“Dear Unk: I have noticed wooly boogers crossing the highway the past two days. Most have been going west, a few south and a few east. None north. Apparently the devious directions mean curved highways are frustrating their sonar apparatus.”
– The Memphis Commercial Appeal
Tony Frost came across the lobby of the Memphis Downtowner Motor Inn in a hurry. You could pick him out because he was the only one in the lobby wearing a judo robe and black belt over his slacks.
Waiters in white coats were carting liquor and mix into an adjoining meeting room where David Bowie’s post-concert party was to be held. A dozen travelers and their kids were clustered at the desk, bleating quietly over delays in getting their rooms. Frost ignored all of them and with strides remarkable in so small a man, zoomed up to Al De-Marino, the booking agent for Bowie’s tour.
“Has the lobby been booked?” he asked eagerly.
The lobby? Frost was one of Bowie’s three bodyguards and his steely grip had been felt upon the biceps of just about everybody on the tour. He had fingered, gripped and questioned everyone who stumbled anywhere within waving distance of the star, and many who had not. Now he was worried about all these loose people in the lobby of the Downtowner Motor Inn. Strange middle-aged men in sports shirts, gooey children with no visible means of support, rock writers lacking proper respect . . . All these strangers were lurking in the lobby, which after all was only a door away from the room in which Bowie himself would appear in little more than an hour.
Had the lobby been booked? Well, what difference does it make? Are you one to shrink back when action is demanded? Hustle that gang of two-pants suiters out quick, drive those gasheads down Elvis Presley Boulevard, show them a taste of the old judo if they give you any lip, teach them to get smart with rock & roll.
“No, the lobby hasn’t been booked,” said DeMarino.
Frost shot away like a billiard ball off a cushion.
* * *
David Bowie’s manager is Tony De-Fries (pronounced as in “deep freeze,” not as in “french fries”). His background as a London solicitor left him with the mental hardware to handle the legalities of Bowie’s business affairs and with a lawyer-like paunch which he now enshrouds not in pinstripes but in tanktops and the like. His long, pointed nose is out of Dickens. His complexion is an uneven white. He favors fat black cigars. When he smokes one, he resembles a ball of oatmeal on a stick.
When I interviewed DeFries at the Plaza hotel in New York, he turned on his own cassette tape recorder when I started mine. This was to enable him to double-check any quotes I might attribute to him in print.
. . . “I want to make it clear right at the start that Bowie is a star and we don’t need any of you,” he began. “Especially you writers. You are a worthless band of eels, sucking the blood of artists. You particularly I don’t need. If you should ever show up in London, I’ll have one of the big boys loosen you up so good you’ll be able to store your elbows in your ears . . . “
. . . No, he didn’t. He didn’t say that. I can’t pretend he did because he made his own tape of the whole interview, which he could produce and prove me a liar. What he actually said was this:
“If you’re taking a performer who’s going to be . . . the most important artist in his area within a very short space of time, which already happened to Bowie in England, then you find yourself dealing with an audience who want to get to your artist by whatever means possible . . .
“If you don’t have security, the artist suffers, because you get break-ins, riots, people hurt and all that sort of thing . . . That is not going to happen to Bowie if I can help it.”
DeFries spoke with the measured tones of a lawyer talking as much for the transcript on appeal as for immediate effect. He kept an eye on the TV screen, awaiting an expected news spot on his boy.
“Bowie is setting a standard in rock & roll which other people are going to have to get to if they want to stay around in the Seventies. I think he’s very much a Seventies artist. I think most of the artists who are with us at the moment are Sixties artists, and Bowie, certainly to me, is going to be the major artist of the Seventies. In 1975, he will be at his peak in music. What he does after that is going to depend on what his talents are in other fields.”
“I want to see him on film. I want to see him making feature films . . . “
” . . . And doing the soundtracks for them for RCA,” inserted Stu Ginsberg, the red-haired RCA publicity man, from across the room.
” . . . films in which he is developing another aspect of his personality. As well as being a mime he is also an actor . . . Bowie himself often says he is not a musician, and he really isn’t. To me, he has the potential to be a major force in films in the way he has been in music.”
