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Nick Kent - Creem (August 1973)

Journalist Nick Kent was not David Bowie's greatest fan, especially in 1973 and this article contains both praise and criticism of him and the Mainman machine at this time.  At the end of this article you can find two other reviews/articles by Nick Kent: one of the Ziggy Stardust album and the other of the Earls Court Ziggy Stardust concert.

Some say that the only reason Mick Rock got that job as Mainman's official photographer/sometime designer was because Angie Bowie fancied his wife.   That's a solid maybe - you know how these kids like to dish the dirt around - but Rock was nonetheless given his chance to shine for one fleeting moment, being at the right place at the right time, his lens gleaming, for the summit-meeting of the O-minds.   You must have seen that photo: for irony and sheer cuteness it stands in a class of its own, cutting such previous world-beaters as the snap of ultra-cool Bobby Dylan and his self-conscious fledglings, the Byrds, backstage at Ciro's in '65, or Mick Jagger's toothy juvenile grin as he posed next to James Brown on an early Stone's tour.

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That woosome twosome of the time, David Bowie and Lou Reed, act as the bookends for this historic photo.  Lou's looking a trifle shaky, his puffy features pursed together as if to exotically mouth the magic word "Valium" while precocious David strikes a bemused, thoroughly English pose.  This is, after all, his show, and it's bad enough having to stand next to Iggy Pop, who's only there to steal sandwiches and catch a bit of the spotlight, exquisitely attired in a T.Rex sweatshirt and grinning maniacally like a kid who'd just cut a particularly pungent fart.  And, there, lurking in the shadows, is Tony DeFries: like Hitchcock, an extra in his own movie.

That day of course belonged to David Bowie.  RCA had paid for the wine and snacks, and had shipped over America's foremost rock writers to be initiated into the religion of Ziggy Stardust and engage in some quick tete-a-tete with this new crowned prince of the bizarre.  It didn't seem to matter too much that Bowie had actually been gigging around folk-clubs singing Jacques Brel and Biff Rose numbers at exactly the same time as the Ig had been following his own crazed visions of the teenage apocalypse through, and Reed, then stripped sown somewhat for speed, could find his way down to the darkside of the alley without assistance.  Bowie was prettier than both of 'em, infinitely more active (Pop was woodshedding for another dive into the depths, while Ole Lou was just getting fat) and English.

Bowie is very talented, you see, possessing an interesting ability for creating grandiose, thoroughly vacuous images utilised in everything from his songs to his public persona.  Without actually transforming them into anything tangible, he simply endows those images, with layer-upon-layer of synthetic sheen, so that one rarely questions their credibility, having been utterly bamboozled by the sheer scope of their superficiality.

Bowie's three albums preceding Aladdin Sane (where, unfortunately, style previously displayed has finally fallen in the trap of aping itself an consequently becoming mannerism) are absolute masterpieces in the above context.

In The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie's eloquently tortured wretchings are placed in front of a slightly bland but nonetheless effective heavy-metal backdrop.  David used such as Dante and Genet as kissing cousins for this plunge into the Twilight Zone, thus giving it all a rather effete edge beside the rest of the heavy-duty boys, most of whom have been staunch William Burroughs death-drug rough-houses.   But you choose your own snake-pit, and The Man Who Sold the Wold is arguably Bowie's best album, mainly because under all the exquisite literary allusions and innate stylishness there lies a true tormented soul.  The record makes a fairly adequate "Ying" counterpart to, say Funhouse, a product of the "yang" gang Stooges own vision of the gory depths.

Photos by Charles Auringer (above) & Richard Creamer (right)

Hunky Dory is a more abstract and comfortable creation.   When not involved in trivial occupations like affectionately parodying Lou Reed's song-writing style and writing the first up-front gay song to boot, or else whimsically crooning about his newly-born brat, Bowie merely contemplates the Twilight Zone scenarios he claimed to be firmly in the grip of on Man Who Sold The World.

On Ziggy Stardust we find Bowie now totally the actor, transforming himself this time into the rock n roll star with a mere flick of the limp wrist.  And what a great touch to set the publicity machine into full-tilt action: "I'm bisexual" whispers David, and the press hungrily hook themselves on the bait.  Of course sweetheart, isn't everyone, but Bowie testified to it while all the other blades were still in the closet showing home-movies of their self obsessions to a small clique of admirers.

Photo by Richard Creamer

Of course the whole Ziggy Stardust venture was full of self-wrought paradoxes.  The fact that he was both living and, at the same time, rigorously verbalizing/analyzing his own rock and roll fantasy is curious to begin with.   Then again, Bowie is no genuine rock and roller because, as Iggy Pop so prudently surmised: "David just can't dance." On the track "Star" Bowie portrays the would-be star as an ambitious innocent, while he himself is the world-weary near cynic, approaching the game like a ruthlessly calculating strategian.

