Ashes To Ashes: David Bowie And Iggy Pop On Stage And In Eternity
On March 31, Wayne Coyne sat on the shoulders of a man wearing a Chewbacca costume at Carnegie Hall, and he did so for the sake for David Bowie.
The occasion was the first of a two-night tribute billed as The Music of David Bowie, with a star-studded lineup that included Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Michael Stipe, Perry Farrell, Ann Wilson of Heart, the Pixies, Tony Visconti — Bowie's longtime collaborator, friend and producer of Blackstar, his 25th and final studio album — and more. The concert was both celebratory and somber, an event that coaxed several tears and a handful of sing-alongs from the 2,800 or so people who filled each velvet seat of the venue. Stipe's hypnotizing, minimal rendition of "Ashes to Ashes" was just as warmly applauded as Harry's boisterous take on "Star Man;" Jakob Dylan brought the house down with his own fame-sparking reimagining of "Heroes." So did "Life on Mars?," the contribution from Coyne that had The Flaming Lips frontman using the Wookiee as a piece of furry furniture.
At Radio City Music Hall the following evening, Amanda Palmer, Anna Calvi and Jherek Bischoff would entrance the congregation of Young Dudes and Young Americans with "Blackstar," a selection from the program that shone for its newness. While haunting and profoundly dissonant in the vein of Bowie's own recording, the inclusion of Blackstar's title track — still foreign when compared to the familiar favorites plucked from his discography — was masterful in its ability to anchor the festivities in the present, to remind the room why so many people had come to sit, sing and cry with a bunch of strangers.
The Music of David Bowie had been planned and booked long before Bowie's passing; when tickets went on sale, coincidentally, on the day he died, they were gone in minutes, prompting the addition of that second performance at Radio City. From Cyndi Lauper's boisterous "Suffragette City" opener to the appropriately ghoulish undertow of "Blackstar" to the grand finale of "Space Oddity" that had the whole lineup swaying and clapping in time with the audience, The Music of David Bowie wasn't just a memorial for the beloved rocker who passed away on Jan. 10 at the age of 69, a funeral mass rife with fond memories and modern hymns for the rock 'n' roll parishioner. It was a ritual of sorts, a meditation on life and art, an acceptance of the impermanence of one and the eternal echo of the other. It was an oath affirmed with every "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am!," "Hot tramp, I love you so" and the like, a promise to Bowie that each tribute mounted in the weeks following his death — even the ones featuring furry Star Wars characters, for one off-kilter, intergalactic reason or another — does its part in ensuring his music will continue to survive him.
Elsewhere on March 31 — approximately 3,000 miles away in San Francisco, to be precise — Iggy Pop took the stage just three gigs into the tour that could very well be his last. Pop has said on the record that he just might "close up shop" after Post Pop Depression, the Josh Homme-produced album featuring guitar work from Homme, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age on bass and Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys on drums. To mark the release of his 17th solo album, Pop and his hard-rocking supergroup played a surprise show at the Teragram Ballroom in Los Angeles on March 8; they followed-up that performance with two nights at Austin's ACL Moody Theater during South By Southwest, on March 15 and 16, before officially kicking off the tour on March 28 at Seattle's Paramount Theatre. As they continue on their national jaunt, the setlist has remained largely unchanged: Pop and Co. pulverize the new stuff, playing through seven of Post Pop Depression's nine tracks on any given evening, but the majority of the two-hour show stares down the onset of Pop's solo career — namely, the songs of The Idiot and Lust for Life, the two albums Pop made in 1977 with Bowie.
The songs that would eventually make up those two albums were written in 1976, just before Bowie dove into 1977's Low and "Heroes" and 1979's Lodger, the three Visconti-produced albums that would later be dubbed his "Berlin Trilogy." Nearly 40 years after that monumental creative period, Bowie and Pop's respective orbits aligned once more as they produced and released Blackstar and Post Pop Depression, autobiographical elegies and — perhaps — the last words on their legacies.
