David Bowie: Freak Out In A Moonage Daydream

AYLESBURY, ENGLAND. He is, as he had planned, magnificent. The stage appears impeccably struck, lights arranged to catch the finer angles of his face, making him seem at times wonderfully ape-like and primitive, at others supremely regal, capable of the grand gesture now and again.

The band stands behind him in a shock of silver reflections, each part steadily notching its integral role – lead guitar flashy, but always a foil; bass hung back just a stride or two to let you hint the presence; drums anonymous, but precise, punctuating, emphatic. There is never any question of whether they will make a mistake, lose their footing, leave a stone unturned. David Bowie has waited a long time for his time, and now that it's here, five years stuck on his eyes, he's not about to let it pass him by.

Nor could he have picked a better place to test his new-found power. The "venue," as they refer to it in the mother country, is Friars Aylesbury, located in this small suburban village north of London. The audience is mainly young, enthusiastic, without being deadly, and, because David had made his formal debut (in his current incarnation) here last September, regard him almost as a local hero.

But Bowie is taking no chances. Why should he, with 'Starman' nudging its way into the English singles charts, with an album (The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars on RCA) quickly becoming the hottest property in local disc emporiums since Marc "Photographed by Ringo Starr" Bolan? The fact is that now, after a series of progressions which might seem totally illogical to anyone not gifted with a crystal ball and a healthy bribe to the devil, David has finally come upon a moment where all his selves can combine into just that new trick which is generally accorded the title of Where It's At; and if the world thinks it's ready for once. Davy Jones who writes caustic, beautiful songs, proclaims his bi-sexuality and enjoys wearing drag, has a fine dramatic flair and (almost) single-handedly kicked off the movement toward made-up rock and roll bands while letting Anthony Burgess' vision of the future direct him from there… then David, with a little hat-tip in the right direction, is going to show the world that he's the prime candidate for the job.

Which only comes to mean that as the lights darken, the crowd at Aylesbury going through the motions of sitting down, the eerily synthesized sounds of the theme from A Clockwork Orange slowly begin to enter the room. In a way, it's almost too obvious a move, sort of like getting hit over the head with something it might have been nicer to discover for yourself; but then there's no room in this show for mistaken intentions. David and the band rush to their places, the extraordinary perfection of their visual style immediately stunning, and they step to the fore with the tale of Ziggy Stardust, jamming good with Weird and Gilly, the Spiders from Mars. By the end of the first verse, the place has risen in a body to receive him, and David is as good as home.

As good as home, did I say? Well, even better, because after that first audience rush, past the opening burst of applause, he shows off that he has the power to keep them on their feet, to not slacken the momentum for an instant so they might have a chance to sit down, lose attention, and thus think they were in the presence of just any rock and roll combination. If nothing else, Bowie is a master show-man, and using his songs as vehicles, he allows himself to be the dramatis personae through which they flow, embellishing phrases with studied facial expressions, hitting the word "time" and glancing at his watch, lingering on "shut your mouth" while turning his head to the side to let his teeth clash. He appears to listen intently to what his words are saying, slipping easily into their meaning, always coy and somewhat playful. The crowd laps it up, clearly won over in every discernible fashion.

He takes them with him, the band always his foundation, playing at the twelve string hung 'round his neck, through most of the songs on Ziggy Stardust, plus a few other old memorabilia besides. He keeps them by his side during a long acoustic middle section, he and guitarist Mick Ronson balancing the pace during a performance ritual, often the ruination of many groups, bringing applause with the introduction to 'Space Oddity', his first British hit, delivering a tribute named 'Andy Warhol' (does he someday hope for one to chorus "Da-vid Bo-wie, Da-vid Bo-wie" in that same sing-song voice?), finally reaching a peak with a very strange version of Cream's 'I Feel Free', in which – sitting – he slowly extends his arms, flapping them in wave-like motions, wheeling as the seagulls following the pleasure barges up along the coast of Wales.

