The Man Who Changed the World

By: Neil Feineman

David Bowie did three great things for dance music. The second was his exploration of ambient music in his Berlin trilogy. The third was his number one comeback song, "Let's Dance," which got the entire world to put on their dancin' shoes again.

But the first came in Chicago, way back in 1974 or 1975. The pall of the 1968 riots, during which Mayor Richard Daley's police acted like storm troopers at the Democratic National Convention, still hovered over Chicago. McCormick Place had just opened. Disco was dead. And David Bowie had just come out with Diamond Dogs, whose cover art featured his head on a dog's body. The dog, by the way, had a hard-on.

Thus was the world at the time this story takes place. I was in graduate school and had written a paper on Ziggy Stardust that David Bowie had liked. As I result, I had two tickets to his Diamond Dogs show at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Having bypassed everywhere in the south but Nashville on the Ziggy Stardust tour, the Atlanta show was a magnet for every freak in the south, from Texas to Florida.

The demand for tickets was so great that people were calling the promoters from the lobby of Portman's Peachtree Plaza, threatening to commit suicide if they couldn't see the show. And, after Bowie had left the stage later that night, I wouldn't have blamed them. It was the most amazing evening I had ever seen. So, as soon as I pulled back into Gainesville, where I lived, I begged Bowie's office into selling me two tickets to the show in Chicago.

That same day, the truck carrying the tour's elaborate sets and special effects crashed on its way to Tampa, causing the cancellation of all shows until Chicago. By the time I got there, the papers were hinting that something was afoot, but that no one really knew what to expect. Then, on the day of the show, the writer in the Chicago Sun Times reported that there were rumors that Bowie had been rehearsing with a soul band.

And sure enough, that's what happened. Bowie, resplendent in a formal black outfit, emerged fronting a primarily black soul ensemble led by Luther Vandross, then a pudgy rookie, and a stunning backup singer named Ava Cherry, who Bowie was rumored to be sleeping with. Like a Fred-Astaire mutant, he danced his way through a number of brand new songs, including "Young Americans," and some old ones.

By the time he got to "Changes," most of the audience was puzzled, indifferent or outright hostile. But it wasn't the "Changes" you could hear on the radio. Instead, he had so drastically reworked it that someone in the audience stood up and screamed, "sing it the old way." Underground, meet the mainstream.

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Apr 18, 2008

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House of Blues

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