On tour with Bowie
Leee Black Childers • Hit Parader • December 1974
[thanks to Chris Carter for donating this]
If you recall my story last month on the rigors of touring with Mott the Hoople, you may remember that I resolved that I would indeed go through it all again if someone asked me. Well, someone did who else but my old friend and benefactor, MainMan. And for what else but the Bowie tour. While not asked to go on the whole tour, I was asked to a portion of it Toronto and Detroit my purpose being to photograph the shows and supply MainMan with the shots. This, you may or may not know, is quite a rare privilege. MainMan's rules against photographers at Bowie concerts are legend, and although relaxed considerably this tour, they are still in effect.
Since for the past two years during Bowie's rise to superstardom I had worked exclusively for MainMan, I had always been allowed to photograph when and where I pleased. Just prior to this tour, however, I had severed my ties with MainMan, and was, therefore, not at all certain if I would be allowed to continue my photographic work for Bowie. As you can imagine, their invitation to Toronto was a welcome answer to my uncertainty.
Right off the bat I can tell you that this tour would be nothing like Mott's. Bowie's tours are notoriously well run and disciplined. Everything and everyone is expected to be where he can do the most good and to stay there. Backstage and after the show hotel adventures are almost non-existent since Bowie basically prefers peace and quiet and Stuart George, his bodyguard, is always there to insure it. Another element that I felt sure would make a difference in this tour was the fact that Bowie was using an almost totally non-rock & roll crew provided by his set and lighting designer, Jules Fisher. Fisher is famous for his work in the theatre and for his adept mounting of such road shows as Jesus Christ Superstar.
Since it was reasoned that Bowie's show would in many ways be like a Broadway musical on tour, it only seemed logical to get a theatre person to oversee it. So there would be none of the familiar rock and roll roadie faces that you get used to seeing in varying numbers backstage at nearly everyone's shows. There would also, presumably, be none of the rock and roll fuck-ups you also get used to on nearly everyone's tours. This, I would have to see to believe.
Although Toronto was to be the first performance I would see and photograph, it was not the first of the tour. The tour began two days earlier in Montreal and was, I am told, accompanied by all the madness, excitement, and rooms full of flowers one expects at opening nights. The show, too, came off nicely and everyone danced until dawn. The next night in Ottawa, playing a large arena used mostly for hockey games, it seems the fans went bananas and bent their flimsy metal folding chairs into pretzels and made them into one huge, towering free-form chair sculpture in the middle of the floor. Now that's what I call audience involvement. This must be some show.
So, with the reports of those two nights fresh in my memory I boarded the plane for Toronto. On the plane with me was little Zowie Bowie who would also be seeing the show for the first time this tour. I remember his amazement when over a year before he had seen his father perform for the first time. He was a mere two years old then and the lights and music were enough to astonish anyone. Now, after tucking Japanese and British tours into his realm of experience, he calmly noted that he was going to Toronto to watch Daddy make the money for dinner. After he had made this stop ostensibly to check on things, he was going to accompany his governess, Marion, on a vacation to Scotland while Daddy continued to bring home the bacon in America.
Toronto was to be a important date on the tour. It was the third show, thus allowing the two previous ones as warm-ups. It was also in a theatre as opposed to a hockey rink. For these reasons, then, MainMan and RCA decided this would be the show to debut the new Bowie to the 'heavy' music press. So, needless to say, excitement was running high.
Due to conventions or summer tourist influx or something, all the hotels were nearly full. It was impossible to get the huge Bowie entourage in one hotel, so we found ourselves divided among three. The one I was in was the Hotel Windsor Arms, a small, sophisticated inn straight out of another century. It was not the hotel Bowie or the press were at. They had drawn the larger and more modern (24-hour room service) Hyatt Regency. My hotel housed the MainMan executive staff, their guests, and the Bowie family. The road crew was at the third hotel whose name I forget.
