David Bowie/Nine Inch Nails
Desert Sky Pavilion
October 18, 1995
David Bowie's career has always been a masquerade.
Most U.S. fans first encountered the D-man when he strutted about saying he was Ziggy Stardust, rock 'n' roll messiah from Mars. Adopting that persona was hardly a boost to Bowie's credibility, considering that he'd already done time as David Jones, British Invasion rocker (1965); an Anthony Newley clone (1967); a mime (1968); an apocalyptic Dylan-come-lately (1969); and a guy in a dress (1971).
Because Bowie's schizophrenia was always so entertaining, his audience let the guises go unchallenged. Then, around the time of his "Young Americans" Philly soul phase, the artist formerly known as Ziggy made intimations that we were seeing the real Bowie at last. Of course, we weren't.
It was after 1983's Let's Dance and the concurrent Serious Moonlight tour that the doppelgnger finally shadowboxed himself into a corner. Bowie reaped a giant cash bonanza that year--a result of finally dismissing his alleged bisexuality and smoothing out the eccentricities of his music. But after 1985's boring Tonight and his worst-ever long player, Never Let Me Down (1987), Bowie seemed more interested in acting--playing an evil overlord in Labyrinth, a fine follow-up to his really bitchin' vampire in The Hunger--than in making credible records.
The intelligence level of Bowie's material reached an all-time low with the ensuing Glass Spider tour, a Velveeta spectacle so boneheaded it made Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge" seem the product of genius. After that debacle, Bowie began his latest hobby of bankrupting record labels with Tin Machine.
Now he's back to trend-hopping--or Trent hopping, as it were. His new album, Outside, reunites him with producer Brian Eno and his notorious studio strategy cards, and the accompanying tour has Bowie teamed with Nine Inch Nails.
The inference (actually, it's being rubbed in our face like soap) is that the Thin White Kook had an immeasurable impact on industrial music by influencing Trent Reznor, one of its greatest proponents.
Reznor may be a fan, but watching Nine Inch Nails' seismic live show at Desert Sky Pavilion on October 18, we got the feeling that NIN's front man was more heavily influenced by Iggy Pop's live shenanigans than Ziggy Stardust's icy detachment.
Throughout the evening, Reznor sang with his leather-swathed butt thrust into our faces--just like Mr. Pop used to--and peppered each song with Iggyesque "I wanna fuck you like an animal" sentiments that seemed far removed from Bowie's literary cutup technique.
Also, to keep up his "I hate everybody, especially myself" veneer, Reznor engaged in fisticuffs with almost every member of his band (he spared the drummer--seemingly content to just flip him the bird on occasion). Aside from those tantrums, the Rez also doused his guitarist in ice water (somebody show this guy a safety filmstrip on electrocution) and casually lobbed a microphone into the crowd.
It was shrewd planning to have Bowie and his band infiltrate NIN's juggernaut of a set rather than attempt to follow it. Melding the two sets without a break ensured there'd be no mass exodus of Lestat-look-alike NIN fans before Bowie had a chance to win them over. He was ushered in with a fabulous version of "Subterraneans" from Low, complete with Trent demonstrating his Maggie Simpson prowess on the tenor sax.
The crowd went wild at the first glimpse of Bowie--testament to his lasting star power--and for the next 20 minutes, the two front men shared leads on each other's songs like a sticky, wet, mutual admiration society.
It was an exciting study in contrasts. Reznor threw a guitar about twice every song, and kicked, punched or head-butted his mike stand with even greater frequency. We lost count of how many times roadies ran onstage to clean up his mess somewhere around 52 (seriously). All Bowie did was stand there and "vogue."
Bowie's strongest point remains his mesmerizing stage presence--the gaunt face and sinewy torso of a junkie with a Soloflex; the impeccable dress; the composed mannerisms; and unsmiling, dry-ice cool. Bowie was 007 suave. While Reznor hurled himself into the mosh pit, Bowie merely dangled himself over the lip of the stage: Venture into the throng and take the crease out of my slacks? You must be joking.
About 45 minutes into Bowie's set, someone in the pit began hurling fistfuls of ice at him. Instead of backing off, the singer stalked to the very front of the platform and leaned forward, taunting the heckler to try again. He did, and did, and did. Remarkably, some superstar aura warded off the projectiles, and, despite the close range and shotgun pattern, Bowie never took a direct hit. "Hey, punk," he seemed to be saying, "you can't touch this."
Eventually, though, Bowie decided enough was enough and stopped the show a few bars into "I've Never Been to Oxford Town." After a pause, he addressed the audience. "Would anyone like me to continue with my songs?" Nodding through the predictable roar of approval, he stared in the direction of the iceman with poison in his eyes. "Well, then, I guess the asshole up front with the ice is in the minority, aren't you, nose wipe?"
From there on out, Bowie commanded the audience's respect, if not adulation, and it patiently listened to material from his nearly indigestible new album.
Most critics have taken Outside to task for saddling what could've been Bowie's most consistent and adventurous album since Scary Monsters with a horrible conceit: The recording thinks it's an interactive version of the Parker Brothers Clue game.
Outside's gumshoe narrative gets so convoluted, you feel like you've joined Twin Peaks midseason and have to endure a succession of red herrings.
As Bowie's industrial audition piece, the album falls flat, relying too heavily on Eno's random strategy rather than the painstaking placement employed by--dare we say it?--Nine Inch Nails. Conspicuously absent are any real crowd-pleasers like "Suffragette City" or "Space Oddity"--tried-and-true hits he has jettisoned from his live repertoire, allegedly for good.
While Bowie is to be credited for not resting solely on old chestnuts, it's more than a bit telling that the biggest cheers of the night went for an old number he's rarely performed. "Under Pressure" scored a high Q rating with the under-20s, but failed to rock in all the right places.
The energy of Bowie's band this time out seems to be lagging, and a strong guitar foil like past sidemen Adrian Belew, Earl Slick or Mick Ronson was sorely missed. Gabrell Reeves was technically fine, but a blank-stare bore to watch.
Bowie also reshaped "The Man Who Sold the World" to sound like an Outside outtake rather than the Nirvana MTV Unplugged cover version that stuck so closely to Bowie's original arrangement. The crowd cheered the selection, but, based on its relatively tepid response to most of the material, its enthusiasm was spurred by the Kurt Cobain recognition factor. It was glaringly apparent who the real heroes of this youthful crowd were.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Speaking of "Heroes," Bowie climaxed--or should we say anticlimaxed--with "Teenage Wildlife," another Scary Monsters track that sounded enough like "Heroes" that he should have just thrown the crowd a bone and done the real thing. Maybe then there would have been a stronger call for the encore that never came. To be honest, though, toward the end of the set, people were filing out to beat the traffic, anyway.
Since Bowie revealed himself as a trend chameleon long ago, his latest color--that he's the Godfather of Industrial Music--will probably fade into memory, as well. How many NIN convertees will he win over with this tour? Our guess is not many.
Even the Nails' thunderstorm light show dwarfed Mr. Stardust's. One left the concert with the feeling that Reznor and crew were the real headliners, and that Frankie Valli or even Rudy Vallee came out afterward to disperse the crowd in an orderly fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion.--Serene Dominic and David Holthouse