On February 25, 1973, David Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust with his Spiders From Mars, played downtown Memphis at North Hall (within the building called Ellis Auditorium). It was the second Ziggy appearance in Memphis for Bowie, who had performed five months earlier in September 1972. This earlier visit was the second Ziggy show in America (Cleveland being the first), and Bowie was a big Elvis fan; they share the same birthdates: January 8th.
The first low budget 1972 Spiders’ tour is well documented with photographs from Mick Rock. The second tour in February was not…ironic, considering Bowie was now in “eyebrow-less,” 'Aladdin Sane' mode, his follow-up album to Ziggy Stardust and yet another concept character which Bowie described later as, simply, 'Ziggy in America.'
It was in this guise that teacher and artist Dolph Smith came to meet Bowie in the main gallery of the (then) Memphis Academy of Art, February 26th, 1973.
Dolph Smith had learned of Bowie and the song 'Space Oddity' through students at the school and was inspired to do a series of watercolors based on the lyrics of Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and it's character 'Major Tom'. Also at play here are visual cues from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' which, of course, had informed Bowie in the first place. Dolph had been using paper airplanes as a theme of 'fragile shapes against nature' and in-vigorously incorporated this element into the five pieces as well. The pieces were hung in an exhibit dedicated to line drawing and Dolph remembers being criticized by local critic Frederic Koeppel for working outside the theme.
Dolph used connections at FM100 to reach Cherry Vanilla, a former actress from the Warhol camp and Bowie's PR person. Cherry visited the school, saw the work, and immediately informed Bowie that he should appear at the school, time allowing, and do the same. Luckily, Bowie was still in Memphis the night following his show (who knows why; perhaps to catch a glimpse of Elvis?)
To Dolph's amazement, Bowie appeared around 10:00 p.m. on February 26th, bringing along two Spiders: guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Woody Woodmansey. Dolph presented Bowie with a watercolor piece entitled 'A paper airplane having just spotted a fallen comrade.' Cherry Vanilla photographed the small event, and that was that. It would seem everything was then lost to time…a pleasant distant memory outside the marginalia of rock and roll history.
I attended the Memphis Academy of Art from 1984 through 1986, receiving my Bachelor’s there in 1987. Dolph had actually been my first teacher (in paper-making), but I knew nothing of his past, let alone my own. One day, I was doing work-study in the school library, and I came across one photograph of Dolph and Bowie (with Bowie holding the 'Fallen Comrade' painting) reprinted, I suppose, in some random school publication. I knew very little about the Spiders from Mars, at the time, but I played in a punk band, and I knew that Bowie was important - I just hadn't gotten to him yet, nor did I fully understand Memphis rock and roll history.
|All in time…
Flash forward to 2008: For me, three bands, 6 feature films, and fifteen comic books later, when the current administration at the Memphis College of Art (in the person of CeCe Palazola) asked if I could do a free form film class for the Continuing Education program, I immediately knew what it would be; an invitation for students (and me) to interpret this meeting between Dolph Smith and David Bowie as metaphor - thus celebrating the 35th anniversary year, intertwining Memphis with Dolph's watercolors and Bowie's trans-gender rock and roll.
This was to be THE FILM CLASS THAT FELL TO EARTH.
On my website www.guerrillamonsterfilms.com, I began to gather information regarding Bowie in Memphis. Memphians, who attended Bowie shows in Memphis, provided me with ticket stubs and essays about their youthful experiences at Ellis Auditorium, seeing the Spiders From Mars… experiences that I wish I'd had. But, in 1973, I was a ten-year-old boy growing up on a gravel road in Mississippi. My only art class was comic books I read in my tree house.
I got in touch with Dolph Smith who provided two more photographs. A fourth photograph came from former student Julie Finnell. Amazingly, the only two photographs that exist from the 1973 Spiders’ performance are provided by Richard DeLisi before he was forced to remove his camera from the event, and these hastily taken slide images 'bookend' our short piece. So, there are more photographs of Bowie being himself in Memphis at the Art School than there are of Ziggy from the night before.
All this information called for an introductory film of some sort - but how and when?
On the very first night of the six week course, Dolph spoke (or 'spake') about his brief memory with Bowie and his larger re-awakening to the potential of watercolor, as brought on by Bowie and the new life that glam rock was injecting into rock and roll. My little movie (with the help of Tom Wayne) hopes to capture just a moment of this thought and set it free in the shape of a paper airplane.
Sometimes memories take on the shape of fallen comrades.