I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship

August 7, 2014

karach01

I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, 1969).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie, Top Of the Pops, 2002).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie, live, Meltdown, 2002).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Legendary Stardust Cowboy, live, 2007).

What is it with spaceships?

Bowie: Well it’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically. It’s my little inner space isn’t it, writ large. I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It would scare the shit out of me. I’ve absolutely no ambition or interest to go into space whatsoever. I’m scared going down to the end of the garden.

Radio 4 “Front Row,” interview, June 2002.

God is my partner and he is on my side. It looks like that I will be able to record Gospel records, be on Johnny Carson, have my first date, and later on be in the Western movies.

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, autobiography, 1969.

On one of his rambles through the Internet, Bowie found a delight: the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Norman C. Odam, had a web page. Compared to BowieNet, it was primitive (“just two pages!” Bowie crowed) but its contents were enough to fascinate him, like a JPEG of “The Ledge”‘s birth certificate.

There was also a handwritten letter from the Ledge, in which he gave the webmaster his blessing “to put me on the Internet” and said he’d had some financial troubles of late. “I’ve reached the point where I need help in going further…It sure would be nice if David Bowie would pay me something for using part of my name in “Ziggie Stardust,” as appeared in the August 20, 1984 issue of People magazine with Richard Burton on the cover.” (This was a “Picks and Pans” review of the Cowboy’s latest album—a pick, happily.)

Bowie was contrite. He’d “chewed off” Stardust’s name for his own plastic rock ‘n’ roll star to use, and now here was the original Stardust Cowboy, so broke he couldn’t buy a computer to see his own website. “When I read on his site that he thought that because I’d borrowed his name that, at least I should sing one of his songs, I got guilty and wanted to make amends immediately,” Bowie told LiveWire. “So I covered one of his best songs, ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,’ although he sings ‘Spacecraft’ on the record.”*

Talking up the Ledge also fit in with Bowie’s “outsider music” designs. He was the guest editor of the June 2002 issue of Mojo, where he commissioned pieces about various things that had caught his eye over the decades (he wrote a tribute to The Ledge himself), and was the curator of the 2002 Meltdown, whose performers he chose partly for their weirdness (that said, Coldplay and Pete Yorn made the cut). “Being an editor for just one day is a lovely excuse to clean out the closet. I found all my old Legendary Stardust singles in there, all on Mercury, and that got me into a quiet reverie or two,” he wrote. “Along with Wild Man Fischer and solo Syd Barrett, the Ledge was instrumental in creating, unwittingly, the now current Outsider Music genre. Mr. Stardust takes the title of World’s Most Influential Cult Artist in my small world for maybe obvious reasons.”

Like Bowie’s Daniel Johnston analogue “Wood Jackson,” the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was everything you’d want from “outsider” music—obscurity; an insane-seeming singer wholly devoted to (or consumed by) his persona, and whose music was both fascinating and unbearable. To Jools Holland, Bowie said the Cowboy’s singles “were unbelievably atrocious but in that wonderful way that you couldn’t stop listening to them.” One of the Ledge’s guitarists, Frank Novicki, once said that “Norman can’t carry a tune, and he doesn’t really sing in time, but you don’t have to know any of that stuff to be good at music. Boy, is he proof of that.”

ledge

When Bowie came to America for the first time, in January 1971 on a promotional tour, he was hungry for new, weird records. Ron Oberman, the Mercury promo man who met Bowie at Dulles Airport, passed on the Ledge’s three Mercury singles. “Back home, I choked on ‘Paralyzed,’ gasped in awe at ‘Down in the Wrecking Yard’ and fell all about the floor at ‘I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship,’” wrote Bowie in Mojo. “It was the laugh of love. I could not believe that such a talent was unrecognized…I became a lifelong fan, and Ziggy got a surname.

Born in 1947, Norman Odam came from Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly’s hometown; a school friend was the singer/guitarist Joe Ely, who once called the Ledge West Texas’ finest jazz musician. Odam would stand on the steps of Monterrey High School, singing stuff like “My Underwear Froze Down to the Clothesline,” sometimes getting pelted by hard candy, pennies and clods of dirt thrown by unimpressed classmates. Seeing Odam perform in the 2000s, Ely said that the Cowboy’s set list hadn’t changed that much from the steps of Monterrey.

