by Lester Bangs / Creem
It wasn’t exactly the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. Nor was it as opulent as Sly’s wedding. More like the opening of a moderately high-energy new discotheque.
What it was was David Bowie’s return to the boards in AfroAnglican drag. Now, as we all know, White hippies and beatniks before them would never have existed had there not been a whole generational subculture with a gnawing yearning to be nothing less than the downest, baddest niggers they could possibly be. And of course it was only exploding plastic inevitable that the profound and undeniably seductive ramalama of negritude should ultimately penetrate the kingdom of glitter. Everybody knows that faggots don’t like music like David Bowie and The Dolls – that’s for teenagers and pathophiles. Faggots like musical comedies and soul music. No gay bars have ‘Rebel rebel’ on the jukebox; it’s all Barry White and the big discotheque beat booming out while everybody dances his or her ass off. I’m not saying that Black and gay cultures have any special mysterious affinity for each other – I’ll leave that for profounder explicators, Dr David Reuben, say – what I’m saying is that everybody has been walking around for the last year or so acting like faggots ruled the world, when in actuality it’s the niggers who control and direct everything, just as it always has been and properly should be. If you don’t believe it, just go ask respected social commentator Lou Reed, who wrote and recorded a song for Sally Can’t Dance called ‘I Wanna Be Black’ which unfortunately eventually became an out-take (probably realized he’d revealed too much).
So it was only natural that Bowie would catch on sooner or later. After all, he’s no dummy. But he is pretty weird. That’s what the kid standing behind us in line was saying as the rioters who got a fin apiece from manager Tony De Fries came storming across the street at the door for the third time: ‘I like Bowie’s music, but I don’t like his personality. He’s too weird.’ He went on to say that he wanted to buy a copy of The New York Dolls album but didn’t because he was afraid somebody would see the cover lying around the house and get the wrong idea. He, like most of this audience, leaned much farther to denims than glitter. In fact, they were downright shabby. In the traditional sense.
Which is something you certainly couldn’t say about Bowie. What would you think of a guy who came on stage in blackface with white gloves, top hat and tails over Isaac Hayes chains and a dildo with Josephine Baker’s face on the head, singing ‘Old folks at home’ and ‘Darktown strutters’ ball’ in a trilling limey warble masquerading as a down-home bullfrog belch as he waved his hands in the air and twirled his cane while sixty or seventy Michael Jackson lookalike piccaninnies chanted ‘Hi-de-ho! Hi-de-ho!’ behind him, all massed afront a backdrop of magnolias and sharecropper shacks?
You would think the man had some imagination in his tack, but you can’t because he doesn’t. At least when it comes to spadedelia. Because he did none of the above. What he did instead was hire himself a tightly professional backup for a weird and utterly incongruous melange of glitter sentiment, negritudinal trappings, cocaine ecstasy and Vegas schmaltz.
We walked in to a scene right out of God’s Trombones as rendered by The Ohio Players. The stage was covered with Black people – two percussionists (Emir Ksasan, Pablo Rosario), bass (Dennis Davis), the florid Mike Garson on piano, two guitarists (Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick), the ubiquitous Dave Sanborn on sax, and a clutch of ‘dancer/ singers’, as my informant at MainMan put it: Guy Axidressano, Geoffrey McCormack, Luther Vandross, Anthony Hinton, Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and Diana Sumler. In fairness, not all of these people are Black, but they all of course are artists, and they sho’ is funky. Opening with ‘Love train’, they funkifized the sweet bejesus out of that audience, who talked all the way through their set.
After the opening ensemble whoop-up, Garson plunged into a typically grandiose piano solo, which as always reminded me of the progeny of an unholy shtup between Liberace and Cecil Taylor. There was a loud drum solo which mildly roused the crowd, whose mean age was 17, although the girl in front of me just kept giggling breathily: ‘Daaaaaay-vid! Daaaaaayvid! Ooh, when he comes out I’m just gonna … touch him!’ Ava Cherry, a curvaceous Black girl with butch blonde hair, sang soul torch, followed by Luther Vandross (who is fat and much given to Stepin Fetchit rolling and popping of eyes) and one of the ‘other Black girls crooning and making eyes at each other like April Stevens and Nino Tempo playing the Apollo in blackface. Ava and Geoffrey MacCormack, a slender White with black curly hair and black silk shirt who gives off the kind of gay showbiz vibes which insist on shouting from the housetops that he is just rhapsodically thrilled over this whole affair (I later thought he was going to stoop to kiss Bowie’s toe as part of handing him an acoustic guitar), ran through a sort of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross/Pointer Sisters scat-jazz quicktalk routine. There were two solo vocals: Vandross sang something which I believe was entitled ‘Funky music’, and MacCormack actually sat on the piano with one knee raised and sang ‘Stormy Monday’ to the band. Strange change that a lounge act should open for such a selfmade anomaly as Bowie? Depends on your perspective, kid.
