Soundtrack to Watergate Vol. 2: Pirates, Angels, Dinosaurs, Gas Masks — and Ziggy Again

If Donald Trump gets impeached he’ll leave office to strains of excess and decadence — think of the Jonas Brothers copping to “dancing on top of cars and stumbling out of bars” in “Sucker,” Ariana Grande cavorting amid waterfalls of champagne in “7 Rings,” and Lil Nas X’s genre whiplashing as he makes off with the loot in “Old Town Road,” to name just a very few.

The only time an impeachment forced a U.S. commander in chief from office was after the Watergate scandal, which can be dated roughly from the Watergate burglary in June 1972 until Richard Nixon resigned his office, a little more than two years later.

The ads in our second installment of “Soundtrack to Watergate” are all full-pagers — and mostly right-hand pages at that, because advertisers pay a premium to snag eyeballs on the side of a spread that readers see for a few extra nanoseconds as they flip through a periodical. Back in 1972, the Watergate scandal was simply a police blotter report that Republicans were dismissing as a “third-rate burglary,” even though the perps had ties directly to the White House. A number of the ads here feature a logo with the stars of the American flag replaced by the number 18, signifying the voting age, which had recently been reduced from 21, along with the exhortation “Use the Power — VOTE.”

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Nixon, a buttoned-down Quaker who was the antithesis of the counterculture that most of the albums trumpeted, would win in a landslide in November, which relieved his innate paranoia for a few months until the drip-by-drip revelations of his administration’s SOP corruption, self-dealing, and obstruction of justice became a deluge that even his staunchest supporters could no longer explain away.

We have to admit there’s a lot of music below that, almost half a century on, we had never heard before, even though the record companies back in the day thought they were worth an expensive ad buy. So we’ve plunged down a number of streaming-service rabbit holes to bring ourselves up to speed on the flea-market vinyl below.

Much of the archive scanning work here was done while listening to the Latin-infused rock of Macondo, who, according to various record-collecting sites, were an East L.A. group discovered by Sergio Mendes in the early ’70s. Any album with a T-Rex on the cover deserves a listen, and we were not disappointed by Albert Hernandez’s fire-breathing guitar licks and Fred Ramirez’s rollercoaster organ riffs, especially on “Cayuco.”

Jefferson Airplane recorded their seventh studio album using the time-honored tradition of avoiding personality clashes after years of creative intensity by recording a number of the tracks in separate sessions and then getting the band back together in the final mix. Perhaps the pirate in the ad was drooling over the cigars printed on the album sleeve.

Looking Glass gave the world “Brandy” — “a fine girl” who served whiskey and wine and whose eyes “could steal a sailor from the sea.” Not, however, the one seaman she really wanted, because, “Lord, he was an honest man / and Brandy does her best to understand” when he —most probably in a pillow-talk whisper — informs her, “my life, my love and my lady is the sea / It is, yes it is.” $4.49 for the 8-Track at Sam Goody.

Despite the innocent-looking cherub hawking their new album, Black Oak Arkansas was upfront about delivering “more raunchy rock from the good ol’ country boys.” With songs of nightriders in trucks and on horseback, you might get the impression that these southern boys were into raising some serious hell.

Jack Nitzsche worked with everyone from Phil Spector to Neil Young to the Stones. He also did the soundtrack to the film Performance, which featured Mick Jagger and James Fox as, respectively, a rocker and a gangster who eventually meet on a higher plane. Perhaps writing the choral arrangement for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” prepared Nitzsche for his collaboration with another breed of “long-haired friends,” when he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in an ancient London church with the sonorous name “St. Giles Cripplegate.”

Tina Turner leaps across the ad for Feel Good, and with the exception of a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” she also wrote all of the songs for her and then husband Ike’s 17th (!) studio album.

The Hollies had a top-ten hit with “Long Cool Woman,” which pulled their album Distant Light to No. 21 on Billboard magazine’s charts. For fans of the Hipgnosis design studio, the gatefold album cover — featuring Boschlike grotesqueries in the depths of a bucolic pond — made the $3.77 tab go down easier.