On stage, the intensity Pop channels into the juxtaposition of Post Pop Depression's brooding material and Lust for Life and The Idiot's avant-garde buoyancy serves a similar purpose as these Bowie tributes, in that he's reflecting on the music that made him while offering a record that looks back on the life he lived in stark, dark terms. Pop has rarely donned a shirt in the four decades he's been swinging from his mic stand and flailing his limbs in different directions during the "la-la-la"-es of "The Passenger," and the Post Pop Depression tour is no exception to the rule. Pop's movements have lost elasticity, but he rolls through "Gardenia" with the same slink as he does "China Girl" before the tone shifts and he declares he's ready to "pack up his soul and scram" in "Paraguay." He's the curator here, the one presenting his memories and cherry-picking his creations for this comprehensive set.
But Bowie is gone, leaving collaborators and superlative musicians to carry his torch with various covers and retrospective performances, like The Music of David Bowie at Carnegie Hall and Radio City. Pop remains, his torch continually lit by his own voracious, vulgar resolve and the superlative musicians that support his wild gesticulations and exclamations. One man may stand in the past tense, but the other is active in the present, and a single, immortal message infuses these records in tandem: We're all going to die, they seem to say. My time is coming, and this is my last, lasting word on the subject. The difference is that Pop's voice carries his grand finale before a live audience, while Bowie, now silenced, has relinquished that duty to his community.
To count the parallels between the albums is at once a gauche exercise and an eerie meditation on the play of prophecy. Both Blackstar and Post Pop Depression were written and recorded in secret, two works unfolding in shrouded environments entrusted to Visconti and Homme, respectively; both are brief and potent, clocking in at seven (Blackstar) and nine (Post Pop Depression) songs each. The final touches for both were made in the same time frame, with 2015 serving as a prolific year spent with the country between them: Pop and Homme set about writing and recording what would become Post Pop Depression in southern California, while Bowie — who lived with his cancer diagnosis, a secret known only by family and Visconti — worked on Blackstar at the Magic Shop in New York. Both records ruminate on grand, fatalistic themes that invoke the afterlife in mythical terms (on Bowie's "Lazarus;" Pop's "American Valhalla," especially); both are records that amp up the lyrical intensity with predominantly discordant, driving and sometimes atonal arrangements that escalate tension and rage one clashing chord at a time. What Visconti provides in experimental flourishes and brassy, ivory, jazzy strains on Blackstar, Homme delivers in straightforward, sneering rock and roll instrumentation on Post Pop Depression. Both albums play on six of the seven stages of grief, fluctuating between denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression and acceptance, sometimes in a single track; the first of those seven stages, disbelief, is largely absent, as both Blackstar and Post Pop Depression lead this dance with the mortality of the men who made them instead of shying away from it.
Like Bowie with Blackstar and the tributes that look back on his brilliant, too-brief half-century, Pop is conducting a ritual that embraces both Post Pop Depression's unblinking gaze into the infinite and his role as its temporary messenger. Pop will continue on this tour through May 15; after that, he'll commence with a European run of solo dates that has him booked through Aug. 28. The tides of remembrance will keep Bowie's farewell full-length current through various homages and high-profile productions; he — and the Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane, and Ziggy Stardust — will live on two-dimensionally, while Pop will hurl his fists into the air and howl, his bare, leathery torso brushing the knees of his tuxedo pants in a deep bow before he stalks off the stage.
The "Golden Years" have passed; the "Lust for Life" remains, and Pop's is ever-present from that set opener to his encore. Blackstar and Post Pop Depression serve as bookends to brilliant careers on the same shelf, if Post Pop Depression does in fact wind up being Pop's final recorded effort. In spite of their shared finality, when played out for packed rooms both Blackstar and Post Pop Depression take less of a last breath, instead breathing new life into the extensive catalogs of both artists. They provide the opportunity to discover and reflect all at once, to couch the blow of the end while assuaging the audience with deep cuts and seldom-played favorites, seemingly for one last time. Pop's tour is the road map to his own American Valhalla, but Bowie's recent ascension to his traces the physicality of his lingering earthbound brother in the brittle lines of impermanence.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.