Sunday, January 22, 2017

BOOKS: SPIDER FROM MARS (My Life With Bowie)




There's a starman waiting in the sky to bust your balls
 Bowie drummer recalls the highs and lows of touring with Ziggy Stardust
by Don Stradley


The title of Woody Woodmansey's amusing new memoir 'Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie' is a bit misleading. Since Bowie always kept an icy distance between himself and his backing musicians, there really isn't much "life with Bowie" to speak of here. Still, as Bowie's drummer during the Ziggy Stardust years, Woodmansey was in the trenches during an incredible time in music history; as such, his story should be heard.

There's plenty of detail in Woodmansey's memoir, but the tone is surprisingly light and airy. Readers should be advised that Woodmansey is an earthy bloke from from the small agricultural town of Driffield, and if you're looking for grandiose statements about Bowie's art and lifestyle, you won't get them. He tells the story the way you'd expect a steady drummer would tell it; he's evenhanded, keeps it tight, and doesn't go in for wild solo spots. Perhaps you'd like to hear more about the debauchery that went on in those tour buses, or more about Bowie's alleged fling with Lulu, but you won't hear it from a working class gent like Woody.  Others who might tell the tale differently - Bowie, guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder - have all croaked.

Woodmansey was a typical rock 'n roll kid, coming of age in England as the rubble of World War II was being swept away. He listened to Elvis and other early rockers on the radio, and eventually took up the drums. Strangely, neighbors swore they could hear loud drumming coming from the Woodmansey home long before Woodmansey owned his own kit. Kismet?

He was just a boy when he was first struck by rock 'n roll lightning, venturing into an old warehouse where a local bunch of scruffs known as The Roadrunners were rehearsing. As they pounded away at a Bo Diddley song, Woodmansey stood by nervously and watched. "I was mesmerized," he writes. "It was the most exciting thing I'd ever experienced." As often happens in this sort of rock 'n' roll memoir, Woodmansey would later be asked to join the band. Again...kismet?

He tried other things; he was a pretty fair track runner in school, and even tried various factory jobs. When he wasn't at odds with his stern father over the length of his hair - the old man once sneaked into Woody's bedroom at night with scissors to give the kid a trim - they were butting heads over Woodmansey's future. Fortunately, Woodsmansey listened to his inner desires and went running in the direction of the music; he not only provided the rockin' beat for Bowie, but also worked with the likes of Art Garfunkel, Dexy's Midnight Runners, and others. Woodmansey's own band, the short-lived U-Boat, developed a cult following; he currently tours with the stellar Bowie tribute band, Holy Holy. As far as drumming careers, he's had a great one.

Writing with an assist from rock journalist Joel McIver, Woodmansey depicts himself as a genial lad who still can't believe the good fortune that came his way. He loves describing chance encounters with people like Elton John, or how the Spiders once stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. He doesn't shy away from his occasional blunders onstage, or how he seemed to chicken out of auditioning for Paul McCartney. Woody blows off the missed chance with a shrug: "To this day I don't know what I was thinking, but I didn't go."

Of course, people will read the book to learn more about the infamous time of the Spiders, and how Bowie dynamited the landscape of rock music during the early 1970s. The curious thing is that all of the Spiders were gritty, workmanlike geezers like Woodmansey. Ronson and Bolder, though brilliant at guitar and bass, were not cut from Bowie's artsy cloth, and the three of them might've been happy playing in an outfit like Blue Cheer or Foghat (Bolder, for that matter, later ended up playing bass for Uriah Heep).

The fascinating aspect of the story is that these three bluesbreakers from northern England gave Bowie what he'd needed at the right time. Prior to hiring them, Bowie was a weird folkie who'd had a modest hit with 'Space Oddity' and certainly wasn't on the fast track to anywhere. But Woodmansey recognized something in Bowie's songs that could be magnified with the proper hard rock background. He also observed that Bowie was disappointed in how his career had stalled. Bowie, Woodmansey reckoned, had "taken a knock and was struggling to find a new way to express himself." 

And so it went, with Woodmansey playing drums for four Bowie albums and, by his estimation, about 200 or so concerts, with Bowie leading the way in his Ziggy Stardust persona. But it wasn't a relaxed journey. Sure, there was a bit of rock 'n' roll excess, and the chance to play such powerful and innovative music was a dream come true for Woodmansey, but Bowie was prickly and detached; though Bowie wanted the band to seem like a gang and to dress alike, he made it clear that he was the star and they were his sidemen. Bowie was also in the beginning stages of a major drug phase; his paranoia often kept him from relating to the Spiders as anything but hired guns.

Backing band or not, the Spiders had to endure regular whiffs of danger, such as being warned to stay in their hotel because they'd come into a part of America where "hippies" might be shot. Then there was a concert in Japan that ended in a near riot when floors collapsed and kids were nearly crushed. It's as if Bowie and the Spiders were always one step ahead of total disaster.

At times Woodsmansey seems too admiring of Bowie. Granted, Bowie was one of the great ones. But Bowie was also a jerk. He treated the Spiders shabbily; some of the chapters may compel you to never spend another dime on Bowie music. Yet, he forgives Bowie, blaming the singers erratic behavior on a growing cocaine addiction, and the pressures of fame. Bowie and Woodmansey bumped into each other in Europe many years after the breakup of the Spiders. Though Bowie offered no apology, Woodmansey was quite happy to see him for dinner and a chat. "I felt the old wounds had been healed," Woodmansey says.

It's all very mature, you know. But no one would squawk if Woody had given his old boss a thump.

And Woodmansey also milks the idea of being the innocent yokel who keeps wandering into hostile territory wearing his glitter gear. By the third time he saunters into a redneck diner and says, Fuck me! I forgot how I was dressed! the gimmick has worn itself out. 

But he's very good at making quick, pointed observations, like his first impression of Angie Bowie flitting in and out of a room "like a mosquito on speed." Or when he samples her cooking and labels her a "shit cook; maybe that's why Bowie was so thin." Or when he discusses his interest in Scientology, writing that, "it has helped me find a life that I am very happy with, and I'm not bothered what other people think about it." It's interesting to get his input on various Bowie tunes, and how everyone from Neil Young to King Crimson was an influence during those years. He's also quite insightful when he suggests Bowie liked having three unpretentious fellows from northern England fellows around as his test audience. "Maybe," he writes, "it was a case of 'I'll try my ideas on these northern lads, and if they can take it, maybe the audience will too."

There's a sense that Woodmansey hit the top early and never scaled those heights again, but it's OK.  He wasn't supposed to be Charlie Watts and play with the Rolling Stones for 50 years. He was Woody Woodmansey, a Spider for a while, and that seems to have been enough. "We experienced a lifetime in a few short years," he writes near the end. And the songs, which  have endured, enabled him to be part of some interesting projects, including the current Holy Holy gigs with old Bowie producer and occasional bassist, Tony Visconti.

It's tempting to read the book with the eye of a dime-store psychologist. Bowie, it seems, was a bit of a father figure to Woodmansey. Woody was accustomed to his own father's outbursts and unpredictability. And yes, even aloofness. From Bowie, he got the same treatment. This, I believe, is why Woodmansey was so quick to forgive Bowie. And why did Bowie kick the Spiders to the curb? Perhaps he harbored some kind of resentment towards them. He often said that he could've made it without them, and seemed determined to prove it. But maybe, deep down, he knew differently. Without their incredible talents behind him, he might've remained a floundering folksinger.

Bowie had to break up the band to prove something to himself. But he could've been nicer about it.

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