A&E’s Live By Request (2002) complete episode
I’ve heard segments from this show before but watched the entire thing for the first time when it popped up on my YouTube account. Bowie’s performance is strong and worth hearing, but there’s much more to the show that I found fascinating.
To begin with, the show’s host, Mark McEwan asked Bowie about his various personae. Bowie explained that he adopted different characters in order to help overcome his anxiety about performing. Bowie presented himself in 2002 as a “regular guy,” and McEwan asked about that, to which Bowie replied that he felt like “Jonesie,” which never really caught on as a character name. This made me think of something Leah Kardos wrote about this “real Bowie” as actually just another character. To some extent he does come off as acting here while at the same time seeming to be relatable and genuine. The other interesting thing about this is apparent from his performance of “greatest hits”— although his voice and style changed over the years, it’s the same guy singing these songs.
The next thing that struck me is that the conceit of the show was that Bowie was taking requests, however I’m pretty sure he knew what was coming. What if someone called in and asked for “Black Country Rock” or “When I Live My Dream?” It just so happened that the band was fully prepared to play every song that was requested. Also, McEwan pointed out that Bowie had a book on stage containing his song lyrics. Bowie did not appear to be referencing the book but explained that merely having it on stage helped him remember the lyrics. But, clearly, the book didn’t contain lyrics to the 400+ songs he recorded over his career, or anything close to it.
Third observation— almost everyone who called in made reference to listing to Bowie since childhood or something else suggesting that Bowie was old, had been around for a long time or was a figure of nostalgia. A few requests came in for songs from Heathen, which Bowie was promoting and talked about on the show, and when given his own choice selected the relatively recent, “I’m Afraid of Americans,” but everything else he was asked to perform came from the 70s and early 80s. If Bowie was annoyed by any of this, he didn’t show it. By 2002 he seemed content to be an icon who was still churning out music. He expressed gratitude for the positive fan and critical reaction to Heathen, but seemed resigned to giving the people what they wanted in the form of his greatest hits.
At one point McEwan asked Bowie about being the first white performer on Soul Train (I’ve read that Elton John was actually the first, but I’ll go with it here). I’ve seen that performance. The Bowie of that time (1975) could not have been more different than the Bowie of 2002. Then he was distant, jittery and seemingly shy. The 2002 Bowie explained the somewhat obvious reason why— “I was so stoned out off my mind.” He seemed to find the question amusing, “I know it was a whole lot of fun, but there again everything was a lot of fun. It was fantastic. I’m sure” (as if he remembered none of it due to his drug-addled state). Even if some of his Jonesie personality was somewhat of an act, he was probably happier in 2002.
The most amusing moment came when the father of a five-year old boy called, turned the phone over to his son, who greeted Bowie with, “Hi David Bowie,” as if he was talking to his neighbor. The son requested “Ashes to Ashes,” which doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of song a five year-old would appreciate (what about “Five Years?”), but who knows.