1973 The Year Bowie Came to Blackburn – Ongoing Series of Celebrations
“From Ibiza To The Norfolk Broads” – Bury Met Theatre
Lazarus – Kings Cross Theatre London
It was stalking time for the moonboys.
A year on from David Bowie’s still practically-impossible-to-process and come-to-terms-with passing, the children, and now grandchildren of Ziggy seem almost as busy and active as in that period around the turn of the 1980’s when the Durannies, Spandaus, Almonds, McCullochs, Numans and Boy Georges re-dressed punk up with a glam twist and filtered their hero’s brilliance through exciting new, if not exactly as revolutionary as the original, prisms.
January 2017 was always going to be a notable anniversary month, the month we hoped we would be celebrating the Thin White Duke’s 70th birthday and hoping that his Indian summer of late activity would continue on the creative roll which yielded the brilliant and incredibly un-pre-publicised “Where Are We Now” single and punchy, energised “The Next Day” album, recorded amid secrecy and non-disclosure arrangements with participating musicians, followed by the truly astonishing “Blackstar”, his most intriguing, mysterious, edgy and plain strange sounding piece of work since the StationTo Station to Heroes run (I always class those three as more of a true trilogy of genius than the accepted “Berlin” treble which actually includes the enjoyable but lightweight and poppy in comparison Lodger).
Instead we marked the swift fast-forward button taking us 365 (366?) days on from his death.
Perhaps unsurprisingly however the calendar and various other agencies – notably my wife and the lovely, clever people at Dovetail agency (more of whom later) added further poignancy to the January of my own 58th birthday by presenting me with a month of Bowie-related delights (And I’m not finished yet…we have a Bowie’s Berlin walking tour booked for May).
The whole 2017 shebang began with a rich but delightful piece of musical serendipity.
The last gig I went to in 2016 was a now 77-year-old Ian Hunter with his highly-skilled Rant Band at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (a lovely welcoming venue if you spot anyone you fancy seeing play there).
What else could be the final song of a Hunter show of course but “All The Young Dudes.”
At the opening event of “1973 – The Year Bowie Came To Blackburn” in early January a nostalgic and retrospective but also forward-looking and musically creative project led by the Dovetail creative team, Teri Birtwistle, a young student from Blackburn’s McNally Music Tuition, another of the project partners, took the stage in Blakeys and strummed, clarion clear and sparkling, a chord sequence seldom heard acoustically.
She first a little nervously approached the mike and sang, beautifully: “Billy rapped all night about suicide…”
It was a real moment of musical and cultural synchronicity and an amazing moment of déjà vu. Hunter was also the last front man onstage at King George’s Hall in that year of 1973 in November (on Princess Anne’s wedding day – we got a day off school!) we were celebrating and though I can’t be exactly certain, “Dudes” would almost surely be the last song performed on that stage that year.
Hearing it stripped down to its lovely acoustic bare bones as I never before have done – maybe Bowie wrote it like that but even his “guide vocal” demo is Ronson’d up to maximum volume – highlighted that while this is a nostalgia trip at a pertinent time, new blood and re-interpretation mark the undertaking as something taking the best of the past into the future.
Sadly, with Bowie and two more of his Spiders already gone, not to mention Freddie Mercury whose band so jaw-droppingly supported Mott that night, Hoople bassist Pete “Overend” Watts died last week to join his bandmate Dale “Buffin” Griffin in the Upstairs Star Bar. Drummer Griffin passed away on January 17th last year, almost completely under the radar during the outpouring of Bowie grief.
It was a reminder to all of us at those ’73 extravaganzas that most of us have more road behind us than in front. This stuff needs documenting and these experiences want recording and Dovetail are offering a great platform for that.
I was 14 at that ’73 gig and at that time liking Bowie or, crime of crimes, getting his album out of your Reidys Home of Music yellow plastic carrier on the bus was an invitation to be ridiculed, humiliated or much physically worse by hairy sixth formers on a diet of Heep, Tull, ELP and possibly even ferociously bearded old Edgar Broughton and his hirsute combo, first men up in King Georges 1973!
Roll on three years and by 1976 at 17 I was, I imagined, acne-free, floppy-fringed confident hip priest of the common room. There was now no stigma about worshipping the world’ hottest ticket.
Many years later I asked a girl I’d gone out with at school why she picked me out of all the jocks and footballers who were lusting after her.
“I walked into the rec room one day and you were sat in the sunlight with shades on an old beaten chair smoking a fag blowing smoke rings reading the NME having insisted on putting side two of “Low” on,” she said.
“As a girl at a lads’ school I felt every pair of eyes on me. You barely gave a cursory glance.”
“Nobody else would have dared done that. I knew you were the one in that moment.”