Our afternoon arrival left us scant time to prepare since due to the fact that there were two shows that night, the first curtain time was a very early seven-thirty. So, I hurried and dressed and then rushed to Tony Defries' suite where we were to meet for departure to the theater. There are many people both in and out of the industry who are very curious about Mr. Defries. He is, of course, the other mind (besides Bowie's) responsible for the staggering success Bowie has realized in these past two years. He is also the creator of MainMan complete with all its policies and eccentric demands. To say he has revolutionized the music industry (which has more revolutions than any Latin American country) would be just playing with words. But, there are a lot of other management and record companies who have taken second looks at their own policies after having a gander at his.
Anyway, there isn't much I can tell you about him beyond this. He is not a public person and never, never leaves himself open to scrutiny. I can however, describe to you the scene upon entering his suite at the Hotel Windsor Arms since I find it typical of all times I have entered his suite, in all the grand hotels in cities all over the world. First of all, unless something unforeseen arises, it is always the largest suite in the hoteland in this hotel nothing unforeseen had arisen.
Melanie, Defries' lady, answered the door in a flesh colored satin dressing gown that swept the floor behind her. She was, of course, not ready yet. The position of the hands on the clock has less meaning in this suite than any place else I have found. They are never on time, but somehow never late. After proceeding down a hall that had many doors that must have led into unused bedrooms I was deposited in a sitting room. Already present were Angela Bowie and Dana Gillespie. Both were stunning Dana in satin that swirled in shades of purple and Angela in pink and beige chiffon that literally floated on the air.
Gene Tierney was in dark shiny silk. Sampling some Zubrovka just offered to her by Clifton Webb. (The Razor's Edge was on TV.) Had I chosen the movie myself I couldn't have picked a better one. In the movie Gene Tierney. Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter and others are having a light lunch at the Ritz in Paris while soft music plays. The same music complimented perfectly our hotel room as we munched fresh strawberries and sipped a very light white wine.
All that was missing was the Zubrovka which Gene Tierney thinks tastes like moonlight on white roses and I think tastes like kerosene. For about half an hour the group of us (some on TV and some in person) listened to the same music and carried on approximately the same conversation. The only exception being that Anne Baxter had managed to leave the Ritz and get herself murdered in this span of time.
Finally, just as Zowie and Marion arrived, Melanie and Defries appeared. Melanie had changed into a gown suitable for public display made of the same exquisite flesh colored satin. Tony Defries was in a very respectable dark brown, three-piece suit with a matching cigar. The Razor's Edge ended with Gene Tierney, the villainess, left alone and crying as we headed out for the concert.
O'Keefe Center in Toronto is a nice respectable theatre that features nice respectable acts for the most part. They were a little concerned about the riots that might ensue at the Bowie show and had for that reason put on extra security guards. From the looks of the place with its many, uniformed guards, and buzzers that let you move slowly through a series of doors as you prove your validity with various bits of identification, it looked like we were preparing for an appearance by a highly unpopular political figure rather than a pop star.
Suddenly, in the middle of it all appeared the object of all this drama a slight little figure with tousled red hair, a big smile, and kind of funny eyes. He didn't seem too dangerous and on top of it all he couldn't even talk. That's right, folks two shows to do that night and the star has laryngitis. He could hardly speak above a whisper. In rock and roll there are no little Ruby Keeler understudies waiting in the wings for just such a disaster. No star, no show. So, with about half an hour to showtime the emergency measures began, mainly tea with honey and lemon. He was cautioned not to talk and hustled off to his dressing room to be made ready should his voice return.
The only people inside were Corinne Schwab, his personal assistant, and Jac Collelo, his dresser. Stuey stood guard, everyone else waited. A room had been provided for this purpose equipped with chairs and beer and as Zowie entertained with stories that mostly center around witches and beanstalks and that sort of thing, everyone watched showtime come and go. Finally, word came out that although it wasn't too strong, Bowie had definitely come up with some sort of voice and we should all immediately proceed to our seats because the curtain was going up.
