Baal was the first play written by Bertolt Brecht, in 1918 at the age of 20 as a student at Munich University. It’s a strange piece of work, a hybrid of the classic nineteenth-century drama of Strindberg and Ibsen and Chekhov and something rawer that belongs to the twentieth century. Brecht had not hit on his radical methods yet, but his basic bitterness and skill with words is already present.
It is my belief that Baal, in addition to whatever other virtues it has, also served as some kind of wish-fulfillment for Brecht. The main character, Baal, is a poet of enormous talent who is irresistibly attractive to women and who also is willful enough to scorn several benefactors in the face of his own short-term self-interest. Here are two lines that illustrate the point. Early in the play a man says to Baal, “I can understand men giving their hearts to you . . . but how do you manage to have such success with women?” Yeah, right. Later on a woman tasked with looking after his garret whines about discovering yet another young woman in his bed: “Dawn to dusk – his bed not allowed to cool off!”
In 1982 the esteemed TV director Alan Clarke filmed Baal for the BBC with David Bowie in the title role; he also sings the songs of the chorus that punctuate the play. It’s fair to say, I think, simultaneously that everyone involved did a fine job and that it doesn’t really work. Baal is part of the distant past, and therefore it requires extraordinary efforts to make it resonate in our age, otherwise you are left with a bunch of senseless declaiming. Bowie has a number of songs in the show, and I think it’s not unkind to say that he succeeds as a singer and not as an actor. The skills required of a flamboyant rock star are antithetical to quality acting—as good as he is, Bowie never quite gets lost in the role.
Additionally, the production is rather stagebound—I presume it was some species of a filmed stage production—and the quality of the transfer ain’t great either. I found it very hard to get into until I downloaded the approximate text of the play (.doc download) and read along as I watched the play, and then it began to cohere far more.
It’s easy to see why Bowie was attracted to the material—it’s a Brecht play in which he’s an artistic genius/super-stud and he also gets to sing and act. In 1982 Bowie released an EP entitled David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s BAAL, whose primary purpose in life has been to puzzle crate diggers momentarily as they hunt for a mint copy of Aladdin Sane.
I’ve been fairly unrestrained in expressing my abiding fandom of the commercially underachieving ‘90s rock band Failure, both in real life and on Dangerous Minds. They had everything I loved—dense and creamy distorted guitar tones, gripping tension-and-release dynamics, emotive, anxious melodic and lyrical content that FAR surpassed the one-dimensional angst typical of the period’s radio rock. The poor sales of their masterpiece Fantastic Planet contributed to the band’s end, though time has rehabilitated the album and it’s now considered an influential classic, which set the stage for Failure’s reunion last year. The announcement of that tour made me as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning, and I drove three hours to once again catch a band I utterly adored but hadn’t seen in concert since 1992.
As it happens, there was more than just a tour in the offing—Failure have fully reactivated, and their first album in 19 years, The Heart Is A Monster, will arrive next week. I’m confident that fans of Fantastic Planet will be more than satisfied—I typically take a dim view of reunions, and if Monster was in any way unsatisfactory, I’d be properly bitching up a storm about it. But no. It’s goddamn glorious. The band conceived Monster as a continuation of Planet, and even picked up the numbering of its interstitial segues from where the prior album left off. I’ll not subject you to lengthy gushing, it’s streaming in its entirety on Entertainment Weekly’s web site if you want to judge for yourself. I recommend listening from beginning to end in a sitting if you can swing the time. (I should add that they’re on tour now, and later in the summer they’re doing dates with another neglected ‘90s favorite of mine, Hum, about which I’m kinda headsploding.)
One of Failure’s most illuminating, and just flat out most fun albums wasn’t even a Failure album, but a 1995 time-killer project. Waiting for Fantastic Planet to be released and unable to tour, Failure prime movers Ken Andrews and Greg Edwards teamed up with ex-Tool bassist Paul D’Amour and keyboardist Chris Pitman (Tool, Blinker the Star, and I shit you not Guns N’ Roses) to record a superb album of transformative ‘70s and ‘80s cover songs under the name Replicants, a winking Blade Runner reference. What could have just been a goof turned out as an extremely strong work in its own right, and their eponymous album is not just my favorite covers album, it’s been one of my favorite albums period for 20 years.
A contemporary article in the UCLA Daily Bruin of all places provided a look at the band’s formation and intent:
Ken Andrews, lead singer of the Replicants, has been stuck in a “Warehousy loft-type space” for about a year. Tired of the white-walled complex and its “big air conditioning ducts,” he wants to be out and on the road. But the tortured musician must continue mixing and producing in his “utilitarian” studio.
