and stepped to the mic to duet with Bowie on “Seven Years in Tibet.”
3. Robert Smith of the Cure
“Here’s a friend,” Bowie said casually while introducing Robert Smith, whose band, the Cure, Bowie described as “one of the best, I think, most eccentric British bands.” When he was a teenager, Smith and his earliest groups often rehearsed with Bowie songs. “David Bowie was probably the first artist that I felt was mine. He was singing to me,” Smith said in a later interview. “He was the first album I ever bought; Ziggy Stardust was the first vinyl album I ever bought. … I love that idea of being an outsider and creating characters.” In 1995, Smith and Bowie informally interviewed one another in a conversation recorded at what was then Britain’s XFM radio, discussing everything from the songwriting process to life in London, finding they had much in common. At Bowie’s birthday show, the pair performed “The Last Thing You Should Do,” a track from Bowie’s then-newest album, Earthling, which was released a few weeks after the concert.
4. Sonic Youth
The members of Sonic Youth were astounded by Bowie’s invitation to perform in 1997. “That he even knew who we were was amazing to us!” guitarist Thurston Moore recalled in a tribute penned shortly after Bowie’s death in 2016. “We had been so inspired and influenced by his music for so long, and it was a huge thrill to join him in performance. Hanging out with him leading up to the concert, it was clear that he was still fully engaged and informed about all kinds of music and art going on around him, curious and open to new influences. Not many of his generation were tuned in to the kind of thing that we were doing, but he certainly was.” Bowie had even, at one point, considered setting up a record label for his favorite bands – “like Sonic Youth and the Pixies.”
5. Lou Reed
For the first encore of the evening, Bowie brought out one of his oldest friends, “the king of New York himself, Mr. Lou Reed,” for a mini-set that included Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” Reed’s own “Dirty Blvd.” and two Velvet Underground songs, “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “White Light / White Heat.” Bowie considered the Velvets a great influence of his — the performance of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” which appeared on the Velvet Underground’s debut album, held particular significance for him that night. “I think ‘Waiting For The Man’ is probably the most important of the four in a way,” he told PBS afterward. “My then-manager brought back an album, it was just a plastic demo of Velvet’s very first album in 1965-ish, something like that. … He said, ‘I don’t know why he’s doing music, this music is as bad as his painting,’ and I thought, ‘I’m gonna like this.’ I’d never heard anything quite like it. It was a revelation to me.”
6. Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins
Rounding out the night as the final guest on the birthday bill was Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, performing two of Bowie’s biggest hits, “All the Young Dudes” and “Jean Genie.” Corgan and Bowie would continue to cross paths after the show: They were on the same record label for a short time in the late ’90s, a period that Corgan later said “treated [Bowie] horribly.” “What I’m trying to say in my own language is that he wasn’t treated with the respect he was due,” Corgan said at a 2016 pre-show event. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t like it [Bowie’s new music],’ but people treated him poorly like they forgot the guy who he was. So it was amazing he was able to go through that and persevere towards the end of his life and make this great music.”
David Bowie 50th Birthday Concert, Jan. 9, 1997, Madison Square Garden
1. “Little Wonder”
2. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”
3. “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” (with Frank Black)
4. “Fashion” (with Frank Black)
5. “Telling Lies”
6. “Hallo Spaceboy” (with Foo Fighters)
7. “Seven Years in Tibet” (with Dave Grohl)
8. “The Man Who Sold the World”
9. “The Last Thing You Should Do” (with Robert Smith)
10. “Quicksand” (with Robert Smith)
11. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)”
12. “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)”
13. “I’m Afraid of Americans” (with Sonic Youth)
14. “Looking for Satellites”
15. “Under Pressure” (Queen cover)
17. “Queen Bitch” (with Lou Reed)
18. “I’m Waiting for the Man” (The Velvet Underground cover) (with Lou Reed)
19. “Dirty Blvd.” (Lou Reed cover) (with Lou Reed)
20. “White Light/White Heat” (The Velvet Underground cover) (with Lou Reed)
21. “Moonage Daydream” (With band introductions)
23. “Happy Birthday to You” (Performed by Gail Ann Dorsey)
24. “All the Young Dudes” (with Billy Corgan)
25. “The Jean Genie” (with Billy Corgan)
26. “Space Oddity”
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