But a career dedicated to individuality and integrity is not what gets you onto this list. If it were, Frank Zappa would have to be here, too. This is a list about seldom-discussed single acts of musical bravery, and for that we have to go to New York in 1995.
Bowie spent the first half of the '90s trying to kill off the pop music fan base he'd acquired in the '80s with Let's Dance and Labyrinth. By 1995, he had done so, and he re-emerged with the incredibly strong and sonically demanding Outside album, produced by his former collaborator Brian Eno. He also teamed up with Trent Reznor and went on tour with Nine Inch Nails at the height of NIN's popularity. Furthermore, the shows were continuous, with the two artists slowly integrating their bands. The show went NIN, NIN plus Bowie, NIN plus Bowie and his band, Bowie and his band plus just Reznor, and then just Bowie and his band for the rest of his show. Got it?
Dipped In Cream
Yeah, it was cool ...
At that precise moment in time, NIN was a much bigger draw than Bowie, but because Trent Reznor is not a disrespectful prick, he rightly allowed Bowie a slightly more exalted position on the bill. Here's the deal, though. The overwhelming majority of the coliseum was there to see NIN. The audience was awash with 14-year-old girls in torn fishnets and black lipstick. Even though they probably went off to college, broadened their musical horizons, and became Bowie fans (considering what a huge NIN influence he is), on that night, they were not. But it gets worse. The Outside album is dense, difficult, and over 70 minutes long. Also, it was released the day before the concert, and Bowie played almost exclusively from it. Accordingly, even the minority of the crowd who was there for Bowie did not know what the hell he was playing. Even I had only heard it all the way through a half-dozen times before the show.
When Trent left the stage, so did half the audience, some of them crying that they didn't get enough Trent. Bowie "ruined the show" for them. (That's an actual quote from some girl I overheard in the parking lot ... moments before I strangled her to death.) So many people left that they let my friends and me fill the empty spot before the stage, and I watched the show literally 10 feet from Bowie. And I felt like the only person in the entire place who enjoyed it.
Let's recap: Bowie plays to one of the largest venues in New York, goes onstage with someone far more popular than he at that specific moment in time, and plays to the other guy's audience. Then he plays only demanding music that his own audience does not know. Bowie played great and tanked. He knew he would. How could he not? And he just didn't care. He did what he wanted to do, able to withstand a stadium's worth of undeserved antipathy and indifference. Some people think it's brave that I read the comments to what I write online. I'm not sure "brave" is a good explanation. I read comments for every reason from narcissism to practicality to masochism, but if there is anything brave about it, it comes from Bowie. More than at any other time in his career, Bowie was my hero that night. Putting himself into the mix in the exact way he wanted, hoping to be appreciated, but not depending upon it. Not having his sense of self shaken. When it was over, he said simply, "Well, you've been very kind to listen to so many songs you don't know. Here's one you do." And then closed with "Under Pressure" with the incomparable Gail Ann Dorsey playing bass and killing Freddie Mercury's parts.