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  The Lively Arts: I've Been To London To Visit The Queen  

"...Then it hits me as a horrible thought that I am attending the
nominating convention for England's first president..."

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by Alan Rich - New York (1972)

In July 1972 RCA flew in the cream of the American music press (Lisa Robinson - The New York Times; Lillian Roxon - New York Daily News; Bob Meusel - UPI; Ellen Willis - The New Yorker; Alan Rich - New York; Lenny Kaye - Changes; Henry Edwards - After Dark; Glen O'Brien - Andy Warhol's Interview and others from Rolling Stone, Creem, and Playboy) to the Friars, Aylesbury concert at the cost of US $25,000 in order to sell Bowie, who while well known in the UK, is less so in the US.  The press spent a weekend at The Inn on The Park and had an opportunity to meet Bowie personally.

Monday. Until I started work in this business I had always associated the word "junket" with a bland and icky custardy thing my mother tried to slide down my throat when I was young. One learns, however. Today the telephone rings, and at the other end is my friend Herb Helman, who is publicity boss at RCA Records. What he wants, in so many words, is for me to come a-junketing to London next weekend to hear some new rock singer who is, says Herb, "very big over there, the next Elvis Presley." (Evidently RCA approves of what I wrote about the last Elvis Presley.) I gulp once or twice, and ask for a couple of hours to think it over. Where I come from, people plan trips to London six months in advance, but then I remember that my passport happens to be in order, which makes me think that God wants me to go. Also, some brass here in the office think the trip would "be good for me," whatever that means. Five minutes later I call back and accept, horrified by the sound of my own words. But the recent Village Voice articles on junketeers' bad manners inspire me to try to set a precedent. I will go, and earn a good-conduct medal as well.

Tuesday. Two records by the next Elvis Presley arrive. His name is David Bowie and on the cover he is posing wearing pink and green filmy things and trying to look like Mia Farrow. I entertain new qualms, and decide that preserving my virginity suggests not hearing the records. I am relieved only slightly by the accompanying press release that mentions that Mr. Bowie is married and has a son named Zowie. Zowie Bowie . .. wowee!

Thursday. We gather at the appointed hour at the BOAC terminal. We, it turns out, consists of eighteen members of the American Rock Press . . . and myself. I am introduced around, and greeted In the main with incredulity and hostility. Ellen Willis of The New Yorker scowls great holes through me; she obviously remembers our little tiff about Esthetic Standards on television a few years ago. Ron Ross, a freelance writer who looks all of seventeen with residual baby fat much in evidence, is more explicit. "I'm sorry, l can't talk to you," he says. "People like you can't understand our music." Lillian Roxon of The Daily News melts somewhat when I tell her (truthfully) that I like her Rock Encyclopedia. Henry Edwards of After Dark, who is at least old enough to have his own mustache, pats me on the shoulder and says "Don't worry," whatever that means. Getting on a plane these days is like going to a performance of Liquid Theater. The only problem is that the people who frisk you bodily (for concealed skyjacking tools) aren't very cuddly. The airlines are missing a big bet here.

Friday. Smooth flight, safe arrival. Ron Ross's luggage is lost, which is a tragedy because it contains his English-rock-singer wardrobe, without which he cannot possibly go to any EngIish-rock-singer concerts. We pile into our private bus, which has both radio and TV, and someone tunes in on a London deejay. Immediately the bus comes alive, with the American Rock Press jamming and twitching and singing along like kids in Central Park with their transistors. I decide that the only way I can cope with this whole experience is through analogies, and the analogy that comes to mind is Harold Schonberg, Harriett Johnson and I on a bus, singing along and beating time to Don Giovanni on the BBC. I decide from this analogy that there is some esthetic gap between the rock press and Harold, Harriett and me. I decide that as soon as I've had some sleep I will ponder this esthetic gap.

The Inn on the Park is Sixth-Avenue-garish, but modern and comfortable. My last time in London, at the end of a year's fellowship, I shared a fifth-floor walkup with two whores who asked if I minded if they crossed the hall to the loo in the altogether; having my own bath this time is a measure of where I've come since then. The weather is sublime, and the delphiniums in Hyde Park make me weep with envy. Too exhilarated to sleep. Cocktails at RCA and a huge dinner at some fine Italian restaurant ; at both occasions the American contingent talk to each other and the English hosts talk to each other, like the senior mix's we used to have at summer camp. Some rough arithmetic tells me that RCA must be spending some $25,000 to bring the name of David Bowie to the U.S.A. And so to bed.

