Bowie Creates a Spectacle

by Jon Pareles / The New York Times

2nd August 1987

“ROCK HAS BEEN SO ASSIMILATED in the culture now that it doesn’t have the kind of muscle it used to have.”

David Bowie said the other day. “I want a performance to upset people to a certain extent, to keep people interested so that they say, ‘Hey, you can do that stuff – I’m not quite sure what it meant but it was really exciting.”

Mr. Bowie has garnered exactly that reaction -along with a few dismissive hoots – again and again for his concerts and video clips over the last 15 years, productions that have been a crucible for rock and theater. His latest synthesis will be seen tonight at Giants Stadium in one of the most elaborate rock shows ever mounted – the 27-song, two-hour-plus concert titled “The Glass Spider Tour.”

Under the dangling legs of a huge (60 feet high by 64 feet wide), translucent spider, Mr. Bowie, a five-piece band and five dancers will present stadium-scale, rock-driven, imagistic music theater, the most ambitious effort yet from rock’s most self-conscious actor. Through the years, Mr. Bowie has taken time away from rock to work in films (“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Hunger,” “Labyrinth,” “Absolute Beginners”) and on the stage (“The Elephant Man,” Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”), choosing roles as outsiders, freaks, even monsters. But from the beginning he has played his most ambiguous roles while singing with his band.

The scale of Mr. Bowie’s current project is daunting. The “Glass Spider Tour” stage, sound, light and video systems take four to five days to assemble; they’d be a tight fit in Madison Square Garden, according to the set designer Mark Ravitz. To tour the United States, two identical setups, each costing more than $10 million and weighing 360 tons, are leapfrogging one another so that the show can go on two or three times a week. A third setup is currently being built. The payroll for the tour involves 150 people (including performers, construction crew, electronics specialists and 40 truck drivers) and adds up to about $1 million a week.

Mr. Bowie is at home in elaborate staging. In 1972, he created a sensation by turning himself into Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous extraterrestrial pop star whose rise and fall convinced a wave of male rockers to try eye shadow and platform shoes. By the end of the tour (which was filmed in 1973 as a documentary by D.A. Pennebaker), Mr. Bowie had added a finale in which he wore a black-on-black costume and sang a Velvet Underground song, anticipating punk rock. Each successive tour unveiled a new persona. In 1974, Mr. Bowie mounted a $250,000 production based on his album “Diamond Dogs” (and, more loosely, on George Orwell’s “1984”) – but found it so unwieldy that he scrapped it part way through a world tour, recasting himself as what he called a “plastic soul” singer and marking the dawn of the disco era with his first American No. 1 single, “Fame.”

In the late 1970’s, amid the noise and anarchy of punk, Mr. Bowie reappeared as the diaphanous Thin White Duke, performing jagged, near-dissonant rock before a white-on-white wall of floodlights. And just when he had nearly typecast himself as rock’s resident alien, he reemerged in 1983. This time, he was a blond matinee idol in a linen suit, smiling and singing nearly straightforward love songs in his first encounter with the mass pop audience, the “Serious Moonlight” tour, which introduced him to stadiums.

By then, Mr. Bowie had given rock listeners and performers a lot to think about. Almost singlehandedly, he had put an end to the idea that rock performers were sincere – that what they did onstage was simply their own personalities writ large. Rolling Stones lyrics might be dripping with irony, but onstage the band members were, presumably, their raunchy, cynical, blues-rocking selves. Similarly, popular early-1970’s bands like the Allman Brothers made a point of wearing street clothes and moving only those muscles that made music; Bruce Springsteen, one of the most theatrical rock performers to emerge in the 1970’s, used all available resources to build a single, believable character, a working-class Everyman.

Not Mr. Bowie. He remained openly aloof from his various guises, revealing naturalism as one strategy among many. Mr. Bowie made it clear that calculation and detachment and alienation had their place on the rock stage, as in the other modern performing arts.

It wasn’t exactly a new idea – not to someone who, like Mr. Bowie, knew the modern drama of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud and the Living Theater. But by bringing Brecht’s “alienation effect” – a deliberate, jarring contrast among word, music and image, designed to make an audience think critically about the illusions placed before them – to the rock audience, Mr. Bowie was fulfilling the one role he has consistently played throughout his career: a conduit between the avant-garde and the pop public. As he put it in “Fame,” “What you need you have to borrow.” In his music, that has meant learning from, and collaborating with, such songwriters as Lou Reed (the original artfully alienated rocker) and Iggy Pop (a Dionysiac performer and a funny, direct-from-the-id songwriter), and exploring noise and contoured chaos with the songwriter-producer Brian Eno. Mr. Bowie has also used William Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique with lyrics: writing something, cutting it up and reassembling the fragments.

