The Vaudeville of David Bowie

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I have found that there are certain cultural figures who loom so large (at least in my personal world) that I can’t just do a single definitive blog entry on them as I have tried to do with many vaudeville and screen stars. Maybe the passage of time has made the older ones digestible — there can be a summation. But there are certain artists closer in time to us that I have regarded as mountains too big to scale and so I’ve either sort of nibbled at them in partial posts that take on some aspect of their legacy, or I’ve just blown it off with an intention to take it on down the road. David Bowie was one of these.

Think about this: words are actually, literally inadequate to describe what he was. The best I can come up with is “cultural figure”. It doesn’t do to say what someone was by making a list, does it? “Pop star” is grossly inadequate — Bowie distinguished himself in many other fields, in many other ways, in far too great a degree. And he affected the world in some ways  that don’t precisely have to do with a career or an art practice, but more with human culture, such as redefining the way people see gender in modern society. And so you get into a list. But a list is “less than”.

It’s taken me a few days of rumination to figure out what facet of this amazing person I want to talk about, but you know what it is and probably knew already even if I didn’t. Bowie occupied the absolute apex of what it is possible to achieve in show business as a high art. Show biz is normally thought of as populist. It is famous for pandering and the lowest common denominator. Except when it isnt that. All its greatest practitioners were innovators with higher aspirations, even hidden motives, with symbolisms and significances and ripples way beyond what the mass audience might be able to articulate even if they sense it with their lizard brains.

This may shock many of my close friends, but I knew Bowie almost entirely from his presence in the mass culture: his hit singles, television appearances, movie roles, and (in this case definitely not to be sneezed at) photos in the press. Believe it or not I’ve only spent substantial time with two or three of his LPs. But glam has been a major area of exploration for me of late and so I am destined to explore his whole body of recorded work going forward.

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But glam seems the essence of what he was, and in a way it is the summit of what show business can be in the modern era. It is significant to me that glam emerged during the television era — and the color television era, at that. In this context, I have two strong associations of Bowie — television variety in the early 70s, and music videos in the early 80s. I was addicted to both of these televisual formats when they thrived. I miss them terribly, and today we have no proper substitute. Late-night talk shows and SNL do not fill the void left by the former. Youtube does not fill the void left by the latter. The eyes of America all need to be pointing in the same direction for these formats to happen. And while plenty of people watch late night TV, the format is not the same. Above all, modern variety television, such as it is, is visually barren and unimaginative. It’s always some monochromatic, muted, industrial landscape, with exposed theatrical lights and house grids, with predictable dry ice effects. This is without getting into how boring most of the acts are, both visually and in terms of what they have to say.

What glam brought to television in the early 70s (and what television brought to glam) is the rediscovery that performance has a VISUAL component and this is one of many things that ties it back to vaudeville. “In show business,” Sophie Tucker said, “Clothes matter”. Or as my pen pal James Taylor of Shocked and Amazed wrote to me the other day “Always dress better than your audience”. The picture at the top of this post is my favorite ever visual incarnation of Bowie — it’s from the MTV video for his 1984 single “Blue Jean”. (I tried to find a photo that showed my favorite aspect of this costume, the fact that he was wearing genie shoes with curled-up toes. You know, these kinda Hush Puppies:)

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People WATCHED Bowie as much as they listened to him. He reincarnated himself not just with every album, every tour or every appearance, but every time he walked out the door. This is how it was in vaudeville. Eva Tanguay was the queen of this, but really it was the coin of the realm, especially among female performers, who were the biggest stars. By contrast, men were a bore. In fact, you can say that for visual flair in costume in variety entertainment, men don’t catch up to women until the 1960s. The Beatles’ matching suits were an initial factor (followed with even greater flair by the Mods), but this aspect of rock and pop seemed to fall apart in the late 60s, when “nature” seemed to be the ruling principle for a time. No one got all dressed up to flop around in the mud at Woodstock.

