It was a casual sort of concert
date. My friend asked if I wanted to see David Bowie
. She had tickets. Sure I said. I was curious about the fuss over this cross-dressing Limey
with bad teeth. I had always been into singer-songwriters. You know, serious
guys who played old Martins
, got you thinking and always went home with the girl. I had heard Bowie’s music and I liked it a lot. It made me think about the ch-ch-ch-changes
I was going through and, like I said, I was curious. I needed to find out just why he moved me like that. This must have been, oh, ’74. ’75.
Our seats weren’t great. The show was outside and the place was huge. There weren’t too many big venues like that back then. There was still an intimacy about the best rock ‘n roll I think. We sat way in the back, where the entertainer had to be pretty damned good to get to you. Bowie was better than "good," he was phenomenal. I’ve never seen a better rock ‘n roll show since.
His new album was Diamond Dogs, and it was to become for me one of those records that you never take off the turntable (No CD’s in those days, oh my brothers. You paid your five bucks and you took your plastic dreamdisks home). The Diamond Dogs Tour was Godhead.
On stage, the scene—for it was a scene, or rather, many scenes, like in a play—the scene was some futuristic horrorshow kind of place, all angular, like a George Grosz painting, hard lit in acid colors. Dystopia distilled.
Diamond Dogs, you’ll remember, starts like this:
"And...in the death—as the last few corpses
lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare—the shutters
lifted in inches in Temperance Building—high
on Poachers Hill and red mutant eyes gazed
down on Hunger City—no more big wheels--
fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the
size of cats and ten thousand peoploids split into
small tribes coveting the highest of the sterile
skyscrapers—like packs of dogs assaulting the
glass fronts of Love Me Avenue—ripping and
re-wrapping mink and shiny silver fox--
now leg warmers—family badge of sapphire
and cracked emerald—any day now--
the year of the Diamond Dogs
‘This ain’t Rock ‘n Roll—
This is genocide.’"
There’s a preternatural canine
howl at the outset. Bowie’s voice, inflected, theatrical
as always, is flanged
and doubled-up, like a horror-storyteller on acid
. Aynsley Dunbar’s
rhythm is fragmental, barely there. Nothing is working. It’s the end of the world
. The lights come up and hell
is unleashed. It’s an amazing moment.
This wasn’t that long after the good-old days of tripping to some of the best music ever made, remember, and synesthesia—the admixture of sight and sound in unusual and unpredictable ways--seemed to be the hallmark of the show’s design.
I think Bowie was a great actor as well as musician. I saw him years later on Broadway in The Elephant Man, and he’d gotten even more refined. But that night he ripped through his hits and the new album like a schizophrenic genius-savant and by the time the lights came up at intermission the crowd had become a pack of hungry wolves. As I’ve said, I’ve never seen anything like it. It wasn’t a brutish mindlessness at work, like the mosh pit at a Limp Bizkit show. There was a fearful, frightful humanity about it. 1984 was still a decade away, but that’s what it felt like. The end of the world, somehow.
The crowd was definitely edgy and energized. Everyone was on his feet. The place was full of smoke. A thousand joints were passed non-linearly. The intermission was longer than usual, and nobody seemed to be able to sit down. Then the really unexpected event of the evening occurred. Another friend had worked his way through the crowd to us and said: "I’m in the front row. Wanna switch?"
I guess he must have been coming on pretty strong by then. It might have been getting too intense for him. We worked our way down through the crowd to the edge of the stage. It took a while. People were close to stampeding in every direction.
It was at this point, with the audience still out of its seats and out of control, that Bowie’s genius was once again revealed. The lights went down and the opening of Space Oddity began. Out of the night, above us, on some sort of cherry-picker kind of crane, came Ziggy Stardust as Major Tom. It didn’t matter that we were all standing cause we were looking up at him. Bowie sang into a telephone: "And I’m floating in a most peculiar way...and the stars look very different today..." and it was so magical, so incredibly theatrical. The crowd went absolutely insane and remained standing for the rest of the show.
And towards the end, I experienced fear for the first time in rock ‘n roll. The crowd, finally, surged forward like one great organ of desire, pushing us against the barricade before the stage. Girls were carried over the stage, hysterical, in tears. My hyperactive sound-and-image-drenched brain reverted to its primitive survival instinct. I pushed back. Hard. Police were there.
But the music, I think, ultimately kept the place out of the headlines. We went home tired and...changed.
Diamond Dogs marked a watershed in rock ‘n roll, I think. No longer would a four-piece band sit in a spotlight and sing love songs. The stadium spectacular had evolved, and the music, I suppose, evolved with it.
It is fitting, however, to quote the liner notes to David Bowie’s 1972 album, Space Oddity. They represent what his music--more, what all music--was for all of us back in the day:
"Finally, words cannot speak of music: they cannot elucidate nor illuminate. Both sounds enter through the ears, but only music travels throughout and animates the whole body. David Bowie has always known this.
"Space Oddity, which opens this album, and which in 1968 brought David Bowie into music’s world arena as one to be reckoned with, inhabits and charges the whole being. As with all of Bowie’s music, it is both ecstatic and uncomfortable—discomforting. It dates early in the mutable yet paradoxically consistent Bowie odyssey and remains archetypal. Its achievement, and this is so of Bowie’s music in general, is that it was NOW then, and it still is now NOW: personal and universal, perhaps galactic, microcosmic and macrocosmic.
"Everything we are is engaged here. We have only to let it in."