Bowie performing during the Glass Spider Tour, 1987. Photograph by Jo Atmon.
From London Review of Books:
Bowie in Los Angeles was a kind of mantic probe for young kids discovering the joy of sex, sexuality, art, artiness. He was going into areas that no one had really explored before. He left spaces for his followers: not just the hierarchy of stardom and fandom but a strange, astute, uncanny folding of one into the other. From album to album there was a strange, light, almost mocking dialectic: he taught us to be critics of our own enthusiasms. He was ‘post’ and ‘meta’ and playfully ‘iconic’, before such terms had any real popular currency. July 1972: blue guitar, red boots, jumpsuit made of cushion covers from a bad mescaline trip, orange hair, a Klieg-light nimbus around his ghost-train head. A big crooked grin like he’s having the best possible time, like he has just sold the waiting world a truly irresponsible dare, his arm curling around the guitarist Mick Ronson. ‘But he thinks he’d blow our minds!’ And he did. One reason for that blown fuse was that Bowie had already worked out that the best way to put across a serious point was to stage it as an almost luridly OTT showbiz scene. You have to remember that Top of The Pops was it. There was no pop media at large, only three channels: everyone in the country was eating their tea and watching the same flicker of sound and vision. And here was this flirtatious pop-art revelation, all under the disbelieving eyes of everyone’s parents: a cosy family teatime – then wham bang! Did you see that! What on earth was going on there? Then he was gone. There was no rewinding to playback and OMG on Twitter and sharing it on YouTube the next day.
The first girlfriend I ever had, circa mid-1970s, worked a Saturday job at the make-up counter in our local Boots; I worked at H. Samuel, the high-street jewellers. These were very Glam jobs, which is to say not at all glamorous, but rather make-do glam, British glam. With Glam you could always see the joins, the stitching, the wig glue. Whoever it was that said the Sweet looked like ‘brickies in make-up’ got it exactly right: a profusion of perms, verdant chest hair and vertical-lift-off sideburns. But Bowie was something else. Bowie did look good, even when what he was wearing was as silly as what everyone else was wearing. Beyond good in fact, otherworldly: his make-up was not merely heavy-handed appliqué, it was a masquerade with echoes of times gone by, and maybe some unimaginable future. How much Bowie was really Glam at all is surely up for debate. His aspirations were always different: he was always headed in some unreadably different direction. Even before Glam, if it was different he’d tried it. Before he had a proper audience, he rifled the cultural event horizon like a pack of Tarot cards: he was beatnik, mod, mime, novelty record maker, hippy, arts lab founder, would-be ambisexual proselytiser. (He even dreamed of staging a proto-Ziggy sci-fi musical, but was stymied by, among other things, how to conjure up a ‘black hole’ convincingly on stage.)
One of the reasons I’m glad Simon Reynolds gives so much space to this earlier period (in his outsize but periodically acute history of Glam) is that it furnishes real clues to later Bowie, the Bowie of superstar myth, the master manipulator, one move ahead of everyone else. In his 1975 Rolling Stone interview Bowie remembered being a ‘trendy mod … a sort of throwback to the Beat period in my early thinking’. But it’s easily forgotten that amid all the Genet references, Mingus namedrops and mime moves, the likes of Bolan, Bowie and Bryan Ferry were very much in love with, and shaped by, mainstream British showbiz and Saturday night TV. Recall: Lulu singing ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. Recall: Bryan Ferry duetting with Cilla (‘and special guests Gerald Harper and Tony Blackburn!’). Recall: a newly shorn Bowie guest-starring on Bolan’s camp-for-kids teatime show, Marc. This was what made them who they were: they could play in both keys, MOR versions of avant-garde modernity. People still get into knots about the ‘mystery’ of Bowie’s serial life-swapping in the 1970s, but he’d been pulling the same trick for years on the perimeter of Tin Pan Alley before he applied it to rock. A bit of sci-fi, a bit of up-in-the-air sexuality, a bit of scarves-in-the-air sing-along, a bit of an ‘Oh no he isn’t!’ panto vibe, and a lot of power chords. Surely one of the main reasons we project other, more fancy motivations onto the blank screen of Bowie’s waiting face is precisely because of its breathtaking and deeply odd beauty. If he’d looked more like John Bonham we might not be having this conversation.