The goosebump moment. Every time I go to a concert, I’m looking for it, though I almost never find it. That moment when song, performer, setting and the circumstance converge to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up—your eyes fill with tears, a wide smile forms across your face. In 17 years of reviewing some 400 concerts, those goosebump moments might only number a dozen or so. R.E.M. at Madison’s Dane County Coliseum in 1987, Bruce Springsteen at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium a year later, A.F.I. at the Rave in Milwaukee last fall… and now David Bowie in Chicago.
It came at the end of a stellar two-hour, 25-song set, when Bowie and his band launched into “Ziggy Stardust.” I’ve been a Bowie fan on-and-off since the ’70s, but it wasn’t until the moment guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard tossed off the song’s opening chords that I realized—that riff is part of my DNA now. And hearing it within the context of other classics like “Rebel Rebel” and “Heroes,” along with new tunes like “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” and relative obscurities like “The Battle for Britain (The Letter),” was a reminder of just how much Bowie’s music once meant to me, and just how good he still is.
People always say Bowie’s like a chameleon, which would suggest he changed his music or his image to adapt to the world around him. But even as he embraced glam’s androgyny with the Ziggy Stardust character or created the coked-up, detached Thin White Duke persona, Bowie was never adapting to anything but his own vision of himself and his art. He’s remained an outsider, even during his most popular periods and this theme of alienation tied together the entire concert. Whether celebrating it in “Rebel Rebel,” confronting its pain in “Hallo Spaceboy” or “The Loneliest Guy,” or reaching out for connection against all odds in “Five Years” and “Under Pressure,” Bowie managed to put on a show that, despite its lack of theatrical trappings, actually revealed more of a narrative thread than some of his more “conceptual” outings (anybody remember the Glass Spider tour?). For the Reality tour, Bowie and his musicians left the drama to the music itself, and neither his voice nor his band—which, in addition to longtime collaborator Slick, includes keyboardist Mike Garson, who played on the 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour—have ever sounded better.
The reason I’d moved away from Bowie’s music as I grew older was that I thought it was too cold, too detached, too emotionless. Bowie’s show reminded me that his music, at its best, is just the opposite: He might sing about junkies in space, about aliens both extraterrestrial and human, but he’s a romantic at heart. He delivered both “Ashes to Ashes” and “The Man Who Sold the World” with a conviction that somehow revealed layers in those songs that had become obscured over time by his own legend.
Which brings us back to “Ziggy Stardust,” itself an act of mythmaking that’s been subsumed by its creator’s own myth. The goosebumps came from—for maybe the first time in almost thirty years—hearing it again for what it is, underneath all the makeup and the sci-fi: a song about human fears and fantasies, and one that just so happens to have one of the most kick-ass guitar riffs of all time