Saturday. The old cliche about music critics, that we are all frustrated performers, comes to roost with this rock-press contingent. Already the rock press divides into two camps. There are the graybeards here, pushing 30, the people who had interviewed the Stones in 1965. And there are the youngsters, whose greatest tragedy seems to be that they are so young that they think of themselves as rock performers when the world around them tells them that rock is a dying art. They write about their heads, and they think they are writing about the music; the only way they can write in other words, is by identifying. Ellen Willis and a few "older" writers manage to relate their heads to the music at hand, or maybe it's just that they've already heard so much that perspective has unwittingly come to them. But the youngsters do not yet live in this world, but in another which they have shakily imagined. They rush from one rock event to another: seven, eight in a day, matters not; the music becomes their iron lung. Ron's luggage has been found; we all breathe easier.

At five we pile into our bus for the trip to Aylesbury, 40 miles north, where David Bowie is doing a one-night stand at the Friars, which I gather is to English rock what the Manger at Bethlehem was to Christianity. I take my camera along to shoot English countryside on the way, and end up with a depressing series of English row houses which I could have shot in Astoria. Dinner is at the Kings Inn, built in the 1500s, with roast beef and vulcanized Yorkshire pudding built not much later.

The Friars is a large theater, about the size of Fillmore East. There are no seats and no air. The crowd is mostly 18 to 25, wonderfully well behaved considering, combining decorum and wild enthusiasm in a mix that seems to be beyond most American audiences.  Bowie is brought out to the alla marcia from the Beethoven Ninth (on tape). He is in a green-and-salmond-Day-Glo pantsuit, his hair dyed a blinding (Clockwork) orange. He is a pretty good singer, I guess, singing pretty good songs, but the show bigger than the music. The "fag" come on is not the whole of it; as a performer he is aggressive, not at all fem. Actually, his appearance is more that of, say, Julie Harris in Member of the Wedding; what it is is a mechanized, no-sex-all-sex presence. There is a lot of superficial turn-on stuff involving a series of sexual attacks of increasing intensity by David on his lead guitarist. Later in the show he switches into an oo-la-la white satin outfit with sashes a-flying. One of his lines "Somewhere, Waiting in the Sky" actually begins with a melodic steal out of "Over the Rainbow." But it isn't a show for Judy-heads, nor is there much of that element in the audience. It is, rather, sort of all-purpose decadent; the analogy, at this late date in the Rock Age, is the decline of Periclean age into the Hellenistic. And then it hits me as an even more horrible thought that I am attending the nominating convention for England's first president and I go out to Aylesbury Common for some fresh air. There is a sign outside the Friars: "Hearing Tests and Miniature Hearing Aids at Borough Assembly Hall."

I return for the last few minutes.  David is dashing around the steaming stage, the coloured spotlights changing him from one species of creature to another, the strobe lights adding to the illusion of a pageant of wind-up dolls. His songs have a nice, folkish melodic arch to them, and the words (about little people on the edge of big thoughts) are simplistic in the charming way that some of Donovan's are. But the raucous hysteria of his backup group, which brings every song to where the musical line disappears and there are just long stretches of blooie-blooie, spoils all his points.

The group finishes and walks off, and the MC says if we all applaud loud enough David will come back for an encore. If we all believe in fairies, in other words, Tinkerbell will be saved. Tinkerbell is saved.

The bus gets back to London at 1a.m. Half the contingent piles into taxis for somewhere north, where Iggy Pop and the Flaming Groovies are holding forth. I take my exhausted ears to bed.

Sunday. Haydn's Theresienmesse at St. Paul's, grand and ludicrous. Ludicrous because the sound drifting up into the dome and then out becomes as much a tonal hash as the mindless climaxes in all of Bowie's songs the night before. The sermon is nifty: there arc two kinds of love, our vertical love with God and our horizontal is love with other people. Then back to the real world. I didn't want to interview David, merely to sit in the room for a while and watch him talk to others. But I arrive when nobody else is there (except his wife and the RCA contingent), and so we talk - about his act as theater and/or music, about his American tour (Carnegie Hall September 28), about life. He is soft-spoken and reasonably intelligent (i.e., his sentences have beginnings and ends). Someone else asks him if he's queer. "I just like beautiful people," he says. I leave, and go sing hymns at Hyde Park Speakers' Corner. Later I learn that Bowie's wife, Angela, bit Lillian Roxon on the, er, bosom. "To prove that she's hip," according to Lillian.

Monday. In one of my favorite movies, Mafioso, a simple, decent Italian fellow is crated and shipped to New York for an hour or two' to take care of a Mafia contract, and then returned to his family as if nothing had happened. I begin to identify. Bleary with jet lag, I arrive at the office in mid-afternoon, where I run into Richard Goldstein, who was the the first rock critic I read with pleasure and who now tells me he's too old (28) to write about this stuff. Richard tells me about the great weekend he's just spent at Tanglewood, listening to Beethoven.

---This page last modified: 29 Jun 2002---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)