David Bowie, Beat by Beat

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David Bowie performs “Cracked Actor” in Philadelphia on the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour. (Photo by Paula Parisi)

David Bowie, the artist, defied categorization, though he is most often identified with music. In the catalog of my memory, however, he’s indexed as “showman” (with the qualifier “ultimate”).  I’ve seen dozens of arena rock concerts, mostly forgotten, but David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour is permanently etched into my grid. Casting its beam on Philadelphia in July ’83, the show was everything the ’80s came to represent (like all things Bowie, ahead of its time).

The tour was in support of the album “Let’s Dance” and marked the beginning of a collaboration with producer Nile Rodgers (of Chic fame). As legend has it, Bowie showed him a photograph of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a Cadillac and said he wanted a “commercially buoyant” record with an “original party-funk cum big bass drum sound.” By yardsticks like Dylan goes electric, David does disco was an unqualified hit. Right out of the box “Let’s Dance” was Bowie’s best-seller: 10.7 million copies worldwide. The original goal for Serious Moonlight was to fill 10,000 seat venues, but tickets were in such demand he played arenas three times the size and sold out — including four nights at the Philadelphia Spectrum, home to the NHL Flyers.

I was 23 years old, and found myself at the show owing more to an interest in photography than any special fascination with David Bowie. A minor presence on the local journalism scene, I was the recipient of a coveted photo pass. “Diamond Dogs” was at that point the only Bowie album I owned. Released nearly a decade earlier, it remained in rotation as part of my recreational dance repertoire, and of course a large chunk of his catalog was familiar to me from the radio. This was Philly, after all, a city Bowie loved – he recorded 1975’s “Young Americans” in a weeklong session at Sigma Sound, channeling local heroes Gamble and Huff to find his “plastic soul,” then in 1977 teamed with the Philadelphia Orchestra to narrate Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” — and the city returned the favor.

At the time, I registered none of that, but I knew Bowie’s Philadelphia concerts were sold out. I headed to the Spectrum expecting to be “entertained” but was in no way prepared to be stunned, numbed and thoroughly spun by David Bowie’s live performance.  My lasting impression: him bounding onstage to the killer kick-drum chord combo of “Modern Love”: a slight fellow in a lime-green zoot suit, hair coiffed to impressive altitude.

Living at the nexus of doo-wop and punk, this physical presentation didn’t immediately strike me as remarkable (especially for a guy known for stuff like glitter platforms and spray-painting himself gold). But as he established his rhythm, moving across the 50-foot expanse of stage, he thoroughly juiced the crowd.  The tune itself emphasized the off-beat with a condensed, angular phrasing, and Bowie’s dancing was syncopated — ever so slightly misaligned — and not consistently, just occasionally. I’d never experienced anything like it; juxtaposed against the music, it was Bowie using his moves to fracture time, like some sort of performance-art take on the general theory of relativity.

The effect was hyper-real, yet disorienting, the stage equivalent of cinema’s dolly zoom. But Bowie was bopping about completely at ease, no evidence of calculation or choreography.  It was a mesmerizing effect: elegant funk befitting a Thin White Duke. I was floored that a simple costume and his understated moves could have such huge impact (though I suppose the music was a factor!).

It was news to me, though not a surprise, when a friend told me in his earliest days, Bowie wanted to be a Broadway guy, his heart brimming with show tunes. “Why do you think he created the Ziggy Stardust character? He thought it would be his way into theater.”  David Bowie wasn’t really known for his dancing, but he studied mime; combine that with his music you’ve got quite a mover. A 1988 clip shows him in full-choreography mode, performing “Look Back in Anger” with the Canadian troupe La La la Human Steps.

Composed in 1979 with Brian Eno, Bowie explains how he rearranged “Look Back” to sound edgier for the dance, at London’s Dominion Theater, a fundraiser for the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Another, TV version of the same performance features video processing courtesy of Nam June Paik. Painting, mime, acting, dance, music – was there a medium this artist didn’t explore?

The term “charisma” derives from Latin and has theological roots, meaning “a divinely conferred gift or power.”  There definitely seemed to be something supernatural about David Bowie, everyone’s favorite rock alien.  The rest of the concert was an enjoyable blur. At odds with my recollection, the song lists for Serious Moonlight indicate “Modern Love” was Bowie’s preferred closer.  As I remember, it’s the one he opened with.  It’s certainly possible that with four nights in one city he wanted to mix things up a bit. As the first track on “Let’s Dance,” he’d conceded it was a good kick-off.

There was also the fact that Bowie recorded a live music video for “Modern Love” during the Philly dates, which certainly would  be a good reason for director Jim Yukich to want to capture a completely fresh take. Or maybe I shuffled the set in my head. The memory does play tricks. And that wouldn’t bother David Bowie, impish trickster of time. For him, up-to-the-minute was old; he was always slightly ahead of the the beat.

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Paula Parisi is the editor of MaxTheTrax. In the ’80s, she studied photography and dance at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the Philadelphia Academy of the Arts).

2 Responses to "David Bowie, Beat by Beat"

  1. Digi Dezzman  January 20, 2016 at 4:33 am

    I’m not sure I’d call “Modern Love” syncopated. It’s pretty straight 4/4 with a hard 2 & 4 backbeat (as in, not a lot of swing). What he does that’s interesting is layer the melodic/lyrical phrases over the groove in irregular ways, by cutting out bars, so that the phrases feel a little jerky and sort of circular in the way they cycle. In thinking about this, it’s something that Bowie does a lot. It’s a way of messing with convention and the listener’s unconscious expectations about how a song goes or feels or both.

    Reply
    • Paula Parisi  January 21, 2016 at 9:38 pm

      It sounds pretty swingy to me! Tho try as I might, I can’t replicate his oddly-punctuated moves, unique as a finger-print in that the beats he emphasized seemed random – no standard rhythm pattern, yet lots of drama with these very casual physical flourishes. (Jazz dancing? What can be done with the twitch of a shoulder also conjures stripper moves, a la Gypsy Rose Lee 🙂 Or maybe it’s his mime training, of which I am only recently aware. David Byrne is the only other performer I’ve seen do anything like it.)

      As for the beat of the song itself, I have to admit, I’m rather lost! My efforts to deconstruct it reveal ever more complicated layers. They’re walloping something on the 2/4 (and then some!)

      Reply

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