According to Billboard, covering the 1972 release of Phoenix, “Grand Funk have by now attained an almost permanent place in rock’s hierarchy. They have legions of devoted, ready followers at every performance and lining up to buy their every album.” However, as the website notes, Lester Bangs, reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, was having none of it: “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with mediocrity or cliché — could you or I have written ‘Sugar, Sugar’? — but when mediocrity loses all its flair, all its panache, becomes this bland and this pompous at the same time . . . it’s time for some Chuck Berry.”

Herbie Mann’s flute (and David “Fathead” Newman’s sax) cover much musical terrain here, beginning with the traditional spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and concluding with a rock standard for the ages, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The ad’s illustration reinforces aspirations both high and low.

Take your pick that fall of 1972: Roberta Flack and Quincy Jones in September, The Fifth Dimension hitting the stage near Thanksgiving, with Bowie, Elton, America (of “A Horse With No Name” fame), and other chart toppers in between. Top ticket price was $8.50 for Engelbert Humperdinck (born Arnold George Dorsey), who once told the Hollywood Reporter, “I can hit notes a bank could not cash.”

According to the ad copy, Bonnie Raitt was a balladeering belter who’d been described as “earthy and innocent, winsome and whiskey-headed.” When asked for her own opinion, Raitt told the ad agency that her “batting average for the summer is something over .250.” Considering that this propulsive collection of rocking blues filigreed with New Orleans brass accents landed on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, we’d say she was swinging an even hotter bat back then.

Tim Buckley (1947–1975), whose music ranged from jazz to all manner of rock into funk, poses with a gas mask in the full-page ad for Greetings from L.A. A postcard of the City of Angels blanketed in smog on the album cover gives an idea of the down and dirty tunes on the vinyl.

Prog rock was ascendant in the early 70s, and it doesn’t get much more proggy than Curved Air’s synthesizer solos accompanying the Renaissance-festival-like vocals of lead singer Sonja Kristina on Phatasmagoria’s “Marie Antoinette.” The ad copy beneath the undulating logo reads “The one group that might be too good for America.” Indeed, these folky Brits hit No. 20 in the UK, but Phantasmagoria didn’t chart in the states.

Spokane, Washington, native Danny O’Keefe, on the other hand, hit it big with his single “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” which pulled his LP, O’Keefe, up to No. 87 on the album charts. The single has long since been etched into the pop pantheon, having been covered by artists from Waylon Jennings to Mel Torme to the King himself, Elvis Presley. The world-weariness of one particular verse has resonated with different singers; the original, “Ya know my heart keeps tellin’ me / ‘You’re not a kid at thirty-three’ / Ya play around, ya lose your wife / Ya play too long, you lose your life,’ “ gains a decade in Charlie Rich’s telling, the country maestro figuring he’s finally grown up at age 43.

If you had dreams of stardom back in ’72 you could’ve done worse than to head over to the former Fillmore East on Second Avenue and audition for . . . well, since they were seeking not just your standard-issue actors, jugglers, and fire-eaters but also “Dancing Bears,” “Aging Astronauts,” and “Animal Tamers and Big Namers,” we’re just sorry we weren’t around to see what kind of show they were putting together.

If hard rock was your jam, then Ramatam fit the bill. The band featured some established heavyweights, such as drummer Mitch Mitchell, late of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and former Iron Butterfly guitarist Mike Pinera. The quintet also featured a rarity for that time — a hard-rocking female guitarist. April Lawton (1948–2006) was a Long Island native who some hailed as the female Hendrix, but although Ramatam’s second album sported the enticing, semi-eponymous title In April Came the Dawning of the Red Suns, the band never caught the whirlwind.

If it was sun you were seeking, you could at least get it on vinyl in a two-record set capturing the “Mar y Sol” festival, held earlier that year in Puerto Rico. The eclectic gang had all been there, ranging from B.B. King, the Allman Brothers, Dr. John, and J. Geils to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

And speaking of the prog gods, ELP was also promoting their own album at the time, Trilogy, which featured, among other virtuosic instrumentals, the trio’s take on an American classic, Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown.” The album hit No. 5 on the Billboard charts, though Voice music critic Robert Christgau bluntly disagreed: “The pomposities of Tarkus and the monstrosities of the Moussorgsky homage clinch it — these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans. Really, anybody who buys a record that divides a . . . composition called ‘The Endless Enigma’ into two discrete parts deserves it. C-”

And if you didn’t get enough of the J. Geils Band on the “Sea and Sun” discs, you could buy their live album Full House, which featured a winking Queen to let you know the hand was actually only a three-of-a-kind. More important, the title implied that they could sell out any venue they played.

