David Bowie Talks and Sings on The Dick Cavett Show (1974)

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 arthis 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.

Related Content:

David Bowie and Cher Sing Duet of “Young Americans” and Other Songs on 1975 Variety Show

David Bowie Sings ‘I Got You Babe’ with Marianne Faithfull in His Last Performance As Ziggy Stardust

David Bowie Releases Vintage Videos of His Greatest Hits from the 1970s and 1980s

David Bowie Recalls the Strange Experience of Inventing the Character Ziggy Stardust (1977)

David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

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.

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  • Paul says:

    I live in New York City. One night about three years ago, I watched that entire Dick Cavett episode featuring David Bowie. Then THE VERY NEXT DAY, I ran into Cavett himself while he was shopping at Williams-Sonoma! I told him I had just watched his Bowie interview, and Cavett said, “Oh, yeah. He sniffed a lot, didn’t he?” So Dick was totally aware that Bowie was coked up at the time. Not much he could do about it, I guess.

  • Linda says:

    I don’t know why some people think Bowie is so bizarre and embarrassing in this interview. It’s obvious he is coked up, but he doesn’t come across like some freak. He makes absolute sense in everything he says, he is articulate and interesting and seems sort of sweet and shy. And he is clearly, obviously extremely intelligent. I often think that in these early interviews the hosts are a bit patronizing with him, treating him as the person they expected him to be – some dumb flash-in-the-pan gimmicky rock star. I’ve seen a few where part-way through the interview they seem to start to clue in to his level of intelligence, and it’s so satisfying to me to see that register with them.. He was an artist, he was the real deal. I always wonder – what did they think later on when it became obvious what a unique, lasting talent he was? I’d love to know what Dick Caveat thought of how Bowie turned out, and how the 60 year old Bowie he speculates about in the interview actually was! He would have no way of knowing that Bowie would turn out to be one of the most influential, enduring, important artists of our time, and one who is beloved by so many, not just for his gifts but because he was such a great person (which is readily apparent in the multitude of interviews through-out his career that are on YouTube, and which everyone who knew him spoke of.)

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