Most of us have had a moment or two with David Bowie. He came into my lounge room in 1980 via the orange, blasted video for Ashes to Ashes, saturated with surreal design and video effects that looked painterly rather than lame. I reckon it still works.
Changesonebowie. A ‘best of’ dubbed onto cassette. Sensing the depth of his catalogue and the stylistic changes. Learning Space Oddity by ear, crouched next to the stereo. Changes is right. It seems Bowie has assumed many characters, both musical and performative, over the years. Interesting. Aren’t rock stars supposed to ‘mean it’? Watching Glass Spiders on VHS I see that Bowie’s such a chameleon he can do corporate blandness too.
1988. Visiting a university share-house where they were obsessed with Hunky Dory. Learning how to play Andy Warhol on the guitar.
1990-something i’m asked to participate in a Bowie-themed performance night James Lees is running at The Zoo. In an oblique take on the night’s space theme, I perform as Destiny the Space Minstrel, playing new romantic tunes Duran Duran’s Planet Earth and Spandau Ballet’s To Cut a Long Story Short. I spend more time on my costume (with Lisa Burnett) than rehearsing. Destiny’s ‘wings’ are automotive venetian blinds.
2003. James (who i’ve now played with in Silver Sircus) asks me back to play harmonica as part of a Bowie concert at The Zoo. It’s a tribute concert based around the Ziggy Stardust album, and I’m going to play on The Jean Genie, which matches my self-taught, and very limited skills on the instrument perfectly. It’s a good night. So good he decides to scale it up and do it again the next year at The Tivoli, a much larger venue. He wants me to do Cracked Actor from Aladdin Sane, a song I’ve never heard before, so I learn it by ear from the CD album.
Luckily the harmonica I’ve got’s in the right key. I later read that NME writers Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray considered that [Cracked Actor] “reveals little else except that Bowie’s capabilities with a mouth-harp are decidedly limited”. (Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: p.54)
So it suits me fine.
A rehearsal is arranged in a really nice band room in West End. It doesn’t smell. I’ve not met all the musicians before, some have dressed up even for rehearsal. It feels weird to be standing there without a guitar strapped on. I understand the true fanaticism of Bowie addicts, when (amongst my real mistakes) I’m asked to simulate an ACTUAL mistake Bowie made from one particular live version of the song. OK.
The idea is we’re going to simulate ‘mucking up the ending’. In a very exact way. It’s a tribute to a musical moment aimed at the most rabid Bowie fans. I’m pretty lost, not having heard the version they’re talking about. It’s easier to watch the guitarist and match his playing than understand his verbal explanation of what he’s trying to do. Surely it’ll be fine.
The night comes. The crowd is huge and pumped. The songs I’m on are right at the end of the night, so I wander about, taking in the show and drinking the rider. Not too much, though. I’ve got to get that mistake in Cracked Actor right. And I’m a Dad now, so there’ll be no merciful sleep-in tomorrow.
The band is big and sounding great. My friend Brett Collery is up there, modestly guitarring alongside some rather more showy musicians, who are playing the rock-star to the hilt. But it’s cabaret. Good on them, I think.
Lots of lead singers from various bands come out and do their thing on one make or break song. I’ve never considered myself ‘lead-singer’ material so I admire how these men and women meet the challenge. Tyrone Noonan from ‘George’ who were huge at the time. Grant McLennan was scheduled to appear. Some of them are amazing. Some choose to be musicians with their voice. Some ‘perform’ their song theatrically, to lesser or greater effect. Some choose to wear a glitter wig. That’s a choice. I know some of them from the theatre scene. Annie Lee (now one of the Kransky Sisters) does ‘Time’, pulling out all her spooky Brecht and Weill stops. One performer has clearly been at something that wasn’t supplied as part of the rider, and they bugger up their song, so their best version of the song lies back in the air of the rehearsal room. My harmonicas rattle in my pocket. It’s a good, long night.
I see how much ‘theatre’ is in Bowie’s music.
Then I’m on. Standing in the wings, I see there must be a dozen sweaty musicians up there who’ve been working all night. Leather and Brisbane do not mix. Applause. For the end of the previous song, not my entrance. I go up the back on a riser with the backing vocalists and pump out my part, hyper-ventilating a little because I’ve got no technique. It hurts my lips a little. The Jean Genie goes well, but then it’s just Little Red Rooster on steroids. Pretty simple. Guy Webster sings it very well.
Cracked Actor is harder. I play my part, and bellow ‘Crack baby crack’ into the mic along with the backing vocalists. I may bang my harp on my thigh in rhythm to simulate a kind of ‘rocking’. Perhaps I pump my leg a little in time to the music.
But I don’t really like the song. I’m not cool enough to show it. And it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve been around the block by now and I know what it means to draw focus towards or away from you on a stage you’re sharing with others. Nobody’s come to see me play the harmonica. The main thing is to do your bit, stick with the song, listen out for yourself in the foldback because it’s really very very loud. It’s a bit part.
It reminds me of when I played a nameless ‘Lord’ in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The director asked me to come up with a name for my ‘Lord’, to truly think about who he was as a person, what his background was. I was young and arrogant and refused. I said I would grow a beard, commit to whatever was going on onstage at that moment, and not draw focus: and that would be the extent of my characterization. So I did.
But I’m not thinking of that. I’m concentrating. I’m hoping I don’t fluff my version of this one particular mistake at the end of Cracked Actor that David Bowie and Mick Ronson made at some concert in 1972. I really want to get this ‘getting it wrong’ part right. It seemed particularly important to the musicians who’ve worked so hard on this event. The guitarist’s now a long way away. I can only see his leather-clad back, the diagonal guitar strap, way over the other side of the stage. The song’s coming to an end. And there it is. I miss my cue. I miss it. I make a mistake doing the mistake. I mess up a ‘messy rock ending’. But from the crowd’s reaction I assume it still rocks.
The streets are quiet outside the Tivoli and floodlights warm the Old Museum. It’s OK. The gig turns a profit and several months later James kindly pays me for my work, an unexpected bonus.
2005. My young son likes rockets and spacey things. I download ‘Space Oddity’ and we both marvel at the lonely drama of the song. 2012. A new album after a long silence. Who will David Bowie be this time?
‘Planet earth is blue and…’
(James Lees is revisiting and reinventing the concert presentation, with new artists on Feb 6th 2016 in Brisbane – details here)