David Bowie: Gimme Yer Hands
Tim Jurgens • Fusion • January 1973
He's not selling any alibis. David Bowie & The Spiders from Mars couldn't have picked a better time or place than the present in America to begin working their voodoo on an unsuspecting public. Rock ‘n’ roll ain't dead but, with a few exceptions, it has lost its power to challenge and mystify. Records and concerts exist as durable commodities like TV, drugs and booze for a generation beating a retreat to Main Streets old and new, the quest necessarily forgotten. The Quest, sure, we all remember The Quest, an imminent evolution/revolution that awaited us at the next bend of the Sixties road. So common sense tells us the dream's over now, even though we've woken up in a different place than where we were before we fell into that cracked reverie. There's a price on our heads: how to go about the business of self-preservation and still maintain credence in our yet brief history. Gross evidence to the contrary, there is something in the air. And what's been lacking in our day to day lives - very simply, some Rock & Roll Wizard who can function on the mass, extra-musical levels Dylan and the Beatles did during their heyday - may possibly and probably have arrived in the form of one David Bowie.
Look out all you rock n rollers
Pretty soon now you're gonna get a little older
It took me weeks before I could listen to that bloody tune from start to finish without groaning when Hunky Dory first appeared a year ago. On at least one occasion I can even remember falling into an out-of-character blithering rage when a friend turned up the volume while it was playing on the radio. Like they say, the proof was in the pudding. My dukes eventually failed me one night, resulting in a rock 'n' roll blitzkrieg whose far-reaching ramifications are only now starting to become clear to me.
Not that it'll ever make any complete sense. Bowie, by definition, escapes definition. One of his more favourite words is "impermanence." His psyche presents such a mass of ambiguities and contradictions that, to this layman's eye, id, ego and superego appear inseparable. The real fashioned into an image that has in turn become the real, the newly self-created man: "But I've never caught a glimpse/ of how the others must see the faker / I'm much to fast to take that test." Psychic speed of this order goes beyond a mere sense of style and is not to be learned from books. It's only natural that Bowie should aspire to be a Star, that most magical and hazardous of occupations wherein one becomes one's self most totally when face to face with the Public. He would candidly draw us to his breast, aware of the potentially frightening and glorious consequences of the confrontation:
Don't fake it baby, lay the real thing on me
The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be
Make me baby, make me know you really care
Make me jump into the air
Keep your 'lectric eye on me babe
Put you ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine love
Freak out in a moonage daydream oh! yea!
David Bowie and The Spiders didn't pop up in some cabbage patch overnight. The story commenced sometime around 1947-48 when David Jones made his appearance in Brixton, England, suburban son of the "standard non-poor, non-affluent London milieu." He attended a technical high school, dropped out, got into the saxophone, Tibetan Buddhism, mime and theatre, set up an artiste's co-operative, eventually formed his first band, David Jones and the Lower Third, which in turn became David Bowie and the Buzz when The Monkees starting making it with a group member by the same name. Left "progressive blues and maximum amplification" for solo acoustic and brought out his first LP, Love You Till Tuesday [sic] on Deram. Somewhere along the line he got married to Angela and had a son, Zowie (for whom Kooks was written). In 1968 he had his debut hit with Space Oddity which appeared on Man of Words / Man of Music the next year on Mercury (now re-released by RCA as Space Oddity). David really began to come into his own with 1970's The Man Who Sold The World (originally Mercury, now available on RCA minus the great cover art), his first recorded excursion into hard rock n roll. The album sounds very uneven today, the work of an artist who was mapping out a unique, undiscovered country but had not quite found its properly subtle expression. A few of the tracks are excellent, especially the title cut, an eerie harbinger of things to come.
A year passed between World and the first RCA album Hunky Dory, but it might as well have been two or three. Now generally considered a classic, Hunky marks an astonishing maturation of the rock n roller in every way. The production by Bowie and Ronson (Tony Visconti did the Mercury stuff) is technically brilliant and in perfect tune with David's growth into a singer and songwriter of chameleon-like changes of mood and identity. Six months later, mid-summer '72, brought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars. One of the best singles of the year, Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes was written and produced (and should have been recorded) by David. He's also produced their Columbia LP and Lou Reed's second solo flight. A busy guy.
