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Is ‘VH1 Storytellers’ David Bowie’s Most Revealing Live Performance?
In Depth

Is ‘VH1 Storytellers’ David Bowie’s Most Revealing Live Performance?

Filmed live in New York City, David Bowie’s ‘VH1 Storytellers’ performance offered rare insight into the man behind the music.

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“The things I could tell you,” David Bowie laughed at the start of his VH1 Storytellers special. “Oh! You don’t know the half of it!” By the end of his hour-plus performance, however, fans would have witnessed one of the most revealing concerts of Bowie’s career.

Filmed at Manhattan Center Studios, in New York City, on 23 August 1999 – and later released as a CD+DVD set on 6 July 2009 – Bowie’s unique VH1 Storytellers appearance found the famously elusive icon delving deep not only into his back catalogue but also into his personal history, and coming up with insightful tales with which to regale his audience. Never to be repeated again, the night offered unprecedented insight into Bowie’s life, his inspirations and even some of the challenges he faced in his decades-long career.

Listen to ‘VH1 Storytellers’ here.

“We were used to dealing with legendary musicians,” VH1 Storytellers’ Executive Producer, Bill Flanagan, later said of the show. “Still, landing David Bowie was more than a big booking.” Indeed, in the history of a series that began, in 1996, with Kinks mainman Ray Davies, and, across almost 20 years and 98 episodes, welcomed everyone from Pretenders to Tori Amos, Phil Collins, Green Day and Ed Sheeran on to its stage, no artist was as coveted – or as seemingly unlikely to embrace the Storyteller format – as Bowie. But then, as Flanagan observed, “He does nothing unless he is fully committed. He never phones it in.”

“Memory, some say, is fate’s shorthand,” Bowie observed before introducing the song Seven, a standout from the ‘hours…’ album he was then promoting. Yet despite the unusually reflective occasion, Seven was, as Bowie introduced it, a “song of nowness”. One of four selections lifted from the ‘hours…’ album that evening, it was proof that Bowie remained resolutely fixated on the present, even as he took the opportunity to look back at his past.

Here’s what Bowie shared with fans during his VH1 Storytellers special – arguably the most revealing concert of his career.

On unlikely inspirations

“When I was about 14, Eartha Kitt and DH Lawrence were some of my favourite bedtime reading – not just at my bedtimes, if truth be known!” Bowie told his VH1 Storytellers audience early in the show.

No surprises that he was drawn to the sultry jazz singer best known for recording the first version of famed Christmas song Santa Baby. But that the title of her 1956 memoir, Thursday’s Child, would, decades later, come to inspire the name of a song that, as Bowie confirmed, “is not actually about Eartha Kitt” seemed to surprise even Bowie himself.

“That stayed with me since I was 14,” he said. “I don’t know why, but it just kind of bubbled up the other month when we wrote this.”

On “the worst lines I’ve ever written”

Bowie the natural raconteur was on full display during the VH1 Storytellers special – and he wasn’t afraid to poke fun at himself or his early efforts at songwriting. He was still going as Davie Jones when he released his debut single, Liza Jane, in June 1964, and it would be another two years before he issued a song as David Bowie.

A mod belter straight out of the Swinging 60s playbook, Can’t Help Thinking About Me was credited to David Bowie With The Lower Third, and was, as Bowie joked at Manhattan Center Studios, “a beautiful piece of solipsism”.

“And it does contain, though some might disagree, one of the worst – two of the worst – lines I’ve ever written,” he added, before shaking his head over the lyrics “My girl calls my name: ‘Hi, Dave/Drop in, see you around, come back/If you’re this way again’”.

“You don’t think that’s the worst line?” he concludes, before adding, with mock-despair, “We won’t even look at Tin Machine lyrics.”

Despite the jab at his late-80s/early-90s rock group, Bowie made space in his VH1 Storytellers setlist for I Can’t Read, from the debut Tin Machine album, perhaps in tacit acknowledgement that the show would mark his final live performance with guitarist and Tin Machine bandmate Reeves Gabrels. In just a year’s time Bowie would revisit Can’t Help Thinking About Me in the studio, for the abandoned Toy project of the early 2000s.

On meeting “King Mod”, Marc Bolan

Whatever creative phase Bowie was in, British mod culture would always be close to his heart: a cover of The Who’s I Can’t Explain featured on his 1973 album, Pin Ups, while memories of adolescent trips to London and travelling home on the same early-hours train as Pete Townshend inspired the Heathen album standout, 5:15 The Angels Have Gone.

