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Bowie: Now I'm A Businessman

Robert Hilburn • Melody Maker • 28 February 1976


For David Bowie, the second encore at the Cow Palace Arena in San Francisco was an especially satisfying moment. When Bowie played the same city in 1972 on the Ziggy Stardust tour, only 1100 people showed up to see him at the 5000-seat Winterland Auditorium. The turnout was so disappointing that Bowie skipped San Francisco entirely on his next US tour.

But this time - boosted by the success of his Fame single all the attention he has received in the past four years - Bowie played the 14,000 seat Cow Palace (the city's largest rock hall) and the response was phenomenal.

Though his 90-minute set started slowly as Bowie concentrated on new material, he worked up such an enthusiasm in the arena with his versions of such early, well-known works as Changes, Rebel Rebel and Jean Genie that a rare thing happened after the first, rather obligatory encore.

The audience continued yelling for Bowie long after the house lights - normally the sign that a concert is irrevocably over - were turned on. An excited, but apparently unprepared, Bowie finally came back on stage to do a hastily assembled version of Diamond Dogs.

Though he messed up some of the song's lyrics, the audience continued to roar its approval and kept doing so for a full five minutes after the house lights were again turned on. One Cow Palace official said it was the strongest response he had seen a rock act receive there in years. Bowie, clearly, has arrived as a rock superstar in America.

"Incredible," Bowie said after the show as he attended a brief backstage reception at the Cow Palace, where he accepted a silver cape from promoter and ex-Fillmore boss Bill Graham and a plaque from a radio station noting that Fame had gone to number one on its chart.

"It was a lovely night," Bowie said. "And it should be even better in Los Angeles. The numbers were a bit tough for us tonight. We were a four and the audience was a four. That can sometimes mean resistance. In LA we'll be a five - in the realm of the magician - and the audience will be a six - meaning comfortable, agreeable. That should really be something."

By all accounts, Bowie is a happier, more confident and relaxed person on this tour than on past ones. He looks it onstage and confirms it in conversations off-stage. Gone is the rock'n'roll superstar pose of the Ziggy Stardust tour, and the elaborate staging and icy, detached manner of the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974.

The setting and mood this time finds Bowie in more of a continental, cabaret role as he comes on stage wearing a stylish white dress shirt (complete with French cuffs), a black waistcoat (with a box of European cigarettes visible in one pocket), and black slacks.

The stage, except for sound and lighting equipment, is free of extra devices. Bowie's manner is warm and inviting.

An even greater contrast between this tour and earlier ones is that Bowie is not as isolated and detached as he was.

After the first of three concerts at the 18,000-seat Forum in Los Angeles, for instance, Bowie - accompanied by his wife Angela and five-year-old son Zowie - stopped by the Forum's fancy lounge for a reception that was attended by approximately 200 persons, including Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper, Neil Sedaka, Lou Adler and the US President's son, Steven Ford. He rarely made such appearances in the past.

Though the commercial success of Fame and Young Americans in America would be the most obvious reason for Bowie's new attitude, he says the fact that he now feels comfortable with his business/management affairs is an even more important factor.

His periodic announcements that he was going to stop touring were due, he says, to frustrations that built up on those tours.

"Record sales can only do so much for your confidence," Bowie had said, sitting in his San Francisco hotel room a couple of hours before his concert.

"Real confidence comes from things much closer. It comes from being able to put together a tour like this one almost single-handedly and see it come off so well; see people around me enjoying themselves.

"Over the last year I've become a businessman. I used to think an artist had to separate himself from business matters, but now I realise you have more artistic freedom If you also keep an eye on business.

"Things were handled so badly (on past tours) that it was painful to go out to receptions and be with everybody and have false gaiety, because there wasn't any gaiety. There was often bitterness and terrible arguments happening.

"So, I preferred to stay on my own, get the tour over and end up saying, 'I'll never tour again.' I wasn't trying to be particularly mysterious or clever about it. I just couldn't imagine ever touring again by the time I'd get through with a tour.

"There's a song - Word On A Wing - in the show and on the new album that I wrote when I felt very much at peace with the world. I had established my own environment with my own people for the first time.

"I wrote the whole thing as a hymn. What better way can a man give thanks for achieving something that he had dreamed of achieving, than doing it with a hymn?"

A hymn? From David Bowie?

Bowie acknowledges he is in a certain transition period these days.

"Yes, I do feel like I'm starting over again in a way," he said, commenting on the sense of rediscovery that seems to fill much of the "Station To Station" album.

Word On A Wing, and for example, the album's title track, carries a sense of optimism and celebration ("Raise your glasses high … it's too late to be hateful… ").

"I think there's a certain maturity now. You can hear it in the album. I've always said I'm terribly vulnerable as a writer. You can just look at the records and see what I'm feeling.