On to The Spiders: Mick Ronson, of "god-given ass" the man behind the man, played in numerous unsuccessful English bands before getting together with Bowie in 1970 for The Man Who Sold The World. He has an extensive background in classical music, takes care of most of the arrangements and is a fine pianist. In live performances he plays a slightly mockingly conventional heavy line most of the time that draws openly on the lead-guitarist tradition. "The bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar." His accompaniment during the acoustic set and his powerful studio work attest to craftsmanship of considerable variety and subtlety. His importance in the proceedings, both musically and role-wise, can't be overemphasized.
Mick "Woody" Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder complete the quartet. Both worked with Ronson in a group called Ronno for a while before joining Bowie. (The former drummed on World). As a bass/drums team they're in the comic British mold, long ago established by The Who, The Kinks and The Stones. On an off night Woodmansey can be aggravating as hell - off the beat, playing the same riff over and over, doing straight time behind Bowie's phrasing when he should be going against him, etc. When things are flying along though, he's entirely competent. Bolder covers Woodmansey well, tastefully buoying up the bottom with lyrical, forceful lines that are particularly impressive during the second half of the live show. And dat's The Spiders.
The debut American Tour (perhaps still current as you read this - plans were for the band to travel thru December) began on September 25 in Cleveland Ohio, City of Sopor Light, with a packed house which reports indicate failed to respond. Memphis was another story. Everyone I talked to who'd been there said it was even better than the triumphant Chicago date, which I did witness. "Boys stood upon their chairs to make their point of view." Bowie's records saturated the Memphis airwaves and stations were picking up on the English single John, I'm Only Dancing.
I got my premiere gander in New York where the flatulent hype surrounding the wonderboy was supposed to meet its first real test. An unusual number of vaguely hungry-looking individuals shuffled in front of Carnegie Hall wanting spare tickets, speculation rampant that RCA had given away almost half the seats. Whatever the case, you couldn't tell from the crowd. Obligatory names attended but attracted little attention. For a star who was "admittedly bisexual" or "homosexual" depending on which paper you read, there were thankfully few queens on parade. I sat in front of a gaggle of misguided teens who spent pre-show and intermission time blowing up balloons and talking about Marc Bolan while the kid next to me relived the fine points of every concert he'd been to in the past year. Had I seen Sha-Na-Na when Keith Moon emceed in an evening gown? No.
Ruth Copeland could not have been more inappropriate as an opening act. Struggling with her through a nightclub set that included a ghastly interpretation of Just Like A Woman and a squeaky monitor, the audience remained politely pained, secure in the knowledge that David Bowie would rectify the situation.
Set things straight he did, though in an unexpected way. The standard ironic/majestic prelude to the evening's show - a long selection from the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth as played by Walter Carlos on the Clockwork Orange soundtrack - blared from the speakers. First one, two, then three strobes begin flashing on stage, the only light in the house, as four figures stutter out in silent-film motion and plug in. Bright red and orange spots suddenly bathe the principals in a cherry glow. Bowie steps forward, smiles openly but modestly to the crowd’s applause, strums a few chords on his 12-string and the band launches into Hang Onto Yourself.
What little rush spreads through the audience is more inquisitive than excited. So this is our "rock 'n' rollin' bitch," huh? The song is unashamedly sloppy, light years from the snap, crackle and pop of the recorded version. Bowie apologizes for his tentative singing before going any further, he explains he's in the middle of a virus. Ziggy Stardust sounds a little better but when his voice cracks and dies on "So we bitched about his fans," he throws an embarrassed look at Mick Ronson – oh well – no being Ziggy tonight. I grow more curious. Certainly this self-effacing man has little to do with my preconception of David Bowie. Yep, his hair is carrot-red. He wears a combination spacesuit/jumpsuit, silver with some kind of orange and green pattern imprinted, space boots on his feet, the acoustic guitar with pick-up slung over his shoulder. His movements are by no means fey effeminate or rock n roll slick though. He half walks, half hops around the stage with a casual lope. Lead guitarist Ronson stands to the left, detached but a strong presence whom Bowie will gravitate towards for support throughout the show. On the right as you face the audience, Trevor Bolder meanders about with his bass, often lost in the shadows, while white-haired Woody Woodmansey pounds at his drum set in a blinding spotlight, apparent heir to the Maureen Tucker thumper throne.
