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David Bowie, Snug Harbor Music Hall, Staten Island, NY: Hallo spaceboy! October 11, 2002

Posted by Anton A in British music, David Bowie.
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Driving through the swamps of Jersey on the backdoor highway to Jersey City in the sodden grey late-afternoon light, slogging through axle-deep water spread across the low places on the road, Midnight Oil’s In The Rain and Underwater and BOC’s Perfect Water stuck on repeat in my mental soundtrack, I’m wondering if it’s really a good idea to be going out tonight.  I know how this road floods and I already know I’m going to have to take the long way home on the return trip.  But I have tix to David Bowie at the Snug Harbor Music Hall, a small theater in a former sailors’ retirement complex on the shores of Staten Island; and though it’s obvious that water, in all its guises, is going to rule this night, the underlying theme for the evening is Sail On Sailor.

This will be the first show in Bowie’s “Marathon Tour,” one gig in each of New York’s 5 boroughs, ending at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan.  Tix to all the shows had gone on sale simultaneously one week ago; I’d figured most fans would be trying for the Beacon, so I’d gone immediately for the Staten Island show.  I still don’t know where our seats are; since this venue was a one-off deal for Ticketmaster, they were unable to provide seat numbers when you bought the tickets online.  From a conversation with the Snug Harbor box office lady a couple of days after I got the tix, I’d learned that the seats were reserved and allotted first-come first-served, and that the theater was 18 rows deep & had only 390 seats, so I knew that this boded well to be an amazing night. 

I pull up at my friend Landon’s apartment building on the corner of Lincoln Park; up the stairs to his ever-intriguing pad.  If I am the U.S. Ambassador of Tea, as some have said, then Landon is the Grand Vizier; everything I know I’ve learned from him.  Over a pot of fine Assam, we recheck the route to Staten Island; looks like a quick hop onto the Jersey Turnpike, off 3 exits later onto route 440 or Kennedy Blvd. and due south to the Bayonne Bridge; the exit-ramp details are a bit unclear but I’m confident there’s a way.

Back into the rain, it’s almost dark now, up onto the pike, through the tollbooth and WHAM! traffic is stopped dead just beyond the booth.  Something clearly is seriously wrong much further ahead than we can see.  So much for planned routes.  There’s an exit down off the pike not 100 yards ahead and no choice but to take it.  I am not sure of the roads from here but figure we simply have to head south and we’ll either drive into the Kill Van Kull and float across to Staten Island, or we’ll find the bridge.

Of course, a few exit-ramp circles and forced turns later, I feel like I’m playing Pin The Tail On the Donkey and they’ve just pulled off the blindfold.  I think we’re heading south, or perhaps west; Landon thinks we are going north.  Anything is possible.  I decide to keep going until some landmark becomes visible or we cross Kennedy Blvd., I’m certain that route 440 is somewhere to the east.

After going through a Hispanic neighborhood, the road dead-ends; I turn right because everyone else is turning left, then take the next left to keep us headed in the same direction; this happens 3 or 4 times and it looks like we’re just getting deeper into an industrial wasteland.  Still no landmarks apparent.  Suddenly a route 440 sign rises through the rain.  Luck has been with us, we have been heading south all along.  Zip down the highway and a few minutes later we’re climbing the huge arc of the Bayonne Bridge.

Down the other side, exit, two right turns down to River Terrace, another right takes us between towering pillars and under the bridge.  The trolls have undoubtedly sought shelter.  River Terrace is aptly named, tonight it seems a virtual river, water of varying depths about every 20 feet.  Assholes in high-riding SUVs keep riding my tail.  As we are crawling through a particularly deep stretch, another SUV barrels towards us down a patch of dry road and hits the water; I see a miniature tsunami rising in the headlights & frantically crank my window, but not fast enough; SPLOSH! My left side is soaked.  God knows what’s in this Staten Island roadwater, I’m probably half toxic now. 

