Teenage Wildlife

The Man Who Fell From Grace

The Way He Was – A Fan Remembers
By John Walker

Trouser Press, February 1977
Transcribed by Ben


David Bowie used to make me nervous. It was no coincidence that I bought Hunky Dory and two Ernest Tubb records on the same day. Had the album been titled Music For Queers, I don’t think I would have felt more self-conscious. Hunky Dory wasn’t exactly a butch title, and, at age 17, it sounded to me like a sweet nothing homosexuals murmur to each other after a particularly satisfying round of lovemaking. The word was that old Dave like to strut around in dresses and even if they were as, he insisted, men’s dresses, the whole affectation did seem to indicate a show biz persona that had strayed mightily out of the mainstream. He kissed boys and generally seemed to carry on in a manner that would have put me off entirely had it not been for the fact that he legitimately slapped his name on some of the most interesting and inventive music to surface in years.

At 17 I was pretty much past the stage of sexual malleability, but still a year or two shy of tolerance for anyone’s odd persuasion. Consequently my attitude at the time was that he was pretty good for a queer. Time has a way of loosening up one’s narrowness, however, and in time I loosened up. No longer did it worry me that Bowie was left of center. Ziggy Stardust had been released, and its reception put Bowie on the brink of American (and worldwide) success. Though the critics carefully weighed and discussed every last lyric for indications of pederasty, the fact that Bowie had tempered the lady / sexual side of his nature with an extra-terrestrial marquee. The image resulting from this somewhat incongruous mixture didn’t come off as especially threatening. Bowie had hit on an acceptable balance of gender(s), an equilibrium that had definitely been missing the previous year when an overzealous Houston citizen threatened to empty his six-gun into David, velvet gown, handbag and all (an incident which caused Mercury to chicken out of using the original cover for the US release of Man Who Sold The World sporting a shot of Bowie in similar violence arousing attire). This time ‘round, Bowie intended to make it. Alive.

In order to grasp that golden ring, you’ve got to have two things: money and the brains to spend it. Spend it Mainman did, and well. As the farmer said, slamming his mule in the rump with a two-by-four, "Sure he listens–but first you have to get his attention." Substitute the American buying record buyer for the mule and the androgynized Bowie for the two-by-four to get an idea what Farmer DeFries and his MainMan organization did to push Bowie onto his starman pinnacle.

And, after all, they succeeded. The Bowie star did rise phenomenally quickly. It took the Stones nearly six years to become certified superstars while maintaining a fairly consistent image. Even though Bowie had certainly put in his time, his commercial achievements were not the culmination of those years of struggle.

His fans had been sold on a brand new Bowie, many of the converts unaware that he recorded anything prior to Hunky Dory. Even though one can see the superman’s beginnings in Man Who Sold The World, the majority of listeners made the connection in retrospect.

By early 1973, ten minutes couldn’t pass without Bowie gaining in popularity. Kids barely into their teens tromped down the major avenues of less-than-metropolitan cities in shoes designed for painting ceilings; the sale of metallic nail polish and fake eyebrows doubled overnight. Bowie hit New York for an extravagant appearance at the immense Radio City Music Hall, ringing all the bells and flaunting what appeared to be a hoop skirt during "Width of a Circle." Each time he returned to the stage after a run off to switch costumes, the thought virtually floated to the top of the hall: "Damn, where am I ever going to find a hoop skirt?" "Where’m I gonna get a feather boa?" Bowie was out of the city six weeks before the excitement took a dip, and by then it was almost time for Alladin Sane.

Suddenly, Bowie declared that it was over. Amidst a siren’s wail of horrified screamers attending his performance at the Hammersmith Odeon, he announced his immediate retirement. Now that we’ve seen it happen a few times, we’re older and wiser. We know that Tinkerbelle will come back to life whether we clap or not. But back then, it seemed to be the ultimate dramatic gesture; sudden sadness thrust upon a generation that was rapidly getting used to the idea that idols dropping dead. In retrospect, it wasn’t the end of Bowie, but actually the laying to rest of Ziggy (until he re-emerged on the Marquee TV special five months later). It got me thinking about the violent lurches in Bowie’s public life. But you’ve got to start as the beginning.

When an artist like Bowie magically appears out of thin air, you can bet your disco shoes he’s been going at it and after it for years. It should come as no surprise that the kid had been plugging away since 1963, getting by in the homeland with a few moderately successful singles and even a medium hit in 1969 moon-conscious America with "Space Oddity." Give him ten points for being obscure and British, five for intelligence, another five for cutes, add it all up, and you come up with an official Cult Figure. Your basic Cult Figure is good for at least ten fanatic disciples and a fan club for the less rabid. That may not sound like much, but if you place them strategically and pay at least a little attention, you get a watershed that can save your Cult Figure’s ass should he somehow fail to catch on in a big way for a few more years. An important (and oft ignored) tip for CFs: the cult is your most trustworthy weapon against oblivion, and you must never make your hardcore fans feel you have abandoned them. Otherwise, they can (and will) destroy you.

The hard-core fan, for all his / her indispensability, is the peon of the music establishment. He / she rarely gets invited to press parties, must pay for any and all records desired, doesn’t get to meet and greet the objects of affection, and doesn’t go out to lunch with Alice Cooper. Maybe, given the proper juxtaposition of a quick mind, fast feet liquid assets, and a warm coat, he / she can snag a good pair of tickets for a concert, unless the scalpers get their hooks in first. Apart from this, the only reward and consolation for the h.c.f. is that he / she knows and cares more about the music he / she hears than most presidents of records companies. It would be foolish to deny the importance of the h.c.f. within and without the official promo machine. The h.c.f. lubricates the moving parts, guard against malfunction, and adds a loving touch that no salaried businessman can provide. If you want some part of truth, go to the record company. If you need the whole story, ask the true fan.