“I’m really sick of it. I really want to play live now,” complains Andrews. However, the current band member of Failure and frontman for his side project the Replicants manages to remain laid back and positive. And with good reason. The Replicants have just released a self-titled album of covers of tunes ranging from the Beatles to the Cars. Snatching countless enthusiastic reviews, the project includes the talents of one Tool member (Paul D’Amour), one Eye In Triangle musician (Chris Pitman), and one other Failure member (Greg Edwards). And, once Andrews’ soon-to-be-released Failure album hits stores, he will be able to return to his beloved stage.
Strangely, a four-track demo tape of the haphazard group landed on a desk at Zoo Entertainment. Before they knew it, the Replicants were an official band with an offer to record an entire album of cover songs. “At that point, we had no idea what to do,” explains a baffled Andrews. “Everyone would just bring up songs and either we would all agree or we wouldn’t and I think everyone sort of got their one song that maybe other people didn’t want.” However, they could all agree on one thing: The Replicants would have their own musical freedom.
“We like doing the Replicants because we could do different versions of these songs in ways that Failure or Tool wouldn’t,” Andrews says. For instance, neither spawning ground for the creative forces of the Replicants would think to record Missing Persons’ “Destination Unknown” with an industrial/techno spin. Each song was dealt with individually, following no preconceived notion of the album’s overall sound. This system provided a good musical balance for Andrews and his associates.
Some of the transformations are huge (John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”), some are closer to mere production-values updates (obligatory cover-band “Cinnamon Girl”), but pretty much every revamped tune on the CD has some kind of a tonal shift to the darker. One simple and actually sorta brilliant minor-key modulation imparts a wholly unexpected sense of dread to Replicants’ version of the Cars’ bouncy “Just What I Needed.” See if you ever unhear it.
Glamorous Romy Haag is one of the most famous transgender women in Europe and a cabaret performer of some renown. She is also well-known as a former lover and muse of David Bowie during his Berlin years (and indeed was the apparent reason for his move to the city in 1976). Her influence on his work is clearly evident in the “Boys Keep Swinging” video, where Bowie appears in triplicate as a chorus of drag queens.
Haag was born in 1948 and early in her life, the issue of gender reassignment was discussed. She developed breasts naturally. Haag left her home at the age of 13, working as a clown, then a trapeze artist with the Circus Strassburger before becoming a female impersonator in Paris. At this time, Haag began living as a woman.
After performing her nightclub act in Fire Island and Atlantic City in the early 70s, in 1974, she opened what would become Germany’s most popular nightclub during the disco-era at the age of 23, “Chez Romy Haag.” Celebrity guests included Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were regulars, Bryan Ferry, Freddie Mercury and Lou Reed. Mick Jagger was another patron and allegedly had a brief affair with Haag.
Haag began her musical career in earnest in 1977. In 1983, when she was in her 30s she had a sex change operation and in 1999, published an autobiography with the great title, A Woman And Then Some. She’s still an honored performer and going strong at the age of 67. Follow Romy Haag on Twitter.
Below, Romy Haag discusses her relationship with David Bowie.
Romy Haag in 1978 performing her disco single “Superparadise” on the ‘Musikladen’ TV show. Compare this to the “Boys Keep Swinging” video.
John Coulthart has unearthed an utterly marvelous find from the early days of mass-produced video music content—Cabaret Voltaire’s TV Wipeout, a “video magazine” that was released on VHS in 1984. Watching it today, TV Wipeout is an excellent approximation of late-night avant-garde music programming from the early 1980s like Night Flight, albeit less scattershot and more rigorously postpunk in perspective. Of course, Cabaret Voltaire were often featured on Night Flight themselves.
TV Wipeout, videotape cover
As Coulthart explains, “This was the fourth title on the Cab’s own Doublevision label which was easily the best of the UK’s independent video labels at the time.” The compilation has plenty of gems. TV Wipeout features an interview with David Bowie on his latest movie, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, excerpts from two Andy Warhol movies (Heat and Flesh), concert and documentary footage from the Fall at their creative peak, a video by Residents discovery Renaldo and the Loaf, footage of Marc Almond covering a Lou Reed song, and excerpts from cult classics like Plan Nine from Outer Space and Eating Raoul.
The footage of the Fall was taped at the The Venue in London on March 21, 1983. Their rendition of “Words of Expectation” is interrupted by an astonishing clip of the Fall’s manager, Kay Carroll, tearing the Factory’s Tony Wilson a new asshole for using some Fall music on a video without their permission.
(Click for a larger version)
On the next-to-last video, Marc & The Mambas cover Lou Reed’s “Caroline Says II” off of Berlin. For the first half of the song, Marc Almond is holding Genesis P-Orridge’s infant daughter Caresse in his arms until she starts to cry.
Q: The next Doublevision was the TV Wipeout video which was a sort of disposable magazine compilation. It contained a fairly wide variety of contributors, from people like The Fall and Test Dept to some more mainstream groups like Bill Nelson and Japan.
