Bowie and The Beatles

Love you, too, Dave.

Love you, too, Dave.

Impossible, folks, to let a full Earth’s rotation pass without a post on the late, great David Bowie. Bowie has always seemed to me to be a performer whose rise to fame would’ve been impossible without the Beatles coming first, preparing the way. The seven years of Fabdom were essential in priming the audience for what Bowie was and wanted to be, and where he would lead them.

As Keith Richards said about the Stones, there’d be no Bowie without the Beatles. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bowie blew up after it was clear the Fabs were gone and weren’t coming back — not that Bowie fans were simply dejected Beatles fans, even in 1972, but that he filled a gap, in some ineffable sense, that the Beatles had left. Certainly he took the intellectual license that they had wrested from high culture, and built upon that in ways they couldn’t do as solo artists. Now, if the Beatles had remained intact in the Seventies, they would’ve likely done some of the work that fell to Bowie — the melding of music and fashion and politics which began in earnest with Sgt. Pepper — not just rock as lifestyle, but rock as proto-religion. Bowie’s bisexuality wasn’t just a stunt, it was an attempt to continue what the Beatles had started, the remaking of the male world that had been launched by “pudding-basin haircuts.” As solo artists, only Lennon was willing to look at life as one long performance. Bowie was a natural outgrowth of late-Beatles Lennon, and that’s why the pair got along so well. Bowie is what Lennon would’ve become in a world without Yoko, if his nervous system could’ve held up under the inevitable assault of drugs. (Bowie’s nearly didn’t, and Lennon had ten years’ head start.)

Bowie was sui generis, for sure, but how he was weird had something to do with what the Beatles had done before. If Lennon was an old-style prophet, with a long beard and white clothes, looking around at the way things were going and guessing (correctly) they’d crucify him, Bowie was a holy man for the age of Apollo, a Starman waiting in the skies, who’d like to come and meet us but he knows he’ll blow our minds. There’s no Bob Dylan in Bowie’s personas. And, though he and Jagger were pals, Bowie has just as little to do with the Stones and that whole blues-rock tradition. Bowie’s art-school rock, inflated by late Beatles lifestyle.

Ziggy Stardust may or may not be based on Paul, but conceptually he was the inevitable consequence of McCartney’s Pepper brainstorm: stardom as disguise, disguise as refuge from stardom. Similarly, Bowie’s genderbending — so tame-seeming today — was the obvious next step in pop sexuality, after John Lennon literally took his trousers off in public. After such overt heterosexuality — “this is me and the missus in the altogether” — where to go for the sexual shock which was the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll? Bi- and male homosexuality.

In the moments before I began this post, I had a thought: Bowie is a wonderful mix of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and of John&Paul. He has Lennon’s art school sensibility, chameleon-like public nature, appetite for excess, and propensity to shock. He has McCartney’s love of collaboration, musical restlessness, and productivity. And he makes overt the sexual charge between John and Paul; when he dances onstage, a jerky, whiteboy dance, he is John if John were less inhibited, and Paul if he took himself a little less seriously. He is John&Paul funky — earthy, sexy.

How dare David Bowie die, and leave the rest of us to contend with Trump and Twitter on our own? How dare the life I knew as a child ebb away, person by person, piece by piece, until I’m consigned to live in a shadowy cold land of harsh noise and commerce? The world without David Bowie in it — what a preposterous notion. How offensive. We are left only with a mocking empty space, and memories — though whether to curse them or thank God for them, I cannot say.