Following a wobbly try at Changes the stage lights go completely down as one dim purple spot illuminates Bowie with Ronson to one side. His infirmities working in his favour, he gravelly intones the opening verse to The Supermen in a near whisper:
When all the world was very young
And mountain magic heavy hung
The supermen would walk in file
Guardians of a loveless isle
And gloomy browed with super fear their tragic endless lives
Could not heave nor sigh
in solemn, perverse serenity, wondrous beings chained to life...
The effect is unsettling. Of the four times I saw the show, in New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit, it was this song that brought a stillness over the crowds in the first three cities. Some endless, colossal science fiction landscape spreads out, inhabited by mythological super gods living out their prehistorical destinies so that history may begin. Bowie ceases to be a star, rock 'n' roller, or whatever role we may have cast him in when he relates this tale. Like some wise, ageless seer he becomes the song, we are the witnesses and the distance between us, participant and observer, is nil.
Life On Mars?, perhaps Bowie's greatest achievement in the studio, can never measure up on stage and the performance is accordingly a kind of appreciation of the record. Bolder of the grey sideboards plays a simplification of Mick Ronson's sweeping string arrangement while Ronson himself sits at the piano, far right, the perfect classical accompanist. A girl has a row with her parents about going out. She goes to the movies.
Once again we're faced with nothing more nothing less than a world view, only now its 1972 and the superman are long gone, replaced by a race of modern primitives who mindlessly act out their absurd roles, unaware of the life-plot in which they perform. The second verse reveals Bowie to be the weary director of the whole shebang: "The film is a saddening bore / cause I wrote it ten times before..." He's chosen to become the star and in so doing has trapped himself in the lead part. The show may be a bore but whaddaya gonna do, it's the biggest hit and, "I could do with the money / I'm so wiped out with things as they are." Little wonder that in desperation we dress up and dream about life on Mars.
Three more numbers round out the first third of the show. Lady Stardust and Queen Bitch present Bowie in the guise of a rock n roll bystander, the fan. "Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name." But it could've been me." Bowie sings his Velvets homage, Queen Bitch, not to Lou Reed but as Lou Reed might've done it, awkward hand gestures and all. Standing in front of your dresser mirror getting ready for school you're wishing you looked like Eddie Cochran, Keith Richard, Bob Dylan..."I could fall asleep at night as a rock 'n' roll star/ I could fall in love all right as a rock n roll star." Like all of us Bowie fell in love with the power that would make things right. What's more, he decided to try and make that transformation on the grandest scale possible, outside the realm of mere adulatory exposition: he would become an Original himself. The New York audience gives much-deserved round of applause for the successful completion of the task.
Five Years, next on the agenda, takes the form of a Dylan warning of impending disaster but goes beyond being simply a satire of the form. With randomly awesome cinematic images, the lyrics describe a world nearing its conclusion:
A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children
If the black hadn't pulled her off, I think she would have killed them
A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that.
Dylan might have sneered at the queer and walked on. Bowie won't let things do so easily. In the face of overwhelming adversity, "tragic endless lives" finally approaching their end, he is reckless in his optimism: "Your face, your race, the way that you talk / I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk." Very simply, don't hang up your hat, hope is our only hope. "We got five years, that's all we got." Earth may be really dying but five years is still quite a while. Bowie understands, kids:
Oh no love! you're not alone
No matter what or who you've been
No matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I've had my share I'll help you with the pain.
We call the music rock 'n' roll for a lack of a better term. We made it and mangled it and spat on it and dressed it up and turned it into a tart and a fart but it's still ours even while we've lost of sense and control and reason. "You're too old to lose it, too young to choose it / and the clock waits so patiently on your song / you walk past the cafe but you don't eat when you've lived too long / you're a rock 'n' roll suicide." Having poured out our money and blood to a vision that'll neither deliver the goods nor leave us alone, we find ourselves in a bit of a quandary. Slash our wrists and call it quits? Disown the little bugger? Is there no relief?