Mallinder: The point was that Virgin Films were quite happy to work with us; they even gave us money in the form of advertising revenue for using some film clips from the Virgin catalogue. We were then able to camouflage them into the whole set-up and make them look as if they were part of the whole nature of the video compilation.
Q: One of those clips was a particularly inane interview with David Bowie. Was its inclusion merely a selling point?
Mallinder: Yes, it was purely that. There are a lot of people who will buy anything with David Bowie on it. So we said “Fuck it, why not use that as a selling point!” Actually the interview is appalling, it’s terrible. Our including it was almost like a piss-take. We were saying “you really will buy anything with David Bowie on it if you buy this”.
Coulthart asserts that some clips of Cabaret Voltaire and Japan are missing from this playlist, but I think that’s not right, at least if the list posted above is right, it’s just the Japan track that is missing, and you can find that one here.
In May 2002, not all that long ago, but still pre-YouTube (which launched in 2005), the Museum of Television & Radio presented the first-ever video retrospective devoted to the career of David Bowie, at least as it was documented over the medium of television. I want to say that it was five separate programs of four hours each over the course of several days, but it may have been four. I saw the ones up to the Let’s Dance era, the point which my interest in Bowie admittedly wanes.
In hindsight, i.e. seen from the vantage point of just a few months later, the MTR program, “David Bowie: Sound + Vision” was obviously a way to screen some of the material that had been sourced for the selection of the 2 DVD set, Best of Bowie, but not used. It was as motley a crew collection of diehard Bowie heads as you could possibly assemble who turned up, but I doubt that any of us had seen all of it. For instance, although every Brit has seen the famous “Starman” performance from Top of the Pops, I, being an American, had never seen that one before. And this despite making it one of my primary missions in life to acquire bootleg David Bowie… everything. Many of the British Bowie fanatics in the audience had never seen “The 1980 Floor Show” broadcast on The Midnight Special, whereas this was the first time that I—and most Americans my age and older—had ever clapped eyes on Bowie’s peculiarly alien rock messiah presence via the cathode ray.
Some of the things shown at MTR made it to the Best of Bowie DVD as extras and Easter eggs—like the ridiculously contentious interviews with talk show host Russell Harty, who always seem to go out of his way to “welcome” Bowie to his program with an outright insult, a backhanded compliment or the impolite suggestion that he was either a has-been (this in the midst of the astonishingly creative period that begat Young Americans, Station to Station and Low) or only touring because he was broke.
One thing from the MTR screenings that didn’t make it to the DVD, but that one can view on YouTube, is this amazing segment from the news program Nationwide, about the hysteria incited among Britain’s impressionable youth by the “man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick.”
Three days after the program aired on BBC, Bowie announced the retirement of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars from the Hammersmith Odeon’s stage.
He had a mime act and used to open up the show. He didn’t sing at all but had a tape going and he’d act out a story about a Tibetan boy.
Mime act? Tape going? Tibetan boy? It can only be another reminiscence of David Bowie’s early years in showbiz. But this one is special: it comes from a Melody Maker feature by Bowie’s friend and sometime rival Marc Bolan. It appeared in print just six months before Bolan’s tragic death in a car crash.
I came across Bolan’s article, “Music-Hall Humorist,” in the foxed and brittle pages of David Bowie, A Chronology, a relic from the Let’s Dance era. “Music-Hall Humorist” first appeared in the March 12, 1977 issue of Melody Maker, a number that was heavy with Bowie-related news. Published during the Thin White Duke’s annus mirabilis, the issue featured both Iggy and Bowie on the cover, and the headline screamed LOU REED DUE.
The article reads more like a transcript of Bolan talking to a reporter than something he sweated out over a typewriter, but who knows? Maybe it was laboriously composed over a period of several weeks. Sure it was…
David is a great singer . . . he can sing anything, almost. I remember him when he was in The Lower Third and he used to go to gigs in an ambulance. I used to think he was very professional. He was playing saxophone then and singing. I suppose it was a blues band then and he was produced by Shel Talmy.
He did a record which I’m sure everybody has forgotten. It was ‘Pop Art’ – yer actual feedback. I can’t remember what it was called.
After that he went to Decca around the time I was doing ‘The Wizard’. He was into . . . bombardiers then. Don’t you remember ‘The Little Bombardier’?
He was very Cockney then. I used to go round to his place in Bromley and he always played Anthony Newley records. I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I guess that was how he got into mime.
Newley did mime in Stop the World I Wanna Get Off. The funny thing is that ‘The Laughing Gnome’, which was one of David’s biggest singles here, came from that early period.
