I can think of very few tasteful phenomena to have come to prominence in the seventies, but David Bowie’s albums and Dick Cavett’s talk shows both make the short list. In the middle of that decade, Bowie certainly made the television rounds; we previously featured his 1975 appearance opposite Cher, and today we have his appearance opposite Cavett from the previous year. “David Bowie is a superstar in a category that has never actually been defined,” says the host about the rocker, to audience cheers, “because as soon as a critic tries to say what he is, he changes, like a chameleon.” It seems that Bowie, then at the height of his self-transformative tendencies, could reduce even the most eloquent man on television to that not-quite-accurate cliché. As the former host told Esquire thirty years after this broadcast, “Doesn’t a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?”
Yet Cavett ultimately holds his own with Bowie, a feat I doubt many of the rest of us could pull off then or now. The appearance involves more than just music; while Bowie does perform, he also sits down to talk, something that his fans hadn’t yet seen him do in 1974. To many of them, he remained for the most part a mystery, albeit an astutely rocking one. “Who is he? What is he?” Cavett rhetorically asks the crowd. “Man? Woman? Robot?” In the event, they discuss his school days, his ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the unforgettable Diamond Dogs cover art, his step back from “glitter,” why other people would have feared interviewing him, and whether he pictures himself at sixty (in the far-flung year of 2007). How easy to forget, in this age when we can often converse with our idols by merely sending them an @ reply on Twitter, how much a showman like Bowie could leave to our imaginations. He remains admirably secretive by today’s standards, but back in the seventies, anything he said would have come as a revelation — especially if prompted by no less artful a conversationalist.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.