I had been thoughtfully provided with a first row seat so I could have a home base from which to shoot my pictures. Angela, Zowie, and the rest of the entourage were in the second row directly behind me. The lights dimmed, the crowd cheered, an anonymous voice announced that Bowie's voice was not all it should be, and a tape started with everything on it but the Ode To Joy. Finally, after the tape had taken us through all manner of frightening noises, the music started and out danced Bowie. The pleasant, voiceless guy of an hour before had been magically transformed into a demon of light and music that took hold of his audience and didn't let go. The stage was in a state of siege from the beginning. The guards for all their uniforms and plans were tossed aside like paper dolls.
I have been in front of many audiences at many rock shows and thereby suffered many a bruise and scrape, but let me warn you now never, never sit in front of Angela Bowie. She is a fan of the most physical sort. Accompanied by hysterical screams and sighs, she proceeds to beat on everyone in her vicinity in time to the music. It is all done in the name of love, of course, and except for once in Japan where I left the theatre with a limp I have never suffered any permanent damage at her hands.
In this audience, however, Angela was just one of the crowd. Everyone went crazy. There was dancing in the aisles, flowers were thrown on the stage by the dozen, and several fans tried to throw themselves with the flowers, but the guards had by this time marshalled their forces and ably defended the front lines. As for the show itself, you have no doubt read a great deal about it already, so I needn't add my description to the others.
The set designed by Jules Fisher was effective even though the moving catwalk high above the stage did not move. The glass asylum which opens to expose a black velvet hand holding Bowie backed by mirrors and blacklights was of course the most stunning visual effect. Bowie, himself, was in fine form. Possibly feeling he had to compensate for his weakened voice, his dancing and mime were unparalleled. The show was a good long one and brought the audience to a state of frenzy. He even did an encore (a rare occurrence on this tour.)
The audiences, I feel I should mention, were heavily influenced by previous Bowie tours, and showed up in space suits and glitter. Bowie was in a modest light blue Yves St. Laurent-style suit with a little sweater and never changed costumes except for slipping on a trench coat for one number and a Shakespearean jacket for another. The fans did not show any disappointment, however, and probably by the time you are reading this, they are all wearing modest Yves St. Laurent suits (but who knows what Bowie is wearing now.)
After the show, Bowie retired to his dressing room for more tea and honey and no one saw him except for a brief visit from Angela and Zowie. The rest of us were ushered into a large room where someone had prepared a Chinese feast to tide us over until the next show. So everyone gobbled chinese food and played 'Seduce the Doorman' who was one of the most beautiful blond boys anyone had ever seen, but was totally oblivious to the glamorous throng trying to gain his attention.
Bowie's voice returned for another bout and we headed out for the second show. The press had been treated to a regular sitdown dinner during the first show, so this would be the only one they would see from which to write their reports. They had been rather inequitably seated in the first and the thirty-second row. I had been allotted a second row seat for this show with an empty spot next to me for equipment. Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader editor, forsook her thirty-second row spot to join me. Angela and Dana were in the first row over to the side this time, and Marion had taken Zowie home (it was past his bedtime.) Surprisingly, Bowie's voice had gained a little more strength and the show went wonderfully. The catwalk moved gracefully up and down. The flying chair used for Space Oddity descended smoothly. And Lisa Robinson took what seemed like hundreds of pages of notes. The guards, however, were better prepared for the second onslaught and managed to hold the wave of fans back to about the tenth row. Near the end of the show it is my usual practice to induce the guards to let the fans come forward as it usually makes for a happier ending all around if the fans can get closer to Bowie for the finale. This time, unfortunately, I was rather uncomfortably trapped in the middle of the second row and couldn't get out. I managed to get Angela's attention and motioned to her that the fans should be let forward. She agreed and approached the guards to arrange it. As she tapped one on the shoulder, he whirled and grabbing her by the throat threw her over a couple of rows of seats. As I madly tried to get to the aisle to help her I also managed to trip over several people and, cameras and all, went sprawling in the aisle. When I reached the guard he was trying to strangle Angela and for some reason I will never understand was glad to release her into my custody. We fled backstage. There was no encore. (Later, when someone questioned the guard, he said he thought she might be someone sneaking up behind him and she might have had a weapon. Really.)