But there's no real mystery to David Bowie.  He's no phenomenon, simply because by definition a phenomenon is something that one is instinctively drawn to or repulsed by.  Logic lays no part in the process.  The real victory here has been achieved by Bowie and manager Tony DeFries remarkable qualities as visionary show-biz strategians.  All notions of artistry take a firm second place to that.

No-one is prepared to state in what ratio Bowie and DeFries function as a team.  A prominent Mainman employee in England told me that Bowie is in fact the brain power behind it all, with DeFries very much subservient to his whims.  Another strong body of opinion states that DeFries is definitely in charge, with poor David becoming more and more a puppet to his manager's fairly grueling tour schedules and demands for new product.

Who knows?  Our hero is certainly doing heavy-duty on the road at the moment: a large American tour followed by Japanese dates and a quick jaunt through Russia, a mammoth English tour (two shows a night on many avenues) and, soon thereafter another reported 74 date American tour.  Bowie has six weeks off between English and future American commitments; six weeks that are slowly being eaten away by the constant addition of new English dates.

DeFries' actual groundwork for the Bowie invasion can now be recognized.   It was DeFries who put the personal finances of his protege back on an even keel.   Put on the businessman's suit to confront RCA with his manic demands in the early days.  Helped construct the mystique.  Manipulated the press and made Bowie an exclusive subject by declaring him unavailable for interviews.  Put out an earnest hype concerning Bowie's potential for "not being merely another Rod Stewart or Brando ... the ultimate star of the Seventies."

Fan and David Bowie (Photo by Richard Creamer)

And now? There are three Mainman offices - London, New York and Tokyo - set up to deal with but two clients, David Bowie and Iggy Pop.  Lou Reed was represented by Mainman in Europe for awhile, but left because he wasn;t getting enough attention.. Mott the Hoople were dropped because they were not "star quality."  Tony DeFries deals only in stars, you see.  Stars and money. "Tony is a great artist.  His art is in handling money, in maneuvering it so that it builds up.  He doesn't do it just for the money; its an artistic gesture."  That was Iggy Pop talking about his manager.  Since that time, DeFries as reportedly played a major role in the dismissal of James Williamson from the Stooges, a move that may have strong repercussions in the Iggy-DeFries relationship.   In the meantime, David Bowie is still very much the golden boy.

You can sometimes see DeFries standing at the back of the hall while Bowie is performing.  You can't miss him: debauched East End Italian face, big nose and an even bigger cigar fixed between his lips.  The clothes are tastefully trendy, while his features only hint at the constant motion of the whiz-kid brain.  As with any mysterious manipulation of fortune, the grapevine buzzes with patchwork stories: the victim of an unhappy childhood, the inability to deal with the human element, the loathing of drugs.

The latter appears to be particularly vehement, forcing Mainman minions who indulge to lock their hotel room doors and always appear scrupulously unstoned when facing the Master.  One prominent Mainman representative tells of the time she was temporarily sacked on the spot for taking an upper in front of DeFries.  She still claims to possess the ultimate respect for him as a businessman/coordinator, however.   They all do.  But let's not dally with the minions when the star himself is being neglected.

David Bowie is such a remarkably genial chap.  You enter his suite at the Detroit Hilton armed with a horrendous opening line like "what's it like to be rock's prettiest neo-Nazi," but then you see this slight figure - red Oxford bags, checkered shirt, red carrot-top coiffure, cheekbones like velvet dustbowls, with his decaying choppers pursued in a charming grin - and, well you just break down and act like a white man.  Here is an English gentleman for sure, surrounded not by a host of mincing minions and lascivious youths as rumour would like to have it, but a small entourage of close friends and carefully screened acquaintances.

Stewart, a stocky black bodyguard, sits by the door controlling the influx of heathens from the outside.  When the flow gets a little too heated, Bowie comes up with a kindly "Oh, now do be careful, Stewie," before returning to his place on the sofa, his glass replenished with wine.  The conversations dwell solely on trivia.  Bowie's in a good mood, having just scored a triumph at the first of his two concerts in Detroit, to the extent that he has allowed some of the girls in the suite to partake in the conviviality's.

Angie and David Bowie (Photo by Joseph Stevens)

There's Francine and her cousin over in the corner, holding onto each other in a mixed haze of excitement and Quaalude paralysis.  Francine's costume, made specially for this night by her mother, was torn when the bodyguards threw her offstage during "Rock N Roll Suicide".  Amy's dress cost her maybe $200, that's Amy over there with the black hair, all of 16 years old.  Bowie is talking to her right now; genial chit-chat interspersed with a liberal number of sloppy kisses.  Then he flits onto someone else, and it's the same routine: holding hands with the boys, letting them sit on his lap like a departmental store Santa, but never going too far.  The master of superficiality.  The perfect host.  "You know, this is the first time 'I've held a gathering like this," he says and you honestly believe him.

