Most Phish fans recognize the band’s early composition “David Bowie” as belonging to a full quiver of songs with improvisational potential. It sits among a select group of 10 songs that have been performed more than 400 times. Perhaps fewer fans realize that once upon a time, “David Bowie” (DB) was one of the primary, if not the leading jamming song. Following its debut in 1986, DB quickly developed into a workhorse and “go to” jamming song, as Tim Wade (@TheEmu) has noted in several of his many early show reviews. Even while such stalwart classics as “Mike’s Song” and “You Enjoy Myself” were played fairly straightforward from 1985 - 1990, DB was fast becoming the choice song for serious, significant “Type II” improvisation. During its peak years, from 1993 - 1995, DB was a super heavyweight for regular and longer duration exploratory jamming, one of a very small group of contenders that included “Mike’s Song,” “YEM,” and “Tweezer.” But after 1995, DB sadly fell into period of steady, and then more precipitous decline. Despite upticks in 1997 and 2003, the trend line was downward. Not only was the song played less frequently, and placed less prominently in setlists, it also lost much of its improvisational fortitude, becoming more of a proverbial horse put out in the pasture for retirement, and typically played in a straightforward, “Type I” (non-exploratory) manner.
While other veteran songs like “Stash,” “Split Open And Melt,” “Run Like An Antelope,” and “Runaway Jim” have lost some of their luster over the years, none of these has risen so high, or fallen so far as DB. Why did this song more than any other fall by the wayside? The truth is that no one, except perhaps the band itself really knows. I’ll pose a couple a explanatory theories. Just recognize that these thoughts are purely speculative. But before that, let’s take a look back at this important song, its rise to glory, and subsequent fall from fame.
Rewind the clock to Halloween, 1986, date of the first known live performance of this complex Trey-penned composition. DB quickly joined the ranks of other classic Phish jamming songs, such as “Run Like An Antelope,” “Mike’s Song,” “You Enjoy Myself,” and “Possum,” all of which debuted in either 1985 or 1986. But while “Mike’s” and “YEM” took a few years to grow improvisational legs, DB and “Antelope” were the most prominent late ‘80s vehicles for extended improvisation-based music. Some early, notably exploratory versions of DB worth checking out include 10/26/89, 9/15/90, and 11/7/91. The “David Bowie” Jamming Chart, recently substantially revised and updated, documents more completely the improvisational performance history of this song. There are a lot of really fantastic versions on the chart, with particularly important, exploratory versions noted in bold. And don’t overlook early versions, say 1987 - 1991. You’re more likely to find great versions in this earlier period than you will casting about over the last 15 years for good stuff.
What exactly constitutes a good version of DB? To me, it’s the unstructured jam section of the song that makes all the difference. In particular, what I pay attention to most keenly is whether or not the jam departs or breaks free from the standard structure and theme into more pure collective improvisation. As DB moved into its peak period, more and more, in fact most performances broke into this “Type II” style jamming. Conversely, in the period of decline, DB rarely ventured beyond standard form. There are many DB versions which include teases, signals, or segue briefly into other songs before returning. To my ears, these features embellish an already good exploratory jam, but do not compensate for a standard, plain-vanilla one. Compare for example the versions performed on 11/2/90 and 7/3/95 to the one from 6/15/12. While all three include multiple teases and similar enhancements, the former two boast robust, powerful jam segments, while the latter is unremarkable. And to me, quality of the jam outranks duration. 8/26/89 clocks in at 14:21, 12/3/97 at 26:26. Both are strong versions, and have “Type II” jamming for at least a portion of the jam. But I’ll take the Townshend Family Park version from ‘89 over the Philly ‘97 version every time. There’s far more exploratory jamming in the ‘89 version than the ‘97. And this dense, fully-loaded version gets it all done in 14 minutes. The Philly version doesn’t even go “Type II” until minute 18 or so. In fact, a lot of the good jamming chart versions (excluding those in bold) clock in somewhere between 11 and 15 minutes, yet are filled with 6 to 10 minutes of improvisation beyond standard fare.
DB and “Antelope” are perhaps best thought of as the progenitors of a family of jamming songs that often have a dark, tension-filled, dissonant, and downright mean, nasty tone to the jam segment. It’s worth noting that like DB, “Antelope” rose up swiftly in the late ‘80’s, peaking about the same time DB did, before also suffering a decline of “Type I” malaise. Offspring members of this dissonance clan include “Stash,” “Split Open And Melt,” “Maze,” and later on, “Carini” and “46 Days.” Songs like “Bathtub Gin,” “Reba,” “Possum,” and “YEM” can be incredibly improvisational, yet rarely do these jams fall into the same dark and dissonant family of psychic tone. “Mike’s” and “Tweezer” really defy easy categorization; their jams have at times gone in so many different directions, there is less of a predictable sentiment to the jam segment.