We reach the turnoff into Snug Harbor which I’ve been expecting from the directions on their website; a quick right and we find a police car broadside across the road.  A young buzz-cut cop says we have to go back out onto River Terrace, make three rights and enter at the back of the complex.  He is full of attitude and gives every impression he’d just love to leap out of his car and rip someone’s head off.  Thoughts of asking “Then why did the website tell us to come this way?” evaporate; I thank him politely, which changes his demeanor not a whit.  I drive off, feeling that I’ve just had a narrow escape from having my head cracked open and being tossed into a cell for reasons I’ll never understand.

We whip around the three right turns and into the backroad entrance; at the end of the drive, in the middle of a gate, another cop car faces us, headlights blinding us, cherrytop blinking furiously.  I am about to come totally unglued, are we supposed to enter here or not?  I don’t particularly want to tell this cop that the other cop sent us here; I don’t particularly want to tell him anything.  He flashes his headlights, what the fuck does that mean?  I take it as a sign to keep coming, so we crawl up to the gate and squeeze past another buzzcut.  I ask if this is the way to the Music Hall, he glares and grunts, “Go up the drive, keep left and they’ll tell you want to do at the tent.”  I am sure he really wants to say, “Just step out of the car a minute so I can rip your head off.”  I thank him even more politely, exhale and drive on.

A tent looms in the rain to our right; what did that cop mean by “keep left?”  Another uniform lurks under the tent; is this Snug Harbor or a police camp?  Fighting urges to wheelie right out of this place and leave Staten Island to drown in its own fascistic muck, I drive towards the tent.  But the road stops in front of the tent; how the hell am I supposed to drive by and have them tell me what to do?  This is all most baffling.  Finally I become aware that we’re in a tiny parking lot and we need to park and walk up to the tent, probably for a wet strip-search.  Fine.

But this uniformed gentleman proves to be Snug Harbor security, a thoroughly nice grey-bearded fellow who is simply checking tickets and names on the will-call list and giving directions to the Music Hall, just past the church and to the right.  How refreshing!  I feel like we’ve crossed some intangible border from a police state back into civilisation.  We saunter through the muddy grounds, jump a curbside stream to cross the road to the Music Hall, splosh along a path to the will-call line.  I show ID and receive our tickets for Row H.  8th row!  Unbelievable!

The Music Hall is about the size of your average high-school auditorium.  The proscenium arch looks like it was halfway through a renovation of some sort when they ran out of funds; on the left is a lovely façade inlaid with green-streaked marble that would not be out of place in an Italian cathedral; the right half is simply white-painted wood.  The walls are raw brick, there’s a balcony just above and behind us with a filigreed brass railing, a high cross-beamed ceiling with faded frescoes of breaking waves between the beams.  Above the proscenium hangs a gigantic frieze with naked Greek gods and goddesses cavorting, Poseidon, of course, prominent among them.  At the back of the stage, a huge wall of light bulbs stands ready to flash:

W

O    I

B        E

Shortly before 8:30, someone tells the crowd that they can stand 3 or 4 in the space between the first row and the stage; or maybe they just decide to rush the stage and no one stops them, I’m not sure.  The space fills up but we see no reason to move.

The lights dim, a lone spotlight shines on the microphone at stage front and center.  Mike Garson walks to the elevated piano on the left and plays something typically gorgeous and accomplished for a couple of minutes.  Sterling Campbell quietly takes his seat at the drums while Garson plays.  Finally Bowie, in a burnt sienna leather jacket, brown velvet shirt and black slacks, strolls into the spotlight and flashes that radiant smile.  The man knows how to make an entrance.  The audience leaps to its feet and will not sit again.  Bowie sings “It’s a god-awful small affair To the girl with the mousy hair.”  Life On Mars.  Remarkable.  Halfway through the song the lights come up, the decibels triple, and we see that the rest of the band has managed to sneak on stage. What an opening.

