David Bowie

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to experience David Bowie live and on stage when he first came to the U.S. to promote Ziggy Stardust back in 1972. There was a small group of us. We dolled up for the event. I painted my index fingernails black for the occasion. I think someone else had eyeliner. The event took place at Winterland in San Francisco, an ex-ice skating rink turned music hall under the auspices of Bill Graham Productions.

If memory serves me correctly, Sylvester, formerly of the Cockettes, opened the show. Flo & Eddie came on second, making several comments about the weirdness of the headliner during their show (which, considering they had just left The Mother of Invention, seemed a little presumptuous). The crowd thinned after each act left the stage. It was hard to believe. Here we were, the chosen few, ready to receive David Bowie on stage for the first time, and the crowd was actually thinning!

Winterland didn’t have seats. It was one vast open area—the rink. All the tall people, of course, stood in front. The seats were in the balcony overlooking the rink. We were on the floor. Behind the tall people. As always. However, by the time that Bowie was ready to hit the stage, the crowd had thinned enough that for once, I actually had a great view of the stage.

And there he was! David Bowie. And the Spiders from Mars—Woody, Trevor and Mick. The ultimate glamstar power trio!

Bowie was dressed in a black leather jacket. He looked like he was trying to cop a little of the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground vibe. He looked nervous. And I wish I could remember all the songs he performed, but I don’t. Lots of Ziggy Stardust. “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvets, of course. I was in rock’n’roll heaven, so who remembers the details?

One year later, he came back to the West Coast, but didn’t get any closer than Los Angeles. I flew down, stayed with friends, and we caught the show at the Palladium. It was packed! No thinning of the crowd this time. Bowie was in supreme form, total confidence. He owned the stage. I don’t even remember who opened the show, if anyone. Opening acts were insignificant. By the time Bowie and band hit the stage, the crowd surged to the front. I was packed with the rest of the ecstatic sardines in the event of the decade. Bowie didn’t have a black leather jacket this time. He was in full Ziggy regalia—tight, colorful outfit, full makeup, shiny forehead disc—climaxing the show with “Rock’n’roll Suicide”… “give me your hands!… you’re wonderful!…give me your hands!” He we gave him our hands.

What a show. That was, what? 1973? A lifetime ago.

The last time I saw David live was in Mountain View at one of those monstrous outdoor events in the early 1990s when they first started using the giant screens for the folks on the hillside. It was supposed to be his last live greatest hits tour. It wasn’t his last tour, of course, but it felt like the climax of a career. So many great songs, so many hits, so much love pouring from the audience to the stage. Even if it wasn’t to be his last tour, it felt like a climactic event. Every time David Bowie hit the stage, it was a major event. He owned the crowd. Has there ever been such an androgynous rock star commanding so much unconditional love and adoration?…

I can’t believe David Bowie is gone. I kept buying his albums as they came out. I’ve played his 1970s and early 80s albums to death. But gradually I realized that David Bowie was moving on to new paths, and leaving me behind. Tin Machine left me completely cold. Then came Black Tie White Noise, which perked my interest a bit, but not much. Though I appreciated it, I began to fade out on Bowie’s career with Outside. I don’t even remember Earthling or Hours. Need to listen to them again. Then, after a long absence, came The Next Day. Another masterpiece! Bowie was back! And just when I was ready to hail Blackstar as the dawn of a new Bowie era….I find that it is his last and parting gift to his fans. His swan song. His final album. His farewell.

It’s been a long time since I first listened to The Man Who Sold the World back in 1970. That was when I discovered David Bowie. Found the album in a promo bin, loved the cover and took a chance on it. It was love at first listen. Forty-five years later, I must bid adieu to an old friend, and it hurts. Was David Bowie the best musician of his generation? “Best” is a term that has no bearing here. Simply put, there was no one else like him. David Bowie was the most original musician rock has ever seen. He kept the changes coming. I consider myself lucky that I got to share the planet with him.

And hey, I’ll always have Winterland….

—Greg Shepard