When a bootleg album of David Bowie's Santa Monica Civic Auditorium stop on his 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour hit the market several years ago, I didn't even bother to listen to it because I couldn't imagine the music alone living up to my memory of such a spectacular visual presentation.
But Virgin / EMI finally releases an official recording from that show next Tuesday, and against all odds the album does capture the energy and excitement of what was one of the most celebrated rock 'n' roll debuts ever in Southern California. The music is so fast and furious in places in the 76-minute CD that "David Bowie: Live Santa Monica '72" is simply thrilling.
Though the English singer-songwriter already had released three albums, he didn't make a commercial smash in this country until the arrival in late 1971 of "Hunky Dory," an album with the humor, intelligence, irony and personal vision that has distinguished Bowie's best work. One song alone, "Changes," served as a personal battle cry for an artist seeking to overturn the status quo in pop.
Bowie returned a few months later with something even more captivating: "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars," a concept album abut a rock 'n' roll alien. In this case, Ziggy actually was supposed to be from outer space, but his plight also represented the dreams and doubts of any young person trying to figure out his or her place in the world.
When Bowie-as-Ziggy stepped on the Civic stage in the fall of 1972, he was greeted by flashing strobe lights and the strains of the Walter Carlos' kinetic version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which was used in Stanley Kubrick's futuristic film "A Clockwork Orange." With his shiny metallic costume, carrot-orange tinged hair and modest layer of white makeup, Ziggy too represented a bold step into the uncertain future.
Rather than stick to the Ziggy songs in the concert, Bowie used tunes from various albums as well as Jacques Brel's "My Death" to convey a wide range of sometimes uplifting, sometimes dark themes. For the encore, he turned to "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," a delicate, anthem-ish number from "Ziggy." Reaching out to the audience, Bowie offered these soothing words: "You're not alone . . . gimme your hands." Thousands in the auditorium reached out to him.
"David Bowie: Live Santa Monica '72"
The back story: There was so much interest in Bowie's local debut that one of Los Angeles' key rock stations, KMET-FM, broadcast the show live. The new album, which also is available digitally and in a vinyl package, is taken from that broadcast, complete with DJ B. Mitchell Reed's introduction to the station's listeners.
Part of the excitement of the show was that fans didn't know what to expect of this trailblazing young artist. Going by British pop paper descriptions, it was hard to tell from his ambitious, androgynous stance whether Bowie wanted to be the new Elvis Presley or Judy Garland.
For all his confident aura on stage, however, Bowie seemed shy, even fragile during an interview the day after the Santa Monica concert. "I'm a very vulnerable writer," he told me. "I leave myself open constantly. I'm not half as challenging as people try to make out I am. I'm readily accessible. You only have to look at '(The) Man Who Sold the World' to see that. I was going through hell at the time."
Bowie was referring to a dark, dispirited song from an earlier album. He didn't perform it at the Civic, but it is an important part of his musical catalog. Kurt Cobain even reached back for it during Nirvana’s appearance on “MTV Unplugged” in 1993.
The music: The only disappointment is that the CD doesn't include the "Ode to Joy" intro. Still, the blistering assault of the musicians, including Mick Ronson on lead guitar, conveys the excitement of the opening moments. Similarly, it's easy to imagine the hands reaching out to Bowie on the closing "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." My review of the concert is included in the packaging. Not surprisingly, the review was a rave.
For further study: You can get the visual punch of the tour from "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture," which is available on DVD. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, the concert film was shot in London, the last stop on the "Ziggy" tour, and it features a different set list from Santa Monica's.
Backtracking is a biweekly feature devoted to CD reissues and other historical pop items.