The peak period for DB was 1993 - 1995. After rising steadily as a workhorse jamming song from debut through 1991, DB had a bit of an off year in 1992. For much of the year, the band seemed more concerned with teases, Secret Language, signals, etc. than focusing on the jam portion. All that changed abruptly with the first show in 1993. The band performed a number of excellent versions in the spring of 1993, and while teases, signals, etc. were still part of the mix, the jamming was considerably better and more improvisational. 1994 was, by almost any measure the peak year for DB. And while 1995 boasted a number of very strong performances, there was also a disturbing and growing number of well played, but essentially straightforward versions. From 1993 - 1995, DB was performed 95 times, compared to 86 for “Tweezer,” 114 for “YEM,” 84 for “Mike’s,” and 105 for “Antelope.” Whereas historically, DB had often been placed as a Set I or II closer, it now more frequently appeared as the first or second song of Set II, indicative of its importance as a jamming vehicle.
Also during this period, the band more frequently began to perform longer, very exploratory versions with multiple “Type II” movements and with a duration of 18 to 36 minutes. Most fans are familiar with the legendary Providence Bowie (12/29/94), its soul-mate from 11/26/94, and the “Mind Left Body” Jam -> DB from 6/18/94. But there are other extended and incredibly improvisational versions from this peak period that stand on similar ground. Serious DB fans should be sure to check out performances from 5/8/93, 8/17/93, 4/24/94, 11/14/94, 6/29/95, and 12/11/95, for example. In 1994, only 6 performances of any song exceeded 30 minutes in duration. These serious jams were the versions of “Tweezer” performed on 5/7/94, 11/2/94, and 11/28/94, “Simple” from 11/16/94, and the 11/26/94 and 12/29/94 versions of DB.
To understand DB’s rise to prominence and subsequent decline, consider the following:
|Year||Performances||2nd Set Opener or #2 Song|
After 1995, DB began a period of improvisational decline that unfortunately continues to the present. More and more often, the jam portion of the song rested along familiar, “Type I” patterns with little or no exploration beyond. The solid versions from 12/3/97 and 12/29/97 both include somewhat brief mode shifts to major mode, giving the jams an upbeat, feel-good vibe somewhat unusual for DB’s typically dark sentiment. But compared to the peak period, these “Type II” departures are relatively brief in duration compared to the much longer “Type I” jamming that accompanies them.
DB also lost its prominent set placement in the years following 1995. Consider: the last time DB opened a Set II was in 1998! Those jaded vets who derisively scorn DB’s performances in 3.0 really need to turn the clock backwards a number years and apply an equally critical view towards its performances in the late ‘90s and through 2.0. DB was already pretty much of a “has been” by the end of 1.0. However there are a handful of standout, “Type II” versions from the period of decline that merit mentioning. For comparison to some of the extraordinary performances from the peak period, check out 7/30/97, 10/3/99, and 7/25/03.
I fully expect to get upbraided in the comments to this post for my generally dismissive view towards post-1995 versions of DB. Frequent .net contributor @Waxbanks goes to considerable lengths in his recent book to paint the 12/3/97 DB as a masterpiece, while he finds plenty to criticize in the 11/26/94 version. To quote the author, from page 149 of his book focusing on fall tour, 1997, “What’s interesting about this jam [12/3/97], though, what sets it apart from, say, the monumental 11/26/94 Bowie...is that none of the players lashes out against the song’s form at any time.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself. But his point is precisely why I am more drawn to these earlier, improvisationally hefty performances. I tend to view this song like an angry, caged beast that wants like Hell to get out of its (“Type I”) confinement and thrash about and terrorize the neighborhood. To my ears, I find the darkness, the incredible tension, the dissonance, the sudden and jarring rhythmic shifts, and the multiple “Type II” movements common in earlier versions more exciting and stimulating than the patient, gradual, well-orchestrated building movements of the later years. There is a certain fearless creative spirit, an almost reckless abandon to pre-1996 versions that I find lacking in the years I characterize as the decline. Frankly, I find these later period DBs somewhat boring. Yes, the Philly ‘97 DB (finally) gets to an ecstatic, uplifting groove at about 18:00. But it’s really one mode shift, and after 5 minutes or so, it’s back to normal DB. However, @Waxbanks makes a valid, well-argued point, and my personal stylistic preferences may not be yours. And I don’t mean to pick on 12/3/97, it’s really a pretty great version, especially compared to the vast majority of versions performed in 1998, 1999, and 2000. The great thing about Phish is there is so much music, you are free to choose the songs, periods, styles, etc. that best suit your individual taste, and you can still love the band and its music as much as anyone. My personal preference for DB is for versions performed between 1987 and 1995. My advice: listen to versions from all periods (early, peak, decline) and reach your own conclusions.
