First published in the New Statesman on 6 July 1973.
When Glam-Rock superstar David Bowie flounced on to the Hammersmith Odeon stage last Monday night, recognisably male and not even partially naked, it seemed that we would be denied the phenomenon-of-our-times spectacle which your reporter was banking on. The preludial ambience, too, was discouragingly humdrum: behind me in the audience upper-class slummers boomingly voiced their fears of having to endure a “really grotty” supporting band; in front of me teenage couples snogged with old-fashioned – not to say reactionary – zeal; beside me a joint was lit and furtively extinguished; and on stage, prior to curtain-up, a fat old teddy-boy appeared, asked Hammersmith if it was feeling good, wanted a louder answer, got one, and left us with a lie about the anticipated time lapse before Mr Bowie’s arrival. Once under way, admittedly, that musician went through various stages of déshabillé – now in orange rompers, now a miniskirt, now in hot-pants, now a leotard – but we never got to see the famous silver catsuit and pink jockstrap. Bowie did, it’s true, have a habit of turning away from the audience and sulkily twitching his backside at it before floating off to arouse each aisle in turn with his silky gaze – but there was no sign of the celebrated sodomistic routine involving lead guitarist Mick Ronson, no acts of stylised masturbation and fellatio with microphone and mikestand. Perhaps Mr Bowie just wasn’t feeling up to it that evening, or perhaps Mr Bowie was just a mild fad hystericised by “the media”, an entrepreneur of camp who knew how little, as well as how much, he could get away with.
But despite these austerities the superstar’s dinky weapon of a torso remained the centrepiece of the concert. When Bowie entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet; during the interval, the fat teddy-boy lumbered on to coax and cajole everyone back to their places; when Bowie re-entered, half the audience rushed the stage and the other half got to its feet – or its knees. Interestingly, this physical presence was exerted with none of the Grand-Guignol goonery of an Alice Cooper (black leather and bull-whips) or a Gary Glitter (moronic foot-stomping), and without any of the sincere, and therefore quite charmless, exhibitionism of the beefy Mr Ronson. For all his preening and swanking Bowie often seemed a frail, almost waiflike figure, curiously dwarfed by the electric aura of knowing sexiness and modish violence on which his act depends – panicky strobes, dizzying light effects, a Clockwork Orange-theme ritornello, and SS lightning-flashes.
This incongruity may be responsible for Bowie’s appeal and for what (if anything) is sinister about it. Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants – particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising – self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him.