By: Ellen Willis New Yorker October 14
.....In England, David Bowie may become - may already be- a real star, but
in the American context he looks more like an aesthete using stardom as a metaphor. I'm not entirley
happy with this conclusion; it seems almost ungrateful. A week ago, I went to see Bowie's New York
debut at Carnegie Hall and ended up standing on my seat; at that, he was subdued by a virus and was much
less exciting than when I saw him perform at a British rock club three months ago. Boowie is personally
appealing, his act is entertaining thetare, his band rocks, and Mick Ronson, the guitarist is so sexy he
crackles. Yet after both concerts I felt unsatisfied; more than that, I felt just the slightest but conned.
Somethign was being prmoised that wasn't being delivered.
.....Part of the problem is Bowie's material. Hunky Dory, the first of his albums to get much
critical attention, has become one of my favourite recoprds, but his more recent stuff bores me. When
Hunky Dory came out, I took one look at the labum cover - a soft, vague picture of the artist loking
soft and vague - and anticipated a soft, vague sensibility. Instead, Bowie turned out to be an intelligent,
disciplined, wry Lou Reed freak. To say that his current opus, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and
the Spiders form Mars (suggested alternate title: 'Jefferson Starship vs. Powerman &
Moneyground'), fulfills the threat of the Hunky Dory would be unfair, but not very. Some of
the songs are OK - 'Hang onto yourself', 'Starman', even 'Five Years'
when it manages to transcend the self-pity inherent in its theme (the end of the world). But the idea of a
pop star form outer space (read pop star as explorer, prophet, poet of technology, exotic on the outside but
merely human on the inside, and so on) just doesn't make it, except maybe as a spoof, and Bowie - or
should I say Ziggy? - takes it seriously. 'We got five years, my brain hurts a lot/Five years,
that's all we've got'? Ouch! On stage, 'Ziggy's deficiencies are obscured by
Bowie's flash and Mick's crackle. Still, Boowie is at his best doing other people's songs -
'Waiting for the man', 'White light/white heat', 'I feel free'. On the other
hand, the worst song in his repertoire isn't anything from Ziggy! It's
'Amsterdam' by Jacques Brel.
.....A lot of nonsense has been written about Bowie. The ubiquitous comparisons to Alice Cooper, in
particular, can only be put down to wilfil incomprehension. There is nothign provocative, perverse or
revolting about Bowie. He is all glitter, no grease, and his act is neither overtly nor implicitly violent. As
for his self procliamed bisexuality, it really isn't that big a deal. British rock musicians have always
been less uptight than Americans about displaying, and even flaunting their 'feminine'
side. Androgyny is an important part of what the Beatles and the Stones represent; once upon a time Mick
Jagger's bisexual mannerisms and innuendos were considered far out. Bowie's dyed red hair,
make-up, legednary dressed, and on-stage flirtations with his guitarist just take this tradition one theatrical
step further. In any case, Bowie's aura is not especially sexual; Ronson is the turn-on of the
group, and his attractiveness - platinum hair, high heels, and all - is very straight, if refreshingly non-
macho. What Bowi eoffers is not 'decadence' (sorry, Middle America) but a highyl professional
pop surface with a soft core: under that multicolored Day-Glo frogman's outfit lurks the soul of a
folkie who digs Brel, plays an (amplified) acoustic guitar, and sings with a catch in his voice about the
downfall of the planet.
.....I've been thinking about all this ever since July, when RCA Records, with unusual promotional
zeal, flew a bunch of American journalists to London to see Bowie on his home ground. As it happened,
Lou Reed was also in town to see Bowie, who is producing Reed's second solo album. The night of
our arrival, Lou was scheduled to perform at the King's Cross Cinema, a proletarian Fillmore that
features weekend shows lasting form midnight till six in the morning, and a number of us dedicated fans,
undeterred by the fact that we hadn't slept in some thirty hours, decided to go. The performance
could have been better; Reed's new band not only wasn't the Velvet Underground but
wasn't even barely competent. Lou wore black eye make-up, black lipstick, and ablack velvet suit
with rhinestone trimming. (The Reed-Bowie influence, it seems, has gone both ways.) His voice had an
unaccustomed deadpan quality, but it still conveyed that distinctive cosmic sadness. It occurred to me that
one reason I loved Reed was that he didn't invite us to share his pain - he simply shared ours. I went
tobed at 4 am feeling sombre and drained. The next night, our party was bused to the Bowie concert which
was held at a club called Friars, at Aylesbury, thirty miles away. Friars was considerably more middle-class
than the King's Cross, and it was mobbed by pink-cheeked teenagers. They were crazy about Bowie.
I was susceptible but confused. Afterward, a group of us went back to the King's Cross Cinema to see
some American expatriates - Iggy Pop and The Stooges, one of the original Detroit high-energy bands.
Iggy's thign is hostility: he leaps into the audience and grabs people by the hair. His best song is
called 'Hungry'. He is also a great rock-and-roll dancer. Unlike David Bowie, he sweats.
.....On Sunday afternoon, I went for a walk in Hyde Park with Iggy and Dave Marsh, the editor of
Creem. We spemnt a long time trying unsuccessfully to hunt down a vendor who would sell Iggy a
cold Coke. 'This country is weird, man' said Iggy. 'It's unreal.' Later,
Dave and I talked about Bowie. What was it that was missing? 'Innocence,' Dave suggested.
But maybe it's just that unlike Lou Reed (who will never be a star here, either) or Iggy (who just
might), Bowie doesn't seem quite real. Real to me, that is - which in rock-and-roll is the only fantasy
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