Despite what one may have been misled to believe by revisionist historians, the Seventies was not one wacky moment after another for carefree youths in zany clothing.
Philadelphia in the summer of 1974 was no exception. Frank Rizzo, the former Police Commissioner who made his bones as a hardnosed, head-knocking cop, had been elected Mayor, to illustrate just how blue-collar conservative the city was at that point. Hardly a warm environment for the sort of young person who preferred gold-painted platform shoes.
The hippie movement sputtered to its death in the early third of the decade, and there was a new freak in town, the glitter rock kid.
It can’t be overstated how integral rock music was to the vast majority of youth culture in the first half of the Seventies. The subgenres that appealed to them may have differed, but only the squarest of the squarest did not have an extensive album collection and regularly attend concerts.
Obviously, music was the keystone; but it transcended notes blaring out of a loudspeaker. You styled your long hair and chose your clothes based on doing your best to look like the very rock stars you idolized. It wasn’t simply some weekend warrior costume; it was a lifestyle and commitment.
Back in early-Seventies Philly, glitter (more recently called “glam”) had taken off, spearheaded by the god of the theatrical rock scene, David Bowie, who had twice sold out a string of back-to-back concerts at the Tower Theater. Alienated adolescents from all parts of the city and its environs finally had a rallying point. Bowie owned this town by the summer of ’74.
I was in a band and had befriended our keyboard player’s brother, future culinary wizard Danny Liberatoscioli, whose group of friends was fanatical about all things Bowie. Your narrator was a moderate-level Bowie fan, and that was only a recent conversion. However, they were a lively bunch and mostly female, so I gradually began spending time with them on assorted evenings.
August 8th. Danny et al were practically levitating over some exciting news that trickled down the Bowie grapevine: David would be returning to town to record new music at the legendary Sigma Sound studio!!!
[Said grapevine also always knew which hotel the Bowie entourage would be occupying, regardless of the city. The FBI should be so proficient!]
I should also point out that the average age of the group was sixteen and most had neither driver’s license nor car—which makes the following more extraordinary.
Full of vigor and with nothing that could possibly be of higher priority, we packed into a car, heading to Sigma in an attempt to confirm whether the rumors were on the level. Something was definitely up; upon arrival, there were already several Bowie diehards milling about and a Cadillac limo parked directly outside the studio.
Little else to do but wait around and see what happened next.
Sigma Sound was located a few blocks north of the commercial district of Center City, just outside the Chinatown section, and the rare passerbys from dusk til dawn were primarily “winos.” We, all dolled up like Martians recently beamed down from the mothership, blended in about as well as a My Cousin Vinny family reunion on a dude ranch.
Nonetheless, the anticipation was electrifying and it was a kick being around so many fellow kooks from remote corners of the region. And when a certain British crooner emerged—“Oh, my God, it’s true, he’s really here!!!”—it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement, especially while immersed in what was very reminiscent of those old newsreel scenes of Beatlemaniacs losing their minds when face-to-face with the Liverpool quartet.
I had never been within reaching distance of a REAL ROCK STAR, fully intend to become one myself, and idolized several. So, even though I had yet to become a staunch Bowiephile, this encounter was a Very Big Deal to me.
Thus it began.
For a stretch of fifteen days, from evening to the wee smalls, a rotating tribe of what was to be dubbed “the Sigma Kids” kept vigil outside of the Barclay hotel when David and the musicians were there, tailed them to the studio, and waited for hours on end, sitting on the sidewalk and steps outside Sigma until the session was over and we could get another glimpse and a moment of small-talk.
After a few days, the lot of us providing no indications of being a nuisance or threat, the Kids and the performers developed a genuine rapport. Carlos Alomar and wife Robin Clark were as caught up in the whirlwind as most of us and extremely fan-friendly. Carlos had established himself on the R&B circuit but this was his first foray into the colossal rock scene, thus it was a bit of a culture shock, albeit a highly enjoyable experience.
Same could be said for the then-unknown Luther Vandross who, although he didn’t spend as much time associating with the Kids, was always very personable.
Of course there were the Bowie “veterans” as well, such as guitarist Earl Slick, David’s longtime friend and singer Warren Peace, and backup singer (and Bowie paramour) Ava Cherry, on whom I immediately developed a massive crush.
Bowie’s personal assistant Corrine “Coco” Schwab—who got her job by answering a newspaper ad!—was another entourage member who grew comfortable among us and I believe was a liaison of sorts, ensuring her boss we had nothing but good intentions. (This would be crucial for what was to occur later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
Although there were a few dozen Sigma Kids in total, we weren’t all there constantly. On the average, I’d say the head count was fifteen at the studio, maybe one-third of that at the hotel. Oh, and about four-to-one female-to-male.
