Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THE OPPOSITE OF BOWIE


Time protracted as I walked down the corridor clutching my spiral bound steno pad, trying not to stumble. Hyperventilating almost to the point of passing out, my mouth tasted as metallic as if I’d ingested a huge dose of Owsley acid. My ears hummed, a nest of cotton and barbed wire stuffed my head. I was a teenage girl-sized Macy’s Parade balloon about to come off its tether as I floated dumbly by the framed platinum records glinting from the walls.  In fact, the walls themselves throbbed in slow motion like they were breathing.  I was completely sober, but felt unbelievably high. 

 I was about to meet David Bowie!

*       *       *       *      *         *
For anyone following Bowie in the early-to-mid-1970’s, he wasn’t “just” a rock star, he was an obsession. In a time when mellow rock ruled the airwaves, Bowie was a sensation, but a marginalized one.  His songs were highly intelligent and finely crafted; he seemed to know everything valuable about the culture of the world-and the Twentieth Century in particular- translating it into amazing rock ‘n’ roll. He also had a raunchy, cynical street-smart side, with the rumors of bisexuality, back-alley encounters and sarcastic songs about cocaine and queens. He served as ambassador and translator for all the denizens of the shadows, no matter what era they came from. Oh, and of course he was drop-dead gorgeous and the biggest fashion plate to sashay around a  concert stage.


He was largely ignored in America, relegated to a small niche on the fringes of popular music,  almost never played on the radio.  Because of that, he also served as a frame of reference. Back in those days, if you met someone new and they even knew who Bowie was, it was a pretty good indication that you’d get along.  If that person was familiar with his songs, or-even better -declared themselves a  fan, it meant that you both probably had read all the same books and seen the same films. Loving Bowie was like being a member of a secret society; it wasn’t just a shared taste in music, it was a lifestyle choice as well as an indication of mutual trust.



 In the aftermath of Bowie’s death, young people   from all around the world say Bowie gave them permission: to be different, to be outright weird, to be queer; and of course their feelings are totally  valid. But when I discovered him in 1972, there was no social media – hell, there was no Internet! Bullying, whether in cyberspace or real life was  “a thing”... and no one ever thought of stopping it. There was barely a Women’s Movement, let alone what used to be called the Gay Rights Movement…LGBTQ was a few decades off in the future. 

 As an errant and quite precocious twelve year-old living in a tiny New England town, one glimpse of Bowie was as though the heavens had opened; listening to his music knocked the Earth off it’s axis. The film Cabaret had just been released, and after seeing it once, I surreptitiously cut my junior high classes to sneak in through the side exit of The Palace Theater in Middletown, Connecticut to watch it multiple times.  Every time I did, I sighed  at the Divine Decadence of Weimar Berlin. Even if the Nazis were about to take over, there were trysts, sparkles and feathers, intellectual conversations, and smoky nightclubs, with painted up dancers, androgyny and overt sexuality. I longed for these glamorous, louche, adult accouterments and relationships…but it just didn’t seem realistic…like…at all- except for when I listened to Bowie. He understood, he got it.  I was a kid trapped in a world with vapid classmates whose highest aspiration was making the cheering squad; surrounded by judgmental adults (and their horrifying Colonial furniture) who thought I was stupid because I showed absolutely no interest in math. I was certain I was doomed and would never get out. Bowie didn’t give me “permission”- I didn’t need that- I was already weird and ostracized and had absolutely nothing to lose.  What he gave me and many others- aside from hours of pleasure- was hope for the future. Bowie was a lifeline.

My prayers were answered in 1975, when my family relocated to Los Angeles. Less than ten days after my sixteenth birthday, I was at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium to see Queen, when my life changed. Two teenage  boys coming down the aisle caught my eye.  One was shirtless and barefoot, in black pants and a cape, the other was all in white.  He was the spitting image of the Aladdin Sane album cover with a flaming orange shag and a grease paint lightning bolt slashing across his face.  As fortune would have it, they sat down just a few rows in front of me. Just before the lights dimmed, I wrote my number on a matchbook and tossed it in the direction of their seats.  

  The next day both the guys called me, constantly grabbing the receiver from each other for the hour or so we stayed on the phone.  The one in black was Georg Ruthenberg, and Aladdin Sane was Paul Beahm. It would be a couple of years ‘til they started using the names Pat Smear and Darby Crash, and formed The Germs.  

 We instantly started hanging out on a regular basis. We’d hitchhike to Sunset Strip at night, or go to Westwood to see Rocky Horror. During the long, whiteout sunny days, we’d cut school to stalk Alice Cooper or the members of Queen at The Continental Hyatt House on Sunset Strip or at The Beverly Hilton. Sometimes we’d go to the beach or perform Manson-Family “creepy crawls” breaking into  the houses of strangers in Santa Monica, just to re-arrange their furniture.  

 Until one day Paul-the ultimate Bowie Freak fan boy- somehow found out that Bowie was in town to record a new album.  Not only that, he had what pretty much added up to Classified Information: the album was tentatively titled Station To Station, and it was being recorded at Cherokee Studios on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood. 