She then proper spoiled the tale by admitting she delayed dumping me by a month to make sure she was my plus one for the “Stage” tour at Stafford Bingley Hall the night after the 1978 World Cup Final.
Bowie had moved on so quickly and quantumly from Ziggy by then and his material was so outré, experimental, avant-garde and futuristic that when he played a medley of Ziggy songs just six years after that album’s release it already sounded like pure nostalgia.
In six years these days U2 might have sorted a snare drum sound out and decided on a studio.
Ziggy. Aladdin Sane. Pin-Ups. Diamond Dogs. David Live . Young Americans. Station To Station. Low. Heroes. Stage. Okay the live albums were ordinary but for that still barely believable run alone (we’ll leave Hunky Dory in 1971) he should have a statue erected in every locality in the Kingdom.
After I was asked to say a few words to a healthy Blakeys attendance by Ian Alderson who has co-ordinated much of the programme and I managed to get on and off without being booed or boring anyone to tears it seemed.
This Saturday, at The Bureau Centre for the Arts at St John’s Church, Victoria Street, Blackburn (1pm – 5pm) , I’m looking forward to the next event in the series, including presentations by Ian and music author and “Bowie course” tutor Dr Toby Manning. Who knows, if it’s good and there are plenty of you to chat to, I might even give the Rovers a miss!
If it’s as enjoyable as the two very different Bowie-drenched dramatic productions I saw this month, it’ll be some afternoon.
“From Ibiza To The Norfolk Broads,” written and directed by Adrian Berry, at the tastefully refurbished Bury Met, was a one-man tour de force starring Alex Walton, about a young man with a dysfunctional grip on life.
The teenager, whose father walked out during his infancy leaving a broken but spirited mother who has a drink problem, discovers and becomes obsessed by Bowie through chancing upon his departed dad’s records. On his 18th birthday he’s handed a communication from the absent father which leads him on a tour of Bowie landmarks where he’s encouraged to overcome his communication difficulties but ultimately discovers that further dreams of the contact he really longs for may be a forlorn hope.
Peppered with Bowie tunes throughout, permission to play the recorded versions having been granted, Alex Walton plays his own part and inventively supplies the voices of several unseen characters.
My 12-year-old daughter who is dedicated in her drama classes and does very well at them was rapt at seeing how high Walton raised the bar with the range and physicality of his performance.
“Lazarus” two days later was the third-last performance of what I’d been warned before was a dense, obtuse, hard-to-follow piece of work.
Staged in a specially-constructed theatre behind Kings Cross St Pancras it was a poignant walk to the venue (after the usual obligatory half hour on Heddon Street) knowing, having fastidiously avoided seeing any other detail in reviews, clips or word-of-mouth accounts, that 45 years after discovering “Starman” courtesy of a lifelong gay friend (before I actually knew with any certainty what gay even meant ) that this would probably be the last “new” piece of Bowie work I’d ever see.
He’d been linked with so many theatrical ideas – “1984,” a Ziggy musical (lord, we even missed out on the Diamond Dogs concerts here) – I’d effectively given up on it ever happening. I never caught him in the Elephant Man and nobody really deserves to recall The Glass Spider Tour as their last quasi-theatrical Bowie memory.
We’ve all read enough of the “he staged his own death as an art happening” stuff – this was a husband and dad remember – but it’s clear that he’d put more into Blackstar and Lazarus than could be reasonably expected of a man in his late 60’s with extreme medical problems so both the album and musical contain a sense of the urgency and acceleration he drove them with.
My wife is far more of a stage musicals type than me but thank goodness I insisted she watch “The Man Who Fell To Earth” with me two days earlier. Sci-fi films certainly aren’t her bag and there are moments in that movie that still baffle me 40 years after a bunch of those 1976 sixth-former hipsters traipsed across from Blackburn Boulevard to see it. (My mate Chris, gloriously in powder-blue suit and fedora!)
I’m sure anyone unfamiliar with Nic Roeg’s lengthy adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel would be quite lost.
In actual fact, I found much of the narrative of the play pretty easy to follow in the light of what I’d been led to expect.
There were a couple of characters baffling and unexplained and certainly not present in the film (I admit the psychotic schizo Valentine’s exact role in the stage plot bemused me other than to crowbar “Valentine’s Day” in …but did anyone else make the connection that the Mars-raised Earthling in another novel Bowie was once linked with starring in a film of, Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger In a Strange Land” was named Michael Valentine Smith?).
Michael Hall (Six Feet Under, Dexter) was immense as the reprised Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien broken by the failed quest to save his own planet in the film. Years on, he is mired in the alcoholism and loneliness he was abandoned in back in ’76.