It came at the height of his supercool image. And that’s very ‘Strawberry Fair’ . . . ‘the donkey’s eaten all the strawberries!’ That was his biggest single, so it just shows you it doesn’t pay to be cool, man!
Rock ‘n’ Roll suicide hit the dust and the laughing gnomes took over. We were all looking for something to get into then. I wanted to be Bob Dylan, but I think David was looking into that music-hall humour.
It was the wrong time to do it, but all his songs were story songs, like ‘London Boys’. They had a flavour, with very square kinda backings.
But in those days there weren’t any groovy backings being laid down. I think if he played back those records now he’d smile at them, because he was an unformed talent then. He was putting together the nucleus of what he was eventually going to be.
When he had ‘Space Oddity’ he was on tour with me in Tyrannosaurus Rex. He had a mime act and used to open up the show. He didn’t sing at all but had a tape going and he’d act out a story about a Tibetan boy. It was quite good actually, and we did the Festival Hall with Roy Harper as well.
I remember David playing me ‘Space Oddity’ in his room and I loved it and said he needed a sound like the Bee Gees, who were very big then. The stylophones he used on that, I gave him. Tony Visconti turned me onto stylophones.
The record was a sleeper for months before it became a hit, and I played on ‘Prettiest Star’, you know which I thought was a great song, and it flopped completely.
But I never got the feeling from David that he was ambitious. I remember he’d buy antiques if he had a hit, when he should have saved his money. David got his drive to be successful once I’d done it with the T. Rex thing. At the beginning of the seventies it was the only way to go.
“It’s so easy, a baby could learn to play it in fifteen minutes”: an ad for the Stylophone
David Bowie, A Chronology also includes this unsourced anecdote from March 1977:
While in London, David is taken for lunch to Toscanini’s in the Kings Road by Marc Bolan. After the meal, David and Bolan, both slightly drunk, wandered down the Kings Road singing. At one point, when in view of a packed open-topped double-decker bus full of school children, the two jumped up and down trying to attract the children’s attention shouting alternately, ‘I’m David Bowie’, and ‘I’m Marc Bolan’. Although the school children were none too interested in their antics, they did manage to attract some Bowie fans who couldn’t believe their luck when David obliged with an autograph and a chat.
I’m not sure if this is the “pop art” single Bolan was trying to recall, but here’s Bowie (in the Manish Boys) singing “I Pity The Fool” in 1965. Shel Talmy produced and Jimmy Page played lead guitar. (Be warned: there’s six seconds of silence before the song starts.)
ButterFly is probably the most controversial album in Barbra Streisand’s impressive catalog. It was produced by her boyfriend at the time, Jon Peters, who had been a hairdresser and had no experience producing albums (Allmusic.com credits arranger Tom Scott as the “real power” on the album). On ButterFly Streisand ventured far outside of her comfort zone, covering the likes of Bob Marley (“Guava Jelly”) and Buck Owens (“Crying Time”). Streisand’s majestic treatment of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” might be the most successful track on the album (this guy thinks so, anyway) but in the September 1976 issue of Playboy Cameron Crowe asked Bowie what he thought of Streisand’s version and this was his answer: “Bloody awful. Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious.”
As an album overall, Streisand has named ButterFly as one of her least favorite; in a February 6, 1992, appearance on Larry King Live a caller asked Streisand what her favorite and least favorite of her own albums were; she cited The Broadway Album as her favorite and ButterFly as her least favorite: “That was pretty lousy. I think that’s the only one that I didn’t love. I just don’t remember the songs. I can’t remember what was on it. I don’t remember doing it.”
I don’t know. I’m no Streisand fan, but from this distance ButterFly looks punk as fuck. The sly album cover reminds me of Alex Chilton’s first album Like Flies on Sherbert, and the choice to do those unusual covers exhibits a certain “eff you” attitude that I enjoy. If middle-aged Barbra of 1992 didn’t agree, who could fault her, really. The whole Jon Peters thing and whatever criticism she received probably tarnished it for her.
“David Bowie: The Un-Aired Interview, 1977” is all the information offered by the YouTube uploader, but the context is fairly obvious anyway: He’s being interviewed in a hotel room during a 1977 press junket in Holland to promote Heroes. It’s pretty long and if you’re a Bowie fan, it’s quite entertaining. He’s especially “real” and down to Earth here, obviously a rarity in his 70s interviews until this time (as he cops to, admitting that every interview he was doing during the Ziggy Stardust era was “in character.”)
Bowie charmingly and enthusiastically discusses his plans to produce DEVO (who the Dutch interviewers have never heard of), working with Eno on Heroes and the slog of show business rituals such as the one that they are all involved in at that very moment.
In the middle, Bowie does a lip-sync of “Heroes” while the camera stays in the control room. Afterwards there’s a photo session with dozens of photographers during which two young boys present him with a book about Egon Schiele (Bowie intended to play the artist in a film biography around that time) which he’s obviously psyched about! Then the footage ends back in the hotel room for more Q&A.
