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The Music of David Bowie: Behind the Curtain at Carnegie Hall’s 2016 Tribute Concert

Cyndi Lauper, John Darnielle, and event producer Michael Dorf describe their plan to commemorate the Thin White Duke

David Bowie had meant to attend his Carnegie Hall tribute concert on March 31. Instead, hours after announcing the night’s extensive lineup of artists (PixiesCyndi Lauper, the Mountain Goats, Michael Stipe, the Roots, Heart’s Ann Wilson, Debbie Harry, Perry Farrell, Flaming Lips, and Jakob Dylan, plus Bowie’s longtime collaborator Tony Visconti overseeing the house band), news broke of the Starman’s death. Event producer Michael Dorf (also the founder of key New York venue the Knitting Factory), his team, and the night’s performers had no idea Bowie had been sick. Now, what began as a tribute to a living legend had overnight become a highly publicized memorial.

“Bowie was one of my earliest records, and by college I had every one of his LPs,” Dorf, who is also the founder and CEO of City Winery, tells SPIN over the phone. “I loved his pop sound, his avant-garde leanings, and artistic sense. When I opened the Knitting Factory on Houston between Mott and Mulberry, one block from his new loft on Crosby, I remember lingering near his door hoping to accidentally run into him and invite him [in].”

Dorf originally founded the downtown space in the ’80s, but ended up selling his interest in 2002 to focus on working with the Music For Youth Foundation, an organization of industry leaders who donate funds to music-education programs. There, he came up with the idea to put together a yearly charity tribute at Carnegie Hall in New York called “The Music Of…” series, celebrating the career of a veteran musician and featuring performances by a number of fellow artists. (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., and David Byrne and the Talking Heads are just some of the figures that have been honored in previous iterations.)

Initially, Dorf’s idea met with pushback, mainly because his peers were wary of hefty overhead costs and other financial concerns involved with throwing a charity show of this magnitude. But Dorf presented a scenario where his fellow organizers risked very little. “Literally the comments were, ‘Oh my God, putting on a show is risky, where are we gonna do it, how are we gonna do it?'” he says. “I was like, ‘100 percent of the profits [will be distributed] to good education causes, and I will cover 100 percent of the losses if there are any.’ That was a no-lose situation.”

The first tribute, celebrating folk icon Joni Mitchell, took place in 2006 and was a resounding success, raking in a net gain of $100,000. Now in its 12th year, the series has made a lot of last-minute additions to its Bowie-themed edition on March 31 due to the Thin White Duke’s death. To keep up with demand, event organizers even added a second tribute date at Radio City Music Hall on April 1 featuring Cat Power, Farrell, Stipe, Blondie, Mumford & Sons, Wilson, and the Polyphonic Spree, which sold out in nine minutes. “The consumer reaction was snagging up every ticket,” says Dorf. “The artist reaction was, ‘Oh my God, I want to participate; this is gonna be my way of saying goodbye or working with all of the positive love around David Bowie’s music.'”

“People [were] calling me like crazy,” he continues. “Not just the industry and artists, but Christiane Amanpour from CNN and [former Carnegie chairman] Ronald Perelman. I felt very awkward about the idea that anyone could look at us as exploiting his death. But we felt a real need to figure out another day or something to support all of the interest.”

When curating the song selection, Dorf has in the past selected about 20 “essential” tracks from the artist being honored. The end result typically winds up looking like a mix of fan favorites and tracks that a visiting performer has favored. “Occasionally someone will say, ‘I’ve always performed or I’ve always loved’ whatever the song might be,” says Dorf. “Then I pencil it in.”

For her own Bowie performance, Cyndi Lauper says over the phone that her song choice will depend on where the “spirit” takes her. “I want to sing something really great for him, and I want to tell him how much he meant to my work,” she says. “I kind of want to sing ‘Life On Mars?’ I was [also] going back and forth to ‘Suffragette City’ because I feel like in this day and age it’s a good thing to sing, as [the right wing] continues their war on women, their health issues, their civil rights.”

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats would like for his tribute to reflect the scope of Bowie’s artistry, life, and career. “In high school, [Bowie] was one of the two artists that my friends and I listened to constantly for several years,” he writes in an email. “He seemed always to be seeking something new. Not vast reinventions, as is the legend, but new terrain. ‘Always be in search of new terrain’ is a motto worth keeping.”

Though not every honored personality is obligated to appear at their own tribute (Mitchell didn’t), Bowie had been excited by the idea of his own honorarium, according to Dorf. Bowie’s trusted producer Tony Visconti had originally brought the idea to the singer-songwriter and felt optimistic that he’d be seated in the audience. Dorf, understandably, was eager to finally meet the legendary Ziggy Stardust. “David was a fan of music education,” he says. “He’d hopefully say, ‘That was a great show, thank you for doing it,’ or something. There’s no greater pleasure as a producer than that.”