Glam restored the element of style in show biz and brought it to unprecedented heights. Drag, dandyism, and theatre in general were major influences on pop during this era. Theatre was one of Bowie’s NUMEROUS interests. He had actually opened for Marc Bolan and Tyrannousaurus Rex (before they became T.Rex) as a goddamn MIME. Now that’s purely visual. No sound at all! The albums of Bowie and many of his contemporaries were operas, with stories and characters. In 1982, Bowie even starred as the title character in a BBC TV production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.  That’s all very laudable (in fact, I drool at the idea of a pop star doing that), but Bowie brought the same sensibility to his appearances in variety television.

Add to that, there was an element of freak show to Bowie’s act: he had those strange eyes (one had been damaged in a fist fight), his androgyny and his well-publicized bisexuality, which was almost unheard of at the time. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Book of Lists. One of the lists was a list of all the famous bisexuals, which included Bowie, Elton John, Janis Joplin, and Bessie Smith, as I recall. About a dozen names. Nowadays, such a list would be the size of the phone book, I imagine, especially if we include all those who, like Bowie, merely experimented in same sex love. But barring even whispers of the bedroom, make-up and nail polish on men in the early 70s was a very daring choice. Still is, actually, but when Bowie did it, it had not previously been done in mainstream show biz, aside from female impersonators and comedians.

"Can ya hear me, Majah Tom?"
“Can ya hear me, Majah Tom?”

Glam and variety television were a glorious mash-up of past, present and future. Future? Most of the glam artists were obsessed with rockets and space travel, both in subject matter for songs, but often in how the performers looked, as well. I think of them wearing silver space suits all the time, and plastic and synthetics, and platform shoes and padded gloves. At the same time, they’d raid the consignment shop for old hats and suits, and feather boas, and women’s coats. Camp and nostalgia were major elements. Young stars like Bowie would interact with old stars from the 1930s. Bowie was a trailblazer even as he drew from the past. He was there to take charge of passed torches. In 1977 he did that famous Christmas duet with Bing Crosby, “Peace on Earth/ The Little Drummer Boy“). That was variety television at its best. (The result was later released as a single). That was Bing’s last tv appearance (posthumous, in fact). Then in 1978, Bowie appeared with Marlene Dietrich in the film Just a Gigolo, which proved to be her last movie. And while Bowie obviously started out in rock (and emulated the usual rock and roll heroes, especially in the beginning) I read recently that one of his greatest influences as a singer was the very old school Anthony Newley, which is a validation of a quality I’d always perceived in his music. There are certain vocal things he does that sound a LOT like Anthony Newley.

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A lot of my friends who are just a little bit younger than me have been very broken up by his passing. I think, being younger, their pathway in to him was quite a bit different from mine. My first awareness of him came with his hit 1975 singles “Fame” and “Golden Years”. I really loved both songs, and actually spent time trying to break them down and decipher them. To me at the age of ten, they both sounded strange and a little scary, and were quite different from other songs on the radio. And as I began to explore FM radio a little later, it seems to me I heard  “Space Oddity” and “Changes” in rotation quite a lot.  But the context was listening to him on the radio, usually top 40 radio, and seeing him occasionally on television. My first Bowie album was “Let’s Dance”, the most commercial thing he ever did. And then I saw nearly every movie he did in the 80s in the cinema: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), The Hunger (1983), Absolute Beginners (1986), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). (Ironically I didn’t see Labyrinth until this year). And I have seen almost all of his other movies by this point. Which means that I have experienced him much more as a movie star than as what he is to many people — a genius creator of rock concept albums.

He was so influential on younger generations of musicians, New Wave, New Romanticism — he is like the towering giant who lords over that stuff. I think many younger people discovered him that way first, that was their pathway in, and they’ll always see him that way. Something close to the way I look at Elvis and The Beatles, part of the firmament of the world before I was born. It’s a kind of trauma that I can fully understand. My pathway in, though, was show business, and my sadness is tinged with nostalgia. And how I miss catching appearances like this one, with another glamorous master of television variety and vaudeville values, Cher:

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