For VH1 Storytellers Bowie recalled meeting self-proclaimed “King Mod” Marc Bolan for the first time. Yet to find fame, both hopefuls had been put to work painting the wall of their then manager’s office. “We were just two nothing kids with huge ambitions,” Bowie said, before doing a pitch-perfect impression of Bolan’s feathery voice.

“I’m King Mod. Your shoes are crap,” declared the future T.Rex frontman.

“Well, you’re short,” replied the future Ziggy Stardust.

“So we became really close friends,” was the immediate result.

Bowie ended the story with the revelation that he would go “dustbin shopping” with his fellow fashionista: nighttime raids during which the pair picked through the damaged or defective items of clothing thrown out by Carnaby Street’s leading tailors, in attempts to “get our wardrobes together”.

In just a few years, Bowie and Bolan would be friendly rivals for the glam-rock crown. As if in tribute to Bolan, who died in car crash, aged 29, Bowie capped the tale with the first verse and chorus of his final flirtation with the glitter children, Rebel Rebel, delivering the Diamond Dogs classic in a sensitive acoustic arrangement.

On not writing My Way

When asked, in 1968, to come up with English-language lyrics for a French song titled Comme D’Habitude, Bowie penned what he called Even A Fool Learns To Love. His efforts rejected (“Quite rightly,” he admitted), Bowie looked on as Paul Anka’s submission, My Way, became the archetypal torch ballad and signature song of Frank Sinatra.

“In retaliation, I wrote Life On Mars?, Bowie told the VH1 Storytellers crowd. Setting the reflective tone of the evening, he opened the show with a stately rendition of the song, pianist Mike Garson bringing out the crooner in Bowie with a jazzy arrangement that evoked the spirit of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

On “the darkest days” of his life

“1975 and 1976. And a bit of 1974… And the first few weeks of 1977… Were singularly the darkest days of my life,” Bowie admitted a little over halfway through his VH1 Storytellers special. He played his timing for laughs, but a hush fell about the room as he continued.

“I think it was so steeped in awfulness that recall is nigh-on impossible – certainly painful. And I was concerned with questions like, Do the dead interest themselves in the affairs of the living? Can I change the channel on the TV without using the clicker?”

Recorded amid this period of crisis was 1976’s Station To Station album, whose Word On A Wing remains one of the best David Bowie songs of all time. “Unwittingly this next song was therefore a signal of distress. I’m sure that it was a call for help,” Bowie said by way of introduction in New York, provoking thrilled applause from the audience.

On “the Berlin that I knew”

Seeking an escape from those dark days, Bowie decamped to Berlin with Iggy Pop. Finishing his Low album in the German capital and recording the entirety of its follow-up, “Heroes”, at the city’s famed Hansa Tonstudio, he ushered in a whole new creative era for himself while also setting the blueprint for the new-wave movement of the late 70s and early 80s.

Before his VH1 Storytellers performance of the song China Girl, first recorded by Pop on his Bowie-produced solo album The Idiot, and later re-recorded by Bowie for 1983’s Let’s Dance, Bowie recounted “the most extraordinary events” witnessed by Pop in a Berlin punk club, during which a replica of the Berlin Wall was torn down by “50 savage, demented punks” on the anniversary of the wall’s construction.

“He said it was the aftermath that was the most affecting,” Bowie recalled. “Because after all this had happened… there were small groups of them standing around in the corners, pitifully crying, tears streaming down their faces. I thought that was an incredibly moving thing, and a real memory of Berlin – the Berlin I knew at the time, anyway.”

Bowie would later use the ballad Where Are We Now?, from his surprise 2013 album, The Next Day, to reflect on his time in the city. What he could never have predicted during the mid-70s was that his song “Heroes” – whose lyrics directly reference the infamous wall that separated East and West Germany for 28 years – would later be recognised by the German foreign office for contributing to the reunification of the country in 1990.

“Bowie’s Storytellers was a unique theatrical event, a sort of off-Broadway ‘Evening With The Artist’ in which a great songwriter used bits and pieces from his life and career to show us all the roads leading up to a single moment,” Executive Producer Bill Flanagan reflected, a decade on.

Praising it as “a complement to his current album but also a performance strong enough to stand on its own”, Flanagan neatly summed up Bowie’s VH1 Storytellers appearance, calling it “a compelling introduction to David Bowie for the uninitiated and a fresh experience for the longtime fan”.

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