by Greg Tate
David Bowie ranks as high in our electric church’s Afrofuturist pantheon of demiurges as Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, and Miles Davis. That’s for his outrageous aristocratic style, not-just-skin-deep soul, badass brinksmanship, and all-around Alter-Negrocity. Not to mention the Starman’s personal sui generis take on The Funk. Bowie remains that rarity — a white rock artist whose appropriations of black kulcha never ever felt like a rip-off but a lot more like a sharing of radical and bumptious ideations amongst like-minded freaks.
It appears 1975 was the very first year we saw a white man get busy on Soul Train, “The Hippest Trip in America.” Memory fails us as to whom Don Cornelius chose to lob over the color line ahead of whom: Bowie with ”Fame” or Elton John, whose ”Bennie and the Jets” had turn into a boom box staple on the back of the college bus that year at D.C.’s Coolidge Higher. That exact same year, Average White Band dropped ”Pick Up the Pieces” on Soul Train, too. Does not really matter, simply because of the 3, Bowie had the funkiest track and the a lot more charismatically alien presence — simultaneously the most culturally familiar and the most outright bizarre. The unabashed Brit who fell to Mother Africa and kept on stepping in rhythm and rhyme to his personal quasar.
Bowie’s Soul Train appearance delivers insight into his enigmatic potential to groove with The Individuals and levitate above the fray, somewhere way beyond the pale. That visit to the Mecca of televised urban Terpsichore came two years right after the two biggest pimp-thug cats at Coolidge High, Robert Parrish and his boy, came back from the Capital Center raving about seeing the Ziggy Stardust tour. This was just before we knew about the deep and abiding partnership amongst louche hustlers and transgendered people in the ’hood. Not long following Bowie dropped “Fame,” George Clinton begrudgingly tossed off this riposte on Mothership Connection’s ”P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)”: ”I was down south, heard some main components like Blue Magic, Doobie Brothers, David Bowie. It was cool — but can you think about Doobie in your funk?”’ Cite the absence of any snap on Bowie, Starchile Clinton was giving the Starman some significant props. Not least since Bowie inspired all of rock and funk ’n’ roll to go far more glam, glittery, and avant-haute in the ’70s.
All roads to Glamgnocity in that era lead back to Bowie — himself inspired by Jimi Hendrix. But Hendrix never got to recognize rock theatricality as extravagantly as Bowie did — nor did the Voodoo Chile have a costume-designing wizard like Japan’s Kansai Yamamoto knitting away in his stage-couture shed.
Our ace boon Arthur Jafa likes to say that ”Andy Warhol was so white he was black.” Bowie (who played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat) was likewise so avant-garde he tipped more than into the Avant-’Groid — that Afro-outré dimension exactly where Small Richard and Sun Ra define how far out you can go and command adore from the folk. Like Joni Mitchell — one more unguilty pleasure of many boho blackfolk — Bowie double-crossed back over to black culture by getting his own transcendently pan-every thing creation. But not even Queen Mother Joni can say she provoked James Brown to copycat action twice in his career. JB was so blown away by Bowie’s ”Fame,” he cut his personal carbon-copy track, ”Hot (I Need to have to Be Loved, Loved, Loved),” and, years later, when Bowie optioned his publishing for stock points, the Godfather of Soul got the news about how profitable the deal proved and swiftly followed suit. Bowie when said, “The secret to my good results was I was usually the second guy to come up with the concept.” All hip-hop junkies can relate: How you flip secondhand wisdom to make the meta go mega-pop takes genius, also. (FYI, the ”Fame” story is further complex by the truth that Brown remembered Bowie’s co-writer Carlos Alomar playing the main riff at the Apollo years just before — but chase down the long version right here.
This reporter got to hang out with Bowie a handful of occasions in the aughts. Iman commissioned moi to create an essay for her cosmetics company’s catalogue. In the course of our initial meeting, Iman leaned in with her cell telephone and mentioned, ”My husband desires to speak to you — he’s a massive fan of your perform.” Say WTF? It was genuinely the GTFOH gobsmack moment of a lifetime in music journalism. If only since, arrogant as we journos can be on the page, only an idiot thinks any individual of musical consequence truly reads our cantankerous sheet! Upshot is, because of that bizarre turnabout we got to get turnt out in particular person, as most had been, by Bowie’s singular alchemy — utter nobility combined with an easygoing lack of pretension. Later came revelations about this extremely irregular normal guy’s generosity of spirit.