They follow with Ashes to Ashes and Breaking Glass, two of my favorite Bowie songs.  Oh yes, this is going to be a SHOW.  Bowie chats with the crowd a bit, jokingly refers to the “Isle of Staten.”  Cactus from the Heathen  album is next, then a rocking China Girl; people are dancing in the aisles and down front but not really crowding each other, it’s just a great vibe.  Somewhere in here the jacket comes off.

Next is Slip Away, a lovely psychedelic ballad from Heathen; this live rendition gains considerable intensity and becomes spine-chilling & deeply emotional.  This is why I don’t sit at home just playing CDs.

Bowie rocks the crowd some more with Fame and a heavy, hard-rocking I’m Afraid of Americans, takes a little trip to Berlin with Speed Of Life, slows it down with 5:15 / All The Angels Have Gone (Heathen again), then pauses to introduce the band: Earl Slick is the guy wailing all those tasty leads, Mark Plati, Bowie’s musical director for the last 4 years, on guitar and bass, spiky blond-haired Irish lad Gerry Leonard adding Frippish drones & burbles & general spaciness, Gail Ann Dorsey with her usual stunning bass work & harmony vocals, and the rainbow-dreadlocked Cat on her funky keyboards and percussion.  And of course Sterling Campbell on drums and the incomparable Mike Garson on keys.

They go into Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting For You, also from Heathen, reach back a few years for Survive, back further for Rebel Rebel.  The first verse sounds like Bowie’s going to perform it as some kind of minimalist ballad, but then the band kicks in with that classic riff and keeps it at maximum intensity.  Bowie next plays a similar trick with Heroes, they start it off sounding exceedingly ragged, like they’d just decided to do it with a slow cabaret twist and haven’t rehearsed it much, before crashing into the familiar rocking version.

They move into a powerful version of the title track Heathen (The Rays).  At the end Bowie puts his hand on Gail Ann’s shoulder and they walk offstage in a slow march as the band keeps playing; then the rest walk off from their instruments one by one, leaving the volume kicked up and letting each sound just fade away.  Gerry Leonard is the last to leave; he builds a multi-layered guitar loop and punches a final button that will keep the loop playing for about a minute and then fade it gradually.  Neat!

After a very short break, not a real intermission, they return with 4 more from Heathen: Sunday, I Would Be Your Slave, a hard-rocking Afraid, and the lilting Everyone Says Hi

Then:  Hallo Spaceboy.  On the Outside album, it’s a quirky bass/drum/techno number; here, with this excellent band and heavy guitars, it’s a full-throttle rocker, a pounding piledriver of a song, with Bowie working the mike stand like it’s a stick shift.

From an intensity standpoint, the show could have ended right there and we’d have gone home happy, but there’s more.  Next up: Let’s Dance, again with a balladesque first verse before going for the funk.  And finally, Ziggy Stardust, no teases on this one, it’s full tilt from the first note of that classic riff.  Now they are done; Bowie, with a huge smile, thanks us for being such a pretty audience.

Wow.  Another drama-infused performance from Bowie, the master of pose & gesture, more stage moves up his sleeve than most front men can imagine; his voice sounds deeper, richer and better than ever; two hours of superb musicianship from another great band; a heady blend of songs old and new.  And all this from the 8th row in an amazingly intimate theater.  Decidedly worth the soggy effort of getting there.

After filing out through the mud and jumping the curb stream again, we notice a small crowd stopped by the church.  People are peering in a basement window and saying “Look! that’s their dressing room!”  “They’re all taking a pee!  You can see them!”  “Bowie has his schlong out!” “My that’s a big thing!”  Well, OK.  I’m not sure if some of these comments are jokes, but in case they’re not, I think it better to let the band have some privacy. We keep walking.  On another night, I would wait around to see if we could say “Hallo” when they emerge from the church, but tonight it’s just too damn wet.

And yes, after dropping Landon off, I take the long way home, along the turnpike up on stilts above the swamps of Jersey, and do not run into any more axle-deep water.