IN the end, at the end, he played Ziggy Stardust. It was quite a moment. The last line - "Ziggy played guiiiiii-tar ..." - zinged around the theatre. The crowd screamed. The band gathered stage-front, arms round waists, bowing deeply. It was the last show of the tour, David Bowie announced, but he would see us again next year.
Not in this venue, not like this, he wouldn’t.
On Wednesday night, David Bowie played the Apollo in Hammersmith, west London. In July 1973, he had stood on the same stage and announced that this would be the last live show Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars - Bowie, Mick Ronson, Mick Woodmansey, Trevor Bolder - would play.
This week’s gig was part of the Carling Homecoming concert series. Earlier in the summer, The Charlatans went back to a tiny Manchester club to recreate their first major gig in the town. Jamiroquai popped home to Ealing to retrace his white funk/big hat roots. Next month, Manic Street Preachers play Cardiff’s St David’s Hall, a key staging post in their progress from mascara-eyed dreamers with the local rugger buggers hot on their trail to stadium-filling rock fetishists.
In a different time, Bowie had trouble with his make-up, too. In the capacious sleevenotes to this year’s 30th anniversary edition of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie recalls attending an Elvis Presley concert at Madison Square Gardens.
"I walked in on the Saturday evening in full Ziggy garb … They nearly crucified me! I felt such a fool and I was way down at the front. I got incredible seats and I sat down there and he looked at me. And if looks could kill. I felt felt: Elvis is roasting me! I just hobbled down in my high-heeled shoes as fast as I could and got to my seat … But we nearly stopped the show."
It’s a long time since Bowie hobbled ungainly anywhere, but Ziggy’s songs could have been written five minutes ago. Introduced by Radio One’s Mark and Lard ("We’ve been fans of this man since we could ejaculate"), Bowie glided on stage like CS Lewis’s Mr Tumnus, the tall-walking faun. There was the hair. The teeth. The tan. The snakehips. Apparently, David Bowie is 55.
A baroque, piano version of Life On Mars served as overture to the nearly three-hour performance. Away from the arenas and auditoriums, returned to a theatre, Bowie’s voice showed itself to be as impeccable as his shimmering blue suit. On a sixpence, on Moonage Daydream, it shifted from Scott Walker boom to Cockney whine via Dickensian squawk and Martian sneer.
Ashes To Ashes - "the first cowboy song of the night" - was rich and elegant, buoyed by a spare keyboard solo and the most elegant of hand-claps from Bowie.
The greatest hits kept coming, familiar but deftly made new. China Girl - the slinky oriental stylings were boiler-plated with big, crunching guitars. Fame and Fashion - urgent, fresh, snotty, never more in tune with the zeitgeist. Rebel Rebel and Heroes - pure, shivery thrills. Changes and Starman - joyous, with Bowie throwing a spasm of rock’n’roll shapes. If this was Bowie coming home to the seat of Ziggy’s fall, it was no artsy homage. It was a loud, blistering but cool nod to that over-made-up, ridiculously-heeled past. What better way to deal with a back catalogue, and a dressing up box, as rich as his?
Low-points: the stuff from Heathen, his latest, 25th album. It could be by any maturing, restless musician who refuses to give up. Coming from Bowie, that’s not good enough. When he sings Absolute Beginners with bass player Gail Ann Dorsey, it sounds like the finale of a school production (which, I guess, is a fair description of the film from which it came). When they join hands and moon at each other, we’re at Rydell High. Then they dance like your parents.
There are other moments of cheese, mainly when Bowie opens his mouth to chat. For a man so sublime, so talented, a brainbox and a polymath, his patter is pants.
But still. A contemporary advert for the Ziggy Stardust album quoted Cash Box magazine of 27 May 1972: "If they are still putting phonograph records in time capsules, then we would like to recommend the new Bowie for inclusion. His latest full-scale invasion of the mind is the saga of a rock ’n’ roll star’s trek through a garden of unearthly delights. The songs are uniformly brilliant and the production by Bowie and Ken Scott is virtually flawless. It’s an electric age nightmare. It’s a cold hard beauty. It’s another example of the genius of Bowie. An album to take with you into the 1980s."
As the closing bars of Ziggy Stardust fade to silver, the decades collapse.