Some of the girls were age 14—but only chronologically—and I oft wondered what kind of (if any) fireworks went off when they returned home at 3 a.m. after spending six hours loitering around Skid Row.
There were roughly a dozen who made up the core of the vigil-keepers, i.e. the ones most frequently present, and we eventually settled into a groove. A couple of people brought blankets so we wouldn’t have to sit directly on the filthy pavement; someone always seemed to have a radio; everyone got used to each other after a while; and we were relatively quiet, patiently awaiting the next flurry of activity.
Sigma owner Joe Tarsia was more bemused than annoyed by us, eventually earning the nickname “Uncle Joe.” And later in the vigil, one of the engineers would occasionally open a studio window while they were listening to a playback, kindly giving us a special reward for our perseverance.
Then things got REALLY interesting.
August 23. Bowie had been fairly satisfied with the tracks they had laid down, and that night’s session would be the last. As such, he had a treat in mind that would enormously eclipse any engineer opening a window for a few minutes.
David personally approached those of us he recognized as comprising the core and extended an invitation that had been unprecedented in music history: When the session that night concluded, there would be a listening party…and we were invited!
There was also one stipulation. “This is only for the people I invite. If anyone else shows up, it’s off.”
The party itself. The session didn’t wrap until very early in the morning (one report said 5 a.m.), and much to the invitees’ relief, all kept their promise to keep the party hush-hush. We were ushered inside, where Bowie’s bodyguard frisked each of us and checked handbags for recording equipment.
Some folding chairs had been placed around the studio and there were cups of red wine on a tray. I selected a seat where a few chairs were centered midway between the speakers. When the rest of the Kids sat closer to the front, I didn’t want to be “that guy” who sat secluded towards the back like the official party wallflower, so I moved up a few spots towards the front, perching on a piano stool.
The music began playing, and it was nothing like we expected, starting with what would be the album’s title track “Young Americans.” When the Beatles reference came through the speakers, I turned to see if anyone else “got it”…and, sure enough, there was the author sitting in one of those chairs I’d abandoned.
Yes, I inadvertently blew an opportunity to be sitting right next to David Bowie the very first time anyone heard one of his classic recordings. The Simpsons didn’t exist yet, but I may have originated the emphatic “Doh!” that very moment.
Turned out David was quite keen on gauging our reactions. As everyone knows now, Bowie was taking his music in an entirely different direction, and he had no idea whether it would be accepted by the audience currently wearing a groove in his latest studio effort, Diamond Dogs. We weren’t ass-kissers from the record company or media. We were that very audience he was concerned about. We were quite literally the young Americans.
After all the material was played, including some that never made the album, there was a brief silence. I believe it was a cross between digesting what we just heard and the feeling of “So what do we do now?”
We were impressed by the music—who wouldn’t be?—but no one wanted the party to be over. Then one of the Kids uttered the magic words that broke the spell.
“Play it again!”
It was as though everyone exhaled simultaneously. “Play it again” they did, and we began dancing, performers and Kids together, like giddy, slightly buzzed friends at a wedding reception. Photographer Dagmar snapped away, and unbeknownst to us at the time, those pictures would end up on the front page of the Sunday paper, in several magazines and book over the years and even in the 2007 Young Americans reissue’s CD booklet.
[One shot captured me dancing with Ava Cherry, and to my very very deep dismay, although processed (but unused) for the Sunday newspaper story, it apparently has disappeared. Ah, well.]
By the time the second run-through ended, it “felt right” for the party to break up. The adrenaline that had us wide awake and shaking our butts at 5 a.m. had dissipated, the sun had begun to rise and none of us wished to make a pest of himself.
Thank Yous and Goodbyes were exchanged, and all the Kids went home.
I doubt any of us slept when we got there.
Sidebar regarding getting invited to the listening party: Sigma Kid Stewart and I were the only two standing outside the Barclay the afternoon we received our invitations. When our future party host moved on, Stewart and I just looked at each other like “Wait, we just got invited to a party by David Bowie, right?” as if to reassure each other there was no misinterpretation or hallucination involved.
Stewart had short spiked hair tinted with henna to give it a reddish tone and, if I remember correctly, shaved eyebrows. Needless to say, he was a hardcore Bowie fan. He also no-showed the party.
Surprised? What you need to understand is, David Bowie touched people in a very special way and was Messianic to many young folks at a confusing age in a challenging time period. There were certain Sigma Kids who were literally struck speechless and too overwhelmed to get closer than several feet from David when he entered or left the studio.
Stewart wasn’t like that, but all I can presume was that the thought of actually socializing with his idol was more than he figured he could handle.
[Please peruse the brief “sequel” My Breakfast With Ava. Thanks.]
PS There were some Philadelphians who weren’t as keen on Bowie parties. Here’s a link to the third part of my “Bowie trilogy.”