I began learning that two and a half years ago when I was first asked to write this story. The reason this article has little in common with the piece I then set out to do reflects the changes that have taken place in the intervening period. At the time, our boy’s Christian name had all but disappeared, and the single adopted name / word "Bowie" seemed to stand in testimony to the power of corporate depersonalization. Whether it was "Bowie" this or "Bowie" that, the name / word represented some inorganic commodity rather than the human being who had not, not long before, been hailed as one of the most important individual artists to emerge in all of popular music. From the critic’s standpoint, this talent (or ability to channel and present it) was on the descendant, and his then-recent recordings had given rise to speculations that robots had infiltrated the music industry. Even I, who thought at one tine that Bowie could do no wrong, began to wonder if the year of the Diamond Dogs had merely been reduced to a fiscal one. It looked as if Bowie had been reduced to a flashy live trademark for his own product. Alas, his output at the time was, in the truly pejorative sense, product.

Despite my disappointment in Bowie’s slipping ability to create music which suited my taste, I became fascinated with the power of his promotional machine. I wondered to what extent was it responsible for his commercial success, and why was it damaging his creative abilities? I surmised that correlation of artistic phases with publicity gimmicks and gambits might provide an explanation for his artistic floundering.

My research began by compiling a list of knowledgeable hard-core fans whose interests in Bowie pre-dated the MainMan steamroller campaign. It seemed logical to assume that those might possess early esoteric information MainMan would have obliterated, obscured or overshadowed for whatever publicity purposes they might have. In the spirit of objectivity I also attempted to contact those individuals then directly associated with the official Bowie camp.

As replies to my inquiries trickled in, a disturbing trend began taking shape. The older fans were rapidly losing all interest in the commercial monster, and the new custodians bound to keep interest alive, seemed engaged in a massive bluff intended to hide the fact that they had no idea what Bowie was up to.

The founder of the first US Bowie fan club wrote a short note saying that he was no longer associated with the club, and that he was selling off his collection of Bowie memorabilia. Faced with the abdication of one expert, I began searching for an alternate. I wrote to the author of an excellent article describing the Bowie promo strategies employed by Mercury, RCA, and Tony DeFries in their respective attempts to get their boy into the race. The writer Ron Ross, was then employed by Circus Magazine (although the article had appeared in Phonograph Record Magazine). With evidence of healthy skepticism toward some of the stunts engineered in Bowie’s name, and the inclusion of enough esoteric facts to indicate a true fan, Ross seemed to respect Bowie as an artist and apparently still took an active interest in his career. Time passed while I awaited his response, half expecting it to fit the mold of "Sorry, I’m no longer interested." Before any reply, however, I made the acquaintance of an Expert, Wayne Formola, who provided me with a Bowie discography packed to the margins with musical ephemera ranging from baby’s first 45 to listings of every performing artist Bowie pimped for. The mind reels to find that there are no less that four versions of "Rebel Rebel" etched in vinyl, and that RCA apparently possesses miles of concert tapes in addition to scads of unreleased studio material. Just reading the titles induced a pleasant tingle.

While still in the throes of said tingle, I received a call from Ross who, lo and behold, had become not just a titles employee of RCA Records but, to be exact Bowie’s promotion manager. He indicated he would be happy to answer any of my questions personally, my reaction to which was euphoria. The actual meeting turned out to be less than fulfilling. The specter of The Company hung over the proceedings, and Ross dismissed my questions about the missing tapes as being inconsequential since there were no plans by RCA to release any of it. The fan had become a company man. Frustrated in my attempt to achieve a coalescing of hard fact and hot rumor, I abandoned the article.

Having retired temporarily from this assignment, I returned to my previous role as an observer. Bowie released David Live, proving how distant a live performance can be from an audience, then retreated into seclusion to cogitate and plan his reemergence as Soul Brother Number One, section white. Watching Bowie became progressively less interesting, the result of his ready willingness to alienate his established following, something he has done with alarming regularity. More often then not, Bowie’s backhand seems to be deliberate. But those turned off by the music can seek solace in a million other offerings, because Bowie’s appeal has always been more than just musical. The images he has projected and endorsed are powerful. Ziggy Stardust begat an entire genre of pretty performers and provided some sense of vicarious liberation for a generation ticked into thinking that the first coat of Cutex made them philosophers and the second made homo superiors. Ziggy tried to sucker every kid who ever suffered a sexual identity crisis. What happened when they finally caught on to the fact that the message wasn’t bi-sexual, it was buy-sexual? What gave? What’s going to give?

In the past two years no answers to those questions arose. Finally it occurred to me that, even if the big execs had nothing to say by way of illumination, there was no point in suppressing the interesting items that had turned up along the way to finding that dead end. Surely there are some people with enough historical curiosity to give a finger to know that a Bowie version of Ferry’s "Ladytron" exists, or that "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" was dropped from Diamond Dogs at the last moment. I figured it would be possible to put together the definitive list of Bowie collector’s items so I contacted Wayne Formola, only to find that Wayne’s interest in Bowie had begun a slow death starting with Young Americans and finally expired at Station to Station. Fortunately Wayne’s memory hasn’t been erased, and he has put me on the trail of those souls who have picked up the torch. I am currently in the process of compiling and editing information, in the hopes that all will be ready in time for the next issue of Trouser Press, wherein we will (barring extraordinary difficulties) present the complete rare Bowie Story.

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