|When this came out, I hung the cover on my bedroom wall.|
My world then
I saw Bowie in concert in 1976, after the "Station to Station" album came out. I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday.
I had a picture of him on my wall, a magazine cover with a green background. I had assumed it was the cover of Time, but a Google image search quickly revealed it was People. No one in my family read People, which means I bought the magazine for the Bowie story and photos.
Although I can't remember anything specific, I know I would have cut out, read, and saved anything about the new album and the tour from Rolling Stone (still an actual rock music magazine), The New York Times, and Time, because I subscribed to RS and my parents subscribed to the others.
In those days, we searched for images and stories about our musical loves, and when we found them, we pounced on and devoured them. They were very finite, and we hoarded everything we could find.
There were a few opportunities to see bands play on TV, and if you were into music, you never missed them. You stayed up for "Don Kirshner," as we called it, or woke up with Soul Train, if that was your music. (I did both.) When "Saturday Night Live" came on the scene, the best thing about it was another opportunity to see bands play.
Sometimes a concert would be broadcast on TV to promote a tour. I have a vivid memory of watching Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review on a small black-and-white set in my parents' bedroom, in self-imposed exile from the colour set that my parents were watching in the den, so I could drink in every detail of the show without annoying comments.
Even more exciting was footage of old concerts and TV appearances. We didn't call them videos: they were footage. I had an adult friend who had a stockpile of rock on film. My friends and I would plead with him to show us The Who smashing their instruments, or something rare like a clip from the Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues".
Concerts were often broadcast on the radio. We would all tune in to the King Biscuit Flower Hour to hear past concerts, or even better, a live concert simulcast on the radio. Allan tells me that the Bowie show previous to the one I attended was broadcast live. Although I don't remember it, I'm certain I was listening.
It's difficult to explain what it felt like, compared to our present time, when a concert is uploaded for file-sharing an hour after it ends, and cell-phone videos are instantly posted to YouTube, and if you want to see what someone looks like, you simply type their name and hit enter. There was always a kind of hunger for more, and also a kind of mystery.
Another thing we have now: the almost instant ability to connect with other fans. In those days, fans of any given band were almost like a secret society. Members recognized each other by lyrics written on notebooks and t-shirts worn the day after the concert, something like a secret handshake.
This is not nostalgia! I don't think for one moment that life was better because I couldn't Google images of David Bowie. It was just very different.
It was 1976. A friend's parents bought her three tickets to the David Bowie concert for her 16th birthday, and I was a lucky tag-along.*
It was the second rock show I had ever attended, and the first that my parents knew about. I had to ask their permission to go, and - even though the friend's parents would be driving us there and picking us up - they weren't keen. My older sister intervened on my behalf, and got them to say yes.
In the lead-up to the show, we read, watched, and listened to everything about Bowie and the tour that we could get our hands on. We skipped school to see "The Man Who Fell to Earth" the day it opened, and saw it three times that week. We talked about the movie constantly. (I don't remember if the film was before or after the concert.)
The scene outside Madison Square Garden was our warm-up act. There were men in drag, people of every gender in Bowie-inspired makeup, and many people dressed in imitation of Bowie's current persona. In those days, a rock show was like an open-air market for illegal drugs. We had smuggled joints on our person, wondering if we'd be able to smoke at the show.
I believe there was no actual warm-up act, although I can't swear to it. Bowie designed and controlled his shows very tightly, so I doubt he would have a warm-up band sullying the spectacle. But opening acts - billed as "special guests" - were typical in those days, so perhaps there was.
The lights went out, and all of Madison Square Garden became a cloud of pot smoke. My friends and I looked at each other in joy and wonder.
A screen was lowered in front of the stage, and suddenly we were seeing silent, surreal, black-and-white images. It was - I later learned - "Un Chien Andalou", the famous short film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Chances are good that few people in the audience had seen the film before. Another vivid memory: the very audible gasp of a crowd of 20,000 when an eyeball appears to be sliced with a razor blade.
The film ended, the screen rose, a white spotlight appeared, and there he was: the Thin White Duke. He was beautiful. He was intense. He owned your attention. I was a mile away, and it felt as if he was singing to me. Yes, I was 14 years old, and not exactly a critical audience. But the audience was rapt. He was absolutely captivating.
Incidentally, I never asked permission to attend a concert again. I just went. At some point I must have needed permission to go only with friends, without an adult, but I don't remember this being controversial. I was the youngest in my family, and the only child still living home. My father's health (mental and physical) was poor, my parents' marriage was disintegrating, and they were too tired or distracted to police me. This was sad, but it had its advantages.
* I would go on to have a strange love-hate relationship with this person, who was also my partner in all of my illegal activity. But we were both still innocent of that tangled mess.