David Bowie: who will I be now?
Ron Ross • Circus Raves • February 1975
Two young black men with Afros and Yes T-shirts gazed at the Art Deco murals and shrugged their shoulders. As they awaited the debut of David Bowie's all-new show at New York's Radio City Music Hall, an intense but typical seventies rock mob milled around them. "I expected to see a lot more glitter people," said the one seeming Woodstock refugee to the other.
An enthusiastic but somewhat confused audience had just been entertained by Bowie's thirteen strong musical entourage. Like the crowd-stirring opening acts in an all star rhythm and blues revue, Bowie's versatile back-up vocalists stepped into the spotlight and did their best to link the reluctant Ziggy kids into a soul train.
Just a month before, a Raves correspondent had interviewed Bowie's co-producer, the articulate Tony Visconti, who had definite ideas on David's new blue image. "He's been working to put together an R&B sound for years," said Visconti, defending his long-time colleague from accusations of trendy opportunism. "Every British musician has a hidden desire to be black," he explained. So, the intellectually superior street punk had finally achieved one of his fondest rock dreams.
A Go Go Bisexuality: A bumping, grinding fully integrated and bisexual team of go go talent was at the spry red head's disposal. As Bowie hit the stage after intermission, attired in a plaid tie, suspenders, and white pegged pants, he was obviously feeling fine, funky, and in full control. Davey made it all look easy as he effortlessly blended the forties teen appeal of Frank Sinatra with the sexy self-assurance of a James Brown. Gone now were the songs that searched for a satellite of love – All the Young Dudes, Space Oddity, and Aladdin Sane. In their place were the rousing R & B oldie Footstompin' and a new Bowie identity tune, Young Americans. David had clearly fulfilled his desire to make his stage a theatrical discotheque. But could he convince his swelling league of fans to dance to his newest music?
The cute but crafty style-setter had certainly come some distance since the 1972 media message which had proclaimed, "David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust." Since his first nova explosion of notoriety, Bowie's Spiders had risen and fallen, his gold-plated diamond dogs had evidently caught their death in the fog – but not before helping David to his first million selling album and a terrific "out-of-retirement" tour.
Yet even as David's disciples were fantasizing seduction by sick sweet things, his management company MainMan planned still another surprise. To coincide with the second half of Bowie's 1974 Tour of Tours and the release by RCA of David Live, MainMan arranged to have ABC televise D. A. Pennebaker's fascinating film of the Spiders' British farewell concert in July, 1973. Complete with stunning stereo FM radio simulcast, the splendor and stature of Bowie's Aladdin Sane presentation came to life on the tube as never before.
As seen through the eyes of Pennebaker's crack cameramen, David does indeed become the stardust kid himself. In and out of one dazzling outfit after another, David is observed backstage concentrating on his entrances and relaxing almost nude with friends like Ringo Starr during his break. To crown the performance of his career with the superstar he helped to make, Mick Ronson was joined onstage at the Hammersmith Odeon by his idol, Jeff Beck. While Jeff and Mick provoked each other to heights of flash unheard of in the seventies, Bowie crouched to one side and pushed his mouth harp loud and hard through the vocal mike, then smiled in unfeigned joy at the electricity pouring off his band and their stellar guest. In the audience at Hammersmith was Mick Jagger; no coincidence then, that after a close escape from a pack of determined ravettes at Radio City, Bowie broke spontaneously into "It's Only Rock And Roll...' He likes it now as much, if not more, than ever.
Dylan and David: As "director" of Bowie's first feature film, Pennebaker contributed an instinctive feel for rock showmanship gained from his filming of the historic Monterey Pop Festival and the classic film on Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back. Although a stranger to Bowie personally and only recently acquainted with his work, Pennebaker realized that David had a compulsive need to commit a kind of artistic suicide, even if his supposed "retirement from the stage" was merely a swan song for the Spiders. MainMan's official reason for screening Bowie '73 implied that the longer they waited to show the movie, the more of a museum piece it would become.
Pennebaker was intrigued by Bowie's detached but quietly obsessive concept of his own talent. He remarked to Raves, "Somebody like Bowie doesn't care how things have been done in the past. That's not how they got anywhere. Their business is finding out what can be done and what should be done. These are the kind of people I like to see get into film." Because he felt so strongly that Bowie's aptitude and theatrical instincts were almost extra-musical, he gave him the same kind of encouragement he had given Dylan years earlier. When asked to compare Bowie to other artists he had worked with and known well, Pennebaker found himself using Dylan repeatedly as a favorable reference point.
