When Bowie Came To Earth

Music has always been a big part of my life. From being a kid and listing to my Aunt’s Elvis, Bobby Darin and Ricky Nelson 45’s, promoting dances in the late 60’s and concerts in the early 70’s, working fifteen years for record distributors, to today, being a Memphis rock music historian and the author of two books on Memphis garage rock. I doubt that I am any different than anyone else during that era, that there were certain albums, or concerts that either changed my life, philosophy, or at the very least how I listened to music.

For me there were a few of these stops. Elvis, or course, the Beatles, duh, Bob Dylan made me actually listen to what I heard, Jimi Hendrix, more than just musical, a full life altering “experience”, David Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen. The music, through records and concerts of these great artists have molded me into how I ham and how I see the world today.

By the time I saw David Bowie at the Ellis Auditorium, September 24, 1972, I had seen two shows of Jimi Hendrix at the Auditorium in 1969, seen the great psych groups of the sixties, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Fish, been to four rock festivals, and probably seen over 100 acts at various venues, but nothing quite like what I saw that night. Tyrannosaurus Rex and their tales of Royal Crocodiles at the New Orleans Pop Festival was a taste of the bizarre , otherworldly effect of Bowie, but only slightly. Many had the musical power that the Spiders From Mars provided, but that being, or alien, or whatever he was that night, that commanded our minds that night, was something very unique. Never before or since has an artist had such an effect.

I forget how I got my tickets. I was working for a record distributor in Whitehaven at the time and had the Ziggy album so I probably got with a few co-workers and bought a block of seats. This show was different in that many of my friends had mixed emotions about Bowie. They liked the dynamics of the songs, the drive, Ronson’s guitar, but the whole glam thing confused them. “Is he gay?”, “He’s gotta be”, “There will be a ton of queers there”, that kind of shit. The media hype, through, Hit Parader, Circus, Rolling Stone made this show, for me anyway, a must see event. I thought this was going to be something people would be talking about for years. Something we had never quite seen before. I was right. There was no way, you could describe the vibe, visual and physical charge that was felt that night. Those that missed it, blew it. They could go to later shows, but this one was special, one of a kind.

When Bowie came on that stage in a green and orange jumpsuit, red boots, with the strobe lights flashing, hi-lighting his orange hair and giving a ghostly effect aided by his white makeup, I remember thinking “Holy shit, here we go!” I know I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire show, I didn’t want to miss a damn thing. The band smoked. Mick Ronson was every bit as good as advertised and I’m sure the early shows are what built his legend and stature and a true rock guitarists. And Trevor Bolder, what the fuck was going on with those mutton chops?! The clothes, the boots, the hair, the lights, you tried to take it all in, without missing a thing. But you were always sucked back to that specter in the center of the stage. His voice, grew you back in, bringing you back from watching Ronson's fingers, or even glancing around to see how others were responding. Most of the crowd sat like zombies, their mouths agape, with a “what the fuck?” look of wonderment, totally into the entire scope of this man.

Man might be a simple and confused label for Bowie that night, and I assume for many casual fans throughout his career. Otherworldly, has been used to death, but if it were possible for something from another world to be dropped in our midst, on a stage in the center of Memphis, the core of the bible belt, soul town, this was it. Forget about trying to deal with his sexuality. If you tried to figure out his dominate gender or how his presence and music made you feel about your self that night, forget about it. You’d need an analyst to figure that out. I do know I was weak when I walked out of there, like something had been drained from me, or shot into me. Something was different. It was like I had attained a higher intelligence or something. I know that’s odd, but it’s the only way I can describe it. I had a different awareness, because I had seen more that a rock show, it was theater, but also a meshing of lights and sound that totally made the man in the middle more that a rock star. He was Ziggy, whoever, or whatever that was the hell that was!

In the months that followed, I saw Lou Reed and the Auditorium and got what I expected, as I had been a Velvet Underground fan for years. No mystique, as with Bowie, but that was good. I knew Reed was going to paint a picture, of the dark and seedy underbelly of NYC, and that’s what I got. I didn’t want anything else. So many have tied the two together but they were so very different.

Almost a year to the day after seeing David Bowie the New York Dolls came to town. There was a huge buzz. They had some negative reviews from previous shows on the tour about exciting crowds to riot. The city even considered banning the show. The promotion man at the distributor I worked at said he “wasn’t working with those queers” and asked me if I would pick then up at the airport and take them to the hotel. I had been doing record reviews that were sent out to customers and had hair down to my ass so I guess he figured I would fit in with them. Being twenty-three, I jumped at the chance to miss a couple of days work and hang out as a stooge for the band. I picked them up and tried to take then to the Holiday River bluff, but got lost in the area that is now the South End of main, just warehouses then. They were freaking out, worried about getting attacked by hillbillies, as “Deliverance” must have been in their minds. We found it though and for the next two days I got a taste of what life on the road with a group of wild New York rockers was like. Original band, except Howard Kane had a broken hand.

The night of the show, once again I got what I expected. Not the overly gender-bending glam show local officials feared , but a kick-ass bunch of garage rockers. Iggy Pop opened and he was good as well. David Johansen did excite the crowd to the point that the house lights were turned on with a male fan jumped on stage and tried to kiss him. Johansen was arrested. He got out the next morning, in time to make it to the airport and escape Memphis. I got all of them to sign the first album for me when I dropped them off.

The point of all of this is that many artists or groups were connected to David Bowie as part of the glam rock era, either by association or comparison. That was unfair to them all. There was only one Ziggy. What Bowie did to audiences in those early shows couldn’t be duplicated by anyone else, and I don’t think that was many of the groups attempt. I think they saw this was something very special, even if we can’t quite grasp what it was.

Ron Hall