In 1974, the BBC documentary Cracked Actor captured David Bowie during his most desperate fugue, alienated by Los Angeles and stiffened by cocaine, explaining Ziggy Stardust’s “psychosomatic death wish,” skeletal arm clutching his shoulder. As always, he was very funny. Bowie rides through the Mojave like a vampire on holiday, miming Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” and after receiving a convenient metaphor for his desolate journey from the fly floating around his milk carton, he laughs: “Look, a bleedin’ wax museum in the middle of the desert. Think it’d melt, wouldn’t you?” I thought of that image again last Thursday night, at the Carnegie Hall tribute to Bowie’s music — someone sculpting mannequins even as the heat relaxed their poses. The annual charity benefit was announced on January 10, only hours before the death of its honoree. Performers who had signed up for a celebration would instead play at a memorial.
They were eased into it by the evening’s house band, featuring Bowie’s faithful producer Tony Visconti as leader and bassist. Bowie knew when to accept someone else’s good ideas — think of the “Fame” riff his great rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar invented, or Nile Rodgers bulking up a demo into “Modern Love” — and with Ziggy drummer Mick Woodmansey recruited as well, most of the other artists referred to his glam-era canon. Robyn Hitchcock chose a lovingly irreverent “Soul Love,” while Cat Power sang “Five Years” as if recalling a past, pivotal event, hands over her heart. Debbie Harry did “Starman” in a silver raincoat, with the entire audience on backing vocals; it was poignant to hear her register, lowered by time, resemble Bowie’s own. The band’s experience with the material carried the few underprepared performers, like Perry Farrell, who moved through “Rebel Rebel” as if it were a karaoke number he’d forgotten signing up for.
The more idiosyncratic covers were collisions of intimacy. Laurie Anderson walked on stage, looked up, said “Hi, darling,” and then rendered “Always Crashing in the Same Car” as tender spoken word, interrupting herself on electric violin. Bettye LaVette recorded “It Ain’t Easy” the same year Bowie did, 1972, and her rough-grained version in Carnegie Hall, a plastic soul covered with scratches, hinted at alternate histories. “Let’s Dance” was a strategic arena bid for Bowie, and Ann Wilson of Heart did its intentioned scale justice, with Bowie’s gift for lingering emphasis and more traditional vocal skills. During Jakob Dylan’s “Heroes,” I kept looking at Tony Visconti, as he mouthed “I remember.”
I was a little disappointed not to hear anything from the last three decades of Bowie’s career, no “Jump They Say” or “I’m Afraid of Americans” or “Strangers When We Meet.” (The group assembled for Blackstar did play a wordless “Lazarus” during the tribute’s second night, at Radio City Music Hall.) Bowie made a few mistakes over that time, including a few ghastly covers, but also some of his best music. Black Tie White Noise, where he dances around the idea of a house album, or Outside, which courted failure at such a grotesquely conceptual extreme that it compresses the rubble into jewels. He was a fan before anything else, and it thrills me, in a Jean Genet way, hearing Bowie embrace and sometimes throttle the new. I loved Michael Stipe’s “Ashes to Ashes” performance for that, how he reduced the zombie double of “Space Oddity” to minimal piano and his own whisper, with Karen Elson’s stately soprano alongside it, voices cut out of place and pasted together.
At one point in Cracked Actor, Bowie recounts, “I was trying to make up my mind whether I wanted to play rock & roll or jazz, and I wasn’t very good at jazz [but] I could fake it pretty well in rock & roll.” The Mountain Goats were Thursday’s only tribute act inspired by the singer’s unchaste devotion to jazz, introducing their version of “Word on a Wing” with a saxophone solo. That song stands out uneasily from Station to Station‘s robotic r&b, the broken prayer on an album lurching through evil rituals. Coming from someone who was not even a lapsed Christian, Bowie’s language sounds more like abject camp, referring to “this age of grand illusion” and God’s plans as a “scheme.” John Darnielle, himself a lapsed Catholic but still obsessed with scripture, sang it semi-obscured behind a grand piano, at first with measured poise, and then, as his bandmates’ harmonies fell beautifully short of him, growing more and more anguished. Flinging an arm up to the hall’s pink hollows, he cried: “My prayer flies like a word on a wing.”