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The night the stars came out: Behind the scenes at David Bowie's 50th birthday party

David Bowie onstage during his 50th birthday celebrations
(Image credit: George De Sota/Redferns)

Throughout the 90s, David Bowie embarked on an era of course correction. He had come dangerously close to comfort zone territory in the previous decade, and the thought of playing out the classics as a nostalgia act for the rest of his days sprang him into action. 

Over five albums from 1993 to 1999, Bowie got back to his forward-thinking, progressive best, experimenting with drum ’n’ bass, jungle, industrial soundscapes, jazz, electrorock and more. He was the king of reinvention once more. 

Amid the audacious march forward, though, there was one night when he allowed himself to revel in his triumphant legacy. It was January 9, 1997 when Bowie, his band and some stellar guests assembled for a huge show at New York’s Madison Square Garden for his fiftieth birthday celebration (his birthday was actually the day before). 

The show had the Starman sharing the stage with Foo Fighters, The Cure's Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, Frank Black, Sonic Youth and Lou Reed for a set that took in some oldies and some newies, some classics and some soon-to-be classics. 

“I wouldn’t have expected to have such an appetite for life at this point,” Bowie remarked to the New York Daily News. “I had assumed, like romantic poetic heroes, that I would burn it all out. But nothing has been quenched. I’m still feeling fiery.”

Billed as ‘David Bowie And Friends: A Very Special Concert’, the sold-out show was broadcast on Pay-Per-View television in the US, with proceeds from both ticket sales and Pay-Per-View going to the charity Save The Children. 

Looking back at it now, 25 years later, it seems too good to be true: a bill of multi-generational, era-defining stars all coming together to honour the biggest multi-generational era-defining star of them all. But, as those who were there on the night recall, it happened. All of it.

Alt

Reeves Gabrels (guitarist/musical director): David said he wanted to have a bunch of guests that were newer artists who were – he didn’t say this, but I’ll say it – like his spawn. That was pretty much it. 

Tim Pope (film director): David had asked me to film a variety of live shows across the years, and he seemed to like what I brought to them. It was the natural progression that he asked me to film his special birthday party. It was all put together by him, I have to say. He was very detail-oriented, but he wanted me to be his eyes and ears in the development of the show. 

Reeves Gabrels: From the late spring of 1996, I had become a musical director for the touring band, which I always hated. But I took the title and took the money and did the job. David is the guy at the top of the pyramid, he’s got other things he’s gotta do. There’s only so many hours in a day, so someone has to organise sound-check. 

Tim Pope: I went to New York pre-Christmas and spent some time with him. David had this model theatre made of cardboard, and he had this little version of himself. He said: “This is me, right,” and he had this little character. And I was lighting it with a hand-held projector on this scrim, along with images of him from Space Oddity. He played the CD of Space Oddity and I sang along in harmony with him, which was hilarious because I can’t sing. After Christmas, more and more bands came into town to rehearse with him. 

Kim Gordon (bassist/guitarist/vocalist, Sonic Youth): We felt very flattered and honoured to be asked. I always feel a little bit out of place in those situations. It was kind of a boost psychologically, because we didn’t consider ourselves part of the mainstream. We admired him, so it was very flattering that he liked us enough to ask to play his birthday celebration. 

Brian Moloko (vocalist, Placebo): I remember David being charming and affable. A bit like when you meet a president – they make you feel like the most important person in the room. That was another of David’s talents. It didn’t really matter if you were Bono or a bricklayer. 

Nate Mendel (bassist, Foo Fighters): It was kind of a milestone for us, because it ended up being the last time William Goldsmith, our first drummer, played with the band. It was our first time in Madison Square Garden, first time we met Bowie, first time that we probably played a stage anywhere near that big. We were about halfway through the recording of The Colour And The Shape, so it was pulling us out of the studio, going to New York, meeting a legend and just having all these firsts. It was pretty monumental. We were excited to be there.

Reeves Gabrels: My job was to teach all of the guests the songs, or make sure that they knew the songs, or at least make sure they knew what songs they were expected to know when they showed up. So I had been in touch with everybody. Robert Smith and I were faxing back and forth and calling, and he was sending me chord diagrams for The Last Thing You Should Do and Quicksand because he wanted to make sure he had the chord voicings correct.

Nate Mendel: I don’t recall exactly how the songs we ended up playing came down. I assume, based on where we were at the time, that it was probably more of an assignment; they weren’t gonna ask the Foo Fighters what they wanted to play! 

Reeves Gabrels: We had two days of runthrough rehearsals. Robert Smith was the last one that I actually got together with. It was pretty obvious he had done his homework. 

Mike Garson (pianist): The guest artists all grew up listening to David, right? So he’s the king. And these guys are future kings and princes, but they were all a little nervous, all very flattered to be there. It was all very respectful and very uncompetitive, almost like: “We’re a team, let’s make this a great show.”

