Whatever world of rock is ultimately to succeed the Beatles, the Stones and the Who, it's having trouble being born. This is a time of confusion, a middle ages, an appropriate breeding ground for the dark, satanic majesty of England's David Bowie.
Until last month, Bowie was known in the U.S. largely through his RCA records, especially the last, Ziggy Stardust. But in his first American appearances - in Cleveland, Memphis and, last week, in New York's Carnegie Hall - a vast underground army of supporters has surfaces. And Bowie's momentum is accelerating. He originally intended to perform in seven cities. That number has jumped to 25, enough to keep him in America through December.
Well-publicized rumors of blatant homosexuality preceded Bowie's arrival - and proved misleading. Not that he reflects the wholesomeness of Sunday school. The whip-slender, cat-like Bowie, 24, comes out like a souped-up harlequin in a sequined multi-colored jump suit, beautiful face painted ash white, eyes black with mascara, hair orange-colored. His three-man back-up band, led by blond guitarist Mick Ronson, almost matches him spark for spark. Rarely is there anything explicitly suggestive in Bowie's movements. But he moves, smiling faintly, about the floor with feline grace and delicacy, a soft counterpoint to the hot and heavy rock that underscores his songs.
Bent: He sings songs about homosexuals, such as Queen Bitch, or about bisexual experience, such as The Width Of A Circle, but there are just as many straight songs as bent ones. In any case he's concerned with the emotion behind the sex rather than its gender. Bowie, who has an acrobatic, diverting vocal style, is much more an entertainer than a singer, his performance not so much as a concert as pure theater, in which his group, called the Spiders from Mars, performs with crackling precision. More than a sex symbol, Bowie is a clown, a sexless, faceless figure, whose songs present a view of the world that is despairing and apocalyptic.
In such songs as Running Gun Blues or All The Madmen, Bowie is against war of the establishment, for individual freedom and the virtue of being different. In his space songs, Bowie seems to say, "If you can't beat 'em, flee 'em." Electronic equipment provides realistic space-flight accompaniment, the sexual man becomes loftily androgynous, the jumpsuited clown is transformed into an astronaut. Space is the ultimate escape in Starman or Life On Mars - the longest and last journey, like that of the astronaut in Space Oddity who prefers death in clean space to life on earth.
Not that the lyrics of the songs are readily accessible. Bowie is amazed that audiences like him. "I suppose most of them are as confused about things as I am," he says. "I console them in their confusion, they're not alone. I've stopped analyzing it. Cataloguing confusion is courting suicide".
But he is turned inward as well as toward society and space. On Ziggy Stardust he chronicles the rise and fall of a rock superstar, unmistakably Bowie, since one song Lady Stardust, is about an androgynous performer: "And Lady Stardust sang his songs/Of darkness and disgrace." "I'm not what I'm supposed to be," says Bowie. "What are people buying? I adopted Ziggy onstage and now I feel more and more like this monster and less and less like David Bowie."
Bowie grew up in Brixton, South London. The child of middle-class parents, he wanted to be a commercial artist before becoming what has been called the Lauren Bacall of Rock. Perhaps his freakiness is an antidote for his self-confessed emotional numbness. "Offstage I'm a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It's probably why I prefer being Ziggy to David. Who's David Bowie? I can't seem to understand the 'why' of things, like 'why we are'." His world-weariness does not seem at all affected.
The homosexual interpretations of his songs, he feels, came about after he had admitted his bisexual nature. "My sexual nature is irrelevant," he says. 'I'm an actor, I play roles, fragments of myself." One role is that of husband. He and his wife, Angela, have a son, Zowie Bowie, left at home during this important American journey. "When I was a boy we were all fascinated by America. I read Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road.' It was the most important thing that ever happened to me." He smiled his sweet smile and waved a forlorn arm and said, "But now that I'm here I've forgotten why I wanted to come."