One of the questions we used to get asked a lot in the early days of this blog is if we thought we’d ever “run out of stuff” to feature here. After nearly six years if the seemingly bottomless pit of newly uncovered David Bowie videos alone is anything to go by, the answer is a definitive “No.”
Or perhaps I should write “Non” as these two er… newly uncovered clips, via the David Bowie News website, come from France originally. French photojournalist Philippe Auliac first shot Bowie at Victoria Station in London in 1976, the infamous incident (or non-incident as the case seemed to be) where the thin white duke was supposedly doing a fascist salute standing up in a car à la der Fuhrer. Since then he’s shot Bowie several times over the decades and he was kind enough to share his stash of Bowie vids with the world, which haven’t been seen since they were originally aired on French television in the late 1970s. (Two are embedded here, there’s a third, an interview at the Plaza hotel in New York here).
For your chance to win a print of one of his classic Bowie shots signed by Philippe, (as seen in his David Bowie - Passenger book) click over to David Bowie News and answer this question: On what date was Philippe’s shot of Bowie at Victoria Station taken?
After the jump, two ‘newly uncovered’ David Bowie videos
Shade Rupe’s post mortem on the “David Bowie Is” exhibit in Chicago:
A cause célèbre for art, film and design institutions everywhere, with breaking attendance records, the Victoria & Albert—curated “Davie Bowie Is” exhibition is a marvel of closeness that zillions of fans through the decades never believed they’d be able to experience. In 1983 when D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was finally released we could squint through the reddish grain while our alien lord pranced and rocked the stage through multiple costume changes, mime, sucking off Mick Ronson’s… guitar, and admonishing his wife Angie’s makeup suggestions with “What do you know about makeup? You’re just a girl.” But this is different.
Debuting in Paris this month at the Philharmonie de Paris/ Cité de la Musique before then continuing to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands later in the year, the collection of costumes, outfits, memorabilia, and detritus, is vast as this is only a sampling of what the curators chose after Bowie opened his closets. Bowie’s self-application of color and cream is apparent with even a tissue that once blotted his lipstick is carefully displayed.
For Brits the ‘big moment’ was the “Starman” reveal on Top of the Pops, a moment given further clarity with a crew member shot backup film. While many English teenagers first got gobsmacked by that moment, even younger Americans were similarly blown away after over a decade of Bowie’s starring bursts when he premiered his devastatingly electric art moments during his December 15, 1979, Saturday Night Live performances with Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi on backup for scorching renditions of “The Man Who Sold the World” (in a Hugo Ball—inspired hourglass-shaped tuxedo), “TVC15” (in a school marm’s green dress with Arias and Nomi fending off a pink poodle with a TV in its mouth), and “Boys Keep Swinging,” with a Silly Putty—bodied Bowie unfurling a plastic penis, twice (though only shown on the first broadcast). Both programs make up significant parts of the exhibit.
Scary Monsters unleashed the final throes of Bowie’s magnificent more-than-a-decade of blowing Earth’s minds before settling down with that album that can’t be named (and thankfully is left out of the exhibition entirely). The next decade is skipped until we encounter Floria Sigismondi’s music videos (she’s created four for the Master in total) for “Little Wonder” and “Dead Man Walking.”
Other highlights of the exhibit, beyond getting to get ::this close:: to the Starman’s magic clothing include a gift of a test pressing of the first Velvet Underground album, bequeathed to Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt by Andy Warhol then to Bowie who exclaimed “By the time ‘European Son’ was done I was so excited I couldn’t move,” the keys to the underground bunker Bowie shared with Iggy Pop in Berlin which resulted in this writer’s own desert island disc The Idiot, and the Thin White Duke’s trusty cocaine spoon giving the man who fell to earth’s Diamond Dogs tour that extra bit of futuristic oomph.
This morning Dangerous Minds pal Chris Holmes (he’s been all over the media recently with his “Anti-Paparazzi” clothing line) sent over the Soundcloud files of a couple of the “Ziggy Stardust” remixes produced, but ultimately not used, for Disney’s Fantasia videogame.
Although the remixes are simply wonderful as heard here, when Chris demoed the songs for me in his studio, he showed me his innovative idea for the game, which would have allowed the player to “parallel remix” (or “conduct”) the song on the fly, as with Ableton Live, or a similar program.
The idea for the remixes was to create fourteen separate remixes simultaneously in Ableton, and then have all of those tracks available in groups (drums, lead lines, strings, vocals, guitars) available to the user in the game to make their own remix each time they play the game. I think the concept of parallel remixing has a lot of potential in the VR, webspace, and future Oculus like worlds where users actions determine the how the music develops. It’s been sitting on my hard drive for almost two years now. The remixes turned out great, but I think the most important thing is turning people on to the concept of parallel remixing.
