A bit of backstory, which you may have read on one of my FB pages: when I worked for RCA Records, from 1971 to 1973, I did the ads for David Bowie’s first four US albums on the label (“Hunky Dory”, "Ziggy Stardust", "Aladdin Sane" and “Pin-Ups”), and had a lot of contact with him, as he liked to be involved in the process, being a control freak, which was fine with me. He was delightful to work with and the smartest rocker I’ve ever met apart from Jim…you could see the intelligence and perception in his eyes, dilated pupil aside. When I met him for the first time in the RCA rock-dedicated studio, where we were recording radio spots, we shook hands and I looked up into those eyes and thought, “This man has come to Earth to kill the Sixties.”
And that was a very odd thought to have, since “Hunky Dory”, the album we started with, was still pretty Sixties in sound; it wasn’t until “Ziggy” that he really broke free. But I could sense, absolutely and clearly, that this guy was the hinge, this guy was different, it was all going to change around him. And of course I was right again as usual…
Anyway, when I heard of this massive Bowie retrospective at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, I saw in I think the Guardian newspaper that OMIGOD ONE OF MY ZIGGY ADS WAS IN IT!!! Oh, the pride and thrilledness! You cannot imagine…my ad in a museum. Fabulous. Immortality. Coolness to the max.
But the V&A was sold out, so I had no chance of seeing it in person in London. Then I saw that the exhibit’s only US stop was Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and I’d never been to Chicago, soooo… I bought a ticket, and then emailed the MCA's media director, a lovely woman called Karla Loring, and boasted about my ad being right there in David’s exhibit in her museum. She promptly emailed back and invited me to lunch, and arranged for the museum photographer to take some pictures of the ad in situ. Then I hopped a plane for Chicago, staying at a wonderful old hotel called the Drake (great deal on Hotel.com).
I got there this past Monday, Jim’s birthday, and had afternoon tea at the hotel with two Facebook friends. Tea was excellent, worthy of the London Ritz, and the company was equally excellent. We continued the discussion in my room till about 9pm, and then I just crashed.
Next morning, I set off bright and early down Michigan Avenue for the Museum of Contemporary Art, about four blocks away. My name was on the list (very rocknroll), and I headed up to the exhibit, which I wanted to see before I had lunch with the museum people, so that I could discuss it intelligently.
Well. They had a revolutionary new headphone system, from Sennheiser, in which the soundtrack (both music and narrative) was keyed to change when you approached each exhibit, like changing radio channels. Fabulous.
So I entered the exhibit, and the first thing you see at the entrance, knocking you out before you even go inside, is that famous plastic jumpsuit with the stripes and the huge flared legs, designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the “Aladdin Sane” tour, posed there like a suit of samurai armor. And though I read somewhere that the V&A had a few more items that didn't make it over here for lack of display space, it just kept getting better and better.
It starts with very young David, ration books and house keys and report cards and infant photos, his first guitar and saxophone, then quickly progresses to teenage David, his infatuation with Little Richard and the earliest publicity photos of him at age 15, a total hoot, towering blond pompadour, real Elvis style, from his days with his first real group the Kon-rads. He talks a bit about it on the soundtrack, calling himself “a little blond cockney”, and then we move into the first music he created as an adult.
Walking along, I could see how brilliantly constructed the exhibit was: sometimes a bit mixed timewise, especially with his stage costumes, but it was never anything less than total sensory assault, showing his progress as artist and as person. I just moved along, stunned and digging it, like everyone else, listening to and guided by the soundtrack, and then I came to the Ziggy sarcophagus WITH MY AD RIGHT THERE.
I wanted to point to it and yell “I WROTE THAT!!! WITH DAVID!!!” But I didn’t. Later, Karla Loring, amused, said that my fellow viewers would probably have appreciated that, but I said they would more likely have thought I was a lass insane…
Anyway. it looked great, David’s knee-high laced boots being the link between costume and ad. And since David had decreed the death of Ziggy, I guess it was appropriate that the costume on the mannequin was presented in basically a coffin. So I mooned over it for a few minutes, admiring my cleverness and how good the costume looked, then said farewell and moved on. (Though I did return a couple of times to moon over it some more...)
I can’t even begin to convey how amazing the rest of the exhibit was: there were wall screens with TV newsclips (did you know David’s first TV appearance, 50 years ago at age 17 in 1964, was on a news program promoting his invention of “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men”? Which by then he was, with hair a foot and a half long. Yes!), and concert footage, and interviews with David and producer Tony Visconti and other people, all with different songs from different-era DB appropriately interspersed, everything from “Changes” and “Starman” and "Life on Mars" to “Rebel Rebel” and "Diamond Dogs" and “Ashes to Ashes”. I was disappointed not to hear my absolute favorite Bowie song, "Putting Out Fire with Gasoline" (the soundtrack version from "Cat People"). Or "Big Brother." Or the songs he wrote for "Labyrinth." Or "Word on a Wing." Or "My Death." Though it's entirely possible those were there and I just forgot, or missed hearing them. But I don't think so.
Oh, the costumes MY GOD! Several Yamamotos and gorgeous Alexander McQueens and of course the ZIggy clothes were the highlights for me, and there was one jaw-dropping outfit that consisted of a VERY openworked cobweb bodysuit over torso and arms, left leg sheathed in gold lamé but the other completely bare under the cobwebs, with gold three-dimensional clutching hands affixed at the shoulders, as if caressing his chest. There was originally a third hand caressing his crotch (oh, DAVID!), but it was swiftly nixed by promoters, and then it was discovered that removing it left him considerably more exposed in Area-type areas than maybe even he would have been comfortable with (or perhaps not...difficult to say, with him), hence the lamé leg sleeve was added.