For the duration of our very first convo, Bowie related how he’d not too long ago met P. Diddy — a man so impressed by Bowie’s handshake he inquired as to who Bowie’s trainer was. Whereupon the Thin White Duke informed Mr. Undesirable Boy, ”That grip isn’t from education, Puff. That’s from 40 years of attempting to hold on to your cash in the music business.” Speak about pulling a tyro’s coat tail.
Up close and private, you also got to see how puppy-dog lovestruck Bowie’s goddess-worship of Iman was. Bowie’s curiosity also led him and Iman to truck down to CBGB a single evening to see this reporter’s then-wife, vocalist Tamar-Kali, rock out with her brand of Geechee Goddess Hardcore Warrior Soul. The couple also made their way to our very good buddy Arthur Jafa’s extremely, quite postmodern painting, sculpture, and efficiency opening in an off-the-beaten-path Soho gallery. There was absolutely nothing fake about Bowie’s passion for the men and women, art, and tips that captured his imagination. If he was moved by your trip, he’d go the additional mile to show enjoy as one of your fans, as well. We also witnessed Bowie’s gangsta-husband come out at Tamar’s CBGB gig, when our 220-pound stage-diving homeboy Luqman Brown crash-landed in Iman’s lap. Bowie, sans safety, turned Iceberg Slim–cold and snatched Luq off of his better half with the quickness while snapping ”Get off my wife” to our burly punk rock brother. Luq sheepishly slunk away, but we know that if it had been any other properly-dressed white man courting a Somalian supermodel at CBGB back then, foul language and fisticuffs may have ensued. Even a lot more impressive is that even right after becoming rattled and smushed, Bowie and Iman stayed for the rest of Tamar’s set! Hardcore to the bone, yo.
Like anyone in the lily-white rock world of yon who sang, danced, and played saxophone, Bowie was beyond indebted to black culture. But significantly akin to Miles Davis, assimilating influences for Bowie meant he’d granted himself license to warp and mutilate these sweet inspirations in pursuit of self-renovation. This trait is abundantly evident on 1975’s Young Americans album. Bowie’s rapprochement with Philly Soul in Philly International’s residence base, Sigma Sound, remains a watershed moment for our nevertheless-racialized globe of American music-creating. YA marked Bowie’s maiden voyage with Puerto Rican–born Apollo pit band guitarist Carlos Alomar, who’d turn out to be a studio and touring mainstay for the next decade. The album also features songwriting collaborations with emergent soul star and then-backing vocalist Luther Vandross. Shape of issues to come: Who else but Bowie would later divine a crossroads for Nile Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughan to crew up on 1 of the dopest ’80s dance-floor anthems? Who else but the exact same man would cede the spotlight to African American bassist/singer Gail Ann Dorsey during the concert versions of ”Under Pressure”? On Young Americans, you hear a white rock star who didn’t want to be study as a mere tourist in Blackonia but as a contributor, a collaborator, and ultimately a real comrade. This latter aspect was in no way much more clear than when Bowie sat down with MTV host Mark Goodman in 1985 and forthrightly addressed the network’s then-glaring race dilemma:
David Bowie: Why are there virtually no blacks on the network?
Mark Goodman: We look to be undertaking music that fits into what we want to play on MTV. The business is pondering in terms of narrowcasting.
David Bowie: There look to be a lot of black artists producing really great videos that I’m shocked are not being utilized on MTV.
Mark Goodman: We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Pick some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by a string of other black faces, or black music. We have to play music we feel an whole country is going to like, and surely we’re a rock and roll station.
David Bowie: Don’t you feel it is a frightening predicament to be in?
Mark Goodman: Yeah, but no less so right here than in radio.
David Bowie: Do not say, “Well, it’s not me, it’s them.” Is it not attainable it need to be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair, to make the media far more integrated?’
The Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen, Speaking Heads — no one particular, to that point, had so publicly challenged the segregated status quo at a network then providing rock artists free of charge mass-market advertising. But from that unprompted interrogation of the race aspect in MTV programming, we can infer that Bowie’s enjoy for the most politically committed black artists — Nina Simone, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Gamble & Huff, Gil Scott-Heron, et al. — was far more than lip service. Bowie got the memo that being a ride-or-die black-and-blue-eyed soul man meant placing your own career at threat in the name of cultural justice. That is why we weren’t surprised to hear that his last album was majorly inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly: ”I’m a black star / Not a rock star.’” Indubitably. And eternally. Down-by-law Bowie kept it one hundred % avant-’Groid until the wheels came off.