At this point in my concert scrawlings there is the notation ‘fat ass in face’, referring to the concert patron who happened to be moving past me at that moment. It seemed as germane as the rest of the action.
Bowie’s entrance was hardly as fraught with magisterial pomp as Elvis’s 2001 routine: Garson played something that sounded like the theme from The Edge of Night, Sanborn cut loose with a fine King Curtis-style sax solo, and the singer/dancers, now mutated into gospel choir, began booming something to the effect that the ‘star machine is coming down / we’re gonna have a party.’
And here he came, spindling, crackling out: white gleaming face, brillantined hair cut short and combed back for definite early-fifties effect, grey jacket cut at the waist, blue shirt, tie slightly loosened. It was not quite stunning, although he did manage to radiate tides of nervous energy, accent the nervous, along with enough sweat to float a fleet of gondolas. I peered and peered, trying to catch the ultimate vibe … Johnny Ray. Johnny Ray on cocaine singing about 1984. Except that his opener was ‘John, I’m only dancing, transformed into a driving new arrangement in the most surging PAAAAAARTY style. It worked, which was more than you could say for David’s attempts at dancing, which were stiff, jerky – at times he actually began to resemble Jobriath. A parody of a parody, except that Bowie could never really sink to self-parody because he was a parody at his inception.
Still, he worked the crowd in the finest tradition, slapping hands all night, accepting first a glass and then a whole bottle of wine from somebody (‘Hope it’s got LSD in it,’ said a seatmate), running back and forth from one end of the stage to the other, falling to his knees, kneeling down and rocking back and forth in ‘Rock ‘n Roll With Me’, indulging varying brands of mike stand English, including at one point a definite parody of a biker stance.
Mugging, grimacing, moving his hands in arcs that might have been sensual if you couldn’t see him thinking how sensual they were, he had definite flash but there was something brittle about it, as there was something hollow when I saw him two years ago on his first post-Ziggy tour, padding around lightly while Ronson served up all the moves, just as without all the gauche props and stage business the recent live album is a dismal flatulence. Bowie has always made a point of being distant on every level, from the way he treated his audience to the strong-arm tactics used by his goons on photographers. Now he is posing as a get-down dude, as if he had just decided that we won’t get fooled again, that there is a we after all, which may or may not be true but is irrelevant to him in any case.
This was particularly apparent in the segment of the show where he sang his new songs, from the upcoming album which he has claimed is the ‘most personal’ thing he’s ever done, blah, blah, and you can see where he’s coming from with this one just like you could read those ‘I’ve travelled, I’ve seen who rules the world, and I’m frightened’ pronunciamentos. Bowie’s new material seems to be comprised mainly of ‘love songs’, melodramatic ballads about apparently wholesome teenage boys and girls and David’s search for sincerity on this pathetic bitch of an earth. The most memorable, because most characteristic, was ‘Young Americans’, and of course you couldn’t miss the line ‘Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?’ Touching, touching, like Johnny Ray coming on as Frankie Laine, except when he would stick one hand in front of his crotch and touch the mike delicately, mutating for himself at least into Tina Turner. He also utilized that stool that Perry Como used to fall off of on the Steve Allen show for one particularly poignant vignette. I prefer Charles Aznavour myself.
Mike Garson kept looking around as if in wonderment, bluefaced with delicate five o’clock shadow and carrying definite Richard Carpenter vibes, gazing reverently at Bowie and rolling his eyes at the band while playing piano so turgid it was downright bouncy. And the singer/dancers all massed like The Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the background, snapping their fingers, jutting their arms and shaking their butts around in perfervid Stoneground/Mad Dogs and Englishmen pep rally.
This show is going to wow them in Vegas, and it certainly didn’t do badly in Detroit. But don’t be fooled: Bowie is as cold as ever, and if you get off on his particular brand of lunar antibody you may well be disappointed in his latest incarnation, because he’s doubling back on himself and it fits about as well as those boxing gloves he had last time out. You don’t set yourself up as Mr Sleaze and then come on like Jerry Lewis at the palsy telethon, unless you realize that you are just about as full of ersatz sincerity as Jerry Lewis and might as well ooze it from every pore because your audience doesn’t care, they just want you to hit them hard and fast and then come back and hit them again, slightly altered, a little to the right this time. As far as the PAAAAAARTY goes, Bowie has just changed his props: last tour it was boxing gloves, skulls and giant hands, this tour it’s Black folk. As far as I’m concerned, if that pastyfaced snaggletoothed little jitterbug doesn’t give me an interview pretty soon, I’m going to stop doing him all these favours.