Let’s Sit in the Balcony Instead

Nothing has changed at the corner of Post and Steiner. It is still the grimy junction that I’m fond of—my place on Friday nights—this one initiating the party weekend that will extend to Halloween next Tuesday. That seems appropriate. The line is short but is spilling around the corner from the front entry doors as we approach from behind the arena on Pierce Street.

Bowie has been everywhere in the media ever since the tour started on September 22 in Cleveland. On October 20th and 21st the band plays two sold out nights at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Los Angeles is zany for Ziggy. KMET, the underground FM station known as “The Mighty Met,” airs the October 20th concert live. Bowie and the Spiders overwhelm L.A., leaving fans raving about what they had seen and heard.

But as I stand in line I wonder where all the hip San Francisco fans are hiding. Winterland should be crammed, but as we wait only a few people line up behind us. I ask Fred about that, but he shrugs his shoulders. By this time, he’s comfortable with the music and can’t deny its value, but he’s still nervous about the gender incongruity of the album. A couple of weeks earlier I buy a copy of Hunky Dory, Bowie’s previous album, because I enjoy the music. But I tease Fred with the cover—Bowie gazing upwards, a look of longing on his face, his hand pulling his hair up from his forehead effeminately. It’s a soft-focus photo like all the studio photography of movie stars given away as publicity pictures back in the Forties and Fifties.

I walk down to the corner and stand under the signpost. There’s a group of men clustered at the head of the line dressed as women. There are plenty of men in San Francisco who cross-dress. This is my first sighting. Not all of them are outfitted that way. Some are in full Ziggy regalia, complete with red hair and rooster haircuts—all of them colorful and loud.

The rest of the people in line are dressed in denim. It’s the post-hippie look, and I’m a member of that community. I saunter back down to where Fred and Gloria are holding our place in line. I try to look nonchalant.

“What’s going on up at the front of the line?” Fred asks.

“Oh, not much. People waiting as usual.” I keep my reply as deadpan as I can. I want to see the look on his face when he sees the guys at the front door. A few minutes later some additional costumed characters walk around the corner and take their places in line behind us. Fred, who’s been talking rapidly and holding forth on one thing or another, stops prattling and his voice halts. He averts his eyes, which are wide with disbelief, and leans against the wall as if he needs physical support from the shock. A few moments later he says, “I hope they open the doors soon. I’m getting cold,” in the same way a cat, after falling ineptly from a table, licks its paw as if to say, I meant to do that.

When the doors open the line flows in without any rushing or running. When I reach the main floor, I see there are only a couple of hundred people near the stage. I wonder if some folks were running fashionably late. Where is everybody? Perhaps there will be a larger crowd eventually. It’s the right time to get close to the stage and claim a space before the music starts. But as I begin walking Fred does not move. He’s frozen in place, looking at the milling group of alternate lifestyle folks with consternation as he holds hands with Gloria. I think for a moment that she might be the cause of his hesitation. She says a few words to him that I can’t hear—tries to take a step forward and pull him with her. He remains stationary. He shakes his head from side to side. He’s unwilling to join the crowd of cross-dressers.

Ziggy Stardust

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.