The house lights are dimmed while the band equipment is assembled for Bowie’s set. The lack of light enhances the impression of a flamboyant cabaret entertainment instead of a routine rock and roll show. Now that the opening act has come and gone there’s a noticeable expectancy—despite the small number of attendees. Only a few rows on the balcony are occupied behind us.
Again, I wonder where everyone is. San Francisco is oblivious of tonight’s event. I live near one of the great progressive cities of the world, yet the most scandalous rock band currently touring is about to perform and there’s not an iota of hipness to be found. It doesn’t matter. Not then—not now, close on a half century later. I’ll be one of a few witnesses to fame—that’s the thought in my head and I’m fine with it. The memory of the evening will be even more prominent. My imagination will paint the performance with a layer of legend that obscures the transitory quality of the evening.
A small drum set rests in the center of the stage. The bass drum is untidily painted—The Spiders—in simple script, not exactly centered. There is a piano in the shadows to the left side of the space. A small dim lamp illuminates a few sheets of printed music resting on it. Four spotlights expose the drums and mics in razor-sharp circles on the otherwise black stage—then shut off. The final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the form of the electronic soundtrack from the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange blares out. The musicians take their places on the stage in the dim light. A series of harsh guitar chords proclaim the brisk opening measures of “Hang on To Yourself.”
A single white spotlight exposes Bowie—costumed in a glistening, green, angular coat. Sparkles reflected from embedded sequins fly everywhere like frenzied fireflies. The audience draws its collective breath—there he is! Ziggy! Instantaneously each one of us is personally linked to an intoxicating stage presence through an invisible 220-volt connection. The empty space of Winterland is charged by a tight, three-piece rock band at full volume.
Bowie smiles. I see the satisfaction in his face and the glint of his teeth and eyes. He reaches up with his right hand, hangs onto the mic stand, and sings “If you think we’re gonna make it / you better hang on to yourself.” I’ve listened to the song a hundred times or more since the middle of the summer—an earworm over and over in my head. Now it’s devoid of all the fancy production that make the album version a well-wrought jewel. It’s gnarly and chiseled, played at a pace that makes plain that the band has performed the song more times than I have heard it. The repetition hasn’t tarnished any of the song’s vitality. It’s perfectly polished—as an opening number it’s textbook. We’ve been dropped into Bowie’s hands. Thirty seconds into the set and I’m already on the edge of my seat. The crowd on the floor surges forward, their hands raised and swaying. Something authentic is being declared, an emotion of some kind, archetypal in its force. We are being ushered into an exultant state that we’ve always wanted to access.