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Bowie Foresees the States In Flames -
The Personal Story Behind "Aladdin Sane"

By Howard Bloom - Circus (July 1973)

David Bowie sat in his New York Hotel room writing about the sequined crowd who had danced across his carpet until dawn. Then suddenly he was struck with the vision of a U.S. holocaust.

David Bowie sat in an overstuffed armchair in his suite aboard the ship Ellinis, returning to London from his first triumphal tour of the States. His delicate brows knit in a look of perplexed recognition as he read Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies" - a 40 year-old, futuristic novel about a society of "bright young things" whirling through lavish parties in outlandish costumes, dancing, gossiping and sipping champagne.  Suddenly David lowered the book to his lap, picked up the spiral notebook and pen sitting on the small mahogany table at his side, and began to write the words to the title song of his new LP, Aladdin Sane (on RCA Records):

Watching him dash away, dragging
an old bouquet-dead roses
Sake and strange divine.
Um-m-m-m-you'll make it
Passionate bright young things,
take him away to war-
..don't fake it.
Who'll love Aladdin Sane
Battle cries & champagne just in
time for sunrise...

"The book dealt with London in the period just before a massive, imaginary war." David would later confide, touching one finger, with its green-painted nail, lightly to his chin.  "People were frivolous, decadent and silly.  And suddenly they were plunged into this horrendous holocaust.  They were totally out of place, still thinking about champagne and parties and dressing up.  Somehow it seemed to me that they were like people today." But who was the frivolous, romantic young man Aladdin Sane?  At first David merely cupped his hands in a fragile cage and said "I don't really think he's me."  Several days later, Bowie realised who - or rather what - the song, and in fact the entire album, were about.  "It's my interpretation of what America means to me.  It's like a summation of my first American tour."

Bowie's fall assault
David Bowie's long playing interpretation of America is designed to perplex more American and British fans than any record the Clockwork Orange Starman has ever made before.  For David is rising in the center of what may soon prove to be one of the mightiest rock machines of the 70's.  He recently became one of the few stars to launch three albums on the US charts at a time, and one of the even fewer rock performers to attract a following so large in one city (Philadelphia) that he was forced to play there nine nights in a row.  And now, back in Britain, he is working in his sprawling Beckenham house on the plans for a mammoth fall tour that will be among the largest and most spectacular in the history of rock n roll.  It will cover 70 US and Canadian cities during a period of 108 days and will probably reach over half a million fans.   The costumes and theatrical effects may well outdo anything American rock audiences have ever seen.  David's technical director, Bob See, is toying with the notion of covering a portion of the stage with a giant, two-layered plastic bubble.  Gases pumped into the bubble's double wall could make Bowie seem to grow larger or smaller, then turn him crimson, orange or blue.  "That's only one of a million ideas See's tossing around," says one of Bowie's aides.  And David vows that the show "will be as complete a production as anything ever seen on Broadway."

Society of super-freaks
The music for the spectacle will probably come from Aladdin sane.  And, in it's own way, the trek through the States that inspired Aladdin Sane's songs was as bizarre as any production David could ever mount on stage.  For Bowie gained entry to an America few Americans have ever seen - the twilight inner world of the red, white and blue's bisexual superfreaks.

Bowie's first major American tour began normally enough last September.   The usual crowd of critics and kids in blue jeans packed the theatres in Cleveland and Memphis where he put on his first shows.  But the audience that filed into New York's Carnegie Hall a few days later was anything but ordinary. Sashaying down the aisles toward their red plush seats were silver-lidded creatures with short sheared hair dyed rainbow shades of green, pink and blue.  Top-hat and tail wearing gentlemen with green lipstick and yards of frosted white hair stomped on balloons that scuttled along the carpeted floor.  As the house lights went black and strobe lights from behind the stage flickered over the faces of the crowd, Bowie stepped onstage with the Spiders From Mars and caught a brief glimpse of two familiar figures in the front rows...Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, the king and crown prince of decadent flash.

Champagne corks popping like machine guns
That night the "passionate bright young things" destined to populate Aladdin Sane gathered in David's hotel suite overlooking Manhattan's brightly lit Plaza Foundation.  While a few privileged New York groupies lounged by the sweeping draperies and one or two hand-picked RCA executives sipped champagne on the long couches that lined the room, trans-sexual singer Wayne County, dressed in high-heeled shoes, a long sweater and dangling loops of beads, danced with former Warhol starlet Cherry Vanilla.  And David watched with utter fascination as his white-and-pink haired wife Angie whirled through every dance step from the waltz to the twist with a luscious Marilyn Monroe look-alike in the center of the room.

The day after the party David sat by himself in his empty room.   While the television blared away, he tried "to pin point and exaggerate the incident" of the night before. "Shakey threw a party that lasted all night," he wrote in his notebook, "Everybody drank a lot of something nice." Cyrinda Foxe, the Marilyn Monroe-ish beauty who had danced the night away with Angie became "Lorraine - She shimmied and she strolled like a Chicago moll / her feathers looked better and better - it was so-so." And a persistent groupie was transformed to "the girl on the phone" who "wouldn't leave me alone." Then suddenly David was overwhelmed by the feeling that the gaudy, giggling American caricatures who had partied in his room the night before were unwittingly acting out the symptoms of a collapsing civilization.  "Yea! I was shakin like a leaf," he wrote with a feeling of grim foreboding. "For I couldn't understand the conversation / Yea! I ran to the street, looking for information." Without realizing it, David Bowie had given birth to the theme that would obsess him throughout his tour of the States, the theme of Aladdin Sane: that the Americans he had met were poised unknowingly on the lip of a cataclysm that would rock the world.

