1987…..the year of Fatal Attraction, Wall Street; and if you were female – Dirty Dancing. For many it was the Year of the Rabbit. But for David Bowie, 1987 was the Year of the Spider; not a spider from Mars this time, this would be a Glass Spider.
Bowie’s previous visit to Auckland had been four years earlier and was regarded as one of the best shows New Zealand had ever seen. Or so my friends who went would tell me, but in their defence, everyone else agreed. The crowd was around 80,000 – at that time the largest ever at an Australasian concert, and the show was recognised by the Guiness Book of Records as the largest crowd gathering per head of population anywhere in the world.
Hopes were high for an equally successful tour in 1987, so when details of the Glass Spider show reached New Zealand, we didn’t question anything. We knew we could trust Mr Bowie.
This was to be my second-ever concert. I had seen Billy Joel the previous Sunday, and it was spectacular. I immediately knew that it would be the first of many gigs for me, and tried not to think of all the great shows that I’d decided not to go to. But I couldn’t help myself. What the hell had I been thinking?
Now Billy Joel couldn’t really be accused of taking too many risks, and there is a certain beige element to some of his songs, but he sure put on a great show. If Billy Joel can do this, what could David Bowie do?
This was the final show of the Glass Spider tour, so we were all hoping for something pretty special. I still recall the sprint from the last security check to our spot close to the stage. Four years of build-up were almost at an end. As the sun went down on Western Springs Stadium, we had our first glimpse of Bowie. We saw the hair first. It was huge – even by standards in the 80’s. We watched as a vision in red leather was lowered from the mouth of a 60-foot high spider. The spider may have looked like scaffolding to the casual viewer, but we knew it was a Spider. A Glass Spider.
Then the questions started…is he on the phone? What’s he talking about? So that’s a song from the last record? Who’s he talking to? Why are there so many people on stage? That one’s smacking balloons with an oversized baseball bat. That one on crutches is dressed as a mummy (the Egyptian kind, not the yummy kind). I’m not following this. I can’t imagine Bill Joel doing this.
As the show progressed, there was no let-up in props or seemingly lost people on stage. It became obvious that this wasn’t what we were expecting. Being Bowie, maybe we should have expected that. But this wasn’t a show where a singer would sing to us. He’d just sing – maybe to the mummy, maybe to himself, while we were confronted with people running in all directions, occasionally stopping for some sensible stretching exercises. Something distracting would regularly catch our eye and we’d be left wondering what happened to the spider. Clearly this was not a show with crowd interaction in mind. I couldn’t help but think “Am I the only person not really enjoying this? This is Bowie. I have to be enjoying this. It’s not him, it’s me.”
At least I knew every song. Being a Bowie fan, I loved the semi-obscure songs like Sons Of The Silent Age and All The Madmen. Of the better known ones, I remember Absolute Beginners, Jean Genie and Rebel Rebel all surviving everything else that was happening on stage. But even these were sung with different tunes, just in case anyone was hoping to sing along.
And for every China Girl or Let’s Dance, there were less recognizable songs from the latest release, the unfortunately named “Never Let Me Down”. Yes, it’s easy to be wise after the fact.
As the show and tour came to a halt, and as the crowd was filing out, having decided that getting to the car quickly was a better idea than waiting for a possible encore, the consensus was that “Rebel Rebel was good”. It was all a bit glum.
If the internet had existed in its current format in 1987, I might have noticed a warning from Bowie in his London Press Conference.
“What I now want to do is have the songs work for the performance”.
“The songs have to work within the show – not the show working for the songs, if you see what I mean.”
In 2012, I can see Roger Waters tearing down his Wall, and I get it. I can play “name that tune” ideally before the song finishes at a Bob Dylan show, because they’re his songs, and I understand that he plays them as he wants to.
In 1987, I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted songs and I got a Spider. And all that other fancy theatrical stuff. I couldn’t relate to any of it.
But I’m glad I went. Bowie has never played another concert in Auckland, and it looks like he never will. There were at least ten songs played that night that he’s never played again. I saw Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar play.
Possibly this was another case of Bowie being ahead of his time. I remember U2’s ZooTV tour as being a mass of distractions – but they served the music, not the other way around, and it was exhilarating.
The next day, I rated the Glass Spider concert as the weirdest I had ever seen. 25 years later, no-one has come close.