1/19/2009

David Bowie: October 1972

In late October, 1972, when I was nineteen, two of my friends and I attended a concert by David Bowie, who was making his first tour of the United States, promoting his latest album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The British singer, who performed in the character of Ziggy Stardust, was backed by his own band, The Spiders from Mars, with Mick Ronson on lead guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mick Woodmansey on drums, and an American musician, Mike Garson, on piano. It was one of the two shows that featured David Bowie, at Winterland in San Francisco, on Friday, October 27, and Saturday, October 28, and in my mind it still remains as one of the best performances of any kind that I have ever seen.

David Bowie, who started out in London as David Jones (he changed his last name to avoid being confused with Davy Jones of The Monkees), first became widely known to the public when his single, "Space Oddity," was released in 1969 and became a hit. He later would be even more well-known, becoming one of the biggest, and also one of the most purposefully daring, stars of the 1970s. He had a strong and lasting effect on both music and fashion, but the audience in San Francisco on that particular evening in 1972 was undeniably small, probably numbering no more than several hundred. Winterland had an open floor without seats, so the meager crowd, which appeared to be made up mainly of gay men from the nearby Castro District, was able to cluster tightly in front of the stage. I had the feeling that my friends and I were the only heterosexual males in the hall.

After David Bowie had achieved a moderate breakthrough with "Space Oddity," he chose to pursue new directions in his musical life. In 1970, he released The Man Who Sold the World, an album whose heavy and adventurous tunes included "The Width of a Circle," "All the Madmen," "Black Country Rock," "She Shook Me Cold," and "The Man Who Sold the World." On the cover of the LP, there was an eye-catching photograph of David Bowie in a long dress, lazily reposing on a vintage couch. His next album, Hunky Dory, released in 1971, further established him as both a singer and a songwriter of uncommon ability, with tracks such as "Changes," "Oh! You Pretty Things," and "Life on Mars?" offering a startling amalgam of melody, fantasy, philosophy, and playfulness. In 1972, David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the album that quickly set him on the path to true stardom.

The show at Winterland began late, but finally commenced in an impressive manner, with the flicker of a strobe light slowly increasing in speed, and the glorious sound of the "Ode to Joy" from the Symphony No. 9 in D minor by Ludwig van Beethoven, played on a synthesizer, booming out from the speakers. Although the attendance at the show was scant, it was quite clear to me, once David Bowie had taken over the stage, that the imaginative songs and alluring bisexuality of the fey Englishman had an unusual appeal. His orange hair (which had an unearthly glow and stood straight up on the top of his head), his artful use of makeup, and his striking garments all gave him the air of an otherworldly being, which he highlighted with a tempting smile and a polished display of nimble gestures. In his eyes there was an alien gleam, hinting at a hidden realm of strange practices and wayward pleasures.

My own sexuality followed a line that was decidedly straight, but the music and the personality of David Bowie entranced me nonetheless, and I was completely spellbound as I stood there in the darkness, a short distance from the stage, watching him as he performed "Hang Onto Yourself," "Ziggy Stardust," "Changes," "The Supermen," "Life on Mars," "Five Years," "Space Oddity," "Andy Warhol," "The Width of a Circle," "Queen Bitch," "Moonage Daydream," "The Jean Genie," "Suffragette City," and a handful of other songs. When he brought the show to a stirring close with "Rock'N'Roll Suicide," it transformed his performance into something that went beyond the mundane constraints of mere entertainment. As he leaned over the front edge of the stage, clasping a few of the many hands that were desperately reaching up toward him from the audience, he offered an unforgettable moment of high-strung communion.

As a result of the poor turnout for David Bowie's shows at Winterland, it was several years before he performed in San Francisco again, but I continued to be among his most ardent followers. I frequently listened to his records and eagerly awaited his rare appearances on television (especially The 1980 Floor Show, a one-off production that was broadcast on The Midnight Special on NBC, in November, 1973), and I envied his thoroughly distinctive look. (Although I lacked the nerve to wear makeup and glitter myself.) I was a serious fan of many musicians, but I always felt a special connection to David Bowie. The Beatles had winningly expressed the bright and easygoing feelings of the 1960s, but it was the music of David Bowie that gave the fullest, and most arresting, expression to the darker mood of the 1970s. At his best, he was far ahead of anyone else in rock'n'roll.

David Bowie was on the run for most of that decade, nearly burning himself out as he suffered the unhealthy effects of overwhelming fame and abundant cocaine, changing from one character to another and another, from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to the Thin White Duke. His music also changed from album to album, from Diamond Dogs to Young Americans to Station to Station, reflecting the continually restless mind of its bold creator. It seemed that his fierce talent compelled him to keep moving forward, even when he did not know where he was going. In 1976, David Bowie starred in a film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (directed by Nicholas Roeg), in which he appeared as a visitor from another planet. By the late 1970s, he was living and working in Berlin, where he attempted to maintain a steadier life and occupied himself by recording three albums (Low, "Heroes," and Lodger), with assistance from Brian Eno and Tony Visconti.

I have seen David Bowie perform on two other occasions since the early 1970s, once at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in the Bay Area, in 2002, when he was touring to promote his current album, Heathen, and once at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, in 2004, when he was promoting his next album, Reality. Both times, I was in the company of my wife, Angela, whose longtime dedication to David Bowie is even more fervent than my own. While the performances in 2002 and 2004 were exciting and worthwhile, I must say that neither of them touched me as deeply as the one that I attended in 1972. For me, the concert at Winterland was one of the prime experiences in my life, as well as being the evening that marked the beginning of my enduring interest in the man and his extraordinary music.