THE ORIGINAL TITLE to this piece on David Bowie was “Damn That Damn Disco Music!” But that was really an inadequate opening for the tone of this ‘true story’ about conversion. Then I dallied with variations on “The Day I Came Out as a David Bowie Fan,” which was an allusion to his androgynous Ziggy Stardust period.
Of course, that title is a play on ‘coming out of the closet’ to one’s family and friends as gay. And it is a process that David Bowie seems to have made less difficult for thousands of young men with his creation of the genderbending glam-rocker Ziggy Stardust in the early ’70s.
But that’s another story, and not mine to tell. 1
I finally opted for “Just How Did David Bowie Affect Your Consciousness?” so that I could steer readers to another recent essay of mine, “Just How Does LSD Affect Your Consciousness?” And the title does 2
Now, what was I going on about?
Right, my true story!
Bowie at the time of this HUNKY DORY album (1971), when he was finally finding ‘his voice,’ both in the studio and out. Few people outside his small circle of fans ever saw much of this Bowie; it wasn’t until he transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust that the world paid him any real attention inside the studio and out.
That damn disco music!
I had been exposed to David Bowie’s bloody plastic soul music throughout the summer of 1975! Hearing without actually listening was how I tried to get through it. The YOUNG AMERICANS album had been my best friend Jaytee’s favorite spin since its release earlier in March of that year.
Without let-up, I heard Young Americans and Win and Fascination and fame fame fame every damn day!
What I heard was dance music that just didn’t swing—and dance music that didn’t swing had no reason to be! Bowie and his studio band were stiff, somewhat plodding like they all had two white feet. But Jaytee thought it was groovy and so I heard it daily.
Jaytee and his wife Jays (of course these are made-up names) and I shared an apartment in Norwalk, Connecticut. I had gone to school with both of them. although I had known her for years before him. We were on good terms, considering that young married couples shouldn’t have to share their space with a roomie.
In the beginning of our friendship back in high school, our shared musical tastes had been one of the reasons that Jaytee and I had become friends. We buddy-bonded over BEGGARS BANQUET in ’69, and a better way to start a friendship man has yet to devise!
By 1975, he seemed more inclined to buy whatever was hot on the charts, most of which I found pleasant if forgettable pop. So it was that he owned and played the keepable (Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder) with the disposable (Leo Sayer and Olivia Newton-John) and played them equally.
Me? I was stuck in The Sixties and the attitudes and expectations that the heady music of that era encouraged and required.
Released in June 1972, its enduring popularity and influence of THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (RCA Victor LSP-74702) would lead anyone to believe that it had been a massive hit from the get-go. But ZIGGY was not a big seller upon release, peaking at #75 on Billboard’s album survey. Still, it kept on selling and two years later was certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record Award. It is a touchstone album of the ’70s. 3
Heralding the glam-rock years
Jaytee had become a big Bowie believer with ZIGGY STARDUST and ALADDIN SANE, so buying YOUNG AMERICANS was in line with his established preferences. But he played the new album endlessly and raved about it ceaselessly. Bowie annoyed me more than anything: I resented his bringing the gay obsession with ‘camp’ (does anyone use that word anymore?) and style-over-substance approach into rock music.
Of course, artifice and posturing and soulessness (sic) was part and parcel of pop music, but I cringed when it became a force to be reckoned with in rock in the ’70s. And I sorta blamed Bowie and his glam-rock Ziggy Stardust crap.
So I was hardly amenable to being seduced into digging Bowie via his latest incarnation as a non-swinging disco artist. For me, the albums to hear in 1975 were BORN TO RUN and the long-awaited official release of THE BASEMENT TAPES.
But Jaytee plugged away, playing Right and Somebody Up There Likes Me and Across The Universe and fame fame fame every damn day!