After this show, we were all loaded into our separate cars and returned to our respective hotels. This does not make for very wild parties. A few half-hearted phone calls followed from one hotel to another. A few people at my hotel ventured over to the Hyatt. These few were unfortunately the only ones who had had the foresight to order wine for their rooms before they left for the show that night as our hotel did not feature late night room service. So, the rest of us were left with no booze, no fun, and sad but true, no TV. The regular channels had signed off and our vintage television sets were not equipped with the famous UHF channels that exhibit moderately hardcore porn late at night. Various members of the 'heavy' music press were watching something about Swedish girls on their more modern sets, I am told.
Tony Zanetta, president of MainMan, and I decided to wander the streets in search of adventure and maybe end up at the other hotel. When we went down to the lobby, we were presented by the desk clerk with a black rose very black, complete with a black stem and thorns. A fan had left it. We decided it was an omen and went back upstairs to bed. Angela and David sat up very late chatting with friends. David prefers to relax after the show in this way.
The next morning my TV was working again and, as I packed, I watched a very personable Canadian lady discuss the various ghosts she had exorcised from people's homes. The flight home was uneventful. Tony Defries and Melanie missed it (I guess they're late sometimes).
I had a week in New York to finish up the pictures I had done in Toronto before I was to go to Detroit for my second go at it. The pictures from Toronto turned out very nice. They reassured me that my initial impressions of the show had been correct especially about the set which was striking in the photographs. When the review from the press began to appear I was further reassured. They were universally favorable.
While I was in New York, Bowie was still on the road "makin' the bacon." Somehow, his voice had healed itself, even though it was given no rest period. He proceeded from Toronto directly to Rochester, then two shows on successive nights in Cleveland, and the Toledo (that same terrible circus arena I had just been in with Mott). Finally, he had a day off in Detroit, before he was to do two shows there one Saturday, one Sunday. I was not there on his day off, but I understand he spent that evening at a small night club operated by John Sinclair in a downtown Detroit hotel. Remember John Sinclair – he was on of the ones who fought the revolution for us in the late sixties. I guess we must have won he has his own bar now.
Saturday morning in New York, it rained it poured. Our car was late to take us to the airport. We all got wet. No one was smiling. In an effort to cheer us up, Jaime Andrews, MainMan's vice-president, bought everyone his own magazine. He picked each one individually, and allotted me Rona Barrett's Gossip. He couldn't have done better. Nothing could cheer me up more easily. Rona, incidentally, is quite a follower of Mr. and Mrs. Bowie and had dutifully included a few items about them in this issue. The best item however, was about Zsa Zsa Gabor. It seems while strolling the streets of London recently, she was spotted by a small British girl who shouted. "Mommy, Mommy, look. It's Danny LaRue!" (Danny LaRue, in case you don't know, is the famous British transvestite who might be even older than Zsa Zsa.) After everyone had read this, things seemed rosier. About one minute before departure, Tony Defries and Melanie showed up.
The flight got crazier as we drained little liquor bottles like Nickel-Nip. Melanie trotted back from her first class seat to visit those of us in the steerage and a regular little party ensued. By the time we landed in Detroit we were ready for anything anything but what happened.
Our hotel in Detroit is one of my favorite hotels, The St. Regis Sheraton. It is small and friendly and has rugs on the floor as opposed to the usual shag carpeting. Its one drawback is its lack of room service on Sunday, but as we check in we were told proudly that hotel policy had changed and they now had room service on Sundays until ten o'clock. Hooray.
We were all starving and planned to change clothes quickly and rush right out to a nice restaurant for a real feed. We had a few hours until showtime. We had been in our rooms only about ten minutes when a knock came on each door with the announcement that no one was to leave the hotel. It was like a murder mystery. Everyone came out of their rooms into the hall. All mystified. No one knew what was up. The messenger knew no more than he told us. "Stay in the hotel until further notice from Tony Defries." So we did. In about half an hour our phones began to ring. There would be no show that night. We were free to do as we pleased. The show the next night was on so far. After a little research, this is the story I uncovered. Some one had unwisely booked Bowie into the Ford Auditorium, a small, beautifully equipped theatre with only one drawback. That same afternoon they were having a high school commencement. After the Commencement the Bowie crew would have about three hours to set up a set that takes twelve hours to build. Impossible. So, no show.
