David Bowie's gone, but our love affair with all things 1970s lingers

"Vinyl," on '70 music industry, with Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde.
"Vinyl," on '70 music industry, with Bobby Cannavale, Olivia Wilde. (HBO)
Posted: January 18, 2016

David Bowie's death last week played out like the final, showstopping performance of a career full of unpredictable star turns. His last mournful, mysterious album, Blackstar, was released to unanimous praise on his 69th birthday, Jan. 8. Two days later, he was gone.

That sudden surprise - planet Earth was blue, and there was nothing we could do - focused attention in a spectacular demonstration of the connective power of music and the Internet.

Facebook logged 100 million interactions in 12 hours after Bowie's passing. With 51 million plays Monday on the music video service Vevo, Adele's one-day record of 36 million was smashed. In death, Bowie is this week's cultural uniter, scoring his first No. 1 U.S. album ever with Blackstar, knocking Adele's 25 out after seven weeks at the top.

It has been a perfect social-media storm. As probably the most videogenic artist in history, there's an endless stream of Bowie content out there, and the sharing has gone on all week.

Teenage David Jones speaks to the BBC in 1964 on behalf of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. "Let's Dance"-era Bowie politely takes MTV to task for not playing videos by black artists. In 1999, he foresees the "exhilarating and terrifying" impact of the Internet, and in a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais' Extras, Bowie mocks the comedian in song as a "little fat man."

All of those different Bowies - click to see him duet with Lou Reed on "Waiting for the Man" or pair off with Annie Lennox on "Under Pressure" - have been a reminder of just how much he did over a five-decade career.

But the origin of Bowie as the icon of the elastic-identity, gender-fluid world we now live in inevitably points us back to one specific time: the 1970s, the decade when Bowie rose to superstardom and did far and away his best work, an era whose excesses and indulgences he embodied as much as anyone.

And it's also the decade that, in 2016, pop culture seems intent on looking back at with nostalgia.

If you're like me, you started reading literary sensation Garth Risk Hallberg's 900-page, Dickensian first novel, City on Fire, late last year and are now just rounding to the finish.

It's set in punk-era Manhattan and concludes on the night of the New York blackout in July 1977, the same year that Bowie released both Low and Heroes, two-thirds of his Berlin trilogy of albums. (The latter's title cut tops the Spotify list of most-streamed Bowie songs since his death.)

City on Fire is perhaps the best example of the allure of the grimy, recessionary '70s, a period that isn't studied and romanticized as much as the tumultuous decade before it, but that produced a bountiful amount of great popular art, in both music and movies. (Current multiplex hits Star Wars and Creed, remember, are reboots of '70s classics, and I'd like to make you an offer you can't refuse: Francis Ford Coppola's seven-hour The Godfather Epic, which puts the pieces of his two '70s mob movies - The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II - in chronological order, runs at 5 p.m. today on HBO.)

Hallberg, 37, was not born when his sprawling novel, set in a rundown, nearly bankrupt Manhattan, takes place. Raised in North Carolina, he's a total outsider drawn to the era of Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and Television.

Those artists, of course, were profoundly influenced by Bowie, the glam rocker who was a gateway drug to punk. In City on Fire, fictional band Ex Post Facto's album Brass Tactics expresses itself so vividly that one of the book's protagonists, Long Island teenager Charlie Weisbarger, "listened to it over and over again, assenting to it like he hadn't assented to anything since Ziggy Stardust."

The music business in the '70s - a pre-AIDS, sexually carefree time when cocaine was plentiful and people paid for the music they listened to - is perhaps inevitably coming to the world of prestige TV drama, as well.

This year, Netflix will roll out The Get Down, a 13-episode series created by Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann that's about funk, disco, and the birth of hip-hop in '70s New York. The trailer teased on the Web this month makes it look like a blast.

And next month on HBO will bring the arrival of Vinyl, a 10-part series starring Bobby Cannavale whose principal creators are Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Sopranos/ Boardwalk Empire writer Terence Winter.

The pilot opens with the record-label boss played by Cannavale scoring drugs in New York's then-dingy SoHo, only to be distracted by fervent fans making their way to the legendary Mercer Arts Center to see the New York Dolls, the band that provided the cross-dressing bridge between Bowie's early '70s, bisexual alien persona and the coming cut-and-paste-style revolt of punk.

Bowie's genre-jumping sound in the '70s made cultural connections in many directions. The attraction of Gamble and Huff's Sound of Philadelphia brought him here to record at Sigma Sound Studio. He shared a predilection for mind-blowing extraterrestrial stagecraft with George Clinton, who has acknowledged that the rhythmic cadence of "Fame" inspired his own anthem "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)."

And for all his various guises, the defining image of Bowie from the '70s is that of Ziggy, the orange-haired, platform-shoed Other from an alternative universe. In point of fact, Bowie's place of origin was the English suburbs. Most tributes and obituaries cited his birth in the Brixton section of London, but he moved to the outskirts when he was 6, and he developed an outsider's sensibility during an adolescence spent in the sedate suburban town of Bromley.

Rock-and-roll had its own narrative of getting away from dreary surroundings, of course, going back to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, whose "Around and Around" Bowie covers to gloriously strange effect (with Jeff Beck sitting in) on a Ziggy Stardust tour video that was floating around last week.

But Bowie's rise was timed perfectly to a moment when '60s communal idealism had soured and the successes of the U.S. space program provided fodder for ultimate interstellar escapism. "Space Oddity," his first British hit, landed the same month in 1969 that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

So he made his getaway to outer space on a series of early '70s sci-fi songs - "Starman," "Moonage Daydream," and "Drive-In Saturday," among others. With the aid of album rock radio stations like Philadelphia's WMMR. That station came of age in the early '70s as Bowie was releasing one impressively otherworldly album after the next - Hunky Dory in 1971, Aladdin Sane in 1973. Bowie's rock-and-roll fantasy connected with a generation of American teenagers looking to find their own fabulous way to get over the post-'60s suburban blues.

Time will tell where Blackstar, which right now sounds profoundly moving, fits into the artist's capacious catalog. It connects back to Bowie's beginnings with lyrics to songs like "Blackstar" and "Lazarus" that fans initially interpreted through a sci-fi perspective that now seem to be meditations on death.

And as his afterlife began this week, one video being shared eerily connected the musings on mortality in Blackstar to the vibrant days of his early '70s rise. Filmed at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1973, it finds Bowie as Ziggy covering a Jacques Brel song with lyrics that could apply to the way the Internet kept him alive in the days after he died. "My death waits," he sings, strumming an acoustic guitar. "To allow my friends / A few good times, before it ends."

ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628

@delucadan

www.philly.com/inthemix

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