Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Superstar in the Making?

Preceding David Bowie's New York debut at Carnegie Hall last night was a persistent no-talent named Ruth Copeland, who has been trying to prove that beauty is only skin deep for several years now. Since it is conceivable that Bowie will turn into a major star, this seemed like a piece of short-sighted selfishness on the part of the agency that books both of them. But it served a function. Not only did it build up anticipation for Bowie, who had to look good in comparison, but it demonstrated what a truly empty hype looks like. Bowie's hype has content.

For starters, Bowie is prettier than Ruth Copeland, resembling Gwen Verdon with her hair straightened into a long crewcut, and he sings a more physical and emotional range, although his voice and general energy level were apparently constricted by a "48-hour virus" last night. And he has good ideas about how to put on a show. The stage was remarkably free of the usual electronic clutter, and he had the immense good sense to pick something besides Strauss' "Zarathrustra" for a fanfare--a light jazz version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." He did some fairly effective stuff with a strobe. On the whole, it was a very pleasant evening.

But pleasant wasn't enough. It is Bowie's stated ambition to be a complete superstar, just like Andy Warhol, to whom he has written a song, has always imagined it. He wears makeup and costumes that make him look like an astronaut who has just flown in from Shakespeare's Tempest. He is also a non-closet bisexual who likes pretty dresses, although to my disappointment, he didn't wear any on stage last night. I mean, the man has genuine flair, and his show should be spectacular. And his salient quality is a rather gentle winsomeness, hardly the sort of appeal that can be expected to dazzle the jaded rock audience.

The most obvious solution would be spectacular music. In the studio, Bowie has achieved true innovations--first album for RCA, Hunky Dory, was a small masterpiece of production, and he has written some excellent melodies and lyrics, although not consistently. But on stage, all of that echo and overdubbing and mixing reduces down to some rather conventional rock and roll. None of his musicians even faintly distinguished himself as a soloist, and Bowie has not developed a single style--or for that matter a stage demeanor--that communicates anything special or exciting. For me, last night's musical high points were provided by two Velvet Underground songs, self-consciously monomaniacal hard rock designed for musicians of limited competence. I think Bowie would be a nice superstar. He evinces intelligent interest in the human condition, all couched in acceptable science-fiction terms, and in this time of cultural myopia such an interest is very welcome. Moreover, his winsomeness is a welcome change from the normal star megalomania. But I'm just not sure he can bring it off. Does young America want to hear songs that are Andy Warhol from some English fairy? If so, the kids will provide Bowie with the sort of aura that will obliterate all big-league criticisms. If not, he will remain what he is now--a moderately interesting cult hero.

N'day, Sept. 29, 1972