But I won’t leave you on such a down note. Here’s what David Bowie had to say about our own John Lennon, whom he called ‘my greatest mentor.’ According to Beatles Archive (and h/t to them!), it’s from a speech David Bowie gave to the Berklee College of Music’s Class of 1999:

“It’s impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon. I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other artforms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness. Also, uninvited, John would wax on endlessly about any topic under the sun and was over-endowed with opinions. I immediately felt empathy with that. Whenever the two of us got together it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on “Crossfire.”
The seductive thing about John was his sense of humor. Surrealistically enough, we were first introduced in about 1974 by Elizabeth Taylor. Miss Taylor had been trying to get me to make a movie with her. It involved going to Russia and wearing something red, gold and diaphanous. Not terribly encouraging, really. I can’t remember what it was called — it wasn’t On the Waterfront, anyway, I know that.
We were in LA, and one night she had a party to which both John and I had been invited. I think we were polite with each other, in that kind of older-younger way. Although there were only a few years between us, in rock and roll that’s a generation, you know? Oh boy, is it ever.
So John was sort of [in Liverpool accent] “Oh, here comes another new one.” And I was sort of, “It’s John Lennon! I don’t know what to say. Don’t mention the Beatles, you’ll look really stupid.”
And he said, “Hello, Dave.” And I said, “I’ve got everything you’ve made — except the Beatles.”

A couple of nights later we found ourselves backstage at the Grammys where I had to present “the thing” to Aretha Franklin. Before the show I’d been telling John that I didn’t think America really got what I did, that I was misunderstood. Remember that I was in my 20s and out of my head.
So the big moment came and I ripped open the envelope and announced, “The winner is Aretha Franklin.” Aretha steps forward, and with not so much as a glance in my direction, snatches the trophy out of my hands and says, “Thank you everybody. I’m so happy I could even kiss David Bowie.” Which she didn’t! And she promptly spun around swanned off stage right. So I slunk off stage left.
And John bounds over and gives me a theatrical kiss and a hug and says “See, Dave. America loves ya.”
We pretty much got on like a house on fire after that.
He once famously described glam rock as just rock and roll with lipstick on. He was wrong of course, but it was very funny.

Towards the end of the 70s, a group of us went off to Hong Kong on a holiday and John was in, sort of, house-husband mode and wanted to show Sean the world. And during one of our expeditions on the back streets a kid comes running up to him and says, “Are you John Lennon?” And he said, “No but I wish I had his money.” Which I promptly stole for myself.
[imitating a fan] “Are you David Bowie?”
No, but I wish I had his money.
It’s brilliant. It was such a wonderful thing to say. The kid said, “Oh, sorry. Of course you aren’t,” and ran off. I thought, “This is the most effective device I’ve heard.”

I was back in New York a couple of months later in Soho, downtown, and a voice pipes up in my ear, “Are you David Bowie?” And I said, “No, but I wish I had his money.”
“You lying bastard. You wish you had my money.” It was John Lennon.



24 Comments

  1. J.R. Clark wrote:

    This video was released just a week ago…the man turned his decline into art. His opening line: “Look up at me, I’m in heaven…” A very disturbing, challenging video.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8

  2. Hologram Sam wrote:

    .
    So the big moment came and I ripped open the envelope and announced, “The winner is Aretha Franklin.” Aretha steps forward, and with not so much as a glance in my direction, snatches the trophy out of my hands and says, “Thank you everybody. I’m so happy I could even kiss David Bowie.”
    .
    Here’s the clip. I love Bowie, but that’s not how it happened.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUu-_F9vWnk

  3. ChelseaQW wrote:

    I am in love with those giant cardboard-looking silhouettes! Awards shows should totally revive them. Also, Aretha looked so beautiful! David Bowie (who I love as much as the next person) was being kinda douchey in this clip. 🙂 He seems really young, full of himself and needing shitloads of attention. (It’s not about you, Dave!) Which is fine. We’ve all been there…
    What’s with the awkward cut to John and Yoko? Ha! And who approved that awful beret? (And I say that as someone who went through a beret-wearing phase in her youth)

  4. Hologram Sam wrote:

    1975 was the year an elderly Groucho Marx was rocking a beret. It was a hat reserved for people who had achieved a certain level of success over the years and could now keep their scalps warm without caring how undignified they looked.
    And yes, great at covering baldness.