I decided to go see Bowie. I was met at the door to his suite by Corinne or rather one of her eyes as this is all I could see through the tiny opening as she peered out at me. "I'd like to see David, please." I said. The inch the door had opened, closed again. I waited. In a minute, the door opened fully and a smiling Corinne apologized that Stuey was not in and surely I understood that she had to clear all guests through Bowie before anyone could get in. I understood. If I were Bowie, I would do the same or worse. He is under a constant barrage of fans, press, and well-meaning company representatives.
I found Bowie sitting up in bed sipping tea and watching TV and reading and talking to Jaime and occasionally nibbling at a fruit salad. This is where he likes to be most I think, as this is where I find him most. (Once in Hollywood after we had spent the morning swimming and sunbathing, we went to visit Bowie. Of course, we found him in bed just as described. "It's a beautiful, fabulous day", we cried. "The sun is shining, it's warm, it's fabulous!" "Oh really," he said, "in that case, open the window.") Anyway, here in Detroit, he was in excellent spirits, although a little disappointed that the show had been cancelled. He was anxious to do it in Detroit to see their reaction. Although Detroit is a very rock and roll oriented town, they are not an easy audience. He was anxious to show them his new show. The compensation was that he would play in Detroit the next night in huge Cobo Hall. We looked over pictures, chatted about the show, and gossiped a little. He had decided he would not go out that night. I had decided I would. I left. Corinne showed me to the door.
We decided to go to Gagan's, a large, always crowded dance bar that sometimes featured drag shows. Various members of Detroit's music culture joined us at he hotel for a drink before departure. Mark Parrento, a disc jockey for WABX in Detroit, urged that Bowie accompany us. I thought it unwise as there might be disgruntled fans who had been deprived of a show that night. I was right. It took only a few minutes after our arrival for the clientele to figure out who we were (we were with Parrento and Ben Edmonds, editor of Creem, both of them dead giveaways that we were in the music business). Well, it seemed that everyone in that bar had tickets for the ill-fated Saturday night show and they all wanted a personal explanation about what happened. They soon calmed down, however, and then things were great. We made a lot of friends, danced till we dropped, and very successfully released the tensions of a night without a show.
The next morning I woke up pretty early eleven A.M. I was famished. My hand was on the phone as I awoke. I called room service. I rang and rang. I called the desk. I got no answer at room service I told them and I'm hungry. They weren't surprised. It was Sunday (I was told and room service ends at ten o'clock. TEN O'CLOCK! You mean ten o'clock in the morning? Yes, I went crazy. No one wakes up at ten o'clock in the morning. True, the desk clerk had said room service ended at ten, but I never dreamed he meant A.M. And no I didn't want to come down to the restaurant. Suddenly, it dawned on them I must be in the Bowie party. A special dispensation had been arranged for us it seems, and what was it that I wanted for breakfast. Whew.
After spending the day at the art museum seeing a Diane Arbus exhibit we prepared for Cobo Hall. This show was on. The set-up had gone beautifully and everything would be in perfect working order. The lights were wonderful. Bowie's voice was in fine form. As we approached the hall the crush of people was staggering. Besides the 16,000 kids who had turned out in high Bowie drag for the show, an adjacent hall was hosting a convention of accountants and yet another featured a Baptist's convention. Let me tell you, that was mind boggling for all concerned.