Inspired by Tiny Tim’s appearances on the Tonight Show, the Ledge set off for New York in 1968, only to wind up stuck in Fort Worth. Two vacuum cleaner salesmen, awed by a gonzo Cowboy performance at a nightclub, hustled him into a local recording studio, where a 21-year-old T. Bone Burnett and another engineer had been up all night and were on the verge of hallucinating, Burnett recalled. The salesmen waved some money around, so Burnett rigged up two microphones and put a fresh tape reel on the deck. He got behind the drums. The Ledge told him “play in the same tempo I’m singing in” and they were off: the result was “Paralyzed.” “The only thing I wanted was to write a song that was wilder than anything Elvis had ever done. His music was too slow for me!” the Ledge recalled decades later. After a Burnett drum solo that seemed intended to make Keith Moon’s work on “Happy Jack” look staid, Odam played a cracked-sounding bugle for a few bars. Along with his war whoops, it was as if he was playing both sides of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Above the studio was a radio station, KXOL. Burnett took the tape upstairs as a joke but the DJ flipped out (he allegedly screamed “this is IT! This is the NEW MUSIC!”) and started playing “Paralyzed” on air. Fort Worthers, wondering what in hell they’d just heard on the radio, kept requesting the song. A Fort Worth music impresario, “Major Bill Smith,” soon became the Ledge’s “manager” and pressed a single that led to a deal with Mercury, which released “Paralyzed” nationally. It cracked the US Top 200 and landed the Ledge on Laugh-In, where the smug comedians treated him like a freak.

laughin

And like The Uncle Floyd Show, the Ledge struck out in the major leagues. A musicians’ union strike in early 1969 meant that none of the other TV variety shows could book live musicians (the Ledge qualified as “union” because he’d strummed a guitar on Laugh-In). He’d had offers from the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show and American Bandstand but he could play none of them. By the time the strike ended, “Paralyzed” was off the charts and his two other Mercury singles (including “Gemini Spaceship”) had flopped. Mercury dropped him just as another of their 1969 signings, one David Bowie, finally got a hit with “Space Oddity.”

The rest of the century was a long, bizarre epilogue: an arrest and brief jailing for vagrancy; the Ledge spooling 50 (or 52) songs’ worth of master tape down Henderson Street in Fort Worth to spite Major Bill, who was ripping him off; decades of wild club performances (where the Ledge often stripped down to his underwear) and a few more records in which the Ledge assembled a pick-up band, got them in the studio and started to sing, forcing the band to chase him. By 2001, the Ledge was working as a security guard at a defense plant and living with eight roommates in an apartment in San Jose’s Evergreen Valley. “Two stop signs and nine traffic lights from the freeway,” he told the reporter Brad Kava.

bowieledge

Was he a musical influence as well?

Bowie: (laughs) Not really. Have you heard the records? They are out there. He has great integrity: he has no idea that any judgements will be made on what he does or delivers…there’s an incredible naivety to him. He really is solidly outside. He’s quite spectacularly outside.

Radio 4 interview.

Bowie chose his Stardust Cowboy cover well: he couldn’t have done anything with “Paralyzed” besides seem ridiculous and ordinary. But “I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship” was melancholy, sad, mysterious. It was a metaphor for Odam’s life in West Texas, where he’d painted a map of the moon’s Sea of Tranquility on the roof of his car and would spend nights staring up at a sky that he wanted to hide in. Moon shining down/ on some little town/ and with each beam/ the same old dreeeeam. How the repeated “tomorrow nights” call back to the moonlit loneliness of Elvis’s Sun single. The self-recriminating last verse, where the Cowboy looks back “at a stardust trail leading back to yoooou.” What did I do? he moaned. The last, mumbled line sounded like “abandon you.”

