Trader Talk

David Bowie: A musical and financial innovator

Nov. 30, 1972. The Tower Theater, Philadelphia. David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars are in the middle of their set. The guitarist, Mick Ronson, is swirling around the stage, slashing at his guitar, pushing the band, and the song — "Suffragette City" — into a frenzy.  

A man leaves flowers at a mural of David Bowie in Brixton on Jan. 11, 2016 in London.
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Bowie is screaming:

"Hey man, my school days' insane
Hey man, my work's down the drain
Hey man, well she's a total vlam-vam...
She said she had to squeeze it, but she...
And then she...."

And I am screaming, too. I'm standing on the armrest of a chair in the middle of the theater, trying to balance, which is hard because I'm wearing 2.5-inch platform shoes. I fall off the chair several times.

And there we were, my friends Keith and Joe and I and 2,000 other kids, almost all boys, screaming our lungs out, and at the height of it all, with people waving their arms and falling off their chairs and tossing objects in the air, I remember thinking, "This, this is what the Apocalypse is going to look like."

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You had to be there. David Bowie helped create many new sub-genres of rock, but this particular one I was witnessing that night in Philadelphia — call it glam for lack of a better word — made a lot of us who were a bit, well, odd, feel a little less odd.

"Oh no love, you're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if i could only
Make you care..."
("Rock 'n' Roll Suicide")

"The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" had been released that summer, and my friends and I had worn the grooves out of the album. It never sold that much. It peaked at No. 75 in the U.S., but it's influence on rock was incalculable.  

We didn't know it then, but rock was about to move out of its "classical" period and... metamorphosize. There were still classics being recorded:  "Who's Next" by the Who and particularly "Exile on Main Street" by the Rolling Stones had been released within the last year.

But rock needed something new. You could smell it. And Bowie provided one of the key alternative strands.    

Those three shows in Philadelphia — he did two more on the following nights — became legendary and helped break Bowie out to a national audience.

Bowie repaid our loyalty. My friend Mike and I saw him when he came back to Philly again, in July 1974, and recorded his first album, "David Live," again at the Tower Theater.

But a lot had changed by then. Bowie had fired his band, the Spiders from Mars, and the beloved Mick Ronson was gone. One of his greatest albums, "Diamond Dogs," the last of the albums from his "glam" period, was not even finished using his old band.

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We didn't quite know it, but Bowie was trying to find a way to transition out of the music that made us love him.

The concert was a mess. His vocals had changed. He sounded, in the words of my friend, "like Frank Sinatra on coke." The wild rock swagger had been replaced by some type of rock-crooner. Whatever it was, we didn't like it.

The final straw came the following year, when Bowie released "Young Americans." The song and album was a massive hit, and we finally realized what Bowie was trying to become: a soul singer crossed with a disco star.

My sister Kathy, six years younger than me, bought the album. That was the final straw. When your little sister starts buying the records of your biggest rock idol, you know it's over.

And so I broke up with David Bowie, for the first — but not the last —time.  

I left Bowie and went to the Next Big Thing: Elvis Costello and Talking Heads and Blondie and most of all, the Ramones. New Wave and punk exploded in 1977, and the Tower Theater hosted many of the most important shows.

But that year my friend Mike called to tell me that Bowie was releasing new albums. He had been living in Berlin, recording with a producer called Tony Visconti. He had a new album, "Heroes," coming out, and had announced a tour for 1978.

"You gotta listen to this, Bob.  It's really cool. It's not like 'Spiders from Mars.' It's... just different."

And so in April 1978 Mike and I sat in the back rows of the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Bowie came out, and Mike was right. It was... different.  He was not as wild as the Spiders from Mars days, but he also wasn't as hesitant — or as obviously drugged-out — as he was in 1974. "Heroes" was a flat-out dark masterpiece, unlike anything on the radio at the time.  

I played the album over and over, and I was a Bowie fan. Again.

Bowie kept changing. We were all surprised when he dropped the darkness of Berlin and emerged with the "Scary Monsters" album in 1980 that produced the "Ashes to Ashes" hit, all the more because it revived the Major Tom character from "Space Oddity."  

He followed it up with "Under Pressure" which he did with Queen, and then "Let's Dance" and "Modern Love" produced with Chic's Nile Rodgers.

It was dance music, all of it, but without sounding like... well, selling out. We ALL hated disco by then. But Bowie was doing updated disco music.  He was even collaborating with Nile Rogers, head of one of the biggest disco groups in the world!

By then, Bowie was at his height and playing stadiums, including 50,000 people at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in July 1987.

Bowie faded in the early 1990s, after a mostly unsuccessful collaboration with a rock quartet called Tin Machine. No matter:  when he came to the Spectrum in 1990 for the Sound + Vision tour, it was a sellout, and we were happy to just hear him sing the old songs.

By then, he was already passing into legend.

Bowie surprised both the rock and financial world in 1997 when he sold future revenues on his musical catalog recorded before 1990 (25 albums) for $55 million.  

The bonds were floated at an interest rate of 7.9 percent and had an average life of 10 years.

The rock community reacted with surprise. Many felt Bowie, who had just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was enjoying yet another artistic renaissance, this time as an electronic dance artist (listen to "I'm Afraid of Americans") had undersold his catalog.  After all, he had one of the greatest songbooks in all of rock, and it would last — and sell — forever, right?

Wrong.  Bowie sold at the exact top of the market.  As we moved into the mid-2000's, Bowie's sales — along with all other musical artists — began to drop dramatically. The bonds, however, were liquidated after 10 years as planned, without default.

But interest in so-called "celebrity bonds" had faded by then.

We didn't know it, but he was on the tail end of his fabulous career. His "A Reality Tour" was the top grossing tour in 2004. He came to Philadelphia to play at the Wachovia Center, but he had to cut the tour short not long after due to chest pain and a blocked coronary artery. 

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It was his last tour.

One last memory: early 1990s. The Chelsea Hotel, New York. I walk in, late at night, asking for a room.

"Sorry, we're full," the woman at the desk says.

Now, this is the Chelsea Hotel. The ultimate rock hotel. Full of misfits, and long-term residents.  I was friends with the owner, but I didn't want to call him. It was late.

"Look," I said, "I know you let people stay in a resident's room if they're not there. There's gotta be someone who's out. I need a place to stay."

The woman looked at me suspiciously, thought for a moment, then said, "OK, I'll let you stay in one of the rooms of the residents. But you have to promise me one thing. You have to promise me you won't use the trampoline."

"The trampoline?"

"Yeah. It's Angela Bowie's place. She has a trampoline. You cannot get on it, you understand?" She stared at me menacingly, waving a letter opener, as if she knew how to use it.

This, I had to see. "Sure, sure, I won't use the trampoline."

And there it was: in the middle of the room, with those gloriously high ceilings, and it really did look like you could bounce up and down and still not hit the top. Bowie and Angela had divorced years before, I had forgotten when, and Angela had turned to writing books about her life with David.    

I called up my wife, and I sat on the edge of the bed, laughing into the phone. There was a massive, poster-sized picture of her on the wall with several glammed up rock stars I couldn't identify.

And I ran my hand over the trampoline, and man, I really wanted get on that thing, and see if I could hit my head on the ceiling.  But I didn't.

Bowie ran with rock for almost 50 years. He ran with all the changes, and he changed too, and we changed with him.

Thank you, David.

Oh, look out you rock 'n' rollers
Turn and face the strange
Pretty soon now you're gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can't trace time I said that time may change me
But I can't trace time"