I became a David Bowie fan – as I suspect many people my age did – following the release of “Space Oddity” in 1973. Re-release actually. Unbeknownst to many at the time, Bowie had first released the song in 1969, and by 1973 had had a professional musical career in the UK for several years. But to teenagers in 1973, David Bowie was new on the scene. (In fact, David Bowie continued through his life to be new on the scene every couple of years, morphing his persona and changing his musical style in an apparent effort to avoid triteness and predictability.)
Drawn to Bowie’s words and music, I plunged into learning more about the musician, reading stories in Circus and Creem magazines which at the time covered him the way media today covers Miley Cyrus – as a somewhat provocative freak show. Was he gay? What was with the bizarre wardrobe? Why was one of his pupils dilated?
I quickly accumulated all his albums available up through 1973: “Space Oddity” (which was a rerelease of “Man of Words/Man of Music”), “Man Who Sold the World,” “Hunky Dory,” “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” “Aladdin Sane,” and “Pinups.” I copied all of them onto 8-track tapes for my car. And I tried to get a Bowie-like haircut which made me look like a human toilet brush. Then in the summer of 1974, I caught an ad in the local newspaper for a Bowie concert at the Cleveland Public Auditorium; I recall the price of a ticket was $8. I resolved to see Bowie live.
I bought four tickets for myself and three buddies (all under 16 years old) which in those days required a check to be sent via U.S. Mail to some promoter who may or may not really exist. I didn’t have a bank account, so I had to ask my mother to write the check, which naturally begged inquisition. “You’re going to Cleveland? By yourself? With those hooligans? Who’s going to drive you? You’re driving yourself!? Where are you going to stay?” At that point my father intervened and reserved a room for us gentle boys at a Holiday Inn (I think) on Euclid Avenue near the Public Auditorium.
On the morning of the concert I headed west on Interstate 90 in the family Pontiac LeMans with my three droogs – at one point passing three Corvettes in a row – on route to the Holiday Inn. Fearful of becoming woefully lost I exited at the first opportunity onto Euclid Avenue – just a mere 204 blocks from my destination. No one told me Euclid Avenue is one of the longest streets in America.
We arrived at the hotel just after lunchtime, grubby luggage in hand. Imagine: checking into a hotel with no ID and no credit card. I just referred to my father’s reservation number and they gave us a room. We fucked around for a while, smoking some weed and strolling the hard-bitten streets of downtown Cleveland. I tried to buy a six-pack and was rebuffed. Believe it or not, one of the younger dudes in the party was successful at another package store (his hair was dark, he had bad teeth, the drinking age in Ohio was only 18 at the time . . . OK, fuck it, I was a loser.)
Later, we took in a swim at the Holiday Inn’s indoor pool where we encountered the only other occupants: a young boy about 3 years old and his nanny. The boy, who spoke with a British accent, implored us to play games with him in the pool. My friends and I took turns goading him off the diving board and playing catch, while the nanny looked on gratefully. One of us would do a funny dive off the board, and the kid, who wore a life jacket, would proceed to imitate it, declaring “I can do that.” It came out “Ockendoo thah.”
Finally, concert time. The four boys from cosmopolitan northwestern Pennsylvania strutted down 6th Street to the Public Auditorium. Although we had tickets for assigned seats, it became clear immediately that the floor was open to whomever had the guts to invade it. The air was thick with marijuana smoke. Most of the fans were dressed in appropriate Ziggy Stardust regalia: satin pants, flaxen hairdo’s, orbs painted on foreheads. Security guards stood on the periphery, cotton stuffed in their ears, planning to do nothing fascist unless something akin to a nuclear war broke out. The lights dimmed, the curtain rose and…
I don’t remember what song kicked off the session. I do remember getting separated from the others as I lurched to get closer to the stage. Many of the songs performed were from an album I had not yet heard: “Diamond Dogs.” Bowie was once again shedding a past skin and moving on. Unlike the glittery masses in the audience, heavily made up like oh-so 1972, Bowie was stylishly dressed in an off-white suit. His hair was bright orange, but cut in a style more like James Brown than Aladdin Sane.
Of course, he performed “Space Oddity” – from a crane that hoisted him out above the delirious fans in the orchestra section. I’m sure the band played “Sweet Thing” and “1984” and probably “Panic in Detroit” and “Suffragette City.” Like the puerile child I was at the time, I wanted more of what I was familiar with, but that’s not what you get with Bowie. Still, an unforgettable performance. The evening at the Public Auditorium flew by in a blur – partially lubricated by dope, mostly by the charisma that Bowie exuded.
He may have finished with “Rebel, Rebel,” but it’s also possible he performed the classic wrap-up “Rock n Roll Suicide” with its plea to the audience to “gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.” No matter. It was the best show I had seen to that moment, not to be outdone until perhaps a performance by Roxy Music in Pittsburgh. Or maybe by Todd Rundgren in Poughkeepsie, of all places.
Back at the Holiday Inn, we found the place to be overrun by groupies and hanger’s-on. It occurred to the boys and me that perhaps David Bowie himself may be staying in the same hotel with us. There was so much activity taking place in the lobby that the hotel bar was completely empty – even the bartender was AWOL. One of my buddies boldly reached over the bar and snatched the first bottle within his grasp – a nearly-full fifth of sweet vermouth. We busted his balls for failing to steal whiskey or vodka. Needless to say, however, later in our room we drank up all that shitty vermouth straight.
Anyway, as the crowds built in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, we became thoroughly convinced that David Bowie and his band would imminently walk through the doors and begin signing autographs or perform some such fan-stroking activity that our delusional minds imagined possible. Suddenly a bevy of gorgeous groupies in platform shoes, short furry jackets, and shorter mini-skirts bolted down a hallway – followed by every fanatic (including the boys from Pennsylvania). And in that moment, David Bowie most certainly entered the hotel through a side door usually reserved for produce deliveries. We never saw him, although we hung out in the lobby for another thirty minutes in futility.
The next morning after I checked out, the nanny from the pool came by to thank us for showing her charge a wonderful time. It seems the little boy had become weary of the traveling routine, following his famous father from city to city while he entertained the legions of glam-rock fans who adored him – but the four boys from northwestern Pennsylvania had made this trip to Cleveland just a bit brighter.
On the drive back from Cleveland, someone challenged me to get the car up to 90 miles an hour. I vividly recall retorting, “Ockendoo thah.”
Truly Unfortunate Timing
On the very fucking day David Bowie died, the New York Times ran a small piece that opened: “It’s a good time to be David Bowie.”