“Gemini Spacehip” was a less refined Captain Beefheart. Take the Cowboy’s vocal—the outrageous pronunciations that turn names into alien beings (“Gem-uh-nee,’ “Jew-pit-err”) or the way he’ll collide phrases into another like boxcars (“I jumped into miiine-we’ll orbit the mooon”). The drummer (was it Burnett again?) obstinately kept to his clunking pattern until, as if the Cowboy’s been baiting him, he started clubbing fills for every phrase. The B-movie organ occasionally sobered up, playing lines of haunting beauty.

Bowie turned “Gemini Spaceship” into a “rave uncle” song, a sudden return to the sound of Earthling—it was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy kitted up for the festival circuit, with Bowie singing the Ledge’s words in a nightclub seducer’s croon, turning seemingly every line into an innuendo (“I shot my space gun“), while dramatically sighing, drawling and even plummeting to the absolute depths of his register (the “weeellllllll” at 3:14 is his lowest-sung note on record). He piled on glum-Gus baritone saxophone, a keening theremin, Tony Visconti-scored strings that have a touch of Bollywood in them and washes of David Torn guitar, cemented in a Visconti bassline that mainly hops along on root notes, breaking off to make a few interjections, and Matt Chamberlain as convulsive pulsebeat.

It was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy performed straight-faced, which is how the Ledge always played it. Bowie sang it a few times on stage in 2002 and bopped along to the music like some antic kid.

legendarystardust2

Bowie, Paralyzed (L.S. Cowboy), Later With Jools Holland, 2002.
Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Space Oddity (D. Bowie), 2003.

Unlike many stories these days, this one has a happy ending. The Ledge got some decent royalty checks from the sales of Heathen and Bowie flew him and his band out to London in June 2002 for the Meltdown Festival, where he happily bewildered the British. And two months later, when Bowie’s tour hit the San Francisco area, the two met for the first time.

The Ledge, with two friends and his documentarian, a filmmaker named Tony Philputt, showed up at the Shoreline Ampitheatre, happy to find there was no charge for parking. They told the ticket counter attendant to let Bowie’s people know “the Ledge is here!” “Within five minutes, four tickets and four backstage passes came shooting out the window slot. It was great fun walking around with Norman, decked in hat, boots, garish jacket and all, amongst the kids. Got a lot of strange looks,” Philputt said.

After watching the show backstage via closed-circuit TV and regretting they hadn’t brought earplugs, the Ledge and crew got into the meet-and-greet line. Bowie entered the room and saw a man with whom he’d been obsessed since 1971. “I knew instantly that David Bowie was much more intimidated by the Ledge than vice versa,” Philputt recalled. “When he came walking into to the room, he yelled out ‘Ledge!’ and ran to him to try and hug him. And Norman was having none of that—he stepped back slightly and David ended up giving him the two hands on the arms squeeze as opposed to a full hug. And they just stood around taking pictures, and Bowie had this grin on his face like somebody had just handed him a syringe of the sweetest smack in the world.

So dreams do come true (though more for David Jones of Bromley than for Norman Odam of Lubbock, who calmly took Bowie’s fanboy effusions as payment long overdue). And if anything, the whole story just serves to show just how damned normal Bowie is, relatively speaking.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen. A “Deepsky’s Space Cowboy” remix appeared on the promo US 12″ single for “Everyone Says ‘Hi.'”

* Wonderfully, the Cowboy’s website refers to the song as “I Took a Trip (On a Space Shuttle).” I like the idea that the song will continue to molt over the next centuries (“I Took a Trip (On a Generational Starliner to Alpha Centauri)”).

Sources: Irwin Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z (excerpted on Perfect Sound Forever); “Flesh-and-Blood Ziggy Stardust Inspiration Gets Gig on Bowie Bill,” Brad Kava, San Jose Mercury News, 12 June 2002; “Out on a Ledge: The Legend of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy,” Richard Skanse, Texas Music Magazine, Winter 2003.

Top: Ian Cowe, “Local bus, Karachi, Pakistan, August 2001”; Ledge on Laugh-In, 1968; meeting of Stardust and Starman, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Santa Clara, 14 August 2002; a Ledge performance ca. late 2000s.