BOWIE GOLDEN YEARS

1970  •  1971  •  1972  •  1973  •  1974  •  1975  •  1976  •  1977  •  1978  •  1979  •  1980

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Live: O'Keefe Auditorium, Toronto

Lenny Kaye • Disc and Music Echo • 29 June 1974

 

THE POWER of the image took precedence as David Bowie opened the first leg of his North American tour with a string of Canadian dates.

In a show characterised by elaborate staging, special effects and a crucial attention to detail, Bowie returned to the concert trail in the guise of theatre, a feast of sensual delight for the eyes and ears.

And if at times he seemed about to be dwarfed by the grandeur surrounding him, it's also true that he proved himself the undeniable hub of this extravaganza, a forceful and triumphant figure whose presence overshadowed all.

Witness: the stage is set with a surrealistic cityscape, grey and haunting. A high catwalk runs between two towering sheets of buildings, the one to the left dripping red globules of slag into the form of a misshapen female torso. The band sits off to the side, the glow of their amplifier lights announcing readiness.

Toronto is dressed for the kill tonight. They've streaked their hair, daubed metallic stars on their foreheads, paid a visit to Yonge St to pick up the required satins, feathers, platforms.

Still filing in after the lobby formalities, they are greeted by a stationary heartbeat faded up over the loudspeakers, cut with bizarre and vaguely ominous electronic soundings. A glitter frisbee wobbles through the air, flipped from hand to hand like a drunken missile.

An ill-fitting promoter takes the stage. "David Bowie has a touch of laryngitis," he apologises, "and we thought we might have to cancel the performance." Assorted groans and catcalls. "But David Bowie has insisted we go on with the show."

Well, I should certainly hope so. You don't gather 3,500 avid fans into an overlarge high school auditorium like O'Keefe Center and expect them to feel tolerant when their expensive (three pounds and change) evening is called to an abrupt halt. Perhaps the announcement is spurred by the lack of crowd control in Ottawa the night before, which culminated in a bout of chair throwing. Or perhaps Bowie, already feeling the strain of this still-embryonic tour, is allowing a little room for personal malfunction.

The audience is cheered noticeably by the non-news, however, and settles back in their seats. The lights go down, spotlights playing over the stage, a tremor of wind rising to chill the atmosphere. The band strikes up a disco beat, giving it time to settle in, and then Bowie's voice is heard in the darkness, biting out the words to 1984.

After the first verse a beam picks him from the back of the set, leaning casually against a wall, wearing a simple off-white suit, heavily made-up, his hair a flaming red. Yellow socks, red Mary-Jane ballet slippers, and a blue shirt with small white polka-dots complete the ensemble.

He strolls out into the full flare of audience approval. A pair of dancers who look like roadies on overtime (actually, Warren Peace and Gui Andrisano) stride up beside him. They're wearing suspenders and spats, a turn of the century image cut short by the visage of science fiction skinheads. Bowie arches his legs, moving in a series of stooge-like skips to the fore of the stage.

Rebel Rebel is taken before the initial applause has a chance to die down, a slower, less frenzied version than the record. He moves symmetrically with the road-dancers, running through elaborate choreography designed by Tony Basil.

The sound is not especially powerful, but it is sustained and true; and it's likely that Bowie is indeed suffering from vocal problems. In Moonage Daydream he attempts to switch into falsetto, his voice breaking. He quickly recovers, sliding down the registers until he's comfortable at last.

He sings with his hand in his pocket. Put your 'lectric eye on me, babe... suddenly wheeling off the stage. The lights are left on the road-dancers. Guitarist Earl Slick takes a long and impeccably executed lead. The band is solid, professional and flawless, though obviously still unsure of how best to present themselves on their own.

Bowie reappears in a trench coat, strolling along the catwalk. He murmurs Sweet Thing, lit by a single spot and a trio of street lamps. By now it's apparent that David is not going to acknowledge the presence of the audience. The concert will be a series of staged pieces, living tableaux, the cool, poised uninvolvement of the fashion model.

The star as distance, as image, as methodical actor. He takes off his coat and jacket, reveals a pair of red suspenders, slowly rolling up his sleeves. He looks haughty, each facial twinge thought out well in advance, no trace of smile.

Changes is given a cocktail piano backing to good effect. As David sings, the platform carrying him lowers to subdued cheers. The audience is not quite sure how to react.

David apparently realises this as he leaps to the floor, waving a firm good-bye to his dancers, then moving to the front of the stage. He backs up against a pillar, face in profile, the song easing to a close. The response is larger than expected, and satisfied, he cues the band for Suffragette City.