Geils and crew were indeed bringing their boisterous rock to ever larger audiences, but they still didn’t have the drawing power of Alice Cooper, who was headlining a show at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. The concert was a big deal — Cooper flaunted his sexuality in a solo ad as the big day drew near — but the venue’s greatest claim to fame came on April 18, 1946, when the home team, the Jersey City Giants, a farm club of the New York Giants across the river, hosted the Montreal Royals. The Royals trounced the Giants 14 to 1, but anyone who was there was undoubtedly impressed with the debut of the Brooklyn Dodger’s farm team’s second baseman, Jackie Robinson, who had four hits in five trips to the plate, including a three-run homer.

Another megastar coming to town was less abrasive than Alice Cooper: John Denver was promoting his album (and single) Rocky Mountain High. Carnegie Hall had probably never felt vaster.

Then again, in the same week, that storied music venue would also host Ziggy Stardust. And he’d come all the way from Mars.


Soundtrack to Watergate: Ziggy, Cheech, and Chong Hold Their Heads High

There was a lot of anxiety on Main Street during the Watergate scandal. We will be posting music ads that appeared in the Voice from the period that started with the bungled burglary in June 1972 and ended in August 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned from office in the face of near-certain impeachment due to his self-dealing, corrupt practices, and obstruction of justice.

Those were heady times. The rock was classic — we just didn’t know it yet. And even as it was becoming canonical, it was also progressing. Or at least morphing into the technical virtuosity that characterized Prog rock.

We’ll start with a passel of ads from the early days of the scandal that brought Nixon down. Released one month before five men broke into the Democratic National headquarters in the Watergate Complex, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street set the musical tone for the coming national nightmare: two discs of warped, dirty Americana.

In support of Exile, the Stones had embarked on a 50-date American tour that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The week before the Watergate break-in, 60 Stones fans were arrested outside the band’s San Diego show, while police used tear gas on hundreds more. Two nights after the inept burglars were caught in the act, the Stones were trashing the Playboy Mansion, in Chicago.

Although they were not as huge as the Stones, Argent had a major top-10 hit around the globe with “Hold Your Head Up.” We’re not sure, though, just what those surrealistic objects beyond that particular Door of Perception in their ad might be. Not pillows at least — Jefferson Airplane took care of that way back in 1967.

Bill Graham’s Fillmore East had had a brief but storied history: Located at 105 Second Avenue, it hosted all the legends of the era — Hendrix, the Doors, Miles Davis, the Bonzo Dog Band — before closing its doors in June 1971. Today, the space — a block from the Village Voice offices — is home to a bank.

Hits don’t get much more massive than “Lean on Me” — the Bill Withers classic topped the charts in June 1972. Just months earlier, Withers had won a Grammy for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and in July the R&B singer was scheduled to play a weeklong residency at the Bitter End.

Those with more highbrow tastes could attend a Mozart and Bach fest. (Nixon was a Bach fan, which writer Tom Carson touched on in his brilliant Voice obituary of the disgraced president: “ ‘Do you know why Bach is better than Brahms?’ the grizzled, not-a-­crook former president demanded of a star­tled Gary Hart not too many years ago, when they were seated together at a state funeral. ‘Bach is tougher than Brahms.’ ”)

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If you wanted an evening of avant-garde inspiration, the New School was celebrating John Cage’s 60th birthday.

The Grateful Dead were also in town (well, actually, across the Hudson at Roosevelt Stadium). Nixon was gearing up for a final, typically dirty political campaign spearheaded by the minions of the CRP — Committee to Re-Elect the President — which became more popularly known as CREEP.

Jerry Garcia and the rest of the Dead wanted the youth of America to use their newly acquired right to vote, hopefully to turn Nixon out of office in November. That wouldn’t exactly work out.

Cheech and Chong were concerned with different numbers when they released their second album, Big Bambú, which reached No. 2 on the charts.

Finally, David Bowie was on his way to becoming the Man Who Fell to Earth. Released on the eve of the Watergate break-in, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was Bowie’s breakthrough: By 1974, the British showman would be big enough to inspire a look-alike contest … and Richard Nixon would be out of office.

