Part of the problem with legendary shows that eventually find their way to official release is the occasional letdown factor. Originally acquired via unofficial channels, such shows are spoken about in mystical terms by an artist’s hardcore and most demented fans until the show itself becomes far more than just another live performance in the artist’s career. It becomes a defining moment in music history, and goddammit, it demands worship at its altar.
In some cases the actual official release lives up to the hype. Bob Dylan’s fabled 1966 “Judas” concert, previously immortalized both on vinyl as well as the classic Guitars Kissing and the Contemporary fix bootleg, among others, eventually saw official, if grossly belated, release from Sony. Despite some alleged sonic inferiorities to previous bootleg versions, this long-awaited official version confirmed that the actual performance equaled the legend that surrounded it.
Similarly, David Bowie’s 1972 show in Santa Monica, California is considered by many Bowie fans and sick musos to be among the defining concerts of his career, as well as one of those landmark performances that dot the landscape of music history (the fact that this marked Bowie’s first live radio broadcast in the States probably didn’t hurt the myth factor).
Previously available in various releases of both dubious legality and sound quality, the show is certainly on target and solid. Bowie performs the songs with conviction and focus on his first American tour. Although he was well established in merry England, he was not yet a household name in the States. There’s also very little hint of the personal and musical over-indulgences that would come later, and depending on your preferences, would mark the beginning of a run of innovative 1970s albums, or indicate the first signs of a performer whose musical outputs never quite lived up to his ambitions.
Backing band the Spiders from Mars are as integral to the album as Bowie himself; they bring enough force to the songs to make them stand out and give them a frenetic life and energy, in most cases. The trio of “The Supermen,” “Five Years,” and “Life On Mars” is intense and frantic, with both Bowie and the band bringing a palpable anger and doom to the apocalyptic foreboding of these songs. “Queen Bitch” performed live here surpasses its album counterpart, and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is an emotional, if perhaps heavy-handed, fitting close to the concert.
However, it’s still open to debate as to whether the show deserves its place at the table of legendary musical performances. Certainly it’s mostly an outstanding performance and the material is nearly irreproachable. Bowie was able to pick and choose from landmark albums The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.
Nevertheless, there are some agonizingly dull moments that sound pretty dated hearing them over 35 years later. “Width of a Circle” clocks in at around ten minutes and loses its steam after only a few of those; it’s a struggle to get through it.
Likewise, Bowie’s take on the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man” is a curiosity piece at best. Performed with minor lyrical changes and at a pace somewhere between the Velvet’s classic version on The Velvet Underground and Nico and the pseudo-country live arrangement the band favored after John Cale’s forced departure, Bowie’s interpretation sounds both odd and a little boring. It’s more of a careful, polite homage than a successful attempt to reinvent or interpret the song in a unique way.
Because of these flaws, it’s tough to include this concert among the big boys. Maybe it’s a generational thing and the album sounds better to those who experienced Bowie the first time around, instead of through these 1990s indie-bred ears. Or maybe hearing it on various bootlegs over the years lessened the mystery once the album finally made is official release, leading to a letdown. And while a live album doesn’t necessarily need a Judas moment or Johnny Rotten-esque confrontational approach (“You’ll get one encore and one encore only!”), it still needs something to both separate it from the glut of live albums and live up to the myth that surrounds it.
Even though this release is an excellent snapshot of 1972 Bowie and the Spiders from Mars and is well worth repeated listens, it doesn’t always live up to its myth. Besides, some of us are still holding out hope for a definitive Tin Machine live album to see official release.