by ALEX CARNEVALE
He went from being cocaine-ravaged thin, with this totally gaunt, pallid face, to this new healthy look — blond hair, tanned looking, very exuberant.
— Simon Reynolds
Before 1979, David Bowie had spent over a decade without successfully making it onto an airplane. Once he limped out to a jet, he would hyperventilate as soon as the white walls seemed to turn inward. To travel from England to America he would go by boat; crossing the United States was a matter of planning his concerts days apart so he could cover the distance by train or bus.
He told an interviewer later, "I finally said, sod it, I'm gonna lick this. 'Cause it's stupid, not being able to get anywhere. And so, it worked. It really worked. I've been flying ever since that flight. The fear has come back two or three times on this tour. I don't know why. I've got a great plane, great pilot. I know it's more dangerous to drive a car, but it's still something."
It would be known as the Serious Moonlight tour. His personal plane Jet 24 allowed Bowie to perform in markets that had not experienced him since long before his last tour in 1978. The 1983 tour included a big ticket appearance at the second and last US Festival in San Bernardino on Memorial Day weekend. Apple founder Steve Wozniak pushed for Bowie on the recommendation of Ray Bradbury. An abiding hatred for the Los Angeles area meant Bowie had to be enticed with vast sums (a then unheard of $1 million), but it enabled his team to book the tour right through Asia.
In the early 1980s, David Bowie was experiencing his first backlash. A new look and new attitude confused longtime fans, as Bowie seemed to be going straight, discarding part of his gay identity. His last record deal had paid him an obscene amount of money and industry observers viewed it as a risky gamble. It totalled $17 million for Bowie, but demanded he become an iconic global draw.
Artistically, his exaggerated style had been appropriated by his imitators, and he was searching for something else to be. His inspirations were entirely bourgeois:
I thought, well, it would be fun to dress everybody up in some kind of costume. I thought it might be nice to make it look a bit like Singapore in Fifties. I had seen a musical called Zoot Suit, and I was very impressed by the clothes the actors wore. Then I went to see La Bohème at the Met. And I was equally impressed by those clothes. And, lo and behold, it was the same guy who designed them both: Peter Hall.
So I tracked him down and he got very excited about the idea, because he'd never worked in the rock area. I said, can you just come and look at my band and see what characterizations you imagine and draw me up something? So he designed everyone's clothes. He saw Carlos as the Gandhi type, or actually more of a prince. His original drawings were brilliant. He chose all the materials and came to see how everything would look under our lighting.
For Bowie, the artistic experience oriented around an unstoppable present. The past was useful to him purely as a proxy stage, an intellectual assemblage whose sole purpose was to be incipient of a future moment. To prepare his producer Niles Rodgers before the production of 1983's Last Dance, he played him his vinyl — current stuff, moments or movements he admired in the abstract. Rodgers stole the "ah-ah-ah-ah" riff from "Twist and Shout" for the beginning of "Let's Dance" after David played a version on a six-string guitar and they were off.
Backstage and in his hotel room, life was a matter of avoiding a neverending stream of well-wishers, fans complaining about their lack of access and other celebrities wishing to bask in his glow. He said of the tour:
I must have read more than I've ever read in my life. I've got a half suitcase full of books, most of them collected en route. I'll go down to the foyer in the hotel, you know, and buy a book, those paperbacks and stuff. I'm not even trying for good material. The latest one shows what frame of mind I'm in. The one I'm reading at the moment is about how the end of the world will come and you will die. It's a straightforward account of what destruction is like with a megaton bomb. It's frightening. My God, this thing is more than unsettling...
Before I got the hang of touring, I took along four library trunks full of books. At least 400 books. All the books I owned. I didn't have a house then. I drove Eric crazy. He had to haul all those books around.
He recalls his time in Singapore:
When I move into my suite at the Ming Court Hotel, the little Malay porter indicates the three-tone carpet, the ten-channel T.V. He is bursting with pride about the bathrooms but is visually awed by the three hundred square feet of personal freedom. He paces the room from wall to wall. "So much space," he sighs.
The Singapore authorities are not friendly toward rock & roll. Two of my songs, "China Girl" and "Modern Love", were banned from radio play. "Restricted," as they say. Our wonderful and fearless promoter, Dr. Goh Pohseng, risked his livelihood, bank balance, and even his freedom to get me and my band into his country. When the authorities heard I was going to do an impromptu guest appearance at his youth club two days before our major gig, they busted it, banned the resident band for indecent performance, and threatened Dr. Pohseng with imprisonment if a guest of a club — (me) — should get up on stage and sing.
Every show ended with "Modern Love" except that one.
Dr. Pohseng also faced incredible local resistance in getting the staging and lights together. When he asked for three yards of cable, local suppliers — knowing it was for rock & roll - would only sell him a 100-yard drum. No one would lease him timber for the stage, so he ended up buying an architect-designed permanent structure at ten times the cost. And so it went, over, and over.