You're not alone just turn on with me
You're not alone let's turn on and be
You're not alone gimme yer hands
You're wonderful gimme yer hands
Make me a star and I'll make you a star. Have we any choice in the matter once the offer of assistance is made? Inducements to change are too rare to pass up. One watches and listens to Bowie expecting an entertainment, a complex put-on designed to feed a rock 'n' rollers ego and mask his insecurities. One comes away from the meeting not merely amused but very charmed and deeply perplexed. An infinite number of questions arise that will never be answered, that are beyond questioning because Bowie posits his persona, not as a puzzle with a solution, but as a statement, which you can either reject or accept. (Of course he's got a super-manager like Tony Defries. The statement is a heavy one requiring strength, clarity, mystery, calculation, spontaneity, and an assured business head - all means towards it's unfettered expression in the midst of present-day media chaos). If you decide in his favour that he may be part of "the start of the coming race," you can't help but ask yourself to what extent you're a member too. Not so pissant profound an I.D. crisis as I make it sound. Bowie ain't no god. "I'm not a prophet or a stone-age man / Just a mortal with potential of a superman." For instance, he doesn't just sit around making all this stuff outta his head. Bowie is a fan with a highly nuanced appreciation of his roots. As one of the first great synthesizes in popular music, he exhibits an ability to grasp the spirit of a form without being entrapped by the form itself. As he reflects the myriad changes and current state of the art in his presentation so the guts of much of his newer material is derived from an inquiry into what is going on around him. He holds up a mirror to the world (past, present, future) and sees himself. Who knows, without us he may not even exist.
The highlight of both the New York and Boston shows was the mid-point acoustic set. What doubts I had about Bowie's ability to rock n roll (later cleared up in Chicago) were forgotten as he sang the next three numbers. "I wish myself to be a prop, if anything, for my song. I want to be a vehicle for my songs." Take away the hair and the makeup and the clothes, close your eyes and what you find at the core of the experience is Bowie's voice and Bowie's songs. The image/illusion will sell him to a jaded public because its new and exciting. Beyond that the purpose is theatrical, to give the eye something to wander over while the ear does its special trick. Bowie sits down on a stool folk-singer style, and strikes the singular intro chords to Space Oddity. A surprising number of people applaud, apparently old fans. Later in the song at each of the bridges those two distinct pairs of handclaps ring out around the hall. As a four year ditty largely based on the trendiest movie of the year, 2001 (the Ziggy trip derives certain images and ideas from another Kubrick work, Clockwork Orange), Space Oddity stands up remarkably well and is always one of the best-received songs of the evening. Unable to compete with the Hunky Dory version, Andy Warhol doesn't come across as strong, but again, the audience do what they can to help it along, by clapping with the guitar duo by Bowie and Ronson. All leading up to the New York-Boston showstopper, Jacques Brel's My Death. Bowie is alone, stage center, hazily lit. The sombre Boston audience sits perfectly silent, instinctively aware that whatever it was that they came here for is going to happen. "My death waits, in a double bed..." I slump lower in my seat closing my peppers, a chill shoots right up my spine. The battle is not between Bowie and the song or his voice, for even as he chokes and grows hoarse he is begging to soar, locked in Mortal Combat with Death Itself. Time stops. There is a silence until the devastated crowd realizes that the hair-raising spell has been broken and rises to its feet.
David Bowie's voice is an instrument of a forcefulness and breathtaking clarity the likes of which has been rarely heard in a rock 'n' roll context before. Same for the range and depth of feeling/experience he communicates. Jesse Winchester is the only other singer I can think of who possesses this uncanny capacity to relate to the listener in such an honest, intimate manner. Should the general public tire of Bowie, or vice versa, he can always revise the cabaret tradition, accompanied by steady-as-a-rock Ronson. This is the stuff from which legends are made.
