1975: David Bowie's Lost Year *

Segue . . .

The desert of southern California cannot be said to have created a religion, but it has contributed greatly to the development of a way of life that operates at the extremity of Western civilization. When you reach Los Angeles you are as far west as you can go.

— Hollywood: The Haunted House — Paul Mayersburg

David Bowie was no newcomer to Los Angeles in 1974. The city had held an eternal fascination for him beyond that of the typical Hollywood glamour and his one-week sojourn there in the fall of 1974 marked his fourth visit. He immediately recognized that the essential aspect of L.A. and its environs was its plasticity. It was a factory town that ground out endless ephemeral images as its currency, and if anyone was a master of image — it was David Bowie.

During a frantic one-month break from touring Bowie had just completed recording the lion’s share of his ninth album, Young Americans, at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios. The musical adventurer now departed the City of Brotherly Love on August 24, 1974, riding aboard the Santa Fe El Capitan — bound for the City of Angels.

Little did he realize at the time, though, that this particular visit to L.A. would quickly devolve to become his own personal "Hotel California," and once settled there, he would have a hard time leaving intact.

THE DIAMOND DOGS TOUR

The warm-up to what would become Bowie’s one-year L.A. residency was the kick-off to the second American leg of the 1974 Diamond Dogs Tour (2-8 September 1974). During an extended set of performances at the Universal Amphitheater, David held court at the nearby

Beverly Wilshire Hotel, along with the key members of his inner circle, including his longtime manager, Tony DeFries. DeFries fancied himself a modern-day Colonel Tom Parker — legendary manager of Elvis Presley, and took Parker’s notorious carnival huckster methods as his personal promotional playbook.

WHO CAN I BE NOW?

For his own part David, the eternal bibliophile, was also looking to cast himself in a new role and took Dave Dalton’s pioneering biography, James Dean: The Mutant King as his own particular template.

As author Mark Spitz related in Bowie: A Biography . . .

“Fast, sexed-up, palpably sad and searching, James Dean was American rock ‘n roll before there was such a thing as rock ‘n roll. What is irresistible about rock, the slippery, stylish, hot freakiness, is what’s irresistible about Dean. David Bowie could not have looked at Dean’s

androgynous features, prettier than most girls, and not see a kindred soul.

Subsequently, Dean remained not just a hero but also a model for the rest of David’s life, as great a template for Bowie as any rock or jazz pioneer would become . . . Bowie’s celebrated self-conception and/or self-invention (or reinvention) really begins here upon David Jones’ discovery of the Hollywood rebel.”

Subsequently, in tandem with the adoption of his new persona, David set out to take on the dress, manner and characteristic tortoiseshell wayfarers of the legendary red-jacketed hero as his own.

It was a good match, for Dean’s image seemed perfectly suited to Bowie’s purpose, reflecting as it did the archetypal American male — sensitive and vulnerable, macho and detached and, much like Bowie, androgynous and sexually appealing to both sexes.

As an added allure, Dean’s tragic end not only perfectly mirrored in tone the oft-quoted ‘chickie run’ scene in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), but also Bowie’s own longtime yen for dystopian, apocalyptic landscapes filled with waves of disaffected youths.

THE GOUSTER WADES ASHORE

Preeminent in David’s 1974 tour agenda was the overriding goal of conquering America. While Bowie was big in his native England, Europe, and many other parts of the world, to most people stateside Bowie was “just another swishy English queen.”

So, while he made the rounds of major American cities with his epically ambitious Diamond Dogs Tour, Bowie also ruminated and strategized: What he needed to do was become “more American” (hence the title and lead-off track of his forthcoming album, Young Americans — still in the can at this point). He then determined to adopt as his next guise the overt masculinity of a black street hustler, or “gouster,” as he referred to this, the latest in an ever-evolving line of deftly-crafted Bowie personas.

In implementing his plan, Bowie would achieve two of his primary goals: simultaneously put some distance between himself and the American public’s negative preconceptions and, more importantly, become one with the nascent American music of the moment — black soul & dance music — soon enough evolving to become the now infamous disco craze, just as Bowie conveniently exited stage left.

'AMERICAN' BREAKTHROUGH

David’s strategy was correct. In the spring of 1975 Bowie’s daring R&B experiment would go on to hit #9 on the Billboard album chart, with the platter’s lead-off track, “Young Americans,” becoming Bowie’s first U.S. Top 40 single, peaking at #29.

But the true crowning moment of the album’s release campaign was the single “Fame,” written and recorded with Bowie’s good friend John Lennon at Electric Lady Studios in New York City the following January. The single would subsequently go on to become a global hit single during the summer of 1975 and became something of a signature tune for Bowie throughout his career. Most importantly, it was the first Bowie #1 single to top the US charts, an ironic feat for a catchy, prophetically-titled rant on the pitfalls of celebrity.

But then, irony was always Bowie’s stock and trade.

* AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay is part of the prologue to Brittle Atlas (working title), my forthcoming book on the making of The Man Who Fell to Earth, the 1976 film in which Bowie made his acting debut.