He had quite a few costumes with this asymmetrical one-leg-bare look, and some with both bare, like little rompers. Then later on, in his Thin White Duke phase, he got into these really elegant formal suits which are marvels of sartorial engineering. Though I think the real engineering went into those skimpier outfits.
Also featured is that foofy Pierrot costume he wore in the "Ashes to Ashes" video, which always creeps me out...I refused to pose in front of the giant mural of it, choosing to stand in front of Aladdin Sane instead... And the totally bizarre getup he wore on "Saturday Night Live", indescribable, sort of like a plastic tuxedo exoskeleton, in which he had to be physically lifted off the ground and carried to and from the microphone.
The costumes, photographs and music worked together pretty much all the way through, and the memorabilia collection is superb. The man is a mad hoarder or perhaps a meticulous self-documenter, who apparently saved everything he ever owned in his entire LIFE; I was told that he employs full-time archivists to look after it all and the collection takes up four stories of a warehouse. Which I guess saves him from the fate of the Collier brothers...
He refused to have anything to do with the exhibit, basically just saying “Here’s the keys to the archives, knock yourselves out, don’t bug me.” He didn’t record any voiceovers for the soundtrack (it’s all vintage stuff from interviews), he didn’t write a foreword to the book of the exhibit (buy it from the museum, it’s an incredible document to the times, and worth every penny), he didn’t oversee or edit or curate a damn thing. He did go to the London showing, with his daughter and a friend, and by all accounts seemed pleased, but otherwise nothing.
Considering what a control freak DB is (and I mean that as the highest praise possible), I find this odd and extremely surprising. But as Karla Loring said at lunch, when he collaborates, he likes to allow the other person total freedom to do their thing and bring that thing to the collaboration, so he stands away from it.. I think too that he would maybe not have been the best curator of his own work and life, it would have made him too self-conscious; so maybe that as well.
Anyway, I just drifted happily through the exhibit, completely immersed in this wonderful stuff, and came away with a new appreciation for David's music and for David as creator. At the end of the exhibit came the best part: a long rectangular high-ceilinged room, with some of his coolest stage clothes, and on the walls, giant room-length, room-height screens with projections of concerts and photographs, all dominated by blasting yet perfectly balanced 360-degree three-dimensional sound and wild light-show effects. Against the end walls were displays of several more costumes, only they were BEHIND the screens, so you would see them only when they were highlighted, otherwise dimly through whatever was being projected, going in and out of visibility. Fantastic.
The best bits of this multimedia blitz were a totally rocking live “The Jean Genie” and an amazing bit of stage theatrics to “Bang Bang”, from the Glass Spider tour, but it was all good. The whole thing took about half an hour to run through, and there were only two benches to sit on, so I claimed one end of one and just sat there for the duration, swiveling around to be sure I caught everything. It was immersive in the best way, and beautifully orchestrated; a fabulous job.
Adjacent to that, there was a room showing clips from all his dramatic endeavors, most of which, rather surprisingly, I seem to have seen, and another with souvenirs from them: among other items, the loincloth from “Elephant Man” on Broadway (uh, okaaay…), the brown suede Roman sandals he wore as Pontius Pilate in the Scorsese “The Last Temptation of Christ” (signed by himself, Scorsese, Harvey Keitel and someone else I forget) and the character notes he researched for himself, and YES!!!, the fancy crystal-ball-topped riding crop he carried in “Labyrinth”, which I fell down before and worshipped. Also Jareth’s crystal ball scrying device that he looked into to see what was going on (but not the small ones he contact-juggled, or rather contact juggler Michael Moschen juggled, blind, from a position behind DB’s back). And a Labyrinth poster and a letter to David from Jim Henson, persuading him to take the part. I felt quite cheated, actually, having wanted to see some of Jareth’s costumes, but Henson’s company, or now Disney I guess, probably owns them…
And that was how it was. I can’t begin to convey the wonderfulness of it all, so overwhelming and dramatic that it just overloaded one’s brain (my head is still spinning from the images and sound).
After that, I had a delightful lunch in the Wolfgang Puck museum café, with Karla and two colleagues (including the photographer who took shots of my ad with the costume), and hopefully entertained them with tales of David and also of Jim. Then we went back upstairs, where pictures were taken in front of a giant Bowie mural, and after many thanks were exchanged, though the gratitude was really all mine, Karla got me back into the exhibit, where I spent another two hours. So four very happy hours altogether, and I still probably missed stuff.
The next day I had lunch with a friend in the Walnut Room of the old Marshall Field’s now Macy’s department store, where I had the traditional chicken pot pie (good but not as good as they think it is), and bought Frangos (traditional chocolates), then we drove to the airport, where my plane was delayed for nearly three hours due to the huge storm in the East and bad weather in NYC, and I didn’t get home till almost two in the morning from a 6:30 flight. Wiped. Out.
Chicago is quite a beautiful city, at least the bits I saw. The architecture is just stunning (the view driving in from O’Hare and seeing the skyline suddenly loom out of the mist was staggering), and the perfect cleanliness and freedom from litter of the streets made me ashamed for my hometown. I also liked the way that small old little brownstone-type buildings that people actually live in were interspersed with the big giant modern new towers. Really it was very like New York, only with a lot of older and cooler and handsomer buildings and much airier and more spread out; I was deeply impressed and liked it very much indeed. If there’s ever a Bowie exhibit there again, I shall certainly return…
So that’s it. As more stuff comes back to me, I will add it. It’s nice coming home with a revised opinion of Chicago and an amplified fond appreciation of David and renewed interest in his music. I’m very glad I decided to go.