Then DeFries became more philosophical.
“He is one person of many facets and many talents who can be and will be an industry on his own,” he said.
“You see, I’ve always seen David as a building. I visualize him as a building. Something rather like the Pan Am building on Park Avenue.”
The Bowie report came on TV.
“It’s all part of the current trendy decadence of rock,” said newsman Scott Osborne over a film showing Bowie and his Spiders from Mars in a blaze of strobe lights and feedback. A backstage interview with Bowie followed:
What do you want your audience to think when they see you?
I don’t want them to think anything. They’re probably just as confused about my writing as I am. I mean, I’m the last one to understand most of the material I write.
How would you describe yourself?
Partly enigmatic, partly fossile . . .
One eye is green, the other alternately green and orange. The boots are bright red with two-and-a-half-inch risers. The blouse is orange see-through. The hair, dyed bright carrot, sticks straight up above the brow. Bowie was thin before he arrived in America and he has lost weight since; his smooth white skin is stretched from bone to bone in his face like telegraph wire along poles. He changes expression constantly as wind blowing across a lake, instantly as static electricity. Everything about his appearance is extreme.
He is sitting primly in an armchair in a Cleveland hotel room. Through the windows are the multiple new buildings of downtown Cleveland, each on its lot; it looks like the showroom of an office building manufacturer. Two reporters – one from a Cleveland newspaper, one from Cream magazine – question Bowie. He answers in a soft voice, often mumbles. He looks his interrogator in the eye, then drops his gaze to the floor. Everything about his manner is moderate.
“Do you think the whole bisexual scene in England owes a lot to Ray Davies?” asks Mr. Cream.
“I think there’s always been a bisexual scene in England,” says Bowie.
“I know, but I mean, bringing it to the fore.”
Mr. Cleveland interrupts: “Davies doesn’t come out and talk about it, though. He seems to have evaded the issue. In two specific interviews I read he beat around the bush talking about it.”
“It’s not for me to interpret,” says Bowie.
“The great story line behind ‘Five Years,’ how did that come about?” says Mr. Cleveland.
“It . . . “
“It’s obviously a science fiction, future-type thing, but how did it come about exactly, deciding the world was going to end in five years?”
“It was a bad afternoon.”
“Oh. Do you write most of your stuff on piano?”
“On bad afternoons.”
“What’s the story about ‘I wanted TV but I got T. Rex’? Where did that song come from?”
“It was written specifically for Mark Bolan. It was the first song I’ve written for somebody else. They were at the point of breaking up as a band and I told them not to, because I thought they were a very good band. I told them I’d write them a hit single. And I did. It was easy.”
Raised in tough neighborhoods in the South of London, David Jones was the son of a children’s home public relations man. A single punch in a fight nearly cost him his left eye. Surgery left it with some sight but with the pupil paralyzed open. Reflection of strong light off the back of the retina makes the eye look orange or gold, like a cat’s in a headlight.
“It made me quite a pacifist,” Bowie says. “I was in bed for such a long time afterwards, with eye operations and all that. Because of a single movement I lost seven or eight months.”
David dropped out of Bromley Technical High School, went through an unhappy gig as a commercial artist in an ad agency, formed a group called David Jones and the Lower Third and released an album. When David Jones of the Monkees gained prominence, David Jones of Bromley changed his last name to Bowie; he got it from the knife.
Intermittently for a few years, Bowie performed with the Lindsay Kemp mime troupe. He says this experience was important in helping to create the highly stylized rock performance he does today. He has put together a rock show in England which incorporates mime players in thick make-up, but left it behind on the American tour because of the expense.
Bowie is vague about his age, but it is clear both that he is in his mid-20s and that he has been onstage in one way or another for better than a quarter of his life. He has recorded five albums in all, including The Man Who Sold the World and two on RCA, Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Debate over the term “bisexual” be what it may, Bowie is both gay and married. They have a son, Zowie.
Today, people involved with Bowie will tell you that he represents the new rock of the Seventies and that his American tour is an example of the business style of this new rock.
