David Bowie made it good to be alone. The original interstellar outsider, he transformed his own alienation from moribund British life in the early 70s into rock’s galactic space opera, becoming an era-defining star in the process.
It was heartening, then, to see this inverted last night (June 28th), with David Bowie offering some kind of posthumous unity as lockdown reaches the end of its first phase. The nation has been largely locked up for the past three months – illegal raves and dubious trips to the coast, notwithstanding – and in our solitary cells we’ve reached out towards often intangible communal moments.
All weekend the BBC raided its archives to re-play seminal Glastonbury performances, attempting to pin down the indefinable magic Worthy Farm can conjure. It was a feast of music, a reminder of just how many iconic sets Glastonbury has platformed over the decades – new artists and old, reinventions and just plain juggernauts, the Red button became a portal to a host of memories and rediscoveries.
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Above and beyond all this, though, stood David Bowie’s set from Glastonbury 2000. It’s often viewed as a comeback, as an artist coming out fighting after a decade on the ropes. That’s not quite true, however – sure, Bowie’s 90s are patchy at best, but they’re condemned more by passion projects and over-exposure. Think an over-reliance on drum ‘n’ bass futurism and that ever-present McQueen coat; it often felt as though he was chasing culture, rather than leading it.
That night on Worthy Farm, though, feels ineffably natural. It’s the sight and sound of an iconic performer raising his game once more, tapping into the broader euphoria of the Glastonbury experience, offering a way out of our loneliness. A set that raided the archives and plunders the hits, it’s also a curiously individual experience – who else but Bowie, for example, would include a Johnny Mathis cover during one of the more important sets of his modern life…?
Throwing in some moments that were perhaps lesser heralded by critics - ‘Absolute Beginners’ for example – it’s a staunch and steadfast set, one that shows both the universal nature of his artistry and the pleasingly bloody-minded auteur that sits behind it.
It’s the hits, though, that remain transformative. ‘Changes’. ‘Life On Mars’. ‘Ashes To Ashes’. ‘Starman’. ‘Heroes’. ‘Let’s Dance’. It’s a gilded roll call, one that few performers in the history of Glastonbury could match.
I'm going to suggest that only David Bowie could play a 2 hour Glastonbury set and every song is a banger and you've still only scratched the surface of his bangers.— David Baddiel (@Baddiel) June 28, 2020
As ever with Bowie, timing was everything. Stealing the show at Glastonbury, the wave of good will it unleashed propelled his coming decade, one in which he would largely retreat from the plethora of tours, TV spots, and interviews which framed the 90s, becoming ever more illusive and tantalisingly creative.
His final studio quadrangle - ‘Heathen’, ‘Reality’, ‘The Next Day’, and ‘Blackstar’ - contain some of his finest work, re-connecting him with his jazz roots, while throwing the songwriting dice once more. Impeccably pieced together yet pleasingly anarchic, Bowie accepted the ‘elder statesman’ mantle while casually dismissing it, utilising his platform to introduce fans to daring new ideas.
It worked, too – final album ‘Blackstar’ was a critical sensation and a global chart-topper, a “parting gift” from an icon to his audience.
David Bowie in 2000 was really one of the all time greatest gigs here. The whole band, the set list, the atmosphere, the music.. just perfect— Emily Eavis (@emilyeavis) June 28, 2020
As ever with Bowie, though, it’s all about the man and the performer. Re-visiting his Glastonbury set, you’re struck by his warm wit and grace, his gentle humour – self-deprecating at times – and his resolute openness, his desire to experience something new.
Curiously, it’s something the wider audience at the time didn’t get to experience. Due to Bowie’s awareness of the risk surrounding the performance he requested the full set wasn’t broadcast – as a result, BBC presenter Jamie Theakston sheepishly interrupted to explain that viewers at home would only be getting a handful of songs from the main set, and a mere two from the encore. Opting to read out the setlist instead, this ad lib provided the headline performance’s final moment of mythology – if you weren’t there, you didn’t get to witness it.
The moment when David Bowie reclaimed his own legend, his performance at Glastonbury 2000 has gone down in history as one of the festival’s finest ever sets, an emotional re-union, and the starting point for the final phase of Bowie’s career.
He never once looked back. Thankfully, we can.
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