In May 2000, David Bowie was sitting at home in New York in some confusion. “I really don’t remember why I agreed to close this year’s Glastonbury Festival in the first place,” he wrote in his diary. “It couldn’t be more inconvenient.”
Bowie, then 53, and his wife Iman were expecting their first child together that August; so he had put his future live shows on hold — apart from Glastonbury in June. On top of that, the famously anti-nostalgic singer had spent a decade avoiding playing his own hits.
Glastonbury’s high profile made that difficult. As well as 100,000 ticketholders, millions would watch live on the BBC. In his diary, Bowie reluctantly accepted that “big, well-known songs shall litter the field this year at Glastonbury”.
What Bowie didn’t foresee is just how revitalised he would be by embracing his past. In front of a crowd swollen to 250,000 by fence-jumpers, he played 21 classics from the Pyramid Stage like a soul awoken.
In a nod to his 1971 Glastonbury appearance, in the Hunky Dory era, he wore Oxford bags, an Alexander McQueen brocade frock coat and long, wavy hair. Pop’s great chameleon had dressed as himself. “Oh Glastonbury, you’ve got a very lucky face,” he told the crowd. I was there. Of the 18 Glastonburys I’ve attended, it has never been bettered.
Bowie’s performance brought him back from self-imposed obscurity, after a clutch of 1990s albums that had dabbled in drum ‘n’ bass and industrial rock. “We’d all forgotten who David Bowie was,” as his long-term PR man, Alan Edwards, put it. But if the set rejuvenated Bowie, it nearly finished Glastonbury.
The dangerous level of fence-jumping forced the festival to take a break in 2001 (five days after Bowie’s set, nine people were crushed to death at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark). In 2002, Glastonbury returned — ringed by a £1m super-fence. Bowie’s show had been the swansong for an era.
The irony is that it was never meant to happen. Bowie only got the gig owing to a piece of cheeky PR skulduggery.
At a Spice Girls Christmas in Spiceworld gig (of all places) a journalist had asked Edwards and Bowie’s live agent, John Giddings, if they had any gossip, to which they whispered that Glastonbury were begging Bowie to play. (In fact, Edwards now admits, “there was no palpable interest” from Michael Eavis, Glastonbury’s founder.)
The nugget, firmed up to state that Bowie was “lined up” as a festival headliner, made front pages, and Bowie was soon confirmed. But the move had been risky: Edwards hadn’t run his tactics past his boss, and nervously watched his inbox. Three days later an email arrived from Bowie.
“I gingerly opened it. It started, ‘You naughty boys...’.”
Showtime arrived. From the wings, Bowie made his keyboardist Mike Garson “the guinea pig”. “He looked out to the audience and he got a little scared,” recalls Garson. “He said, ‘Mike, go and warm up the audience with Greensleeves.’ I said, ‘Solo piano with a quarter of a million people looking at me? Are you out of your mind?’ “
Garson realised his keyboard wouldn’t work. “The volume was off. Fifty tech guys were running around like headless chickens looking for the problem.
“I’m getting nervous as the audience look like they’re going to kill me,” he says. Viewers can sense the hitch in the footage — to be aired in full for the first time on the BBC this Sunday — when Garson’s Greensleeves is preceded by an eerie spell of darkness.
The set list built slowly. By the fifth song, Life on Mars?, the crowd were elated. By Heroes, the 19th song, they were emotional. “I haven’t been here for 30 years and this is f***ing brilliant,” Bowie beamed. At the end he fell to his knees. He left the Pyramid Stage in a trance-like state.
In 2004, after heart surgery, Bowie quit touring for good. Glastonbury turned out to be his last great live performance — one of those “magic shows”, as Garson puts it, “where the musician becomes the magician”.
Watch it on BBC Two at 9.30pm on Sunday. The Glastonbury Experience runs until Monday across the BBC.
© The Daily Telegraph