The substance of his business arrangement is a deal between DeFries and RCA whereby the record company agreed to underwrite the tour by means of a low-interest loan. Record promotion would help stir up concert audiences, and the shows in turn would sell records. RCA figured that even if it lost money on the tour, (which, as it turned out, it probably didn’t), it would still be worth it.
Otherwise, the trick was to treat Bowie as a star even if nobody knew he was yet. DeFries, who like many managers refers to both an artist and his music as the “product,” but who unlike American managers pronounces it “pro-duct,” put it this way:
“I think making America listen to Bowie in terms of listening to the product, and making them aware of the product before he came here, is one way of doing it. The other way is to bring him here without anyone knowing anything about him, and putting him on a second bill, and letting them learn about him firsthand in sleazy, dingy little places for two or three years. I don’t think that necessarily is the right way . . . “
The product and his wife arrived on the Queen Elizabeth II in September and took a bus to Cleveland. Bowie doesn’t like to fly but found he liked the chartered Greyhound; he often sat alone in the back, writing songs or gazing out at the countryside.
The early shows met with mixed critical reaction. Some reviewers seemed disappointed that Bowie didn’t turn out to be a super Alice Cooper, a queen of fag rock and an all-purpose high-voltage degenerate. A few moments onstage may have elated these souls – such as when Bowie kneels and performs a kind of fellatio on Mick Ronson’s guitar strings – but overall they had to face it: There was not a limp wrist in the set.
So assessments varied widely. My own was that Bowie is the strongest figure to appear in rock in years.
He is one of those performers who easily commands the eyes of the audience every moment he is onstage. In his controlled theatrics, his ability to put across highly compressed lyrics and in the sustained anxiety he arouses in an audience, he reminds me of Dylan. He has borrowed from Dylan, as from the Beatles, Elvis and a half dozen others, but what emerges is substantially his own.
The songs hold up. Solid, interesting material like “Life on Mars,” “Space Oddity,” and “Changes,” turn out in concert to be still more powerful. And Bowie’s voice, no more than adequate on the records, is startling on stage; it takes him about a half hour to get it cranked up, after which it becomes not only the most important but the most compelling instrument on stage.
The show – worked out in two weeks of rehearsal in the Stratford East theater in London – has a lot of flash. The Spiders from Mars favor luminescent snakeskin suits, dyed hair and tight riffs. Bowie keeps moving, strikes poses reminiscent of a dozen earlier rockers and behaves much of the time like a puppet. He looks the way he says he feels – like an actor playing the role of a rock star. The thesis of that role is that freedom on stage is an illusion paid for by freedom.
For all this preparation the show retains a lot of spontaneity in a period when most big-name concerts seem to come out of cans. It compares to the last Rolling Stones tour the way watching a fight from ringside compares to viewing a tape of it a year later from the bar of a 747.
New York in September and October harbored a wretched strain of flu which eventually extended its unwelcome tendrils across the nation. Victims could look forward to a two-week variety show, featuring a new symptom each day. It might be an eye-crossing cough one day, kidneys full of steel wool the next, then fever enough to make the patient glow in the dark. The hideous last stages, not fully describable in a family magazine, brought with them galley-slave joints and chronic reductions in IQ.
Bowie managed to do shows in Cleveland and Memphis before the flu caught up with him. When he reached Carnegie Hall it was showing off its way with a fever.
Waiting in the audience were the New York critics, less friendly than the flu. In fact, many were not exactly in the audience, but in the bar; these consider it an act of philanthropy just to come to a concert, and will emerge from the bar and actually enter the hall itself only upon receiving word of an assassination, a virgin birth or an appearance by Dylan.
Al Aronowitz, pop critic for the New York Post, was not there. He will not enter Carnegie Hall at all because, he says, the manager once insulted him. To the Bowie concert he sent a “scout” who reported that there sure were some strange looking people in the audience, like Andy Warhol, but the music seemed Ok.
On his dressing room door Bowie discovered a scrawled message: “New York ain’t jiving, is it?” He did a pallid imitation of his usual show and returned to his hotel without ceremony.
