I first saw David Bowie in the summer of 1974 at Madison Square Garden. New York City, baby. Age 17. The “Diamond Dogs” tour. . . I don’t think I had actually heard any of David Bowie’s music at the time. Aside from maybe “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople (which Bowie wrote).
My older sister’s boyfriend was a huge David Bowie fan. Which was weird. Because he was mostly a Grateful Dead Deadhead. And you wouldn’t think that somebody like that would be a David Bowie fan, too. But there you go. Anyways, he had an extra ticket for the Madison Square Garden show. So I tagged along.
I knew that Bowie was a big sensation in England at the time. The leading light of the “Glitter Rock” movement. The Next Big Thing according to the media. But he hadn’t quite caught on in America yet. Though the media hype machine was pushing hard. Bowie — who was always one step ahead of the game — captured his own phenomenon perfectly with his Diamond Dogs album cover. Presenting himself as a Barnum and Bailey freak show.
Myself? I was a 17-year-old high school jock at the time who was just beginning to dabble with LSD. So the whole David Bowie thing seemed a little too gay and campy for my tastes. But what the hell. I couldn’t turn down a free ticket.
I still vividly remember that Diamond Dogs show 41 years later. Big dramatic entrance. Bowie reciting his “rats as big as cats” soliloquy. This apocalyptic rant. Ending with him shouting: “THIS ISN’T ROCK’N’ROLL THIS IS GENOCIDE!!” And then bursting into the music. And David Bowie bursts onto the stage. And he’s got these two half dog / half-human creatures that he’s holding on long leashes. And they’re scampering across the stage like barely-controlled wild animals while Bowie is singing. A helluva’ entrance.
And, unlike so many other concerts, Bowie held your attention for the entire rest of the show. There was something captivating and magnetic about Bowie. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. But it wasn’t just Show Biz schtick. Even at age 17 I could tell there was a high intelligence behind the sensation. Something conceptual. The allusions to Orwell’s “1984” and all the rest of it. For once there was some real substance behind the Next Big Thing hype.
There was also this zany humor along with the outrageousness. And people forget: This was the era of “jam rock” where rock stars took the stage wearing blue jeans and work shirts and turned their backs to the audience and did 20 minute guitar solos. It was very innovative for the times, the way Bowie put together this show that was choreographed almost like a Broadway theater production, but without losing the spontaneity and rawness that made rock music so great in the first place. But the bottom line (which sometimes got lost in the mix because of all of Bowie’s other talents) was that Bowie was an extremely tuneful songwriter, belting out one great song after another.
What can I say. I became a life-long David Bowie fan after that Diamond Dogs show in 1974. And I’ve enjoyed just about everything David Bowie has done since then.