He keeps it all at a polite, genial distance from the journalists present.  After all, David does have problems when facing the press.  Loving to talk about himself as much as he does, he could so easily blow that "more-ethereal-than-thou" mute-faced facade that's been his calling card from the outset.  That's been another of Tony DeFries little tasks: to sublimate those sincere little excesses that could pop up during interviews.  So, instead, we have a blank-faced Bowie handing out mimeographed quotes like "I'm the last person in the world to understand the songs I write."

Outside the suite, away from the immediate throng of would-be scene-makes, one can hear Spider From Mars Trevor Bolder and some grotesquely fat Michigan roadie trying to drag a giggling sluttish couple into their room.  The Spiders From Mars look like amiable losers; a useful appendage to the current Bowie fantasy.  None of them, with the exception of guitarist Mick Ronson, are signed to Mainman, and everyone is expendable.

Ronson, though is Bowie's right-hand man.  A bluff, rather mundane soul with bleached-blonde hair crowing his hang-dog features, he is chief arranger for album tracks, a good technician and a dab hand at sincere Jeff Beckish guitar stylisations.   Producer Tony Visconti claims that it was he and Ronson who laid down all the backing tracks for the Man Who Sold The World album, leaving Bowie to appear, mutter an enthusiastic "far out" and write the lyrics as quickly as possible.

Of late, the Spiders have been augmented by a motley crew of musicians: old Bowie buddies like Jeff McCormack on congas and "Hutch" on rhythm guitar. (Hutch reportedly once constituted half of a folkie duo called Bowie n Hutch, who split up a week before "Space Oddity" was recorded.)  Perhaps strangest of all is Mike Garson, an adroit practitioner of impressionistic doodlings and Cecil Taylor keyboard histrionics, not to mention a devout Scientologist.  He was to record a two-piano album with old buddy Chick Corea before Mainman made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

The story so far:  Bowie's Japanese dates were only marginally successful while the Russian trek was "an interesting experience."  The American shows, more successful than many of his detractors would like to admit, have nonetheless failed to establish him as the all-purpose phenomenon we'd be led to expect.   Aladdin Sane, the new album, has been met with luke-warm reviews.

In Paris, Bowie was observed sporting his new '66 English mod haircut (yes, after aping the majestic coiffures of such screen goddesses as Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, our David has pulled his best trick yet by coming on as a dead ringer for Peter Noone!  Who says the guy's got no sense of humour?), and getting excessively lovey-dovey with his wife Angie.  He gave interviews to the press while there, throwing out such pearls of wisdom as "I've now seen life.  I've been around the world, and I think I've discovered who;s controlling the world.  And, do you know, I've never been so scared in my life."  Or, "We must not leave the young behind, I repeat that."  One wonders if he OD'd on trash sci-fi, or perhaps too many Ralph J Geason columns.

That second quote was rendered ludicrous in the worst sort of way when Bowie packed 18,000 of the sweet young things into a stadium at London's Earl's Court at fairly outrageous ticket prices for a despicable display of pure teenage exploitation.   The minute fraction of the audience who could actually see and hear were treated to the usual tricks: an earnest performance of material from the five albums, a lot of feeble miming and effete posing, and numerous costume changes.

The show was executed with such rigorous, constrictive professionalism that one wished he'd just drop all the grandiose pretensions and do something overtly ridiculous.  The band could've done a twenty minute version of "hanky Panky" or David could have dragged his wife on to do a Sonny & Cher medley. (Be sure and watch for the David & Angie Comedy Hour" in the future.)  Or, better yet, David could done a sax solo of "My Way" just to set a contrast from the horrendously prissy theatrics around which the live Bowie experience is built.

But of course, David will never take a pratfall of any kind. It's all part of the incredible solemnity surrounding the whole David Bowie operation, from the lyrics of his songs right down to most of the Mainman coolies.  Bowie and his people can't laugh at themselves because they've got too much paranoid ego invested in this thing to lighten up, so they end up being rigid, tyrannical and humourless.  Al of which doom the Bowie empire (for that is what they see it as) to ultimate failure, and most especially artistic failure.  To be a real star you've got to project some kind of human warmth, and Bowie is studiedly inhuman on the most pretentious and superficial level, just as Tony DeFries, for all his cigar-chomping Colonel Parker affections, and outright manipulations, remains more a caricature of that sort of tyro than the real thing.  It may look like good business (though even that remains to be seen); but it sure ain't good rock n roll.

Photos by Richard Creaner (far left - click for larger image - and far right) &
M.Julius Baum (middle photos)

Other Nick Kent reviews/articles
Review of the ZIGGY STARDUST album (Oz Magazine - July 1972)
"Aladdin Distress" (New Musical Express - 19 May 1973)

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

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)