The lights were flown in from all over Malaysia. Many arrived broken, and those intact not much more powerful than a bedroom lamp. But, good lord, he tried...
Is there a single way in which the world of 1983 was different from ours today?
His performance did not go much better than what preceded it.
I rip through a welcome and an introduction to the band in Chinese. It is received with dutiful sympathy by the crowd as my pronunciation is so dreadful that not one word is understood. The audience end of the ramp is so far away from the band that I singing half a beat behind them. I look back and see a tiny, jumping Carlos Alomar leading a badly lit rock'n'roll group. I peer out and see paramilitary cops at the ratio of about one to two with the first row. They finger their billy clubs, their hands on their guns.
My jacket style is designer Tokyo — skyscrapers and diamante searchlights. There is so much lacquer in my hair that a hurricane couldn't move it. My shirt is held into my pants by elastic thongs round my legs. I have two pairs of socks on because of oversized shoes. I am imploring the crowd, "put on your red shoes" ... there is a scream of recognition — 15,000 strong. A tiger-print-clad girl is slapped back over the security boundary by a ferocious swing of a billy club.
In a city where you can be arrested for chewing gum, a demand to put on red shoes is deemed unhealthy.
Above all, Bowie was aware of his own powers. He read every one of his own reviews or profiles he could find. He knew what a glimpse of him meant to so many; he dismissed the crassness of paparazzi, the outrageous demands of fans, the requisite attention from paramilitary platoons as part of the price. Still, he appears incredibly lonely, not just in the isolated poses captured by tour photographer Denis O'Regan, but even among friends.
O'Regan pioneered the use of autofocus at the tail end of the 1980s, and he was one of the first major photographers to turn digital when that became possible. He would tour with Bowie twice more, in 1987 and 1990, but it is his snaps of the Serious Moonlight tour that capture David in an affected but vulnerable way that is most unusual. Unlike most celebrity photographers, whose images vacillate between either envy or devotion, O'Regan recognizes a place apart from his subject, while invading Bowie's sphere whenever he can. Only his legendary portraits of Freddie Mercury rival the images of this 1983 tour for sheer magic.
He is no less an alien helping a car back into a parking space than in a white linen jacket, his arms circling Bette Midler, posing towards something time forgot. He is engaged with the world the way that a doctor examines a troubled patient.
This Bowie oscillates between anachronous circumstances. A decade earlier, his addiction to cocaine reached its apex when John Lennon was shocked by the amount of the substance Bowie had on hand, remarking to his girlfriend that "I've never seen such mounds of the stuff!" Although he'd try a line of the local blow if everybody else was having some, drugs had ceased to be a major part of his life. One night in London he sampled several women, but for the most part a scandolous lifestyle was beneath him.
Bowie described the eastern end of the tour as a "carrot," with himself as the rabbit. His voice was at its peak in the early legs. Geeling Ng, an actress who had played the titular role in Bowie's video for "China Girl", joined the tour in France and Germany as Bowie's partner, but left two weeks later, having figured out Bowie only desired something fleeting.
Spending time in close proximity to his son Duncan, who at the time preferred to be called Joey, refreshed his perspective. He told Susan Sarandon,
When you're young and you're determined to crack the big dream of 'I have a statement and the world needs to hear my statement,' there's something a bit irresponsible about your attitude towards the future. A nonrecognition that the future exists. I think it's important for youth to have that. My son keeps me remembering that there is a tomorrow. That never really occurred to me before. 'Tomorrow'? This is it. This is now. This is what's important.
His intriguing but slightly vacant ideas represented a native intelligence apprehensive about what would constitute his own future. His first marriage had not suited him at all, but life as a single man was no more in accordance with his metier. To be so disaffected and at the same time artistically engaged absorbed a tremendous amount of Bowie's mental energy. Only a person of astonishing mental reserves could survive.
In one of O'Regan's most striking photographs, Bowie emerges from flooded waters like a newly baptized babe. A mother and her child, signifying the fractured relationship Bowie shared with his mother and his ex-wife Angela, pose in an embrace. How often, we realize with a start, Bowie must find someone in this exact condition, having waited hours or even days for his arrival. Striding towards the two females, the emotional anguish of living up to other people's expectations looms large. How could he feel, watching their heads emerge above the waterline like skulls atop a marble pyre?
Photographs by Denis O'Regan.
"Under Pressure" - David Bowie (mp3)
"Criminal World" - David Bowie (mp3)
"Cat People" - David Bowie (mp3)
"Ricochet" - David Bowie (mp3)
"Oh! You Pretty Things" - Au Revoir Simone (mp3)
"Sound & Vision" - Matthew Dear (mp3)
"Golden Years" - Susumu Yokota (mp3)
"Life On Mars?" - The Thing (mp3)