  5. Hologram Sam wrote:

    My first Bowie album was Space Oddity. I almost wore it out on my turntable. As a teenager, the most important thing to me was the quality of the songs. I had little patience for bands that were all image, or all guitar solos, or all attitude, if they didn’t have the songwriting chops.
    .
    After Space Oddity, I worked backwards and bought all his early stuff (Laughing Gnome, Gospel According to Tony Day, Karma Man), then kept collecting through the 70s and 80s and beyond. I saw him at Madison Square Garden during the Diamond Dogs tour. I still remember the stage backdrop, a giant post-nuclear ruined city skyline. And when he sang “Major Tom” he sat in a capsule that floated, with the help of a crane, over our heads. He sat in the capsule, while we craned our necks to see him, and sang into a telephone. He’d already outgrown his glam persona, and dressed in white suit and fedora.
    .
    All the theatrics in the world wouldn’t have meant a thing if he hadn’t had such an awesome talent for words and melody. (See: Jobriath) He was so much like the Beatles in that he kept moving forward, kept evolving, endlessly open to new sounds and ideas. Compared to (cough!) the Rolling Stones, who found one trick and kept repeating it.
    .
    Remember his ode to Bob Dylan? “Mr. Zimmerman” I felt like he touched briefly on a Bob Dylan phase, with his Hunky Dory album (another one I played continuously as a teen) with his impressionistic lyrics and minimal acoustic guitars.
    .
    And bless him for confronting the odious MTV that day over their lily-white programming. I’m sure they were expecting just another bullshit rockstar interview. But there was no bullshit in him to give.

    • I always got the impression that David Bowie gave no fucks, in the best possible way.

      I mean, this was a guy who lived for years on a diet of red peppers, milk, and cocaine.

      The only rock star who could ever hold a candle to Lennon in both these regards.

  6. Karen Hooper wrote:

    God I love that quote from Bowie.

  7. Hologram Sam wrote:

    .
    red peppers, milk, and cocaine
    .
    The breakfast of champions. We’re actually lucky he survived. He could have just as easily become another casualty in the 1970s, and we’d be wondering what he would have accomplished if he’d lived past thirty.
    .
    Interesting the two (major) artists John came out of hiding to collaborate with: Bowie and Elton John. Lennon didn’t jam with the Grateful Dead or record with Waylon Jennings.

    • Yes, indeed, @Sam. I once watched a documentary about that time in Bowie’s life, and his cocaine intake — and the headspace it put him in — seemed just dreadful.

      The fact that John collaborated with Bowie and Elton John when he did, always spoke volumes to me: that John desperately wanted to be popular again (nyahh, Paul); wanted to show that he could work with real collaborators, not just sidemen (nyahh, Paul); and was attracted to male sexual outlawry in 1974 just as he had been in 1960 or 1966. This last is why Yoko shut it all down — Bowie, Elton, Mick; these were rock’s most notorious bisexuals in the mid-70s. That John chose those precise artists to collaborate with — they were, in fact, his only major musical collaborators other than McCartney — was at least a harmless blurring of his sexual persona, and at most a real threat to the life that Yoko insisted upon. As with Paul, Yoko viewed Mick and Bowie as a threat (Elton less so). And that, to me, suggests a lot — even if it doesn’t prove anything.

      But the question should be asked: was The Lost Weekend really about Lennon being drunk and disorderly? Apart from one night at the Troub with Harry Nilsson, and maybe trashing Lou Adler’s house (if I’m remembering that correctly), where’s the drunk and disorderly? Could that have been marital code for “fooling around with guys”? Not impossible. We know this for sure: whenever Lennon connected with a male collaborator, Yoko went immediately to Defcon 10. That’s weird.

  8. Linda S. wrote:

    How dare David Bowie die, and leave the rest of us to contend with Trump and Twitter on our own? How dare the life I knew as a child ebb away, person by person, piece by piece, until I’m consigned to live in a shadowy cold land of harsh noise and commerce? The world without David Bowie in it — what a preposterous notion. How offensive. We are left only with a mocking empty space, and memories — though whether to curse them or thank God for them, I cannot say.