You could strip it down to the original version at any point or to a totally acoustic version, or go totally orchestral. These mixes have elements of each. It was very difficult because the timing had to remain in time with the original Bowie song which speeds up and slows down around 15 bpm over the course of the song. It would be far easier to do it with a consistent bpm.
This is the second version of our Fantasia “parallel remix” of “Ziggy Stardust.” This one is more electro dubstep, playing the game you can morph between any of the mixes and make your own using the game controller.
The stage director Jack Hofsiss called David Bowie up one day to ask him if he wanted to take over the lead as Joseph Merrick in a production of The Elephant Man. The actor who was playing Merrick, Philip Anglim, was quitting the role and Hofsiss needed a replacement immediately. Bowie had 24-hours to make-up his mind.
Bowie had spent the past year on a world tour and recording a new album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) when Hofsiss called. While many would have wilted at the thought of the arduous work involved in starring in a stage play, Bowie jumped at the offer. He joined the cast in San Francisco and began rehearsing his role.
Any suggestion that Bowie’s casting was just a novelty star billing to squeeze a few more dollars out of the play were soon quashed when the cast saw the sincerity and effort Bowie put into getting his performance right. Ken Ruta who played Doctor Treves was “unequivocal about his leading man”:
“[David] was incredible. Right on the money.”
Joseph (or as he is called in the play John) Merrick was born in England in 1862 and developed a strange and still “unknown” medical condition that caused him to suffer severe deformity in his features and bone structure, leaving him disfigured. Unable to find work, Merrick was exhibited in a freak show as “The Elephant Man.” He was eventually rescued by Frederick Treves, who became his close friend and patron.
Bowie first heard of Merrick when he was a teenager after reading about “The Elephant Man” in a book on circus freaks and human oddities (which also included a chapter on A. W. Underwood, the “Paw Paw Blowtorch.”) He later said he always had an interest in freaks and those on the edges of society and claimed their lives and experiences informed his writing.
It was certainly a stroke of genius to cast Bowie as Merrick as he brought an otherworldliness to the role and revealed a sensitivity rarely seen in his music or stage persona of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke.
As part of his research for playing the role, Bowie visited the London Hospital to examine Merrick’s bones and the cardboard church he had built which formed the centrepiece to the play—a outward symbol of Merrick’s search for peace and harmony.
Bowie performed the role without make-up and each evening forced his body into painful and twisted positions to become Merrick. His co-star Ruta said there was “a basic honesty” to his performance, but his best gift was his ability to listen to other’s dialog when acting. As Paul Trynka wrote in his biography of Bowie Starman:
His fellow actors found Bowie’s physical transformation into Merrick equally impressive. ‘He seemed to have captured that—better than all the other ones who wanted to be glamorous. He wasn’t doing glamour, he was doing Merrick,’ says Jeanette Landis. When Ken Ruta later watched John Hurt play Merrick, swamped under prosthesis, in the movie The Elephant Man, he found the experience far less involving.
As the play toured, the productions were mobbed by Bowie fans who wanted to see their pop idol or steal some personal belonging or item of clothing—even used cigarette butts were taken. Bowie took to carrying a few belongings in a cardboard suitcase and rather than living with the cast in an upmarket hotel, he stayed in rundown rented apartments where no one but a select few could find him.
However, the incessant attention from fans could be terrifying as it was utterly relentless. In Chicago a group of young female punks stalked the show attending every performance. On the final night, the group of six girls suddenly made a move for the stage. “It was instantaneous,” Ken Ruta told Bowie’s biographer:
“They were all tackled from the sides by I don’t know how many plain-clothes men. And they were carrying something in their purses, metallic—they were there to do something dirty. It was cuckoo that night.”
The production ran at the Booth Theater in New York from September 1980 to January 1981, where it received rapturous reviews with Bowie being singled out for special praise. The show was a sellout, with the opening night attended by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. During Bowie’s brief Broadway run, Lennon was assassinated by Mark Chapman.
In October 1980, Tim Rice interviewed David Bowie in new York for the BBC TV show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Bowie talked about The Elephant Man, working in theater and his album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
During the mid-1970s David Bowie entered his “Thin White Duke” phase, and this period has uniquely added to the Bowie mystique as well as become an object of special fascination to Bowie fans. (Among other things it produced my own favorite Bowie album, Station to Station.) It’s especially fascinating to us, I think, because Bowie seems to have lost track of himself a little bit in a way that was never true in any other period, in his phantastical ruminations about Nazis, Manson, cocaine, and his own bodily essences. Just a couple of weeks ago, DM featured a comic book about this period called “The Side Effects of the Cocaine,” the title of which comes from a line in Bowie’s song “Station to Station.”