From The Archives From The Archives IMPEACHMENT ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Washington, D.C.

The Aztec Gold, Diamond Dogs, and Political Witchcraft Surrounding Watergate

A few weeks ago I mentioned to someone with a conspiratorial bent that I was looking through the Voice archives to see how we had covered the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. He immediately grabbed a book off his shelf called Sinister Forces: A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft – the Manson Secret and turned to a page noting that the author, Peter Levenda, had been inspired in his lifelong quest to expose the underbelly of American power by an article he had read in the Village Voice, in 1973. Levenda wrote, “The Voice article linked such disparate elements as the Charles Manson murders, Richard Nixon and Watergate, E. Howard Hunt and occultism, Howard Hughes, and even Disneyland. It may have been intended as whimsical, but the links — as I would later learn from the work of Professor Culianu — are themselves evidence of one of the strongest forces in history. For the sin of revealing these forces, Giordano Bruno was put to the stake during the Inquisition. For the sin of revealing these same forces, Professor Culianu was murdered in 1991.”

Conspiracy theories aren’t really my jam, but this dark reference to the publication I have written for since 1994 very much intrigued me. We are in the process of digitizing the Voice archives, but in the meantime one complete set is contained in bound volumes in our Manhattan offices. It is actually a near-complete set, because the very first volume was stolen by an unknown asshole sometime in 2015. Now we keep the archives under lock and key, but I was a bit taken aback when I looked for the article in question, which Levenda noted elsewhere was titled “Political Witchcraft,” by a writer I was unfamiliar with, Craig Karpel, and found that volume — No. 18, October 4, 1973, to December 27, 1973 — also missing.

Hmmm. Well, I thought, let’s see what’s in the card catalog under “Karpel.” Although the hand-typed index cards were not kept up after the dawn of the electronic age, in the 1990s, the 1970s are well covered, and sure enough I found Karpel referenced in other issues. And, for my purposes, I struck gold:

Karpel, Craig, “Rock me on the Watergate.”
A fantastic voyage of Richard N. through South Bimini,
Key Biscayne, and other reaches of the celestial star-crossed Prexy. (page 5, 5/10/73)

Wow. This sounded like an interesting trip — getting into the head of a political villain, something George Steiner later did with Hitler in his wildly controversial 1981 book, The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., and Tom Carson did with an ensemble cast of political and pop-cult postwar characters in 2003’s Gilligan’s Wake. (Yes, that Gilligan, of “fateful trip” and “three-hour tour” fame.) Indeed, this was something to look forward to reading. I pulled out the heavy, green-bound volume, turned to the last page of the May 3, 1973, issue and saw, on the right-hand side, the first page of…the May 17, 1973, issue. What?!?

Do you hear the “X-Files” theme?

I have to admit that for the briefest moment I did hear a snippet of the X-Files theme in my head, but as I looked closer I saw that the bindery had simply left that issue out — it hadn’t been removed. I have seen similar mistakes in other volumes (individual issues bound upside down, for example), and chalked them up to the hippie-hangover carelessness of the era. And there is ultimately no reason to be creeped out by the omission, because anyone who really wants to read the articles can find them on microfilm at the main library on 42nd Street, as well as at university libraries around the country. And, hopefully soon, all of the pages will be digitized right here on the Voice’s website. In the meantime, we do have Jules Feiffer’s cartoon from that May 17, 1973, issue, which replaces the promises Nixon had been making for five years to end the Vietnam War with an equally mendacious pledge to pursue justice “fairly, fully, and impartially, no matter who is involved,” as Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s Watergate investigations got under way. At this time, the impeachment of Richard Nixon was just a fever dream on the left —the president had the strong backing of his party and his approval/disapproval ratings matched at roughly 42 percent, numbers such a seasoned pol could easily weather.

Also below you will, in fact, find some of Karpel’s free-range prose on Watergate, from other volumes of the Voice archive, plus additional Voice-ian takes on Nixon’s political demise. And for extra historical context, we’ve included some ads to remind us that — along with politicians and everyday citizens — such cultural luminaries as David Bowie and Francis Ford Coppola were also caught up in the paranoia of the age.