    Writing deserving of the Nobel Prize for literature.

  9. King Kevin wrote:

    As always, a great discussion going on in Dullblogsville. I haven’t been this moved by the death of a public figure since George passed away. Bowie was one of the all-time greats, and remains a constant for me, like the Beatles. I’m glad he seems to have struck a nice balance between his fame and personal life. Bless him- he deserved it . Very interesting your thoughts about Lennon’s collaborators. I’d like to add that they were also among the very best songwriters working at the time, and English. Lennon recognized greatness, and no doubt missed having a brilliant collaborator who was also contemporary. Collaboration was one of Lennon’s great strenghts. The strain of having to come up with an entire album’s worth of good stuff on one’s own? We’ve talked about that before…. John was starting to have too much fun.

    • What do you mean by “starting to have too much fun”, Kevin?

      My wife woke me up with “Changes” and “Fame” this morning, so I thought for the millionth time, “What might’ve happened next?”

  10. “We know this for sure: whenever Lennon connected with a male collaborator, Yoko went immediately to Defcon 10.”
    .
    Yeah, and it’s interesting that she seems to have had little problem with John connecting with a woman. In fact, she went so far as to actually set him up with May Pang.

    • Nancy Carr wrote:

      Beasty, that’s a good point. I think it’s significant that May Pang wasn’t an artist of any kind. As important as sex was to Lennon, it seems to me that deep down creativity meant even more to him. People with whom he could collaborate artistically — I think Yoko perceived them as the major threat.
      .
      And about the “Lost Weekend,” the main difference I see is that Lennon’s substance use/abuse and consequent acting out were public. I don’t think we’ll ever know what went on within the walls of the Dakota, because whatever did was certainly kept private. The work Lennon did in the mid-70s, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with Bowie and others, make the “Lost Weekend” seem like a real misnomer to me.

      • Sing it with me, folks: “I don’t belieeeeve in “The Lost Weekend…”

        The notable thing about Lennon’s behavior during 1973-75 isn’t how crazy it was — he was the only person who thought he was going off the rails, and that’s not nothing. If he says he was, I guess he was. But if you compare Lennon’s behavior with that of his contemporaries, the evidence of excess just isn’t there.

        Read this about David Bowie, for example. Or any of the various Keith Moon stories, or Led Zep on tour.

        Lennon might have been a sloppy drunk from 1973-75; but it’s hard to deny that a lot of his public appearances show a guy who’s actually the most happy and functional he’s been in nearly a decade. His self-interview for Interview is not Bowie’s autobiography.

  11. King Kevin wrote:

    She probably thought she could control May Pang. When I said he was having too much fun, I meant that he was making killer music, hanging with his friends, and living with May Pang.

    • “he was making killer music, hanging with his friends, and living with May Pang.”

      …and we couldn’t have that, now could we?

      I’m not quite sure I believe that Yoko asked May Pang to sleep with John and so forth. I half-suspect that it happened, or was going to happen — remember Lennon on campaign night ’72, not really a guy who asked for permission — and then John and Yoko retconned. “Yes, you two can do this and I won’t make a stink. But say I allowed you to; encouraged it.” “That’s a bloody great idea.”

  12. linda a. wrote:

    Michael I don’t know if you’ve read May’s book but it’s very interesting. In the book May describes Yoko summoning her to her office and telling May to have an affair with her husband. John does make a pass at her in an elevator but it’s been so long since I’ve read the book I can’t remember if that occurred after Yoko’s command or before. But it’s interesting that you don’t believe the story of Yoko commanding May to sleep with John.

  13. J.R. Clark wrote:

    Just to bring things full circle…May Pang ended up marrying David Bowie’s bassist/collaborator/producer Tony Visconti…who had previously married and divorced…Mary Hopkin.

    Jesus, that’s some Beatles incest right there.