"It sometimes takes me a while to get away from the album and actually see what it all means to me. But I can go back over the earlier albums and see exactly what was happening."

What about Hunky Dory?

"There was a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm in the album that reflected my thinking at the time," Bowie responded.

"There's even a song - Song For Bob Dylan - that laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, 'okay (Dylan) if you don't want to do it, I will.'

"I saw that leadership void. Even though the song isn't one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn't someone who was going to use rock 'n' roll, then I'd do it.

"Ziggy Stardust was saying, 'if I'm going to do it, what attitude will I adopt to do it with?' The track Ziggy Stardust summed the attitude up in one song. The Aladdin Sane album was Ziggy's viewpoint about 'Oh, God, I actually have made it and it's really crazy and I'm not sure what to make of this … '

"The album was full of self-doubt. It was half still posing (as Ziggy Stardust), but at the back of it saying I don't know If I wouldn't be happier back at home."

On Diamond Dogs, Bowie said, it was as if he were seeing his plans and earlier optimism shattered. Though the album dealt outwardly with society, it reflected his own turmoil.

"It's all microcosm, macrocosm," he said. "I mean, I think songwriters - if they are pontificators with theories - are talking about themselves."

By the time Bowie recorded Young Americans he was always making plans to break away from the tensions which he felt had put a strain on his relations with his old management company.

"Young Americans was the celebration of getting over it," he said. "Fame was a happy song. The melodic feel, everything about it, is happy. I don't play Young Americans much. It's one of the most unlistenable albums I ever made. But I dance to it. It's good to dance to.

"Station To Station? I'm still too close to it, But it's like 'Let's start over.' This time I'm going to take a little more time about it and make sure everything stays in bounds. But you never know what is going to happen.

"It's a bit like walking a tightrope. You slip once and regain your balance and make it to the other side. But it doesn't mean that you've learned enough never to slip again. Circumstances change. There's always a bit of danger."

Despite the emotional and artistic ups and downs of the past four years, Bowie feels he has kept close to his own goal of building a multi-directional career that escapes the limitations of being stereotyped in any given field (eg rock'n'roll).

"I think I've kept fairly well on the track despite it all," Bowie said. "I think I'm doing about what I thought at the time. I am making films. I still haven't become overground, really. I have just become the largest-selling of the underground."

In his first film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie plays Thomas Newton, an industrialist who succumbs to the pressures that build around him.

''It rang so true," Bowie said, speaking of the role. "The film, I suppose, for me, is sort of allegorical on a very private scale, but it won't be to the public. They'll see more a sort of Howard Hughes figure because it's certainly an exaggeration.

"But it's very much the thing of someone with a purist idea in the beginning and the whole concept becoming corrupt as it is carried out. It's a very, very sad film."

Besides having another film role suggested to play alongside such as Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland in The Eagle Has Landed, the story of a World War II plot by the Germans to kidnap Winston Churchill), Bowie eventually wants to make a movie of Ziggy Stardust."

But there is another area of involvement admittedly long-range that also intrigues him. It's the idea of Candidate Bowie.

When asked about his eventual goal he replied, in the teasing way he has that makes the remarks seem at once both entirely possible an totally designed for effect: "The only thing I know is I want to be Prime Minister of England one day" - he broke into sudden laughter and resumed the thought - "that's the only thing I know.

"Otherwise, I'm sort of a happy, carefree sort of guy … I just want to have a revolution in England." Again, he laughed.

But later, Bowie returned to the idea of politics; this time a bit more seriously. "The one thing I want to do when I get back to England is see what is happening there politically," he said.

"When I'm a lot older and know what I'm talking about politically, I would like to get into our politics back home. I still have my Grand King complex. I'll never lose that. I'm ultra Capricorn.

"Politics is one reason I think it is good to avoid being classified as a [particular kind of] artist. It's good to retain one's individuality. The only reason one uses the Sinatra figure to explain what I mean about maintaining a persona is that he is about the only person who has done it.

"He's someone who is not just an actor or a singer. He transcends all those areas. He's even something of a public figure. That's what I want to be felt about me.

"It's the idea of seeing what you can do with the human persona, how far you can extend the ego out of the body. I think my music is never looked at as just music.

"You have to have one's attitude toward David Bowie in there as well. It's all very McLuhanish, isn't it. I'm trying to Make myself the message, which is the 20th century form of communication."

But surely, someone asked, there must be some area of artistic involvement that is close to Bowie's heart? What, for instance, would he like to see written (singer, performer, songwriter, actor?) under his name on his tombstone.

"Tombstone!" Bowie replied, somewhat startled, but his eyebrows were raised. "I'd like a memorial. I'd never be content with a tombstone."

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Bowie Golden Years v1.0 created and designed by Roger Griffin 2000
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this page updated October 13, 2020