Ziggy Played Guitar
By Glenn O'Brien
Photograph by Andrew Kent
David was not yet huge, only kind of biggish, but he was already a one-man industry. RCA had given him his own label and he had signed Iggy Pop and Lou Reed to it. On that trip I got to see both of them perform at London’s Roundhouse. Lou was good, although I thought his black nail polish was a bit odd -- he still had a long way to go to Rock ’n’ Roll Animal. Iggy, then silver-haired, was fantastic -- one of the great performances, in the round, on a big oriental rug he crawled his way around. I went back to see Lou, who was moving his own amps, and felt a little embarrassed to see him doing his own roadying. Meanwhile, Bowie’s company moved to New York, basically hiring the cast of Warhol’s Pork to run the office. They all showed up at Max’s every night with expense accounts, and we wondered where the money was coming from.
But the Mainman/RCA machine was doing its job; David was booked into Carnegie Hall. I went with Andy and we had great seats. Now Andy totally got it. No more mimes or Mary Janes -- this was really the future. “Gee, it’s so glamorous,” Andy said. We were sitting in a cloud of pot smoke, pretty much. Andy, of course, didn’t smoke, but he remarked that he didn’t mind -- he liked the smell.
There was something truly fantastic about Bowie’s rise. The songs got better and better -- “Jean Genie,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Diamond Dogs” -- but the persona was almost ahead of the music. Ziggy Stardust retired dramatically and Bowie went R&B with Young Americans, a new band, and Carlos Alomar on guitar, hitting No. 1 with “Fame,” co-written by John Lennon with a riff so good James Brown stole it. Bowie just seemed smarter and smarter, more and more the silver surfer of the zeitgeist. His songs sparkled with intellect and they also hit the musical moment precisely.
With Station to Station, he achieved total liftoff from the pop music universe into an orbit all his own. Apparently, Bowie was doing a lot of blow -- as in a lot a lot -- and living a rather unusual life in Los Angeles. Both Station to Station and Low were deeply influenced by his starring role in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth. He had achieved a look that was really something unprecedented. He didn’t look like a girl, but maybe he looked like an alien: red hair, white, white skin, and utterly fat-free. He was working in character, imagining himself as the Thin White Duke, which focuses all of his favorite mythologies and vices into a persona: cold, formal, postured, romantic, frozen but flexible, tailored, pomaded. It is said that overmedication occasionally led to odd behaviors, such as fantasizing that the Jimmy Page wing of the Crowleyites were out to get him or whatever, but it sure made for great music. He was the best, and he still is, even when he’s doing nothing.
Bowie picked his birthday to relaunch himself after 10 years of radio silence. The new single, “Where Are We Now?” released on his 66th birthday, is a tender, plaintive song that seems to have had its beginning in a melody introduced in a sketch on Extras with Ricky Gervais with Bowie at the piano: “Pathetic little fat man/ No one’s bloody laughing…” It was on YouTube a year ago, and someone wrote in that Bowie should release it. Well, he did, with different words, and with a rather grim video by Tony Oursler; Bowie often collaborates with art world artists, even if they make him look unbeautiful.
As I write this, we are waiting for the release of the rest of the album, which features another arty touch. It’s the cover of “Heroes” with a big block of black type on white, like a cigarette warning label, that proclaims, “The Next Day.” Get it? We can be heroes, just for one day. (There is also a timely Bowie retrospective at London’s V&A Museum beginning March 23, for which the singer has opened his own archives.)
When it comes to Bowie, I have learned acceptance. It always turns out better than you imagined it could -- how exquisitely rare is that? Being a grandmaster is a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Read more stories about how David Bowie influenced generations here.