Reeves Gabrels: The only thing that was odd to me was that Billy Corgan couldn’t make it for the run-throughs. He did show up for sound-check on the day of show, but the night before, his guy called me and he wanted to know if we could change the key on All The Young Dudes. And I was like: “Yeah – if we’d talked about it a week earlier.” 

Mike Garson: Frank Black was great. He epitomised cool. Just did his thing and walked off. 

Reeves Gabrels: The day that Frank Black showed up to rehearsals, David had said to me: “I’m not going to sing every verse or every song.” He wanted to save his voice for the show. So we start playing Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and Frank Black takes the first verse and just destroys it in the best possible way. Before the first chorus is done, David is out at his mic to sing the next verse. I think it was a little bit of wanting to join the pre-party party, but also a little competitive in the best possible sense.

Mike Garson: Everybody had done their homework. Any of those singers could have sung the song without him. They knew the words and they were ready to go. 

Nate Mendel: In comparison to what we would do now, which is listen to a song on an iPhone in a car on the way to whatever we’re going to do, we’d rehearsed a bit. We were doing Hallo Spaceboy, and we came in having prepped a little. 

Tim Pope: I remember watching David and Robert Smith performing together for the first time, and Bowie said: “Oh, Smith and Jones back together again!” David also said to me: “Madonna is probably coming. But we won’t know until the night.” 

Reeves Gabrels: We didn’t know if Madonna was going to show. Or Courtney Love. The idea of Madonna singing The Jean Genie didn’t really connect for me. That’s just my opinion, of course. But Madonna didn’t make it, and Courtney didn’t show up. 

Tim Pope: One day Bowie said to me: “Oh, Lou’s coming in today.” 

Reeves Gabrels: Everyone was kind of intimidated by Lou Reed. Not David. But all of us youngsters were like: “Don’t piss off dad!” Lou was kind of surly. Not ridiculous, just a little New York grumpy. I had to sit with Lou and teach him Queen Bitch. So we’re playing it, and he keeps doing this one chord that’s not right. I’d written the chord changes down, and I said to him: “There’s one chord there that you’re having trouble with?” 

And he goes: “Yes, this one,” and points to it. And I said: “Well, that’s a D chord.” He goes: “That’s not a D chord – that’s an awfully weak spine for a D. It looks like an O chord.” So I took my Sharpie out, made the spine straight, and said: “That should do it, right Lou?” And he goes: “Yeah.” I don’t know if he was doing it just to be funny.

Mike Garson: We used a metronome to keep it totally steady, but the only one we didn’t use the click with was Lou, because David said: “He can’t play in time. Just follow him and it’ll be great.” And it was.

Nate Mendel: The day of the show, I remember seeing everybody backstage and being kind of intimidated but feeling the positive vibe in the room. Everybody was very supportive. I was quickly able to kind of get over those nerves of having been asked to do this thing. Bowie was so gracious and kind and approachable, so I just remember good vibes. And seeing my first rock legend snorting cocaine in the bathroom also. Like: “Oh, I’ve heard about this, I’ve read about this in books, and there you are doing it.” Who was it? Yeah right! 

Reeves Gabrels: There was a backstage electricity. It was palpable. It was the first time everybody was together. It really felt like a birthday party – almost like a surprise party, when you’re trying to keep it a secret but everybody’s bubbly and excited. But in this case the surprise was really for the audience, because David knew what was going on. 

Brian Moloko: It was celebrity central backstage. Prince in high heels, Christopher Walken looking scary. I gave Moby a beer from our cool box, and accidentally headbutted Naomi Campbell’s chest while enthusiastically turning a corner. I also snogged Dave Grohl. As you do. 

Nate Mendel: Then we took that photo where everyone’s in black and looking like they’re in a rock band. And I get seated directly behind Bowie for the photo, which is unfortunate because I’m in a white button-up short-sleeve shirt that’s like ten times too big for me. It’s a bad look, and it’s a very prominent look due to the scope and the sizing and the colour. Every once in a while my wife will pull up the photo and just have a good laugh.

Brian Moloko: We [Placebo] were basically the band that played as the audience took their seats. We played to a mixture of indifference and confusion. 

Tim Pope: Bowie asked me to introduce the show, so I went on and said something like: “I’m from Enfield, he’s from Bromley.” I don’t think they knew who I was.

Reeves Gabrels: When the show started, it was like strapping yourself into a rocket. Occasionally I’d look across the stage, and [bassist] Gail Ann Dorsey would look at me and widen her eyes like, “Oh, fuck!” 

Mike Garson: We were an amazing band at that point in time – Reeves, myself, Gail and [drummer] Zack Alford. I’d played in thirteen bands with David since 1972, and that was my favourite band. I was having a ball. That night was just like any other night, except that it had the magic of his birthday. We brought out a birthday cake and I played Happy Birthday. He was relaxed. He’s David Bowie. He’s like King Midas, whatever he touches it just turns into magic. 

