I Got You Babe

Marianne Faithfull and David Bowie, I Got You Babe.

Television does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered to the trivial.

The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.

It is bewitching

Celebrities have an intimate life and a life in the grid of two hundred million. For them, there is no distance between the two grids in American life. Of all Americans, only they are complete.

George W.S. Trow, “Within the Context of No Context.”

Between 1973 and 1977, David Bowie waged an inadvertent guerrilla war against television, particularly American television. In these years, Bowie appeared on some of the most popular TV programs of the era and disrupted them. He may not even have meant to, for it wasn’t that Bowie was wild or outrageous when he showed up on Dinah!, or Cher, or Soul Train, or The Dick Cavett Show. If anything, he was gracious, charming, polite, and happy to flatter the host.

Yet Bowie’s emaciated coke-wraith appearance was disturbing purely as a visual, and even while sitting on a couch bantering with a host, or singing a medley of awful contemporary hits with Cher, Bowie came across as estranged, permanently distracted, standing at a remove from humanity, as if he was an extraterrestrial who had learned to speak English by watching television.

TV, with its rituals and its rhythms, was meant to reassure, to serve as the commons for millions of atomized people, but Bowie’s appearances upset the timing. Bowie, whether he wanted to or no, couldn’t fit properly into the frame, and his freakish appearance, the way he seemed tuned to a different key than everyone else on the screen, in turn distorted the “normal” TV celebrities. His oddness brought out their falseness. He made Cher inexplicable, he made Dinah Shore seem like a malevolent cartoon. Bowie broke the contract of celebrity, which is that famous, beautiful people exist in bright excess purely for our enjoyment. He was a celebrity who made no sense; he seemed like a visitation. Television was relieved when he finally left it alone.

If this era ended with the bizarre pairing of Bowie and Bing Crosby for a Christmas special in 1977, the project having reached the limit of absurdity, it began in October 1973 with Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, a televised stage revue shot in London’s Marquee Club, meant to promote the just-released Pin Ups for NBC’s The Midnight Special.

The 1980 Floor Show lacked the cool and reserve of Bowie’s later TV appearances, as Bowie was still determining how to kill off Ziggy Stardust: the compromise was to do glam rock as avant-garde theater. (The performance is a mix of Bowie’s past and future—Mick Ronson’s still there, while the backing singers are the Astronettes, on whom Bowie tried out early sketches of Young Americans compositions.) Much of the Floor Show is intended to visually shock, with Bowie wearing a succession of bizarre outfits, from a fishnet body-stocking adorned with a pair of gold lamé hands grasping Bowie’s chest, to a Tristan Tzara-inspired leotard with a keyhole on Bowie’s torso. It ended with Bowie in ostrich plumes and Marianne Faithfull wearing a backless nun’s habit, singing “I Got You Babe.”

As Dave Marsh wrote of the original Sonny and Cher single, “both the voices on ‘I Got You Babe’ are young and dumb [but] what they’re saying boils down to this: Love redeems everything, no matter how ridiculous, moronic, or grotesque. Noisy and misshapen as those declarations may be, they’re also an essence of what rock & roll brought to pop music that hadn’t been there before:…a willingness to reach for effects and worry about decorum later, an understanding of where to find the sublime amidst the trivial.” Bowie and Faithfull live up to this, somehow crafting a touching, human performance out of the most outlandish of materials.

Top: Bowie and Faithfull, in love.

Here is the complete 1980 Floor Show, in televised order, as found in fragments: 1984/Dodo, Sorrow, Bulerias (the Spanish prog band Carmen), Everything’s Alright, Space Oddity, I Can’t Explain, As Tears Go By (Faithfull), Time, Wild Thing (The Troggs), The Jean Genie, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (not broadcast), 20th Century Blues (Faithfull), I Got You Babe.

8 Responses to I Got You Babe

  1. Diamond Dog says:

    Though an interesting oddity it is a laugh riot now and he was wise not to show it in the UK. Ive got the 6 hours of outtakes and have yet to bring myself to watch em. The interesting part is the opening dodo/1984 montage a sign of things to come, a glimpse of soul in the backing singing.

  2. ethan says:

    I discovered this blog only recently, and have been quickly catching up; I wasn’t planning to comment until I got up to the current entries, but I wanted to say that this is such a beautiful and perceptive piece of writing that it’s a crime that there’s only one comment on it.

    Also glad to see you love this bizarrely wonderful performance.

  3. ethan says:

    Uh, I had meant to say that you like this performance that I love. Don’t want to presumptively attribute intense emotion to you…

  4. Trevor Mill says:

    What a brilliant piece of writing.

  5. Sport Murphy says:

    Absolute agreement with the previous posters; this is a stunningly insightful entry.

  6. Rufus Oculus says:

    Will this ever get an official release? We never thought the Rolling Stones’ Circus would ever come out officially but it did in the end.

  7. […] watching this if you never have—-the most wonderfully bizarre television appearance from DB’s purgatory in American television. […]

  8. Ramzi says:

    “he made Dinah Shore seem like a malevolent cartoon”

    I am ill and could have done without suddenly laughing

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