ALADDIN SANE (RCA Victor LSP-4852) was issued in April 1973 and seemed to be a much bigger hit than ZIGGY, making it up to #15 on the same Billboard LP chart. But it took ALADDIN eight years longer than ZIGGY to sell the required number of units to be certified for an RIAA Gold Record Award in August 1983. With this album, Bowie maintained his androgynous image for both the fictional Ziggy Stardust and as the real (?) David Bowie. 4
Bourbon and the Beach Boys
The Disco Era was already underway and it was the time of not-too-bright guys with mustaches in leisure suits dancing with equally dumb gals with blown hair (ugh!) and slinky dresses (yum). And everybody was into coke and sexual (ahem) “experimentation.”
And despite the allure of that drug and its expensive sticker price, where there’s coke there’s sleaze and the ’70s was full of sleazy guys who missed out on the “free love” of the hippie ’60s because they weren’t hip or free and now were into getting laid wherever and however with whomever. It was also the era in which the term coke whore was coined, so it wasn’t just the guys, gals.
I was a bartender at one of the hottest singles dance clubs in Connecticut. It was one of the first places to have phones at each seat so that less-than-adventurous guys could call a girl and see if she was approachable.
While I preferred my own balls-to-the-walls technique (just walk up and say something clever in a non-creepy manner and take it from there), I understood the fear of rejection so I thought the phone thing was cool.
There I listened to pre-Saturday Night Fever disco records five nights a week. When I came home, I hoped Jaytee and Jays were in bed so that I could sip bourbon and listen to Neil Young or the Beach Boys or Sly on the headphones.
PIN-UPS (RCA Victor APL1-0291 with Twiggy on the cover) was issued later in 1973. It consisted of Bowie’s versions of twelve killer records by nine British bands in the ’60s. It was another success and another Gold Record. Bowie had planned a follow-up of ’60s songs by American groups supposedly titled BOWIE-ING OUT that was never recorded. PIN-UPS was the last studio album recorded with the bulk of The Spiders From Mars band.
Then came Bowie’s fame
Jaytee and I did acid regularly; Jays did not so she was our designated driver and general caretaker. If we did it during the day, we tripped outside. In the evening, we listened to records. While Firesign Theater was a regular on the turntable, it was mostly music that we played.
We took turns trying to turn each other on to different types of music. One of us would get the headphones while the other controlled the music. When Jaytee had the headphones, I forced him to listen to the Beach Boys’ SUNFLOWER and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s HAPPY TRAILS. When it was my turn, Jaytee usually played early ’70s albums that he dug and that I could at least handle.
And we were tripping, so everything sounded outta site, right?
Well, this night it was my turn under the ‘phones because it was September 6, the day after my birthday. Jaytee was in charge of the music. He primed me with some of ‘my’ music (it was my birthday, yes?).
Then came Bowie and fame fame fame.
And I had to listen.
It was part of the deal.
She wants the young American
I cringed all the way through the first side. To be fair to Jaytee, he really liked this album and wanted his best bud to like his music. Didn’t we all? But I did not like YOUNG AMERICANS and I did not get Davidf*ckingbowie!
So, of course, he turned the damn thing over and made me listen to Side 2. I made it through Somebody Up There Likes Me thinking that same somebody up there sure didn’t like me tonight!
Then came Bowie’s reading of John Lennon’s lovely psychedelically pastoral Across The Universe. This was perhaps the track I hated most on the album: Bowie’s desecration of the song made it even worse than Phil Spector had on LET IT BE.
I thought that Bowie just did not get Lennon did not get what Beatlejohn was after or where he was at with this song and that Bowie should have let it be. Now comes the fun part . . .
For those readers who are not ‘experienced’ in the Hendrixian sense of the word, you are going to have to trust me when I say that there no words to describe the effects of LSD on your psyche/soul, and the ways in which your sight touch taste hearing and several senses you don’t know you have been affected.
Hearing? Like wow, man! What’s there to say? Music becomes something ‘other.’ Something mind-blowing! The simplest and even dumbest music can be transformed into a senses-unfolding event: sillinesses like The Time Has Come Today (hey!) or Crimson And Clover (over and over!) can show you The Way.
And insights happen. They do! I know you’ve heard about how trippers learn the Secret of the Universe (and it’s so easy) and then forget it the next day. (“Jeez! I shoulda written it down!”) Yes, that absolutely happens—a lot!
