It’s easy for us today to think of rock and roll as being a big business, staging huge shows for audiences of teeming thousands, and the people who make the music being lauded as near-Gods. It’s also easy for us today to see the irony in it, the self-congratulation, the self-parody in the posturing and the interaction with the audience. When thousands cheer for a hologram of a long-dead celebrity dancing on stage, it’s all-too-obvious that we live in the house that Spinal Tap built.
It’s a slightly trickier thing to remember a time before Spinal Tap, and before the era when every rock concert was a gigantic multi-million dollar event. There were big shows, to be sure (Woodstock, the Concert for Bangladesh, The Isle of Wight), and there were early versions of what we would call “stadium rock”, mired in poor sound and worse lighting, where the worst thing a performer could do would be to actually speak to the audience (it sounded like baseball announcements).
The music itself was evolving, too, incorporating more obvious theatrical elements, the new technologies of computers and synthesizers, changing every year, and reaching far beyond rock’s blues roots. Standing on the shoulders of people like Jim Morrison (who introduced rock audiences to Brecht) and Lou Reed (who took the music more seriously than many before and many since), David Bowie was the perfect rock star for the times. A trained mime, classic-style singer with an obvious talent for music and a more obvious talent for presenting himself in a certain way, his deliberate sexual ambiguity (inspired by performers such Mick Jagger) and emphasis on costume and show made the character “David Bowie” endlessly fascinating. In those days one didn’t get very much information about rock stars’ lives, except in the rare magazine article, or inferring clues from the music and the record covers. Reality tended to be less interesting than the mythic lives fans imagined their heroes living.
But Bowie came close to actually living his image, for at least one period, from early 1975 to mid-1976. Legends abound about Bowie’s residency in Los Angeles at this time, fuelled by a growing sense of self-awareness and realization of his power in the world, especially over an audience. And mountains of cocaine. That drug was so closely associated with the 1970s and 1980s that we tend to forget that until the late 1970s it was still fairly rare and expensive. Dennis Hopper told the story, for example, of getting cocaine in 1969 from Duke Ellington, the only sort of person rich enough to buy it. But by the mid-1970s a group of Columbian producers and their growing list of American smuggler allies were flooding Miami with the drug, which spread out across the United States in unheard-of quantities, naturally driving the price down.
I suspect David Bowie already had a taste for cocaine by the time he got to LA in 1975, but it became the focus of his entire existence in that city. The legend, often-repeated in long conversations between us rock fans, grew with the telling. Bowie joined a Satanic cult. Bowie slept in a coffin with an Egyptian mummy. Bowie was kidnapped by witches and forced to service them for days. And on and on. This webcomic, “The Side Effects of Cocaine” by Sean T. Collins and Isaac Moylan tells both sides of the story and gives us an interesting peek not only into Bowie’s coke-fueled delusions, but the evolving nature of rock and roll in the mid-1970s, before punk.
This American Splendor-influenced comic opens with Bowie involved in complex business negotiations with his then-manager, Tony Defries, who was ripping his artist off for everything he could get. Cut to a decadent scene of Bowie in bed with his wife, Angie, and of course another woman as well, where they both suggest that he’s getting burnt out on the business side of things and that he should go to Los Angeles to “get his head together”. Bowie obliges, and we next see him stepping on Charlie Manson’s “star” on the Hollywood walk of fame (this is a delusion, the first of many), and buying a bizarre house guarded by twin Sphinxes.
In the course of a single page, Collins and Moylan show how quickly this odd but understandable sunny LA home became a dark pit in which to do cocaine. It isn’t long into his binge that Bowie is hearing the voice of Satan, telling him to save his urine in bottles. When Elton John drops by to visit (no stranger to drugs himself at the time), even he is horrified, with Bowie savagely cutting him off for wanting to draw the curtains and let a little light in. “No Elton! You’ll spoil the vibe of the eternal now!”
Bowie’s delusions reach epic proportions when he has to phone his wife in London to tell her that he’d been kidnapped by witches who were forcing him to impregnate them. Finally, he resorts to having the house exorcised.
These incidents have little to do with music, per se. Howard Hughes went just as mad on different drugs and mental illness. This sort of behaviour isn’t unique to rock and roll. But Bowie uses his delusions to build the sort of rock fantasy that would become such a staple of the industry in the late 1970s and beyond. The only monumental “crowd scenes” outside of sports that the culture knew at the time were the Nazi rallies. Indeed, if you take a quick look at Triumph of the Will, it recalls nothing in our popular cultural memory as much as the Beatles coming to New York. Bowie grabbed on to Nazi monumentality and Christian religious imagery as well, another bright, shiny, active and refined form of performance art, and blended it all together with Nina Simone music and delusion to create the “David Bowie” we know today. With suits rather than elaborate costumes, and a stage presence that emphasized theatrical spotlights and iconographic poses.
The final panels of this comic feature dialogue taken from his long, rambling, drug-fueled interview with Rolling Stone in 1975, where he compares rock stars to Nazis, and how the audience was just begging to be led by a charismatic leader. For that generation, World War II was still recent history, and that was the only image they had. Roger Waters took it the next logical step in 1979 with The Wall, a show that made the rock and roll = fascism equation into performance art. (Waters’ original vision called for the audience to be bombed, and applaud in response.)
I loved the way Collins and Moylan managed to capture a specific moment in cultural history and render it out so effectively in our favourite medium. I would love to see more stories from rock history done in this way, if only so we can appreciate how we got to where we are today, when musicians who have been dead for 15 years can still headline Coachella.