When he arrived in 1975, Bowie was staying at the Los Feliz house of Glenn Hughes, bassist for Deep Purple, who lived just down the road from “the LaBianca house,” as Hughes recalls, being the site of one of the Manson murders in 1969, specifically the killing of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca two days after the murder of Sharon Tate and several other people in Benedict Canyon. As 1975 progressed and faded into 1976, Bowie would suffer from powerful forebodings right out of another connection to Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby.
Bowie in his “Thin White Duke” phase, here during a 1976 concert in Toronto
The artistic and sensitive Bowie clearly perceived a malign influence from the Manson connection to Hughes’ home. He was using huge amounts of cocaine. According to Marc Spitz’s 2010 Bowie: A Biography, Bowie was “obsessed with using occult magic to attain success and protect himself from demonic forces.”
(A brief note on Spitz. Spitz is not a careful writer, and his book is riddled with annoying typos and mistaken facts. However, on the general subject of whether he is a reliable source, he does appear to have gotten his interviewees on the record. Peter Bebergal, author of the recent Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, appears to regard him as a reliable source.)
According to Hughes, “David had a fear of heights and wouldn’t go into an elevator. ... He never used to go above the third floor. Ever. If I got him into an elevator, it was frightening. He was paranoid and so I became paranoid. We partied in private.” Bowie himself has stated the effect that the cocaine was having on his paranoia: “Cocaine severs any link you have with another human being. … Around late 1975 everything was starting to break up.”
Quoting Spitz again: “Bowie would sit in the house with a pile of high-quality cocaine atop the glass coffee table.” Bowie became obsessed with the book Psychic Self-Defense by Dion Fortune (Bebergal confirms this bit), which describes itself as a “safeguard for protecting yourself against paranormal malevolence.” Among other things, “Bowie began drawing protective pentagrams on every surface.”
As Hughes says, “He felt inclined to go on very bizarre tangents about Aleister Crowley or the Nazis or numerals a lot. … He was completely wired. Maniacally wired. I could not keep up with him. He was on the edge all the time of paranoia, and also going on about things I had no friggin’ idea of what he was talking about. He’d go into a rap on it and I wouldn’t know what he was talking about.” As Bowie himself remembered, “My other fascination was with the Nazis and their search for the Holy Grail. ... I paid with the worst manic depression of my life. … My psyche went through the roof, it just fractured into pieces. I was hallucinating twenty- four hours a day. ... I felt like I’d fallen into the bowels of the earth.”
At his wit’s end, Bowie reached out to Cherry Vanilla, a former employee of Bowie’s management company MainMan, who witnessed much of this paranoid, debauched phase. Cherry Vanilla verified the connection between Bowie and a “white witch”—racial connotations aside, and those are by no means absent from this story either, but the term is intended to distinguish witches whose effects are “good” and “evil”—who would purify his living premises. “He had this whole thing about these black girls who were trying to get him to impregnate them to make a devil baby,” says Vanilla. “He asked me to get him a white witch to take this curse off of him. He was serious, you know. And I actually knew somebody in New York who claimed she was a white witch. She was the only white witch I ever met. So I put him in touch with her. I don’t know what ever happened to her. And I don’t know if she removed the curse. I guess she did.”
This comic by Vaughn Bodē from July 1973 is one of the few surviving visual depictions of the self-professed “white witch” Walli Elmlark.
That “white witch” was one Walli Elmlark, who had taught some classes in magic at the New York School of Occult Arts and Sciences on Fourteenth Street in New York. She wrote a gossip column in the rock magazine Circus and had known Jimi Hendrix and was also friendly with Marc Bolan. A couple years earlier, Elmlark had recorded a spoken-word album with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp named The Cosmic Children; it has never been released. According to Sid Smith’s book In The Court Of King Crimson,
In June 1972, Fripp finished recording an album with a Wiccan journalist, called Walli Elmlark. The album was called The Cosmic Children. Side one consists of Fripp and Elmlark in conversation where she outlines her experiences and commitment to Wicca. On side two, she talks to DJ Jeff Dexter about cosmic children—spirits from other places who take physical forms such as Hendrix, Bolan, Bowie and Mike Gibbons, drummer with Badfinger. Talking to NME’s Simon Stable, Fripp stated: “The function of the album is to reach out to the children like the drummer from Badfinger, I want to say; ‘You’re not nutty, you’re not a freak because you can’t relate to what’s around you.’”
Elmlark had also published (per Spitz) “a cosmic paperback full of collages, poetry, personal confessions and observations,” which bore the title Rock Raps of the 70’s. It was co-written with occultist Timothy Green Beckley. According to that book, Elmlark was fond of wearing a “floor length clingy high necked long sleeved black jersey, and a floor length chiffon over dress that floats around me like a mysterious mist of motion.”
