David Bowie’s entire career, perhaps more so than any other artist save Bob Dylan and post-1980 Tom Waits, is based on mythology. Fans in the 1970s and beyond were left to ponder whether or not Bowie’s relationships with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop were platonic, romantic, vampiric or a stunt. What kind of creepy shit Bowie was up to when he was on cocaine for pretty much all of 1975 through 1980? How much of his stage persona was an act (probably all of it)? What are his songs actually about? Whether or not it was really him crafting the damaged, krautrock-influenced focus of his Berlin trilogy (Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger), or if it was him trying to swallow Brian Eno’s influence the way he did Ig and Lou’s. Bowie remained (mostly) mum on all of it, fueling outrageous rumor after rumor.
So it’s not really surprising that his 1999 episode of VH1 Storytellers (released for the first time now in a CD/DVD package) is a disappointment. Bowie seemed to take the title of the show as a suggestion; instead of talking about the inspiration behind his hits or fan-loved deep cuts, Bowie instead told unimportant anecdotes, decided to promote his latest album (Hours) by performing two of its tracks and refused to do the entire version of the most popular song he actually did perform (“Rebel Rebel”). Like a lot of potential breakdowns of an artist’s mythology (like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume 1), it reeks of myth preserving rather than myth deconstructing.
The fact that VH1 Storytellers was recorded in 1999 has a lot to do with how Bowie presented himself during the special. See, in the late ’90s, our hero was hell bent on breaking through to the adult contemporary scene (which never really happened), since the same audience of 40-year-olds made Sting a millionaire many times over for the sonic crimes he was heinously committing at the same time. So instead of Bowie performing like the live juggernaut he used to be, he performs here backed by a milquetoast band that looks like it was plucked out of a JC Penney catalog and sound like it’s soundtracking a Meg Ryan romantic comedy, doing “Thursday’s Child” and “Seven,” two songs from his utterly dreadful but accessible Hours, and only six from his back catalog (well, five, if you credit “China Girl” only to Iggy Pop, who recorded it for The Idiot).
The “tellers” part of VH1 Storytellers is a bigger disappointment, especially since Bowie plays the coy tease by announcing at the beginning that he “could tell you so much” before launching into a languid take of “Life on Mars.” Apart from a not-so-brief anecdote about meeting Marc Bolan for the first time before leading the band through a 30-second run through of “Rebel Rebel” and a tale about Iggy Pop being at a punk club with a fake Berlin wall in the 1970s, there’s not a lot to be learned here. Even Bowie seems bored by the whole thing; on the DVD that comes packaged with Storytellers, he reads lyrics and anecdotes off a hefty binder he has in front of him. When the performer doesn’t care enough about the stories to remember them, you know you’re not exactly going to be getting riveting stuff.
VH1 Storytellers isn’t necessarily all bad: For one, the performance of Station to Station’s “Word on a Wing” proves that song still has soul, and for two, the bonus take of “Always Crashing in the Same Car” from Low on the DVD should have replaced any of the songs on the CD since that performance is better than the rest.
And as disappointing as it is, Bowie used Storytellers the way he used the hyperbolic reporters from the NME or Rolling Stone in the ’70s. He refused to come clean, but gave enough that fans (and VH1) would (maybe) feel like they got their money’s worth. He subverted expectations. He parlayed the performance into an extended commercial for his current album. And he created another product that could be bought and sold alongside his back catalog. Hell, for Bowie, VH1 Storytellers is probably a great success. For those wishing for something other than an hour-long commercial promoting David Bowie, Adult Contemporary Crooner, it’ll always rank as a disappointment.