Rock’s Backpages Rewind: John Mendelssohn, “David Bowie: Pantomime Rock?” Rolling Stone, 1 April 1971

by justindburton on January 31, 2013

Once a month, IASPM-US brings you an exclusive piece from the vaults of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of music journalism and pop writing – as used by teachers and students at institutions from Harvard to Berklee College of Music. For info on group subscriptions and free trials, go tohttp://www.rocksbackpages.com/group.html or emailsubscriptions@rocksbackpages.com

David Bowie: Pantomime Rock?

John Mendelsohn, Rolling Stone, 1 April 1971

LOS ANGELES – In his floral-patterned velvet midi-gown and cosmetically enhanced eyes, in his fine chest-length blonde hair and mod nutty engineer’s cap that he bought in the ladies’ hat section of the City of Paris department store in San Francisco, David Bowie is ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, although he would prefer to be regarded as the latter-day Garbo.

In the studios of San Francisco’s KSAN-FM, he assures an incredulous DJ that his last album was, very simply, a collection of reminiscences about his experiences as a shaven-headed transvestite. In Hollywood, at a party staged in his honor, he blows the minds of arriving hot-panted honeys with Edy Williams hair, welcoming them lispily in his gorgeous gown before excusing himself so he can watch Ultra Violet give interviews from a milk bath at a party held a few blocks away in her honour.

Although he is the creator of one of the year’s most interesting albums, The Man Who Sold the World, he remains mostly unfamiliar. But perhaps not for long. The 24-year-old songwriter/singer/theatrician/magnificent outrage from London will undertake his first performing tour of this country (due to visa difficulties he was not allowed to play in public during his February visit) in April.

Bowie 71

“I refuse to be thought of as mediocre,” Bowie asserts blithely. “If I am mediocre, I’ll get out of the business. There’s enough fog around. That’s why the idea of performance-as-spectacle is so important to me.”

He plans to appear onstage decked out rather like Cleopatra, in the appropriate heavy make-up and in costumes that will hopefully recall those designed in the thirties by Erté. He says he will also interpret his own works through mime, a form in which he’s been involved at several points in his career, most notably when he wrote for, acted in, and helped produce the Lindsay Kemp Mime Company of London: “I’d like to bring mime into a traditional Western setting, to focus the attention of the audience with a very stylized, a very Japanese style of movement.”

Bowie assures us that he has already put that idea into practice with gratifying results: “About three years ago, at the Festival Hall in London, I did a solo performance of a twenty-minute play with songs that I wrote called Yet-San and the Eagle, which is about a boy trying to find his way in Tibet, within himself, under the pressures of the Communist Chinese oppression. I might bring it over to some of the bigger places I work in America. It was very successful – everybody seemed to understand and enjoy it.”

He is not overly concerned with American audiences’ lesser experience with and consequent lesser receptivity to theatrically-enhanced musical performances: “Should anyone think that these things are merely distractions or gimmicks intended to obscure the music’s shortcomings, he mustn’t come to my concerts. He must come on my terms or not at all. My performances have got to be theatrical experiences for me as well as for the audience. I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up onstage – I want to take them on stage with me.”

Bowie contends that rock in particular and pop in general should not be taken as seriously as is currently the fashion: “What the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analysed, or taken so seriously. I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message.

“Tell your readers that they can make up their minds about me when I begin getting adverse publicity: when I’m found in bed with Raquel Welch’s husband.”

© John Mendelssohn, 1971

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