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For rootin’-tootin’ intrigue, Karpel’s tale about billions of dollars’ worth of Aztec gold secreted somewhere in New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range is tough to top. The story of gold bars stacked like cordwood in an underground cavern had been around for decades (long before the military had appropriated the land to test rockets and various ordnance), but gained new currency when former White House Counsel John Dean, testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee, mentioned that celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey had approached Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell about greasing the skids with the Army to allow a search for the gold on federal land. Karpel also lays out another possibility, that the gold was not from pre-Columbian hordes but had been gathered by a secret society in the former Confederate states to finance a second civil war: “ ‘The Golden Circle spared no expense in burying its stolen or accumulated gold,’ says Jesse James III, of Banning, California, grandson of who do you think. ‘It employed the best engineers and the most modern equipment. My daddy said a white laborer was seldom employed in building a depository. Indians or Negroes were preferred because they could keep their mouths shut…. The big depositories were booby-trapped from all directions and more than one snooper has been blown into a million pieces.’ ” The grandson of the infamous outlaw added, “Everything seems to be turning up these days in the Watergate hearings.”

And what would a conspiracy theory be without a link to the 1963 JFK assassination? In a January 31, 1974, article, Karpel reminded Voice readers that Leon Jaworski — who had become the Watergate investigation’s special prosecutor after Nixon fired Cox during the Saturday Night Massacre — had also been on the periphery of the Warren Commission’s investigation into Kennedy’s murder. Karpel informs us that Jaworski was part of a team interrogating Jack Ruby, the mobbed-up nightclub owner who had gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald — JFK’s alleged assassin — thereby forestalling any trial that might get out all the facts about the Kennedy killing. Karpel writes that Jaworski sat opposite Ruby “in a fluorescent-lit room in Dallas County Jail giving poor Jack the double fish-eye on behalf of [Texas Governor] John B. Connally and a number of John Does too libelous to mention.”

Karpel continues, “You mean — don’t tell me! — Leon Jaworski was in the room the day Jack L. Ruby begged to be taken directly to Washington so he could stop telling nothing but the truth and start telling the whole truth??”

Karpel speculates that Ruby was too afraid of retribution to tell what he knew in a local jail and felt he could only be safe in federal custody, but got no help from Jaworski, who, Karpel writes, could’ve telephoned the Texas attorney general and demand that Ruby “be brought to Washington at once to testify further before this Commission. Does anyone have a dime?”

It is fascinating to go through the archives and come across other reminders of the agitation that was rampant at that time, so much like our own. A full-page ad for “The Bowie Look-Alike Contest,” in the July 4, 1974, Voice, is a reminder that David Bowie’s recently released Diamond Dogs album was filled with a cynicism and paranoia that was only partially related to his failed attempt to get permission to write a musical based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Although Bowie would reference Nixon directly on 1975’s Young Americans, it is Diamond Dogs’ enthralling song triptych — “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” — that channels the ominous mood of the Watergate era. Although the public had not yet heard the poorly recorded White House tapes — they were at this time only available in transcripts filled with the term “expletive deleted,” to spare the nation from knowing that the Leader of the Free World often said, “shit,” “fuck,” and other words banned from American TV — the stuttering distortions and static-laden howls of Bowie’s sonic collages captured an ambience of backroom schemes and baroque corruption. Such lyrics as “I’ll make you a deal/Like any other candidate/We’ll pretend we’re walking home/’Cause your future’s at stake” and “I’m having so much fun/With the poisonous people/Spreading rumors and lies/And stories they made up” were dead-on back then, and remain surprising relevant today.

By the August 1, 1974, issue, the transcripts from the tapes, which revealed Nixon obstructing justice and scheming to raise cash to pay off blackmailers, among other crimes and misdemeanors, had eroded his support among the public and politicians. Impeachment loomed, and Jules Feiffer used the paper’s front page to remind citizens that Nixon had not only suborned perjury, enriched himself in office, and used presidential powers to attack his personal enemies, but had also prolonged the pointless war in Southeast Asia for purely political reasons.