Nate Mendel: I was a little nervous, but I remember it going well, actually being fun in the moment. I was able to focus on the fact that: “I’m twenty feet away from Bowie and we’re playing a song together, and it’s actually fun and it’s working.” As opposed to: “What am I doing here?” and “Let’s not fuck up!” 

Reeves Gabrels: Hallo Spaceboy was a surprise, with three drummers. I didn’t realise just how thunderous that was gonna be. 

Mike Garson: You want to hear something interesting that David wanted for Hallo Spaceboy? So it was Dave Grohl and his other drummer from Foo Fighters at the time [William Goldsmith], and David wanted me on drums instead of the other drummer that played with Foo Fighters, together with Zack, our regular drummer. I thought to myself: “This is ridiculous. I can play a little drums, but these guys need to have a real drummer.” So I said: “Let me go back to the keyboards”, and it was those three drummers.

Kim Gordon, Dave Grohl, Brian Molko, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, Pat Smear and other guests with David Bowie

Kim Gordon, Dave Grohl, Brian Molko, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, Pat Smear and other guests with David Bowie (Image credit: Kevin Mazur Archive/WireImage)

Tim Pope: I had some roving cameras, including David’s son Joe [aka film director Duncan Jones]. I said to him: “Go film your dad at the office,” which I thought was great. I said: “You’ll get stuff that no one else will get.” So Joe was doing stuff as well. 

Reeves Gabrels: To finish, David went out and played Space Oddity by himself. The afterparty was immediately after the show. I remember running around backstage and seeing all these people crowded in the hallway waiting to get into the VIP area. I saw this sea of faces, like Vanessa Williams, the singer and former Miss America, and Beck. 

Tim Pope: There was a wrap party at [artist] Julian Schnabel’s house. It was the best queue for a loo I’ve ever been in – something like Christopher Walken, Lou Reed, Iman, me and so on. 

Brian Moloko: I don’t recall what happened after the show… I think I peaked early.

Nate Mendel: It was just like you’d imagine a Bowie party to be – super-stylish, in a loft, everybody famous in the world is there. 

Kim Gordon: Matt Dillon was there. At that time Matt Dillon could be seen in many places, so I kind of knew him. He was going to get food at the buffet, and was standing next to Julian Schnabel. Matt said hi to me and he goes: “Hey, Julian, do you know Kim?” And then Julian Schnabel said: “Oh, yeah, you’re a real artist.” And then he said: “Can I give you my CD?” That was funny.” 

Nate Mendel: David said to us: “Nice job, kids. Keep at it and maybe you’ll figure this shit out in a few years.” I’m kind of paraphrasing, I’m sure he said it more artfully than that. 

Tim Pope: I think he knew he’d pulled it off. He’d phone me in my cutting room and go: “It’s rock’n’roll Dave for cinema Tim.” He pretty much let me have free rein. I think once he saw that I got it how he wanted he was happy. He said: “I was really clever to get you to do this, wasn’t I?” Which I thought was quite a compliment. 

Mike Garson: The day after the gig, he said: “Maybe we’ll do this every year, Mike, and maybe we’ll have Beck next year.” I said: “I’m in!” But David had a million ideas, and one out of every thousand would come through. His mind was always in ‘create’ mode.

The storytellers

Reeves Gabrels
The guitarist worked with Bowie from 1987-1999, forming the group Tin Machine with him, and becoming his musical director in 1996. Since 2012, Gabrels has been a member of The Cure. 

Mike Garson
One of Bowie’s longest-standing collaborators, pianist Garson was a member of his iconic Spiders From Mars backing band, in the 70s, and brought his avant-garde jazz style to a series of classic Bowie records. He reunited with Bowie in 1993 and played with him throughout the 90s. 

Brian Moloko
The frontman with Placebo. Despite them having only just released their debut album, Bowie had requested that Placebo open the show. It ignited a friendship between the two artists, and in 1999 they would collaborate on a version of Placebo’s Without You I’m Nothing

Kim Gordon
Bassist, guitarist and vocalist Gordon was a founding member of Sonic Youth, who Bowie requested join him at the show fora version of his song I’m Afraid Of Americans

Nate Mendel
Foo Fighters bassist. The group were in the middle of recording their second album, The Colour And The Shape, when the call came from Bowie to take part in the show.

Tim Pope
Famed for his work with Bowie, The Cure, The The and more, British film director Pope was enlisted to capture the live event and be, as Bowie told him, his “eyes and ears”.

Niall Doherty
Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer for The Guardian, Variety and Classic Rock, and co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former editors of Q magazine Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. Niall has written for NME, X-Ray Magazine and XFM Online and interviewed some of music’s biggest stars, including Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, St Vincent, The 1975, Depeche Mode, Radiohead and many more.