His album covers have paid homage to modern artists from Egon Schiele to Gilbert and George. And his film acting experience and his eye for theatrical images paid off in the startling video clips he directed for himself in the early 1980’s, such as “Ashes to Ashes” – videos that were non-narrative, dreamlike and determinedly unsettling.

Yet while he gathers ideas from the avant-garde, Mr. Bowie’s commercial reflexes are also in shape. His international hit, “Space Oddity,” was released with exquisite timing alongside the 1969 Apollo moon landing. By choosing Nile Rodgers (from the multimillion-selling 1970’s dance band Chic) to produce the 1983 album “Let’s Dance,” Mr. Bowie made the most of Chic’s familiar dance groove, the image-making power of music video clips and the momentum generated by more than a few Bowie sound-alikes to sail into the pop mainstream.

The “Serious Moonlight” tour, undertaken as “Let’s Dance” was selling 4 million copies, came as a shock to Mr. Bowie, he said. He expected to be performing at 10,000-seat arenas as usual; instead, he was suddenly booked into stadiums. He played it safe, wearing linen suits and appearing on an uncluttered stage, singing his greatest hits. He sometimes grouped his band members and backup singers in unexplained tableaux – “I had to do something – I couldn’t help it,” he said with a laugh – but after years of defying pop-star naturalism, he gave it a thoroughly successful workout.

“The Glass Spider Tour” is different, turning once again to Mr. Bowie’s current favorites in the avant-garde and presenting more ritual than romance. “A lot of my life has been spent fragmenting songs and lyrics,” Mr. Bowie said last week by telephone from Europe. “I asked myself, if we did the same kind of thing visually, what would we get onstage?

“The idea was to concoct surrealist or minimalist stage pieces to accompany rock-and-roll songs,” Mr. Bowie continued. “I wanted to bridge together some kind of symbolist theater and modern dance. Not jazz dance, certainly not MTV dance, but something more influenced by people like Pina Bausch and a Montreal group called Human Footsteps. There are some symbolist pieces, some minimalist pieces, and some vulgar pieces, too – some straightforward vaudeville bits.

“I’m trying to stay on a fine line between what is acceptable in rock-and-roll and taking things out to the edge,” said Mr. Bowie. “I wanted to push the show as much as I could toward my indulgence of what I wanted to see onstage. But I also realized that in a stadium you have to keep some rock essence.”

Mr. Bowie began devising “The Glass Spider Tour” from a set of songs and free-associative images. For “Never Let Me Down,” the title song of his latest album, Mr. Bowie wanted to repeat one movement throughout the song, as in the early, minimalistic choreography of Pina Bausch. “I wanted one straight movement that starts upstage and comes all the way downstage and doesn’t vary. I’m on my knees, with my arms in a kind of straitjacket, and a crawl for three-and-a-half minutes. A girl is with me, as if she’s accompanying her pet in a park, but she has a cylinder on her back, and every now and then she’s giving me oxygen. It felt like a very protective, a very sad little image, and it felt right for the song.”

At other points in the concert, Mr. Bowie is surrounded by an entourage whose members collapse one by one; he plays Svengali with a dancer who follows him, as if mesmerized, on skis (an idea that came from a collaboration with the dance troupe Iso, formerly Momix); he’s worked over by an angry gang. He also turns a few rock-concert cliches inside out, including the standard gambit of bringing an audience member onstage to dance.

“The show grew out of building bricks of two and three songs, each with a thematic device to slip into the next one with some feeling of continuity,” Mr. Bowie said. “There’s not a ready-made story line, but a feeling that the show is going somewhere.”

Eventually, the songs and images generated a set of stage characters that Mr. Bowie enumerated as “a large, aggressive black guy; an androgynous, Jim Morrison kind of guy [ Morrison was the lead singer for the Doors ] , a British punk, a big girl and a soft, ethereal girl.” Toni Basil, who had choreographed the “Diamond Dogs” tour, located dancers to fit the characters and joined Mr. Bowie to work out every detail of the movement onstage.

“There was no formula for this, it was just something we were figuring out,” she said. “In the stadium, you’re doing two things at once. You have a big, proscenium show for a stadium, but you also have two video screens with a very close-up, television point of view. It’s very big and very small, so the dancers always have to be alive in their characters. Even with 50,000 people in the audience, they’re seeing you close up.”

“For me,” Mr. Bowie said, “the main thing about this show is the physicality of it, the movement and the use of space on stage. There’s a push and shove of emotions in it, and while there’s not a linear story you might say it’s about how love gets caged and released – with passion and with aggression.”

Huge as “The Glass Spider Tour” is, Mr. Bowie has no trouble envisioning something bigger. “The ultimate would be to try and write something for a stadium with two and three stages,” Mr. Bowie mused. “Maybe one stage would be America, one stage would be Russia, and you’d bounce the thing all around the stadium. It would be terribly difficult and expensive, but it could produce a glorious kind of Romanesque epic theater. That’s where somebody will take it some day.”

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