When the August 8 issue rolled off the presses, Nixon was still clinging to power, and the Voice sent a 27-year-old reporter, Ron Rosenbaum, to Washington to cover the congressional machinations over an impeachment vote. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s followers were on the steps of the Capitol to support the president, and Rosenbaum writes, “God has spoken twice to the Reverend Sun Moon, one of his supporters told me. First in Korea in the late 1930s when Sun Moon was a lad of sixteen, God told him he would have an important mission in the world. Then last year God spoke again and told the Reverend Sun Moon that he had a mission to convince America to forgive Richard Nixon and forget impeachment.” Rosenbaum then delves into the minutiae of arguments among House members of the pros and cons of an impeachment vote. Such painstaking reporting on the wielding and abuse of power no doubt helped prepare Rosenbaum for the massive amounts of research he would go on to do for his magisterial 1998 bestseller, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil

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The following issue found Rosenbaum speculating on what day and hour the president would give up the ghost and actually resign: “Inside the Cabinet Room Richard Nixon is smiling. Consciously and intentionally. This is the morning after he confessed to lying and deceiving not only the public but his most loyal supporters, his closest friends, his own family.” Toward the end of the article, Rosenbaum recounts how Nixon had the press literally locked up. “At 6:20 an armed guard takes up a position right outside the briefing room doors. Reporters trying to leave are told that no one is to exit or enter ‘for a few minutes.’ No explanation. Orders.” He picks up a phone and is connected to one of the White House press assistants, and asks her if she knows the press has been locked in. “ ‘Yes we do,’ she says cheerfully.” Turns out that Nixon wanted to walk from the Executive Office Building to his last supper in the White House alone and unobserved by the press or anyone else.

The Watergate scandal ground on for two years, and Nixon’s agonies dominated the airwaves and front pages for much of that time. In the August 22 issue, two Voice reporters ruminated on Nixon’s resignation in “What Will We Talk About Now?” and “What Will We Write About Now?” After Nixon had lost the California governor’s race, in 1962, he’d groused to the assembled press, “Just think how much you’re gonna be missing — you don’t have Nixon to kick around, anymore.” A dozen years later, the majority of Americans were indeed sick of their self-aggrandizing, divisive leader and were ready to hear the last of Richard Nixon. His partial rehabilitation in later decades, helped along by, among others, Bill Clinton, is a story for another time.

We’ll conclude with an ad that sums up those times. Although he started working on the script long before the revelation that Nixon had been secretly taping conversations in the White House, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was released at the height of the Watergate scandal. In May 1974, fellow film director Brian De Palma interviewed Coppola and asked him if there was any connection between the claustrophobic thriller, starring Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who has uncovered a plot by a wife and her lover to murder her husband, and the national scandal.

DE PALMA: But surely you knew that when the secret was found out and you discovered that it was only a wife killing her husband instead of something like preventing an assassination or some cataclysmic event that it might disappoint people?

COPPOLA: Yes, I was afraid that people would think there was more to it than there really was. And especially when Watergate happened, I was really frightened that people would expect it to be about spies and tapes and that sort of thing and then be very angry that it wasn’t. But right from the beginning I wanted it to be something personal, not political, because somehow that is even more terrible to me.

But, as we are learning once again in the age of Trump, the old saying is really true: “The personal is political.”


In David Bowie Is, Don’t Expect Much Insight on the the Music

David Bowie Is offers up dozens of sentence-completing phrases to the quasi-fragment that serves as its title, but the most helpful/descriptive never gets appended: How about David Bowie Is Not in This Movie, Really, as It’s Basically a Pleasant Survey of a Traveling Museum Exhibit of Bowie’s Archives With an Emphasis on Those Glorious Costumes, Although We Must Admit That Their Talismanic Qualities Are Diminished Somewhat When the Exhibit Is Mediated Through This Documentary, Because Nobody Will Ever Say, “I Can’t Believe I’m Looking at Actual Clothes David Bowie Actually Wore — On a Screen!”

If you accept what David Bowie Is is, there are revelations to be had, here, especially in early photos of the star-to-be: At 16, he looks like he already had his cosmic confidence — and a team of stylists. Hanif Kureishi and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker testify to Bowie’s cultural power, to the license his experiments in style and gender afforded his fans, and lots of Brit exhibit-visitors speak about Bowie changing their lives: If he could don a space-rainbow jumpsuit and make moon-eyes at Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops, why should blokes from Barnsley have to go into the civil service?

The thrilling stuff: You’ll glimpse Bowie’s handwritten lyrics for “Starman” and “Rebel Rebel,” his storyboards and concept art for films and tour sets and videos. Less so: The team behind the exhibition will chat with practiced awe about the challenge of capturing the significance of Bowie’s Berlin period in an immersive/instructive gallery space.