Our West Side  shenanigans stopped immediately in favor of keeping an around-the-clock vigil in the parking lot of Cherokee Studios. We’d be hunkered down in the bushes or behind cars, in shifts as though we were on watch at an army base. Every so often, stretch limos would be parked there for hours.  We’d take special note of this, but there was no guarantee it belonged to Bowie, because people like Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Elvis recorded there too.

 Unlike the open hotel lobbies  where we loitered endlessly waiting for rock stars to appear, the studio was impenetrable. The heavy, fortress-like front door remained locked at all times; there were security cameras and a receptionist who sat behind a Lucite wall who’d buzz you in…but only if you had legit business there.

 After a couple of endless days on surveillance detail in the Cherokee parking lot, I was totally fed up; bored out of my mind and sick of squatting on cement wheel stops for hours on end. This was not the glamorous Hollywood life I’d envisioned. There had to be a better way to meet Bowie.

 I brainstormed furiously until I came up with a plan I was sure I’d be able to pull off. I’d call the studio impersonating an English music journalist to  “confirm” an appointment  to interview David Bowie for the next day… and  I’d just show up, announce myself, and get buzzed right in!

Because I’d literally grown up in the theater and was a terrific mimic, I knew I’d sound credible if I practiced. So,  right there in the parking lot, I drilled a posh Sloan Ranger accent  out loud for hours, getting the intonations just right. 

The UK had three major music rags: Sounds, Melody Maker and New Musical Express, which everyone called NME. I picked  Melody Maker as my "employer", cause it sounded the best.

 I’m from  Melody MAI-kaaah …. Heyah to visit with Dayvid BOW-eee.

  Finally satisfied, I walked to the phone booth on the corner, dropped a dime, and called the recording studio.

When the snooty receptionist answered on the third ring, I was prepared for the performance of a lifetime.

 “ Well, ‘ellooo love,” I said breathlessly,  “ I’m calling to confirm an appointment for tomorrow….”

 Somehow, she fell for it.

 Naturally, I couldn’t sleep that night; I was literally bouncing off the walls. I chose my  “journalist” outfit carefully the next morning: a  home made tie-dyed and rhinestone child’s size 6X undershirt worn braless,with a ruffled 1930’s satin bed jacket over it, tattered faded bellbottom jeans and mile high silver glitter platform wedgies. I brushed my henna colored mane and carefully lined my eyes in my favorite deep navy Mary Quant Pastel Crayons. 

Stepping back to admire myself, I somehow missed the fact that my chubby cheeks made me look all of nine years old.  I took the 83 Bus down Wilshire Boulevard and hitchhiked up Fairfax to Cherokee, adrenalin flowing the entire trip.  Pausing for a moment on the steps to try and collect myself, I hit the buzzer.

  When the cunty receptionist picked up, I was ready. Just as planned, she buzzed me in and I made my way to her little booth, asking her where “the session” was.

“Studio A”, she said, giving me what I interpreted as a withering glance,

 “ Down the hall and to your right.”


  Oh. My. God. It had actually worked…I was in! That’s when my ears started buzzing and the surreal, floaty Macy’s Parade feeling came over me.

I was about to meet David Fucking Bowie!

 I stood in front of Studio A clutching my Steno Pad for an eternity; I could barely keep it together.  Almost involuntarily, I knocked on the door.

 It swung open a tiny bit and a tall man in a brown suit stuck half his face through the crack, saying, “Yes?”, in a voice almost as deep as Lurch from The Addams Family.

 Once again, when I mentioned  I was there for “the session”, he invited me in.  Apparently those words were  a magical entree, like Open Sesame. 

We were in some kind of anteroom, the walls carpeted for soundproofing. The door to the actual studio was in front of us, closed.

 “Hold on a sec,” he said, “ I’ll let them know you’re here.”

 As he came back through the second door and invited me in, I felt like I was about to pass out. But what happened next was- and still is- beyond my comprehension.

 The guy swung the door open wide, and clustered around the mixing board was the entire Osmond family. Uniformly tan with feathered hair, their perfect teeth flashed like a Pepsodent commercial when they said “Hi!” like a well-rehearsed chorus.

 They wore matching orange football shirts with each brother’s name emblazoned   in white above the numbers on the chest: Alan, Merrill, Wayne, Jay and, of course, Donny. They looked at me expectantly; five clean cut humanoid robots with large brown cow eyes, grinning in unison.

 My own mouth fell open in horror as it occurred to me that these outfits weren’t stage costumes, but street wear. I was dazed; shocked speechless. I took in the whole scene wordlessly for another few seconds before bolting out of the room. I started crying hysterically halfway down the hallway before careening out the Emergency Door and into the glaring, merciless midday sun. I  stood on the sidewalk while the alarm screeched until  it- and the relentless hum in my ears-both subsided.

 To this day, I’m still not sure if that was a set up, or my own mistake. I’ll never know…and it doesn’t matter.

#

 Me in  a Hollywood Boulevard photo booth, 1976


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