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20 Years Ago: David Bowie Throws a Party for His 50th Birthday

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There was a time when it was inconceivable that rock stars would ever get old. But as the years went by, the concept of aging artists became less a joke and more triumphant testaments to keep kicking out the jams.

On Jan. 8, 1997, David Bowie turned 50, and decided to celebrate the occasion by throwing himself a 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden the next day. It didn’t hurt that he was about to release his 20th album, Earthling.

Billed as David Bowie and Friends: A Very Special Birthday Concert, the show was a celebration of Bowie’s life in music, featuring old and new songs, as well as several famous guests. It all kicked off with a new track, “Little Wonder,” from Earthling, which was released on Feb. 8, 1997. It was followed by “This Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” from 1995’s Outside, after which Bowie announced, “Good evening. We’re your rock band for the night. We’re going to get partyfied.”

The show’s first guest, Pixies leader Frank Black, joined Bowie on fierce renditions of “Scary Monsters” and “Fashion.” As the show rolled on, Bowie would be joined by the Cure‘s Robert Smith, Smashing Pumpkins‘ Billy Corgan and members of the Foo Fighters and Sonic Youth.

But the night’s most significant guest was Lou Reed, one of Bowie’s biggest influences and musical heroes. Introducing Reed as “the king of New York,” the pair performed “Queen Bitch,” a 1971 song Bowie wrote as a tribute to Reed’s old band the Velvet Underground. That was followed by a trio Reed-penned songs: “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Dirty Boulevard” and “White Light/White Heat.”

Bowie sprinkled in new material throughout the night, noticeably skipping over some big ’80s hits like “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and “Modern Love” during his 24-song set. “I wouldn’t have expected to have such an appetite for life at this point,” Bowie told the New York Daily News at the time. “I had assumed, like romantic poetic heroes, that I would burn it all out. But nothing has been quenched. I’m still feeling fiery.”

The event was filmed for a pay-per-view TV special, and was later issued on DVD, with proceeds from both the concert and broadcast benefiting Save the Children.

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