Hard-hat panic
When Bowie arrived in Detroit by rented bus ten days later, checked into a hotel, and changed into his billowing-sleeved velvet shirt to take a stroll on a downtown street, his vague feeling of impending catastrophe became sharp and biting.  David and his bodyguard stopped at a corner and waited for the light to change, only to notice they were being watched with open hostility by the burly truck drivers and auto workers coming out of coffee shops on their lunch breaks.  Within minutes Bowie fled back to his hotel.   "If I'm in a very light mood, I find everything in America so kitsch," he explains. "Its wonderful, and I'd love to have it all hanging in my bedroom.  If I'm in a bad mood, I find it terribly repressive and heavy." Heavy was not a strong enough word for the Motor City.

Iggy's gum and guns
In David's own hotel room he found a companion he was sure would lighten his grave mood, but he was wrong.  Iggy Pop had flown in from LA to see the Bowie show.   The insecure master of masochistic rock sat up late that night telling Bowie tales of the Detroit revolutionaries he had known in his Michigan youth, teen-agers who had talked gleefully of the day when the system would be smashed by hordes of beret-wearing street kids carrying tommy guns and chewing wads of gum.  And David's dark mood gelled into the title of a song - "Panic In Detroit." It was almost dawn when Iggy left for his own room.  Staring out his window at the still inky city-scape, David had a bleak vision of America devastated by revolution.  He saw Iggy as a Che Guevara-like figure with a gun and a diesel truck, a member of "the National People's Gang." He heard sirens wailing through the silent city streets as the police attacked Iggy's marauding mobs.  And finally, he imagined the last inhabitants of the city dying.  "A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive" he wrote in his notebook, "Putting on some clothes I made my way to school / An' found my teacher crouching in his overalls / I screamed and ran to smash my favourite slot machine."

Hollywood's happy hookers
Twelve days later Bowie had reached a city that bears as little resemblance to Detroit as a junkyard bears to a carnival. It was Los Angeles, flighty capitol of America's brightest "bright young things" - where a girl with silver shoes, a pink seersucker smock and green rollers in her hair would run up to David in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel and fling her arms around him: where movie superstars, would be stars and sons of stars would flock to the hotel's cocktail lounge to be seen by the gossip columnist as they chattered with "the right people"; and where nearby at Rodney Bingenheimer's club, six-foot 50's rock and roller Kim Fowley and his friends would flutter their mascaraed eyes at each other.

But it was during David's walks on Sunset and Vine - where the male and female prostitutes of Hollywood meet their clientele - that he ran into the LA figures who would impress him the most.  "They were mostly older producer types," David recalls, "quite strange looking, quite charming, but thoroughly unreal." And when he left LA, his notebook bore a song that stripped away the charm to look at the inner workings of the successful men who had seemed preoccupied with sex, heroin and money: "Crack, baby, crack show me you are real / Smack (heroin), baby smack, is all that you feel / Suck, baby, suck, give me your head (let's have some oral sex) / Before you start professing that you're knocking me dead."  Once again an American city had left Bowie with the bitter taste of a civilization dried out and ready for the redemptive fires of destruction.

Domes of love
It was late one night looking out the window of his railroad car on the way to Phoenix, Arizona, that David finally had a vision of America after the cleansing fires had taken their toll. "Apparently they only let the train through this particular stretch of desert late at night," David explains "But if you don't go to sleep when you are supposed to, you suddenly see the moon shining on seventeen or eighteen enormous silver domes.  I couldn't find out from anyone what they were.  But they gave me a vision of America, Britain and China after a nuclear catastrophe.  The radiation has affected people's minds and reproductive organs, and they don't have a sex life.   The only way they can learn to make love again is by watching video-films of how it used to be done." The song Bowie began to write in his notebook as the domes faded into the distance was "Drive in Saturday":

Let me put my arms around your head
Gee, its hot lets go to bed
Perhaps the strange ones in the dome
Can lend us a book, we can read up alone
And try to get it on like once before
When people started in Jagger's eyes and scored
Like the video-films we saw.

The bombs will wake them up
A few days before he was scheduled to sail for London, David sat before a crowd of reporters in a futuristic looking RCA studio and admitted" "I feel the American is the loneliest person in the world.  I get an awful feeling of insecurity and .. a need for warmth in people here.  It's very, very sad.  So many people in America are unaware that they are living."

It is little wonder then, that when David sat in his stateroom aboard the ship Ellinis and began to read in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies about 20 year olds caught up in a "mad and illogical whirl of extravagant parties and other pointlessly important social affairs," he saw an image that summed up everything he had seen in North America..and everything he had written into his songs.  It was the image of Aladdin Sane, the "passionate bright young thing" who would learn to really live only when the cataclysm of war forced him into it.  And paradoxically, it was the image that would give an album life.

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)