Don’t expect much insight into the music itself. And don’t expect after to feel like you were there — if museum exhibitions had DVD extras, this would be one.



Last month saw the publication of Brian Froud’s Faeries’ Tales, the latest illustrative collaboration between the artists Brian and Wendy Froud. To commemorate the occasion, the Frouds have been invited to the Museum of the Moving Image to accompany a 35mm screening of the elaborately designed cult item Labyrinth (1986), co-starring David Bowie and a young Jennifer Connelly. Scripted by Terry Jones (of Monty Python), Labyrinth reunited the Frouds with the director Jim Henson, with whom they had previously worked on The Dark Crystal (1982). Despite a poor initial box-office performance, Labyrinth has attained a kind of cultural endurance, with the Frouds’ costumes, creature work, and conceptual art — which, in one sequence, memorably borrows from the work of M.C. Escher — helping to define the film as a singular visual creation.

Sun., Oct. 12, 2:30 p.m., 2014



Imagine, if you will, that David Bowie and Lil B had a baby. That baby would be iLoveMakonnen, the hottest name in rap right now. The Atlanta rapper/singer emerged this summer with his hit “Tuesday,” and after it took over the internet, Drake jumped on its remix, offering his own spin on how to get the club goin’ up. Makonnen’s music is a weird alt-blend of progressive r&b that stays true to its ATL trap roots. Plus, it’s catchy as hell, with every hook getting inevitably stuck in your head for the rest of the night. Come for “Tuesday,” but stay for the deep cuts, like “Sarah,” “Maneuvering” or “Tonight,” and let your new friend Makonnen teach you how to whip it.

Thu., Sept. 25, 9 p.m., 2014


David Bowie Is Lovingly Brings the Starman to Earth

It’s the kind of forward-thinking experience David Bowie himself might have predicted. Just for one day, on silver screens across the country, a movie about a museum exhibition — featuring the rocker’s groundbreaking albums, outlandish costumes, and clips from his artistic videos — will briefly tantalize the world — and be gone. All in the form of the documentary David Bowie Is, directed by Hamish Hamilton. And the film is, above all, a reminder of Bowie’s artistry, his creativity, his fearlessness. If you’ve forgotten why you loved Ziggy or that eerie experimenter bunking in Berlin, this thrilling bit of cinema will surely lure you back.

“I wasn’t the biggest Bowie fan in the world,” says Hamilton, a refreshingly straightforward director best known for TV work like The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. “I was drawn to the project because of the music. And the strangeness of the request. Since the filming was of a live event” — last summer’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London — “they were looking for somebody who could do live. That’s me. I was sort of a conduit between David’s creativity and the genuine passion, knowledge, and care of the curators [Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh].”

Hamilton’s movie gracefully captures the exhibit. Crisply shot, briskly paced, it features all things Bowie: handwritten lyrics, ambisexual outfits, drawings and photos of the gender-bending genius, and scores of other objets d’art. (Especially memorable is the startling image of the singer in a gaucho hat, Great Dane by his side.) Here’s lightning captured in a cinematic jar: how Bowie went from hippie singer-songwriter to the King of Glam and beyond. It’s often said about great concert movies that watching them is just like being there. That’s the case with David Bowie Is, except your being there means being in the museum, watching the kids dressed up like their hero, listening to the curators and their special guests. The film highlights excerpts from presentations dedicated to his videos and recordings — especially his scramble to make Diamond Dogs rather than the 1984 that the Orwell estate had nixed.

When he first saw the exhibition, Hamilton knew exactly how he was to sequence and shoot it. “I walked around, met Victoria and Geoff, and instantly made the decision they’d have to be the hosts of both the live experience and the movie,” says Hamilton. “The curators had done such a great job, I thought, ‘Let’s give these two their rightful place here.’ ”

In addition to Broackes’s and Marsh’s scholarly talks about Bowie, the film benefits from electric appearances of several of the artist’s acolytes. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, playwright Hanif Kureishi, and designer Kansai Yamamoto all pay homage, all pointing up how Bowie made them feel they could accomplish anything. Kureishi claims the artist showed confused English kids that “we could have interesting lives.”

