When the pain hit, David Bowie was singing a song called “Reality.” It was just another concert on a tour that had stretched on a little too long, bringing him to a stiflingly hot arena stage in Prague, on a late-June evening in 2004. “Reality,” the title track to his album of the previous year, was about facing mortality and putting illusions aside, and at age 57, he had been busy doing just that. He was sober, and had finally quit smoking. He was taking medication to lower his cholesterol, working out with a trainer. That night, as usual, he looked agelessly, extraterrestrially great: lean, with longish blond hair spilling onto his unlined forehead, a fluorescent scarf around his neck. But as he stood in the spotlight, yowling lines like “Now my death is more than just a sad song” – a reference to his doomy Ziggy-era renditions of Jacques Brel’s “My Death” – he found himself struggling for breath. Bowie clutched at his shoulder and chest, leaving the song’s final words unsung.
“He looked over his shoulder at me,” recalls bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, “and he was pale, translucent almost. His shirt was drenched. And he was just standing there, not singing. I could see the audience’s expressions in the front row change – from joy to kind of looking concerned.” A bodyguard rushed onstage and helped Bowie off.
He somehow managed to return for a few more songs that night, before seeing a doctor who misdiagnosed him with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, prescribing muscle relaxants. Bowie pushed through one more shaky show at a German festival two days later, ending with the last version of “Ziggy Stardust” he’d ever sing in concert. He hit every note, made it down the stairs leading off the stage, and promptly collapsed. At a local hospital, doctors realized that he had a blocked artery in his heart, and performed emergency surgery.
That night essentially marked the end of David Bowie as a public figure. He never toured again, never gave another in-depth interview. He grew so secretive that he chided one of his closest collaborators, Tony Visconti, for revealing that they watched British comedy during studio breaks. By the time he made his surprise re-emergence in 2013 with his first album in a decade, The Next Day, he had pulled off a feat that no other rock star has quite managed, regaining all of the heady mystique of his breakthrough years, and then some. He was a legend, a living ghost, hiding in plain sight, walking his daughter to school, taking cabs, exercising alongside ordinary humans in workaday gyms in Manhattan and upstate in Woodstock. With his family, he said, he was David Jones, the person he had been before he assumed his stage name. He had, at last, truly fallen to Earth, and he liked what he found there.