I have rarely seen a rock show so effective as that night. Everything went exactly as planned and the fans showed their appreciation wildly. I had not been accorded a seat for this how, not that that would have helped as no one had a seat after the first couple of numbers. Literally everyone it seemed crushed toward the stage. The ushers were pretty helpless although they tried to keep order. At the front of this mass so I could get good pictures, I broke nearly everything I owned. My camera, my ribs, my heels you name it, someone stepped on it. I must commend Stuey and Eric Barrett, the road manager, for watching out for me so well despite their many other duties. When the crush would become so unbearable as to make it impossible for me to work, they would always appear to coax people back a little so I could breathe. At the end of the show they just lifted me straight up onto the stage and away to safety. Boy oh boy, what a show.
After the show was everything you might expect. The hotel was mobbed. The halls were full of fans who once they were inside the hotel didn't quite know what to do. All they knew was that they had to get out of sight or else they might get thrown out. Outside there were hundreds more who couldn't sneak in at all. Once I opened my door for a minute only to hear a shout of, "There's an open door. Let's go there." I looked out to see a couple of dozen crazed teenagers racing my way. I closed my door just in time. Don't get me wrong. My room was full of crazed fans too, but enough is enough. In a few hours the halls had been cleared and things had quieted down. The people in my room insisted on watching Speakeasy, a show I find sadly boring, and the people next door were playing backgammon, a game I don't understand. So, I decided to go visit Bowie.
Surprisingly, getting into his room this evening was easier than the day before. Inside was a small gathering of friends and a beaming Bowie radiant after his success. Corinne and Ava Cherry were serving as hostesses, and after supplying me with wine, left me to my own devices. Other than the fact that I met the wife of someone who played on the original Space Oddity recording, there is little to report. None of the furniture got smashed; as indeed did none of the people. Something tells me that both the Baptists and the accountants were having wilder parties that night than us. But, I'll bet you could never have convinced them of that.
After a while I returned to my room. Speakeasy had mercifully ended and things had degenerated to the usual very late, very tired, very drunk senseless conversation. I am very good at this sort of thing and talked for hours. When everyone finally left, I was still not done. Jaime, Linda Palermo and Joey Gatti (MainMan publicists), and I managed to find an all night restaurant and gorged cheeseburgers and hotcakes until dawn.
The next morning I blearily stumbled into the hotel restaurant where we were to assemble for the journey home. There was Tony Defries looking dapper enough for Women's Wear Daily. He looked up at me, smiled, and said, "Ah, Leee, there you are. Looking a little pale this morning in true vampire tradition." Charming.
Somehow, we all helped each other onto the plane and settled back for the final ride home and maybe some sleep. Fat chance. Somewhere up in the stratosphere we hit a bump. As fate would have it, lunch had just been served and as the plane lurched and then dropped what felt like hundreds of feet in a second, everyone's meat loaf, corn, and tossed salad sailed up in the air and landed on the person in front of them. Of course, there were the initial shrieks and screams, but in all, everyone took it pretty well. We were a sight, of course, with lettuce in our hair and gravy down our shirts, but all we could think of was what did Tony Defries look like now. We asked the stewardess to please check on him for us and when she asked us where he was sitting, we told her he was up front. Innocently, her eyes widened and with her sweet stewardess smile she explained, ""Oh, he's all right. He's in first class." "What? Did she really mean the bump was just for us back in the cheap seats. Yep. It seems the tail had flipped up and then back down. The first class passengers barely felt it.
So, yet another stint on the road ends. A smiling Tony Defries met us as we came dripping off the plane. The stewardess was right. Not a loose crumb on his lapel.
The tour ended for me, but as of this writing, of course, Bowie is still out there making sure little Zowie has new shoes. Just as a postscript, I can fill you in on a couple of major events that have happened recently. For one, Bowie's car broke down somewhere between Nashville and Memphis and Bowie, Corinne, and Stuey had to hitchike on the side of the road in Tennessee. The other event a bee, it seems, flew in the window of the truck carrying the massive set and stung the driver. He drove the truck into a swamp somewhere near Tampa, Florida. (So much for the theatre road crew) Bowie went on that night on a bare stage. He says it's the best audience reception he's had to date.
So the tours go on and on. Bowie's doing seventy cities in the fall. I bet you could write a book about that one.