After, he slips off the side of the stage, the band picking up the thread of 'I Feel Free', converting it into a howling instrumental, with just the flashing stutter of a strobe light to set the mood for your midweek moment of meditation…

 

***

 

Okay, do you want the hard questions first or the easy ones?

Well, anyway you want it.

All right… um, in terms of the show you put on last night, what would you call your immediate goal? What are the kinds of things you're shooting for at this point?

Finding my audience.

And where do you think that audience is?

We're starting to find… it sounds horrendous, I know, but we find that we have a cross-section audience. We find it goes from very, very young people to very heavy freaks, and that they will take us on their own particular terms.

So, then, you feel you cut across a lot of crowds…

Yeah, I think we have a spectrum, yeah. Why, I don't know. Maybe it's because we're an emergence of something, and it's just being looked on at the moment by everybody. I think probably within a year it'll start sorting itself out into a definite pattern, but you must understand that we've been on the road for three months only, so for all of us it's very new.

What kind of "definite pattern" do you think is going to emerge?

I can't possibly tell you; I have no idea.

Well, in terms of calculating how you approach an audience, what kind of things do you want to bring out in them? What kind of reactions do you want to set off… in other words, what kind of long-range goals have you set out for yourself in terms of….

As far as audience reaction goes? Actually, I'd be quite happy if their reaction didn't come until the end of the show… until they got outside. I'd like to present a full night that gives them no thought… no cause for review or, in fact, reaction during the course of the show. I believe in very high speed, and that's something that's very hard to develop. It takes a lot of time and practice. I think we re gradually getting there, but it's still… things must be faster than they are, as far as I'm concerned. At the moment, it's only theatrical on one little basic point, and that is I foresee myself becoming a prop for my material, rather than using props. Theatrics would hopefully come from within me, rather than from the use of…

Well, how much of your show do you feel revolves around you, say, as a prop, rather than you as singing your material?

I think they're probably indivisible, really… it's just a development which I don't know how it will resolve itself in the end. Say, I'm as interested in our progress as a lot of other people are; I certainly don't have any preconceptions to where we're going.

Do you foresee that you're going to be making any more image changes as you go along?

Oh, yes… constantly. I'm so unsure… it stems, actually, from being unsure about what one self is oneself. I constantly change, and I'm searching all the time for an identity and it comes through in the form of images.

What kind of identity do you think you're dealing with now?

Well, I've adopted Ziggy for the next couple of months … I myself don't change, it's usually visual changes… that gives other people the identity more than myself; it doesn't seem to help me much. I mean, I've been changing ever since I was thirteen, and I've never helped myself. I'm my own worst enemy…

Well, how much of Ziggy is, like, a natural kind of progression, and how much of it is artifice?

Oh, no… all my progressions are natural progressions. I find that I slip into my skins very easily, and they seem natural… seem a natural way to follow.

Do you think this is the one that's going to do it for you?

No, not necessarily. By the time people start realizing about Ziggy, I may be Tom Bloggs or someone. I don't know, I really don't know. I'm having so much fun with Ziggy at the moment, that I'm sticking with him 'cause he's a gas to work with (laughs).

How much of a role do the Spiders play in the construction of your music? Do you direct them totally, or do they work sort of independently?

I think there's probably quite a lot of give-and-take. I have a pretty finalized conception of what the music's going to sound like, and Mick Ronson interprets to the boys for me, because I'm not that brilliant in telling people exactly what I want. Any added parts that need to be written, like the string sections, then Mick and I talk about it and then Mick writes them. But I can only give a feeling of what I want… not being a musician. I'm not a musician. I play composer's guitar, composer's piano, and a little bit of sax.

Do you use the guitar on stage then more as something to hold rather than as anything to direct the music?

Um, last night I didn't play very much… no, it's just that I need that rhythm sound there. Eventually, I want to do away with the guitar altogether, but then I shall get someone to play twelve-string for me. But we can't have that freedom yet, it's still a bit early.

I believe I heard somewhere that there was a time you were very much involved in mime and theatrics. Could you expand a little bit about that?

