Thursday, July 7

When David Bowie discovered America | Culture

David Bowie, in January 1971, at a party at the home of music promoter Rodney Bingenheimer, in Los Angeles, California.
David Bowie, in January 1971, at a party at the home of music promoter Rodney Bingenheimer, in Los Angeles, California.Michael Ochs Archives

In 1971, David Robert Jones, known as David Bowie, took a plane to visit the United States for the first time. A thrilling occasion for a postwar son who had grown up assimilating American popular culture. It was essentially an exploration trip, disguised as a tour to promote his album. The Man Who Sold The World in which – visa issues – he was prohibited from acting. Still, he took an acoustic guitar and a lot of clothes. Today we are amazed to know that he was flying alone. They did not accompany him or his manager nor his wife, even though they were both Americans: he paid for his record company, Mercury Records, but he paid just enough.

It should not be confused with an expedition of conquest, such as those undertaken by dozens of British groups throughout the 1960s. In London, cynics regarded Bowie as a sympathetic but fanciful chap, essentially a “one-hit wonder,” referring to Space Oddity (1969), a piece encouraged by the worldwide fascination for astronauts but which had not worked in the United States, perhaps due to its unpatriotic outcome.

In London circles, it was also known that, as the Beatles would say, David had a rubber soul. Had been mod, hippy, activist underground, actor, mime. During his time on seven record labels, he released rhythm and blues, pop, children’s song, light music, psychedelia. He had radar eyes and an infinite capacity to seduce.

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She arrived in the United States with a long hair and, for special occasions, dresses – “masculine”, she insisted – that covered almost to the ankles, the work of designer Michael Fish. “It looks like the reincarnation of Lauren Bacall,” someone sighed. In interviews, he played at sexual ambiguity –especially after tasting the gay subculture of San Francisco–, but the rumble of the world claimed that it swept through the young girls. Especially, it caused a sensation groupies from Hollywood: it was there, in a house rented for the occasion, where he could perform his songs, settled on a water bed like a guru from a pansexual future.

He was fortunate to connect with people who accepted his personality and facilitated his searches. In New York, there was Paul Nelson, an affable journalist then in the pay of Mercury, who gifted his ears with anecdotes of Bob Dylan stealing his records from him in Minnesota times. In California, the doors were opened to him by the critic John Mendelsohn and the hustler Rodney Bingenheimer, future promoter of the scene glam of the Angels.

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He made a lot of contacts. He lacked an audience with Andy Warhol, to whom he would dedicate a song, although he would later discover that they did not have good communication. He went to a concert by The Velvet Underground and, in dressing rooms, struck up a conversation with their singer (he thought it was Lou Reed, but it turned out to be his replacement at the microphone, Doug Yule). He did locate one of the avant-garde legends, the blind Moondog, who played his compositions in the street; moved, he bought her food.

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You won’t be surprised if I reveal that he transformed during the tour. In New York, he was a bit shabby, to blend in with the bohemian vibe of Greenwich Village. In the Californian sun, she pulled out her wardrobe. The chrysalis broke and the butterfly inside her sprouted: a voracious, ambitious, absorbing creature.

After a few weeks touring the United States by plane, train and even bus, Bowie returned to London reinvigorated. He did not say that he stayed in cheap hotels and that, at times, he shared a house with Mercury employees. He did say that he brought many experiences, hot plans. He had new songs, a fresh lexicon and even conflicting musical temptations: he adored the nihilistic rock of The Stooges, but he was not immune to the comfortable charm of James Taylor or Carole King type singer-songwriters, then on the rise. Rock would win, the final vehicle for a story that had begun to spin in Los Angeles: that of a decadent messianic star named… Ziggy Stardust.

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