But real insights happen, and they can change everything. I had my whole concept of and relation to nealf*ckingumphred changed the first time that I dropped a handful of tabs four years earlier.
And on September 6, 1975, I had one of those insights again and everything about my concept of and relation to davidf*ckingbowie changed! 6
YOUNG AMERICANS (RCA Victor APL1-0998) was released in March 1975. It was another best-seller, reaching the Top 10 and another Gold Record. It provided thousands of discotheques across the country with dance music while everyone waited for John Travolta and the Bee Gees to break disco into the Big Time. 5
Images of broken light
I was lying on the couch with a towel over my eyes (I always preferred headphones in the dark) and cringing my way through Across The Universe when suddenly Bazinga! and IT ALL MADE SENSE and I don’t know how or why there was no ratiocinating just cringing but SUDDENLY there it was and I got Bowie’s sense of humor his irony and the detachment the emotional distance I usually sensed and disliked in his music remained but made perfect sense and I grokked Davidf*ckingbowie!
This was exactly what Jaytee wanted, but he didn’t know that because of how I responded to this overwhelming change of feeling/attitude.
Because I didn’t throw the towel off my eyes and sit up and exclaim Eureka! Instead, I fell off the couch laughing! And it was the Firesign Theater / Georgie Tirebiter he’s a spy and a girl-delighter / Fudd’s First Law of Opposition kind of laughing!
I couldn’t stop!
But Jaytee could and did as he turned off the music and I stopped laughing and I asked why are you turning off the music and he asked are you okay and I said oh yeah and he asked why the hell are you laughing and I said I get it I get Bowie and he said then why are you laughing and I laughed more and said can you turn the record over and start from the beginning and remember we’re both tripping no wait I didn’t tell you that he was tripping too and that’s the way we did it and he turned the album over and I put the headphones back on and listened this time with a BIG damn grin on my face.
I had just had one of the most extraordinary listening experiences of my life and just like that, I was a David Bowie fan! It was with great joy that I accepted the fact that I had been wrong all along and the next day came out to family and friends as a Bowie fan! 7
And forty years later, it remains a moment of insight and grokking that I can call up at any time, and the smile returns.
I have been a David Bowie fan ever since and YOUNG AMERICANS will always be my faveravest Bowie album (fame fame fame fame fame . . .).
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken by Steve Schapiro while Bowie was on making the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1975.
1 The closest that I can come was addressed in another essay about being picked on and tormented in high school simply for being perceived as gay by a few f*cking bullies: “Were You Picked On For Being Gay? (Even If You Weren’t)?”
2 “Just How Does LSD Affect Human Consciousness? This question has puzzled users and investigators for more than seventy years. Personally, I have been more amazed and filled with joy wonder awe at the Universe Void God than puzzled by the how of these things. And that seems to be a defining difference between the ‘experienced’ and the ‘unexperienced’ in the world of LSD and any and all things psychedelic.” I said that.
3 In 1973, I visited my former high school art teacher Graydon Mayer in his cabin-like house in the woods along the Susquehanna. He showed me his studio and there on the turntable was ZIGGY STARDUST. Not a man to laugh without abundant reason, he chuckled and told me that he lifted it from his son’s collection. He found the music’s rhythms and the song’s sequencing conducive to painting. Mr Mayer was not the type of man I associated with Bowie: he was a watercolorist in the Andrew Wyeth mold—representational and conservative (and amazing).
4 The chart placement and sales figures of ZIGGY and ALADDIN are reasons why researchers need to know what they are looking for and the point they hope to make with their data when discussing the commercial “success” of an album.
5 I am referring to Saturday Night Fever, the movie and the soundtrack album, which was two years down the road at the time of YOUNG AMERICANS.
6 Any attempt to make sense of LSD and the psychedelic experience is doomed to silliness, as mine illustrates. If you’re interested, there is only one way to find out about what I am talking about.
7 After about the age of 10 or so, one of the few ways we humans have to learn anything new is to acknowledge that we have been wrong about something. Here is what to do when the errors of your way are pointed out to you: embrace those errors warmly, give them a big hug goodbye, then say “Goodbye.” Then let them go. Then welcome the new fact or truth into your life!