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The Glass Spider Tour was a more complicated affair. Bowie launched it in May of 1987 with a series of press releases around the world, in which he claimed that the upcoming concerts—spread across seven months and three continents—would be “overflowing with makeup, costumes, and theatrical sets.” It being the excessive ’80s, quantity conferred quality. The set included a 60-foot-tall illuminated spider that hovered menacingly over the stage. Bowie descended from that monstrous prop every night, seated in an office chair and reciting his monologue from “Glass Spider,” except for the nights when it was too windy to safely permit it. The stage show was comically extravagant, with up to a dozen dancers and instrumentalists flanking Bowie at any given time. A loose narrative drove parts of the performance, but the interstitial bits mostly added up to flimsy excuses for catwalks, scaffoldings, garish jumpsuits, astronaut costumes, and lots of gold lamé.
Yet this was Bowie. Although he’d dialed back his thespian tendencies since Let’s Dance, was it really so unreasonable to see him back under the veritable proscenium arch? Critics thought so. This was the year that the most buzzed-about rock album was U2’s The Joshua Tree, released in March—an album that heralded a wholesale rejection of early-’80s glitz in favor of a gritty, earnest air of dressed-down authenticity. Framed in that context, the magazine Sounds dismissed the tour as “frenzied schlock and half-baked goofing.” Chris Roberts, a former staff writer at Melody Maker admitted in David Buckley’s book Strange Fascination, “There was overwhelming peer pressure not to like [The Glass Spider Tour].” Yet, Roberts added, “It was ambitious, challenging, weird, strange, mental, and barmy, and that’s got to be good.”
Indeed, The Glass Spider Tour is as underrated as Never Let Me Down. Released as a concert movie in 1988, Glass Spider shows an acrobatic, outlandish troupe backing their equally larger-than-life frontman. The famed guitarist Peter Frampton, a childhood friend of Bowie’s, adds a fluid virtuosity to the longtime guitarist and bandleader, Carlos Alomar, who performs intrepidly with his hair sculpted into punky spikes. The set list ranges from classics like “Rebel Rebel” to fan favorites like “Sons of the Silent Age,” and from fresh singles like “Day-In Day-Out” to covers of two of Bowie’s prime influences, The Stooges and The Velvet Underground. It’s spectacular, beautiful, charmingly pretentious, and weirdly magical. Dwarfing everything is the six-story spider hunched over the stage—as impossibly grandiose, intimidating, and iconic as Bowie himself.
After the tour ended in New Zealand in November, the band and crew ceremoniously destroyed the massive prop. “It was so great to burn the spider in New Zealand at the end of the tour,” Bowie recalls in Strange Fascinations. “We just put the thing in a field and set light to it. That was such a relief!” Whether or not he realized it at the time, it was a symbolic act. Soon after returning home, Bowie began a new project that would signal a rebirth of sorts: the rock band Tin Machine, a lean, back-to-basics quartet whose self-titled debut in 1989 presaged the rise of alt-rock and grunge. Having hit the height of ego and extravagance on The Glass Spider Tour, Bowie submerged himself in a humble group that erased his name from the marquee. Tin Machine wasn’t particularly well received either, but it put Bowie back on the path of relentless reinvention he’d been walking since the ’60s. He didn’t have to hit rock bottom to get there; he had to be hoisted 60 feet in the air.