I only had an opportunity to see the late David Bowie once, at one of his rare South Florida appearances, on November 17, 1972, when he and his Spiders From Mars (famously consisting of Bowie, guitarist Mick Ronson, drummer Mick Woodmansey, and bassist Trevor Bolder) played Miami's Jai Alai Fronton. If I could have chosen only one time in his lengthy trajectory to catch him, for me, that would certainly be it, given that his showmanship and art-rock decadence was at full flush.
I caught many concerts at the Fronton while attending the University of Miami, but this one still stands out. It was indeed a remarkable show, mostly consisting of material from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust album and a handful of songs that would make their debut soon after. Not surprisingly, he also performed “Space Oddity,” a song that sent shivers up my spine as the tune's famous countdown to liftoff commenced.
Truth be told, the entire concert was one of those edge-of-your-seat-type experiences. Bowie was like no performer I’d witnessed before or seen since, a genuine phenomenon as far as my impressionable young mind was concerned. Seemingly androgynous and dressed in a skintight body suit that revealed every curve of his slim frame, he sported spiky red hair, a mask of alien-like makeup, shaved eyebrows and a come-hither demeanor that made him both cooly sexual and unavoidably intimidating both at the same time. Bowie didn’t simply command the stage; he seized it and, in so doing, brought the audience under his spell.
I remember being mesmerized that night, spellbound at the sight of a performer who not only exemplified what it meant to be a rock star but an artist with an unworldly presence. His mission was not only to deliver his material but to actually entertain with a stage show that was far more than a rock concert. Bowie was completely captivating on every level, and driven by the riveting delivery of the Spiders From Mars, he created nothing less than sheer spectacle and an exhilarating experience at that.
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Bowie would adapt other distinctive personas during his nearly 50-year career — the decadent Thin White Duke, the smooth crooner, the electronica — and in fact, I’d share another six degrees of separation in the early ’80s when he was signed by EMI Records, an affiliate of Capitol Records, for whom I was working at the time. Bowie’s debut for the label, Let’s Dance, marked a comeback of sorts, and though he had dropped his extravagant guises, he was still just as electrifying. It was a major coup for the company, and I was excited to witness its efforts toward ensuring his revival.
It seems hard to believe that Bowie, who once starred in the title role of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, has indeed left the planet at age 69, a victim of cancer. He joins two of the three other spiders — Ronson and Bolder — and yet there’s no doubt his iconic presence will live on. All these years later, I’m still thinking it would be hard to best Bowie. And I'm still right.