Summoned to Bowie’s residence, she quickly and apparently successfully exorcised the pool. This next bit is confirmed in Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie the memoir by Angie Bowie, David’s wife during this period who was also living there at the time: “At a certain point in the ritual, the pool began to bubble. It bubbled vigorously—perhaps ‘thrashed’ is a better term—in a manner inconsistent with any explanation involving filters and the like.” As Spitz wrote: “Elmlark wrote a series of spells and incantations out for Bowie, in case the demons return for a dip, and remained on call for Bowie as he continued to wrestle with the forces of darkness.”
Of all the people in this narrative, the one who knew Elmlark the best was Beckley, by far. Beckley was the director of the New York School of Occult Arts and Sciences where Elmlark taught and also co-wrote the Rock Raps book with her. In the Conspiracy Journal, issue #549, Beckley describes her as follows:
Wallie was known widely as the White Witch Of New York. Because of her contacts in the music industry, she had established quite an eclectic clientele for whom she would offer spiritual guidance, and occasional good luck or love spells, but always of a positive nature. She didn’t dabble in black magick or even gris gris (a New Orleans form of “gray magick” that incorporates poppets and the use of talismans kept in a personal mojo bag). Walli was lively, imaginative, energetic, well spoken, and quite attractive in her flowing white garments complete with fashionable silver moon adornments. Oh did I forget to mention long black hair, complete with dyed green streak highlights? Indeed, Walli made a very bold fashion and occult statement wherever she went.
There is surprisingly little about Walli on the Internet, for someone who “made a very bold fashion statement,” introduced Robert Fripp to the occult, and exorcised David Bowie’s house, you would think her name would be a staple in rock and roll lore—but it doesn’t appear to be the case. I couldn’t find a picture of her, aside from the Bodē cartoon above, and the main thing she is known for on the Internet is her authorship of the Rock Raps book. I was unable to find Walli’s obituary.
Spitz says that “Elmlark departed from this plane of existence in 1991.” Based on a few ramblings I saw on a message board I don’t take too seriously, it’s possible that she overdosed on barbiturates. Beckley, overly addicted to euphemism, says, “Several years went by and Walli met an untimely passing as she could not remove the demons in her own life, even though she had a dramatic impact on almost everyone she came in contact with,” before recounting a lot of incidents from the 1970s like the Fripp album and so on. His final words on Walli are, “Somehow I can’t exclude the fact that Walli looks down from time to time and perhaps sings along with David Bowie as he performs all over the world in concert.”
I don’t know about you, but after all that, I could stand to hear “Station to Station”:
I have heard—on very good account—that David Bowie is meant to be a total eBay addict and that having a conversation with him might often see his attention divided between what you’re saying and him furiously bidding on something. Apparently eBay is a great way for the thin white duke to discover all of the various ways people made money off him during his long career, that he was never previously aware of. If I were him, I’d do the exact same thing!
Well, an unusual Bowie item is currently on offer on eBay with four days to go, and although the price has dropped 25%—or $5000—it’s still got a starting bid of twenty grand. Perhaps Bowie himself is the only one who could afford this, but what a weird little memento it is: an original vintage photograph taken precisely at the moment when undercover cops in Rochester, NY slapped the cuffs on when Bowie and Iggy Pop were arrested for someone else smoking pot in Bowie’s hotel room in 1976.
The story is told in greater detail in this post I put together previously of the local news reporting of the Bowie bust.
For offer, a very rare photograph. Fresh from a prominent estate in Upstate NY. Never offered on the market until now. Vintage, Old, Original, Antique, NOT a Reproduction - Guaranteed !! This photos came from a man who was present when Bowie and Pop were arrested in Rochester, NY, March 25, 1976. Most people have seen the famous mug shot. But this is a “behind the scenes” photo taken with undercover officers. Officer on left putting the cuffs on Bowie. Kodak paper. In excellent condition. Please see photo for details. If you collect 20th century American Rock history, Americana crime photography, pop culture, etc. this is a treasure you will not see again! Add this to your image or paper / ephemera collection.
Worth mentioning is that the Rocester mugshot was not taken when Bowie was processed at the station that night, but rather when he showed up for his court date, hence the change of clothes.
Remember that animated GIF by UK-based illustrator Helen Green showing all the style incarnations of David Bowie throughout his career? It made the rounds on the Internet a few weeks ago. Dangerous Minds blogged about it here.
Well, someone—someone with clearly too much time on their hands—swapped out Bowie’s face for Steve Buscemi’s and… voilà! You now have this ridiculous animated GIF of Steve Buscemi that shall reside on the Internet. Forever.
I’m not saying this is great or anything. I’m merely saying… here it is.