Yamamoto speaks of the night in ’72 when Bowie called Japan to invite him to a performance at Radio City Music Hall. Yamamoto was thrilled to see this gorgeous creature onstage — with one reservation. “Wow, he’s wearing my clothes,” Yamamoto had thought. Then: “I design ladies’ clothes.”

That’s how ballsy Bowie was back in those straitlaced days. He was prescient, too, as curator Marsh points out: “If you look at the video [for 1980’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’], the characters are carrying things that look just like iPads.” (Just compare clips like “Life On Mars” to the “groundbreaking” videos by Duran Duran in the ’80s — which now look like expensive beer commercials.)

For all the marvels, the unspoken organizing principle of the experience seems to be the artistic ambivalence lying at the heart of David Bowie. “On one hand, you’ve got an artist who’s unsentimental, always moving forward,” Marsh says. “Yet his archives have approximately 100,000 pieces. David doesn’t look back, yet he’s kept enormous amounts of work. If there’s one thing we tried to get at [it’s that] the man is a paradox. Also, that ‘David Bowie’ is a construct. In many ways, he’s still just David Jones. When he played the Concert for New York, he dedicated his set to his local firehouse. Part of what makes him so fascinating is he’s also a down-to-earth man.”

And the Starman was earthbound enough not to int
erfere with the exhibition dedicated to him. “We were told from the beginning,” says Broackes, “that David would not be involved. Initially we’d have loved to have had him. But, as you know, he’s fantastically controlling with what he works on. So, had he been working with us, we’d have taken second place. Bowie let us walk through his archives and choose what we wanted, construct the narratives and so on.”

The film should have a double-edged effect. If you saw Bowie in the ’70s, it should be quite moving. It’s also bound to inspire new, impressionable fans — Bowie’s oeuvre remains so modern that David Bowie Is will play as a call-to-arms to future visionaries.


Gary Lucas

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the whiz-bang guitarist will provide a musical afterward to a spinning of the late Jeff Buckley’s Grace on this venue’s ultra-high-end sound system. Lucas — who will also perform — co-wrote and played on Buckley’s only full release, a gorgeous accommodation of the sacred and the profane even David Bowie considers a desert-island disk.

Sun., Sept. 14, 4 p.m., 2014


Jobriath A.D. Is an Exceptional Documentary on an Also-Ran

Even before the critically adored, commercially popular Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom gave way to countless copycats, the documentary field was deluged with attempts to excavate, polish, and in some cases restart the careers of musical also-rans and behind-the-sceners.

Kieran Turner’s Jobriath A.D. is an exceptional example of this subgenre, a cubist portrait of an unknowable man and a dramatic whodunit about an artist-victim who died by a thousand cuts. Glam rocker Jobriath succumbed to AIDS in 1983, but most of Turner’s interviewees agree that the former piano prodigy died a more significant death a decade earlier, when neither of his two albums managed to chart.

Though it’s never explicitly presented as such, this comprehensive biography takes the form of a mystery: Why did the first openly gay rocker signed to a major record label fail? Surviving friends, family, and colleagues posit homophobia, inept marketing, and Jobriath’s moody, undisciplined personality. Though the film is honest enough to mention the singer’s post-fame stints in prostitution, it maintains the unassailable genius of his songs (which, to my ears, sound like pretty generic ’70s rock).

Even more than championing his musicianship, though, Turner is interested in securing a place in the pantheon of queer heroes for rock’s self-proclaimed “true fairy.” (Take that, David Bowie.)

When Jobriath appears on TV in 1974 as a crystal flower — every bit the prancing “pianoed penis” the press called him — it’s a reminder of how much we still need imaginative pioneers like him today.



Elvis Presley and David Bowie share many things: an affection for pompadours, hip-shaking dance moves, stints on the big screen, and even the same birthday (January 8, 1935 and 1947, respectively). What do all these coincidences mean for you? A big tribute show, of course. Presented by Oh! You Pretty Things, the third annual Bowie-Elvis Birthday Bash features performances by Tyburn Saints, Sons and Heirs, This Ambitious Orchestra, and Michael T and the Vanities. Get into the theme (“Ziggy Viva Las Vegas”) and wear a spacesuit with your blue suede shoes.

Sun., Jan. 19, 9 p.m., 2014