I Got You Babe

August 17, 2010

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.