Yes. Sure. I went to see a one-man show in London by a guy called Lindsay Kemp, and I'd never seen mime before, and the power of it smothered me completely and I knew that there was nothing else that I wanted to be involved in than what that man was doing, the kind of magic he was projecting. And I went backstage and I asked him how he did it, and he said, well, if you… he knew of me, he had come by some of my early albums… and he said if I would write music for his show he would teach me mime. That's the only way we could work because we both were very broke. And that's what happened, and I stayed with Lindsay for two and a half years, with his company, and I ended up producing and writing with him, and being on stage.

About when was all that?

That was immediately before Space Oddity

So then you had done that first David Bowie album on Deram already.

Oh, that thing… that was on a very semi-professional basis. I was still working as a commercial artist then, and I made that kind of in my spare time, taking days off work and all that. I never followed it up, did any stage work or anything. I just did an album, 'cause I'd been writing, y'know, sent my tape into Decca and they said they'd make an album. Thought it was original.

How do you think your audience reacts to the ambivalent sexual roles you play on stage?

There's a lot of ambivalence in our audience (laughs). That comes out a lot.

Well, how would you hope they'd react?

I don't hope for a reaction. All I'm content to do is put over my material in the best way I can manage. Now I know what the reaction to my material is; I've still yet to see what the reaction my performance of my material creates. I'm not looking for a reaction. I'm content to portray my songs my way; all I require, as an artist, is an audience.

Do you think you'll be changing your approach any on your upcoming tour of the States?

Very little, very little. It'll be basically the same, I think… the only thing I can hope to do is to tighten up on what we have. I have another conception for another tour, later on, but it requires a lot of work, and I haven't got the time to do that one yet. So we'll come over with what we've got, the way we're working at the moment.

Do you ever find yourself borrowing ideas from other people?

Yes, constantly.

Who do you think you've picked up from lately?

You tell me, and I'll agree.

Well, Alice Cooper…

Never.

Never?

Never. I assure you… (laughs) I knew that would come up.

It was just particular instances of your show that struck me in the Alice vein. The clothes…

But see, the way I'm dressing now, except for the material, I'm wearing the same outfit as I was in the days of Space Oddity. As far as I'm concerned, I just see that as just another style, our clothes as our clothes, and always have been. It's not really such a drastic kind of outfit, and I don't….I've never really conceded that Alice had a monopoly over that kind of an outfit, because to me it just feels y'know, it just feels very seventies to me.

Okay, well, now you tell me, aside from any of the obvious.

Edith Piaf is my particular idol. I've never seen her live, only seen her perform on film and what I saw was the greatest amount of energy given out with the least amount of movement… it was absolutely fabulous. She is a mime. I also admire Marcel Marceau. I don't think I could ever really borrow from Marcel Marceau, because that would be … no, I just couldn't. But Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, and there's a thing about Judy Garland I like very much.

What about in your composing?

In my composing? Yeah, just about everybody who exists I find pleasure in. I listen to a lot of music and I soak up everything. I'm a great parasite musically. How I interpret what I've heard is for the audience and reviewer to decide; but I do know that I'm influenced terribly by anything I like. Some of it creeps into my music, some not…

Have you run into any hostile audiences lately?

Not since our particular group started rolling. I've had them in the past, I've had a lot of very heavy scenes when I wasn't in the league of popularity that we now find ourselves in over here. But everybody's done a kind of turnabout and… well, it's just been marvelous.

How does it feel working with Lou (Reed – formerly of the Velvet Underground) and Iggy (Pop – from the Stooges) in the same musical combine?

It's… well, that's the dream. It's fabulous, especially working that closely with Lou. You know that I'm producing his next album?

Yes.

That is the most exciting thing that's happened to me for a long time. Really… well, you can imagine. And I've started getting his songs covered, which is…

I know he's always wanted that.

Well, I'm also producing a band called Mott the Hoople, they're an English band, and we've done 'Sweet Jane' with them and it's terrific. Lou's written some of the greatest rock classics ever, but people don't… like on a national scale, don't know that. But there is a way… we'll get them.

