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Bruce Springsteen Pays Tribute to David Bowie With Live ‘Rebel Rebel’

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Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to David Bowie last night (Jan. 16), playing Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” at the Consol Energy Arena in Pittsburgh, on the opening date of his 2016 The River tour.

At the beginning of the encore, Springsteen stepped to the mic and commented, “I want to take a moment and just note the passing of my good friend David Bowie. David – not that many people know, but he supported our music way, way, way back at the very, very beginning – 1973, he rang me up and I visited him down in Philly when he was making the Young Americans record. He covered some of my music, ‘[It’s] Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ and ‘Growin’ Up’ and he was a big supporter of ours […] I took the Greyhound bus down to Philadelphia, that’s how early it was. Anyway, we’re thinking of him.”

The E Street Band then launched into a solid, credible rendition of the Bowie classic, Springsteen taking visible pleasure at the crowd singing along at the “Hot tramp, I love you so” line, much in the same way Bowie himself enjoyed the moment. Earlier in the week, Springsteen added to the list of endless Bowie tributes on Twitter with his own thoughts.

Bowie first came across Springsteen at Max’s Kansas City one night in 1973, while there to see headliner Biff Rose. Bowie didn’t think much of the acoustic part of Springsteen’s set, but completely changed his mind once Springsteen brought out his band and switched to electric guitar.

Bowie left the show a convert, telling his band how great Bruce was and playing Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. non-stop. Later that year – as Springsteen noted from the stage last night – Bowie would record covers of “Growin’ Up” — which featured Ron Wood on guitar — and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” and have his backing vocalists cut a demo of “Spirit in the Night.”

The meeting between the two that Springsteen described took place at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound studios. Bowie’s co-producer, Tony Visconti, prompted the meeting, hoping that Bruce would like what Bowie had done with his songs, and might want to contribute something to the recording. Philly DJ (and noted Boss booster) Ed Sciaky picked Bruce up at the bus station and brought him to the studio.

The tete-a-tete was more than a little awkward, and Bowie blamed himself—apparently, a combination of exhaustion from his relentless work schedule, combined with his cocaine usage at the time rendered him somewhat unsociable. “He [Sciaky] brought Bruce down, and I was out of my wig, I just couldn’t relate to him at all. It was a bad time for us to have met,” Bowie told Scott Isler in Musician in 1987. “I could see what he was thinking, “Who is this weird guy?” And I was thinking, “What do I say to normal people?” There was a real impasse.”

Springsteen did not end up contributing anything to either cover (as confirmed by Tony Visconti), and he didn’t even get to hear Bowie’s renditions. “I remember chickening out of playing it. I didn’t want to play it to him because I wasn’t happy with it anyway,” Bowie told Musician in the 1987 interview. And then, timing got in the way: Once Springsteen broke out with Born to Run, the covers were shelved. Had Bowie included either song on Young Americans, it would have been seen as forward-thinking, Bowie championing a young and unknown artist. But post-Born to Run, it didn’t make sense. Neither cover would see the light of day until their inclusion on 1989’s Sound + Vision box set.

While the connection between the two artists’ professional lives never went any further than that, it’s clear that there was a shared respect, admiration and appreciation for each other’s work.

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