Whether or not you agree with my assertion that DB went into decline in the years after 1995, there is little room for disagreement that appeared it less frequently, or that it lost its prominent placement early in Set II, compared to 1994. So lastly, I will pose a couple of theories to explain this dramatic shift:
1) Competition from other jamming songs. Prior to 1989, there was no “Tweezer,” no “Reba,” no “Stash,” no “Runaway Jim,” no “Split Open And Melt,” and no “Bathtub Gin.” When the band wanted to go deep and dark into improvisation with one of its own compositions (as opposed to covers like “Timber” and “Whipping Post”), there were few serious options outside of DB or “Antelope.” (remember, “Mike’s” and “YEM” had yet to grow real jamming legs). As these other songs developed their own improvisational styles, there can be little doubt that some of the band’s creative juices flowed elsewhere. Yet DB held its own, even as “Tweezer,” “Mike’s,” “Runaway Jim” and others came into their own.
But after 1995, a whole new cadre of jamming songs emerged that further diminished the attention once devoted to DB. “Down With Disease,” “Wolfman’s Brother,” “Ghost,” and “Piper” all developed as major jamming songs in 1997 and beyond. Plus there were some “oldies” that became jamming songs in this period, like “AC/DC Bag,” “Gumbo,” “Halley’s Comet,” “Tube,” “Ya Mar,” etc. etc. With time, more new songs and covers emerged as palettes for improvisation, songs like “Seven Below,” “Scents And Subtle Sounds,” “Rock & Roll,” “Drowned,” “Light,” and “Sand.” With this growing arsenal of jamming alternatives, is it any wonder that the focus shifted away from DB?
2) The band felt it had done all it could with DB. With many more jamming songs in its quiver, and having successfully climbed major DB mountains in Minneapolis, MN, Providence, R.I., Sugarbush, VT, Portland, ME, and elsewhere, maybe the band just decided to move on to more fertile ground for improvisation. This premise is purely speculative on my part. But it makes intuitive sense to me. After the epic performance in Providence, where else could the band really take DB that would “out-improvise” this stunning masterpiece? Some very strong performances in 1995 suggest there was still virgin soil out there, but how much? A lot of things changed for the band after 1995. Is it really such a leap of faith to consider that with DB, the band, consciously or not, decided it had ‘been there, done that,” and then shifted its focus to other songs and styles?
One last question, for which I don’t have a good answer: Why is it that some classic Phish jamming songs like DB, “Antelope,” “Mike’s,” “Stash,” “Split Open And Melt,” and “Runaway Jim” seem to have fallen by the wayside in recent years, while other older-generation songs like “Tweezer,” “Gin,” and “Down With Disease” just keep plugging away and adapting an improvisational style into the present? Topic for a future post, perhaps.
The good news is that many of these old war horses saw glimmers of a hopeful future in 2012. In most cases, nothing earth shattering, but a ray of light nonetheless. “Antelope” went “Type II” on 7/3/12, “Stash” on 8/22/12, seriously big “SOAM” on 8/18/12, the HUGE “Jim” on 8/31/12, and yes, even old “David Bowie” made a brief, but notable appearance on 8/19/12. I think and hope that the 8/31/12 “Jim” was cathartic for the band; it’s almost like they had to relearn how improvise and explore with this song. But learn they did, and as impressive as the jam itself was, more importantly, it signals to a me a willingness by the band to revisit the old masters with renewed enthusiasm. I hope they’ll do the same some day soon with DB. It’s a tall order. It’s been a LONG time since the band really took DB for a wild ride. I’d never expect anything on the magnitude of 1994, but I’d still like to see this tale have a happy ending.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this not-so-little essay on the life and times of “David Bowie.” Whether you agree, disagree, or otherwise take exception to what I’ve written, I welcome your critical comments, either as comments to the blog post, or via a pm. In all likelihood, I’ve listened to more versions of DB than you. But that doesn’t make me any more of an “expert” than anyone else, and I’m alway eager to learn more, or think about this song (my personal favorite jamming song) in a new or different light. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and do, by all means, check out some of the versions on the jamming chart. It’s all about the music.
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October 21, 1995
22 years ago
Encore: Highway to Hell
 No whistling.
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