Do you think there'll be any kind of competition, y'know, with all three of you…

No, no… there's no competitive element there at all.

Any kind of overlap in the shows or anything…

I really don't foresee it. Honestly, I dread that situation where people would consider there was any competition, any competitive elements. I never… I hate feeling that this business is like the Olympics or something, that thing about blowing bands off stage and all just drives me up a wall… can't stand that.

Then how about a final message, for the fans overseas. .

Ah, the only thing that I would want to send out… is, that really, I think there is some kind of future and we have to undergo it on some kind of self-analysis and rediscover some new elements within ourselves… to face up to a future which is going to be controlled by the pill, and by sperm banks, and by all kinds of things that have never been dreamed of before in the past. Man and woman will change, and we can't hide behind a tribal system because we are not going to ever have a tribal system anymore. It would be nice if there was some kind of promotion of optimism for the future. I want to be very optimistic, I have a hard time being optimistic about the future; but I want to be so much…

 

***

 

YES, DEAR, HE'S BACK, dressed in white this time, combed up, caped, ready to slip into the final body of his show. The songs are tossed off more quickly now they're on the record if you really want to hear them and the audience is starting to sense a climax.

David is making another tribute. "We'd like to extend our appreciation," he says, or something to the effect, "to a man whom I think has written some of the greatest rock classics ever." Lou Reed has appeared with Bowie the week before in London, to the ecstasy of a Velvet Underground cult which has long revered him in England; but now just his songs will have to do.

And All About Eve aside, David does them very well. 'I'm Waiting For My Man' comes off the stage taut and strung out, seconded by a murderous rendition of 'White Light, White Heat' that has Mick Ronson bending over the outstretched arms of the crowd, letting them finger and scratch his guitar strings, creating a maelstrom of noise and sound. David quickly follows, moving along the chain of hands reaching out for his twelve string. Suddenly, as if the thought had struck him by fancy, he delivers the guitar into one of those hands, straightening up, moving back from the edge, broadly grinning. But it's only just begun. Mick R. is standing toward the middle of the stage now, legs spread, ripping away at his instrument. David stalks him, Mick appearing to move away, then back again, as if to welcome the invasion. In a flash David is under him, hands clasped around the guitarist's buttocks, gnawing at his crotch, his Gibson, metaphorically draining him to the tune of assorted plaints and moans from the back amplifiers. As rock theatre, it's undeniably thrilling, though cut with a strangely anti-climactic current, as if in recognition that an ever-expanding sexual revolution has made its shock value practically nil except on the most cloistered of impressionable minds. Then again, the show must go on….

The encore is unnecessarily milked by the old poster-to-the-audience trick – unnecessary since the appeal for more was huge and genuine, seemingly cheapened by the constant exhortations of "They can't hear you!" and is Bowie's finest hard rocker, a bit of cannon fodder called 'Suffragette City'. He's tossing a lot more trinkets to the audience now, feeding their fancy, things like posters and cufflinks and bits of sweat. The best, however, is yet to come.

He takes off his shirt, with a pause for several quick tears at the material. He throws a piece here, a piece there. He dangles the sleeve for a bit, tempting with his eyes, his body, the scrap of white cloth dangling in his hand. He tosses it underhand out over the microphone, rhinestones glittering,over the first row of souvenir hunters. I reach up, feel it ball into my hand, reel it in, slip it inside my jacket before someone can snatch it away.

This is not just a concert, not a mere Saturday evening's entertainment; not really. Someday it will be, when David Bowie no longer has to prove himself when he goes out on stage, no longer has to show that he can knock down and drag out with the best of them. At Aylesbury, he fronted what was in effect a show of force, a fist of stage mastery all the more riveting for its utter calculation; and, as the curtain closed, the p.a. system fading up on the opening bars to 'Lady Stardust', themed as if an imaginary list of credits were waiting in the wings, you too might have felt the same reflected beam of a Starman, waiting in the sky:

People stared at the makeup on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace
The boy in the bright blue jeans
Jumped up on the stage
And lady stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and disgrace…

© Lenny Kaye, 1973

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