The remainder of the show is straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. Width of a Circle has a shuddering jam by The Spiders (minus David) who've changed into sparkling black top-and-pants outfits during My Death. Mick Ronson (wearing George Washington britches) executes a series of clean, perfunctory, mythic lead-guitar moves that do not purport to spontaneity, but rather distance us (and the band) from the music. The pose made obvious, the rock n roll trio as machine. Bowie re-enters the picture dressed like the rest to finish the song and then goes into John, I'm Only Dancing a curious tune about a lonely, flitty guy assuring his lover that, yes, "She turns me on, don't get me wrong / I'm only dancing." Don't take this thing too seriously, I'm only rock n rolling like this cause it turns me on. Yet, "Won't someone pleeze dance with me?"
Bowie and The Spiders hit their stride in Chicago. The hall was huge and far from sold out. Large crew cuts patrolled the area to discourage the diverse-looking audience from smoking and being anywhere but their assigned seats. In spite of such odds it was obvious, a few numbers into the show that everyone was putting out. No longer an unsure pop star hampered by flu, Bowie commands the stage with confidence and poetic grace in complete contrast to his off-handed random motions and stagey gestures in New York and Boston. Moonage Daydream sparks the flash: Ziggy made flesh. You can feeeel it in the theatre as everyone jumps up, eyes riveted on the fabulous "leper messiah" who might bounce off into space did he not recycle the energy he is drinking up from the crowd. The mind reels.
A brief pause as the band runs through Starman, the only single since Changes. The sound was too full for AM radio to begin with and on stage it's pretty skimpy without Ronson's strings. Two Velvet Underground favourites follow, Waiting For The Man and White Light White Heat. In New York and Boston their performance is a good-natured if unimpressive salute to Bowie's own Chuck Berry, Lou Reed. Chicago inspires the boys to a much more skillful rendering. The tunes stand on their own this night, part of the classical rock n roll tradition. Particularly neat is Waiting for the Man which Bowie milks for the sex angle as Ronson offers tasty sing-along chords to give it its right sweetness. Toward the end Bowie falls on his knees in front of Ronson, grasps him by the legs and proceeds to play the guitar with his teeth, a friendly, worshipful blowjob for "the church of man". The whole joint really goes bonkers at the finale.
Hey man, oh leave me alone, you know
Hey man, oh Henry, get off the phone, I gotta
Hey man, I gotta straighten my face
This mellow-thighed chick just put my spine out of place
Ouch! That's Suffragette City, Rock 'n' Roll Motel at its grungiest, slickest, sickest and old-fashioned best. "She's total blam-blam." A natural smash single but they made it the B-side of Starman. David lounges on a monitor, swinging his silver-booted foot in the air and pointing naughtily to us: "Don't lean on me man, cause you can't afford the ticket." We gleefully roar out the capital tag line: WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA'AM!
Encore time in all four cities, Bowie returns to the stage without the suit top, exposing his skinny chest with "snow-white tan" for all the world to see. New York and Boston get inconsequential renderings of Round And Round. The Stones reference is dropped on the next dates in favour of Jean Genie dedicated to Iggy Pop in Chicago (Jean Genie lives on his back) and to Detroit in Detroit. Bowie plays a red electric guitar mic'd through a scuzzy little amp that gives the new tune a pleasantly cluttered, chugga-chugga feel. It's very successful though the enticing tone does nothing to resolve the energy it activates. One wishes for a more fitting conclusion. Oh, "he could leave 'em to hang."
And I can't do anything but put in faith in Bowie and that's another king-sized irony this guy's aware of, the tenuousness of the rock n roll set-up. For a brief three years Dylan found himself the ultimate embodiment of a time space intersection; then he had an "accident." Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. The Beatles raised music group-consciousness to an art and then exposed that art as a dream and a sham. Bowie tentatively gives himself and us five years. The moonage daydream could take its toll before then and he wisely asks us to keep these past experiences in mind. "The emphasis placed on what people are saying, and whether they're profound or not, annoys me a little, "cause I don't want to be profound. That's all I want to do: investigate and present the results." But what results! Rock 'n' roll at its most transient, immediate and infinite. You can't resist taking the chance.
Love descends on those defenseless
Idiot love will spark the fusion
Inspirations have I none - just to touch the flaming dove
All I have is my love of love - and love is not loving
Go ahead folks, give 'em yer hands.