The flu had progressed to its stupefaction stage when I visited Bowie in his room at the Plaza a few days later. He responded to questions in the flu sufferer’s manner, with a blank stare into space for about the time it takes to ride a bicycle up a long hill, followed by a fretful harvest of words.
“I’m not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination,” he said, with a sniffle. “I was very worried when I saw some of the pre-tour publicity about me in America, which cited me as being some kind of part of a new-wave intelligentsia. I’m not a primitive either. I would describe me as a tactile thinker. I pick up on things . . .
“I’m a pretty cold person. A very cold person, I find. I have a strong lyrical, emotional drive and I’m not sure where it comes from. I’m not sure if that’s really me coming through in the songs. They come out and I hear them afterward and I think, well, whoever wrote that really felt strongly about it. I can’t feel strongly. I get so numb. I find that I’m walking around numb. I’m a bit of an iceman.”
Psychology aside, Bowie talked about the difficulties of charting out his career as The Star of the Seventies.
“It’s so difficult to determine which way this new era is going in rock. There’s definitely some kind of new era coming in . . . There’s definitely a resurgence of spirit in entertaining.
“But there is also a cross-mesh of social significance, and it’s quite hard to determine whether the next artists are going to exist as large artists on their entertainment merit, as Doris Days or Engelbert Humperdincks, or whether they’re going to be large because they have some kind of redeeming social value.
“Now, me, I don’t know which of those I fit into. As much as I enjoy just going out and making sure that a show goes on, I also like to feel that some of the things I’m writing about mean something to some people. So I’m pretty unstable about my stability as an artist. I won’t be able to say much about it until maybe a year or so from now. I’ll see where I’ve been pushed by the public.”
Such are the calculations of a Seventies artist. Dylan doubtless thought about the same things, but he sure as hell didn’t say them out loud. That is one difference between the two decades, I suppose.
There are others. The image of the new rocker that emerges is that of a clear-headed rider of a well-oiled carriage. With record company money under him and sound counsel at his side, he is skillfully to steer his career to the top. No dope, no hassles, no surprises. Every star will be Elvis, with no Col. Parkers.
“What I am doing with RCA,” says DeFries, “is involving them in a business venture of which David Bowie is the pro-duct.”
Cool (he describes himself as “a robot” offstage), professional, multi-talented, Bowie seems perfect for the new apollonian order. Audiences should like it too, if it turns out any more rock of the same high quality as Bowie’s. In fact it seems to be fun for everyone except those who go along on tour.
They get to watch the bodyguards throw out everybody backstage while Bowie performs, manhandling anyone who gets out of step – including members of Bowie’s band. They get to attend the parties, dreary affairs which end early; the one in Cleveland was guarded by a doorman told simply to let nobody in, a dictate which limited attendance to the aggressive, the crude, the impolite and journalists.
The atmosphere of the tour was a little like that of a Roman division camped behind trenches in Germania, if you can imagine the Romans setting up stage and performing for the barbarians. Perhaps the barbarians, being Americans who already have signed over much of their lives, to corporations, won’t mind if even their funkiest, most outrageous and best music springs from corporate mentalities, as we have been told for years it inevitably must. Perhaps for the performers, it will be a relief.
Bowie doesn’t mind. He is well past thinking about rock as having any of the cultural or evangelic trappings once attributed to it. “I feel like an actor when I’m onstage, rather than a rock artist,” he said. “I very rarely have felt like a rock artist. I don’t think that’s much of a vocation, being a rock & roller.”
Bowie’s wife Angela – cheerful, intelligent, her hair dyed white with streaks of sherbet red and anemone purple – appeared as Bowie was saying he doesn’t think rock has much universality, either.
“In just about every country except England and America there are strangely strong family ties,” he said. “Very few countries need rock & roll. Very few. It’s America and England that need it, and probably Germany. But France and Italy, no way. They don’t need it. Rock provides a family life that is missing in America and England. It provides a sense of community.”
Angela: “I think Mick Jagger would be astounded and amazed if he realized to how many people he is not a sex symbol . . . “
David: “But a mother image!”
This story is from the November 9th, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.