David Bowie: time for another ch-ch-change

by Richard Cromelin / Rolling Stone

October 1974

LOS ANGELES … ..David Bowie hadn’t slept for 36 hours. He’d just gone through his rigorous show at the Universal Amphitheatre for the fourth night in a row (three to go), and he’d returned to the hotel to find a battlescarred Iggy Pop asleep in his bed. Now he lithely paced the living room and exuded the animal grace he sang of on Ziggy as he launched off on a speed-jive recital of a freaked-out moon-age daydream.

He said that he comes up with one of these scripts every day, and he narrated it in an arrestingly manic rush, periodically springing from his chair to pace again, toying with an unlit cigarette for a solid half hour, ignoring the steak and potatoes that sat on the table beside him.

He called it “a musical parody based on the mass death of tens of thousands of people,” and it involves a mutant band called Impact whose star, one Cat Tastrophe, has a shocking effect on his immediate environment – when he walks down the street old men collapse with heart attacks, children fall out of windows, shops explode and the roadway becomes a bloody battlefield of mangled steel. Cat himself is never touched. The punchline finally comes at an Impact concert, where accelerated aging is the day’s disaster. When the teenage audience has become a dead heap of wrinkled flesh, the band’s Warholish manager strolls onstage and asks, in a Truman Capote whine, “Well, should we give them an encore?”

Bowie has always been theatrical rock’s straw hero. Somehow he found himself labelled a pioneer in a field in which he actually dabbled only minimally. On his first two U.S. tours, the extent of his theatre was a costume change every five minutes. On the tour that began earlier this summer and resumed that week in LA after a long intermission, he would suddenly and stunningly justify the theatrical tag with an elaborate presentation. And now, just as suddenly, it’s going to change again.

You could see it happening at the Amphitheatre shows. The huge hand cradling Bowie inside the neon interior of a monolithic mirrored capsule, the astronaut’s chair in which he floated over the stage during “Space Oddity,” the movie lights, flashing camera, makeup man – and cocksucking skull that surrounded the “Cracked Actor,” the frantic cubist skyline that loomed over it all the props were spectacular and effective. But the real moments, the screams and the hysterical assaults of the stage, were powered by Bowie himself and his mercurial parade of personalities the empty, pretty-boy movie star, the playful, lascivious bar crawler singing the legend of “The Jean Genie,” and especially the unadorned, spontaneous David Bowie-as-entertainer with his audience in the palm of his hand.

The imminent change in Bowie’s stage show is dictated by evolving musical interests, and the direction is becoming more and more pronounced. Eddie Floyd’s Knock On Wood (which contains the Bowie-esque line, “Thunder, lightnin’, the way you love me is frightnin’ “) is in the show, and songs like Aladdin Sane, Changes, 1984,” two new tunes: The Young American and It’s Gonna Be Me, and particularly the extensively revised Bowie single, John, I’m Only Dancing, further reflect heavy involvement with black and Latin styles.

According to the show’s producer, Tony Zanetta, Bowie’s long-smouldering interest in that sound surfaced during his long stay in New York in the spring, where he associated extensively with black and Puerto Rican musicians. Carlos Alomar played on some Lulu tracks he was mixing there, and Bowie’s touring ensemble now includes former members of Santana and the Main Ingredient and several black backup vocalists, all of whom help transform the encore, John, I’m Only Dancing, into a Jackson Five-Graham Central Station rave-up.

Accordingly, says Zanetta, the show that goes back on-the road October 5th (covering 20 cities – with at least two nights in nearly all of them) will be considerably altered. “The set’s being redesigned,” he says. “We want to use the essential elements of it, so we will be carrying the four towers with us and will keep the lighting in those towers, but we won’t be using the bridge or any of the special effects. Basically, it’ll be a much simpler thing. Originally, we were going to use this one for the whole tour, but once the first half finished and David started working on his new material, he felt that he would rather have something a little different, that he wanted to do something that was closer to the new material. ‘

“I’ve always thought that ‘theatrical’ wasn’t the right word to describe David. I thought he was theatrical in that he was an extremely accomplished and professional performer and his abilities as a performer are those usually associated with the theatre rather than rock & roll… . What we did with this show was we created a really theatrical environment for him to work in. Which was interesting. Now, not so much because he’s tired of that or sick of that, but because his music is changing and going in a slightly different direction, and because he wants to use more people, like lead vocalists, onstage, he’s just interested in a different visual presentation.”

So for the moment Bowie has set a standard for those working at a coherent synthesis of theatre and rock. While they’re at it, he’s slipped out of his platform boots and into dancin’ shoes as he boogaloos off into the final months of the Year of the Diamond Dogs.


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