Integrated sex: Despite Pennebaker's expert and non-partisan support for any possible Bowie film projects, David abruptly decided to return to active touring upon the release of Diamond Dogs. In seven months of almost non-stop road work, Bowie has devastated thousands of devotees and won enough new converts to become a certified gold album chart-topper. But more importantly, he's almost completely changed his "image," his attitude, his band, back-up singers, and staging in mid-tour. He's previewed superb but strange new songs for large crowds who didn't know what to expect. Bowie's become more at home with his audience even as he's learned to loosen up and really roll with his rock. Tense dramatic effects have given way to interracial (but not radical) displays of sensual affection.
Three of Bowie's rainbow hued crew are Vandross, a self-contained vocal group who perform several of Luther Vandross' songs during the first part of the show. Jules Fisher has scrapped his own Diamond Dogs cityscape for a white-frosted Big Band set up. Throughout the evening at Davey's disco, dapper erstwhile dog Warren Peace and the sensationally sepia Ava Cherry twist and shout, show and tell (all), almost stealing the show, except they all share it so well. Mike Garson's piano and David Sanborn's sax are a sweetly soulful contrast to Earl Slick's ever sharper lead guitar. And Emir Kassan, Pablo Rosario, Dennis Davis, and Carlos Alomar cook up some incredibly complex but hypnotic rhythms.
As engineer of this soul locomotive, Bowie beams like a hot pop boy at a cool cabaret. A jive Fred Astaire paired with the Jackson 5's dancing machine, Bowie rearranges standards including Changes, Moonage Daydream, and Suffragette City to mesh seamlessly with brand new numbers like Somebody Up There Likes Me. He thanks the audience for applauding his latest tunes, then with a sniff and a smile puts the silk jacket donated by a fan on Carlos. With unprecedented pep in his step, David struts across the stage with the evening's fifth gift of flowers, tossing them to a believer in the third row. He spins and slides away as the overeager throng destroy the fragile souvenirs.
Street style: Bowie's new approach to rock theater may avoid the campiness and self-consciousness of earlier acts, but it still conveys his preoccupation with street style as the language of progress. While Bowie's tailoring tarts up the Thirties and his choreography echoes Motown's miracles of the Sixties, his timing is right on now, when black singles dominate AM radio and Soul Train has picked up where American Bandstand left off. Pennebaker was aware when filming Bowie that he was dealing with a vital and volatile entertainer, peculiarly tuned in to his time. "Bowie's idea of a show is to astound you. That's tremendous; it's an element that's very important in film-making – never be predictable. Bowie has a range from banal concepts to extraordinary ones, until even the words don't really matter. There's something beyond the words there."
Pennebaker sensed a hard core of artistic vision in Bowie that he admired. "Bowie is like Dylan in that he's found a way to crystallize something in front of people," Pennebaker proposes. "They both have a very good sense of themselves and what they do. Both have a very tough, spiritual center that holds them together. It's very hard to stay on top of a big talent; it's like walking on logs in the water.
"It interested me to see a guy who was on fire onstage, but who could turn himself off before and after," Pennebaker continued, "Bowie brings an acting structure of mime and conditioned reflex to a performance. But I think Bowie's got much more going on in his head than that, and that's one of the things that brings him down. He probably did need to get off the stage for a while and go in another direction."
Dietrich quality: "There is, of course, a Dietrich quality to Bowie that's totally fashion," Pennebaker acknowledged, "but that's just a small aspect of him. His younger fans aren't even particularly aware of it. I don't think the audience even sees some of Bowie's best actions. He throws away perfectly done bits of business that are almost sculptural. He's giving a whole message, not just giving the part of the message he thinks will look best. Every instant he's on the screen he gives a full image; it might not be the words or even the music. But Bowie is always saying something."
Tony Visconti thinks he knows what David is saying today. "Being black now is a culture rather than a revolution. By the time this album has been released more people are going to realize that." It doesn't seem to have occurred to a lot of people who are looking so desperately for a new Beatles that they or he or she may not sound at all like the Beatles. But any artist who will mean as much to as many in the Seventies as the Beatles did in the sixties is going to have to involve black listeners in the same way Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix engaged whites.
Now Bowie gets a crowd that has never even thought of dancing to the Allman Brothers, let alone Blue Magic, up and out into the aisles, where their god given arses have more room to shake. He turns John I'm Only Dancing from a psychotic mind rape into a seductive soul anthem, re-titled John I'm Only Dancing (Again). It's as if Bowie's telling us: life holds in store many dances, many partners, many steps, and many stepped on toes. But there's always more, both good and bad. No longer does David gloatingly prophesy nuclear disaster. The problems of his personae now are bills and too many babies. By walking with punk poise while talking like Barry White with a social conscience, David has come back to earth with all his poetic powers intact. 1984 and Knock On Wood are only a taste of the brown sugar David will stir into his next, as yet untitled, studio album. Recorded in Philadelphia, the home of contemporary supersoul, David's tenth album will reveal him to be takin' it harder, easier, and more right than ever before.