He is walking a thin line between contrivance and brilliance. The show and it is so much more than a concert has to simultaneouly live up to all of David's personae, flashing contradictory images in a continuous pattern. He shows off a new dance trick dropping to one knee, then the other in rapid succession and grinds one of his dancers' crotch for the "wham bam thank you ma'am" interjection. The symbolic arrow of Aladdin Sane bursts into brilliant light behind him.

He carries a mask up to the microphone, engaging in a short oriental dance.

He's a young Hamlet for Cracked Actor, wearing sunglasses and a cape, carrying a skull. The road-dancers cluster round him, place him on a stool, surround him with cameras and lights. They snap his picture. He preens. They pose him some more. He stares warily, takes off his sunglasses, kisses the skull. The props are removed, leaving him alone on stage, abandoned in the best Beverley Michaels tradition.

The audience lights go up for Rock 'n' Roll With Me, and it will prove the most intimate moment of the night. The crowd is awkward, lost as illusion is suddenly personalised, but the spell is broken by a girl rushing to the stage with a bouquet of flowers. He takes them, kisses her, wipes them across his brow.

Back in darkness, Watch That Man. He executes his knee drops again, then straddles the microphone like a hobby horse, pumping it with his hips.

It is a fast paced, energetic show. Drive In Saturday is acoustic, David playing his twelve-string in "a crash course for the ravers". Finishing, he hands his guitar to one of the road-dancers before striding off. The latter takes it, strums abstractly, eases toward the familiar chords of Space Oddity.

Bowie is high atop the left tower, in a little booth. He sings into a telephone, ground control to Major Tom. The stage is bathed in blue. Slowly, imperceptibly, the seat on which he's perched begins to hydraulically move out of the booth, hovering almost supportless in the air, gravitating downwards until it stabilises placidly over the first audience row.

This Ain't Rock and Roll, This is Genocide! and the cheer from the audience reaches out to mate and match the cheer from the speakers.

It's all climax from here. Bowie reappears on the catwalk for Diamond Dogs, cradling a long rope in his hand. He throws it out to the stage below where it's seized by the road-dancers, snarling and cowering, wagging their haunches in vengeful delight.

They secure the rope to themselves, David riding down toward the fruits of his capture; they turn the tables, wrapping Bowie like a mummy. He sings constricted until they untangle him, utilising the rope to form two sides of a boxing ring. A black trainer comes out to pat him down, and he puts on red boxing gloves.

His hair is like a sixties' pop star, ruffled and mussed from his exertions. Panic In Detroit and he spars at the air. His style is reminiscent of Tony Zale, even more so when he gets "hit" once, twice, falling to his knees. The trainer leads him off toward the wings.

Enter a mirrored pleasure dome, a giant four-sided egg with Bowie reclined atop intoning Big Brother. It's like something from an extraterrestial James Bond movie.

He slides down its laddered sides and the hulk opens up. Similarly mirrored inside, a large black hand-like form covered with flashing yellow lights unrolls like a carpet. Bowie sings Time, graced by a beautiful Mike Garson piano solo, sitting curled between the lights. The hand rolls up, the egg closes, and the contraption lumbers off behind the curtains.

The audience has become a spectator, watching with near-stunned attention. At an ordinary concert they would be asked to participate, to clap their hands, to rise and boogie in place. There is none of that here; this is theatre in the traditional sense.

Bowie rocks into The Width of the Circle from The Man Who Sold The World. He mimes throughout the instrumental break, walking in place, running his hands over a nonexistent glass wall, looking for a way out; Lindsay Kemp would be proud of his star pupil. The road-dancers pull at the painted scenery, tearing it away to reveal skeletal frameworks. Bowie moves to back, down on his hands and knees, but they seize and drag him back to the edge of the stage.

He is given a chair, a hat and a cigarette. The road-dancers pull up seats next to him, and all three move in rehearsed tandem as Jean Genie spins its bottle. They play musical chairs for a while, escalating into mock wrestling and street fighting, subduing David until they might pick him up and dump him unceremoniously back over his chair.

His voice is worn now, ravaged with strain. The perfect complement to Rock and Roll Suicide. He tosses his hat to the audience, the chorus resounding on the final "wonderful", over and over. He turns on his heel and leaves. The lights go up.

The audience staggers to its feet, builds a roar in an ever-increasing spiral, only to be hushed into silence by an authoritative shades-of-Elvis voice: "David Bowie has left the building."

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this page updated November 15, 2019