Jettisoned too by his one-time earth love Mary Lou (played by Candy Clark in the film, though reportedly Bowie and Candy didn’t hit it off as well as they seemed to in the racy scenes which had our 17-year-old eyes a-boggling sat in the Majestic ) Newton, still wealthy, retains the ability to intrigue all around him whether their motives are fired by the search for money, sex or friendship.
The ethereal ghost guardian angel character spectacularly made beguilingly flesh by strikingly other-wordly teenager Sophie Ann Caruso (who it seems spent every pre-show meeting and greeting fans and happily signing stuff) seems to connect the half-mad Newton to the terrestrial past, his lost existence on his native planet and a half-imagined future in which he’ll complete his original mission.
Bowie having steered the production, Mama Mia it is not of course but the trump card it has to play was always going to be his back and late-life catalogue.
His Next Day/Lazarus burst of genius extended into three brand new songs from the Blackstar sessions written for Lazarus and with the band inventively visible on a raised platform behind glass screens, they were given possibly better context-fitting performances here than he himself gave them as bonus tracks on the excellent cast recording.
Set pieces such as the title track, Life On Mars (cleverly just a little understated to avoid histrionic Streisandian sturm und drang) and Changes were always going to be a shoe-in and I’d make a decent arguement that Absolute Beginners should be shoe-horned into every musical theatre production of anything anywhere ever.
Shoe-horned is probably the word for a couple of numbers in Lazarus – “All The Young Dudes” was here again but the sequence rather puzzled and if it’s difficult to fathom how some “Bowie’s seventies Berlin” projected footage fits, well, the fact that Hall gets to demonstrate what a deceptively magnificent, layered song “Where Are We Now” is surely reason enough to allow a few characteristically elliptical DB tangents.
My favourite musical moment (as opposed to “Musical!” moment) was Hall’s manic reading of “It’s No Game” which would be in my Top 5 of criminally under-rated Bowie songs (which The “Cygnet Committee” would top).
Retaining the fierce Japanese half-spoken half-shrieked Geisha Girl sections from the Scary Monsters opening version it perfectly mirrored the section in the film in which a disturbed Newton flees a restaurant while a violent Kabuki theatre scene is providing accompaniment to his meal.(Intercut with with a student/lecturer sex scene in the film, I told you it wasn’t going to necessarily be straightforward.)
“Always Crashing In The Same Car” superbly showcased the band’s dexterity and simpatico with the nuances of a “Low” song which was always short on seconds but packed with swirling motifs and Visconti-treated arabesques.
The film left little doubt that Newton’s planet had run out of time and Lazarus concludes with Newton almost surely laid to a restful death or a deathful rest but the combination of classic good stagecraft, musical excellence and eye-popping use of technology carry enough of the typically Bowie enigmatic to render Lazarus a spell-biding experience on themes of alienation and human disconnection.
As we wended our way away with a bag of souvenirs, I reflected that there is probably little to exhume from the vaults now other than a few old album out-takes, unfinished sketches, miraculously re-discovered lost live recordings and film thereof, digitally enhanced and remastered to within an inch of their lives for those of us who lived through it to decide whether we really need any more stuff or not.
Whatever emerges, and Nicholas Pegg’s essential latest edition of The Complete David Bowie book (another birthday present) pretty exhaustively documents the remaining possibilities, Bowie unlocked so much for me that I’ll probably be first in the queue.
People often ask me: “Bowie or Springsteen – you’re such a fan of both.”
To explain the difference and the reason I can never compare them I’ll give you a quote of Bruce’s which I love but just know the young Bowie would never have come out with.
“It’s important at our shows that the audience see something of themselves in you and you see something of yourself in them, “ said Bruce, crystallising what I absolutely love and adore about him in a nutshell, a mirror to the common man but a hero who you’d secretly like to learn to walk like.
With David, it was always different. I might have briefly pranced around the back room to records imagining myself in a one-piece body stocking or flailed my acoustic with a string missing along to Aladdin Sane wanting to be Ronno.
But long after those adolescent daftness Bowie opened a world that nourished, inflamed and fired your imagination rather than reflected largely everyday adult concerns.
There are artists for showing you the World as you see it and maybe better explaining it to you. But other artists show you ways of looking at that world and unusual ways to interpret it which you never imagined.
He taught me to think differently about sexuality, fashion, art, literature, other genres of music and even for a time making sure your worst few teeth weren’t ever exposed to a camera.
And as much as that led to my 15 minutes as Upper Sixth heart-throb and I hope you all enjoy this piece, my only brush with creativity these days, and turn up for Dovetail’s thing in Blackburn on Saturday – do say hello! – few of us can ever be that kind of hero.
Not even just for one day.
Jim Wilkinson, Blue Eyed Boy