Caveh Zahedi studied philosophy at Yale University and film production at the UCLA School of Film and Television. His feature-length films include A Little Stiff (1991), I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994), In The Bathtub of the World (2001), I Am A Sex Addict (2006), and The Sheik and I (2012). A 6-DVD box set of his films is being released by Factory 25 this summer.
In 1972, when I was 12 years old, I read an article in Time magazine about a strange new singer-songwriter named David Bowie. There was something about the article and photo that caught my imagination and I immediately went out and bought a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which had just come out. I loved that album and listened to it obsessively, strangely compelled by the sense of menace and transgression it exuded.
A few weeks later, I heard on the radio that David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars were going to be performing at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (the same concert that was bootlegged and released 20 years later as Live Santa Monica ’72). I had never been to a rock concert before but I desperately wanted to go. Having no means of transportation, I asked my Iranian immigrant con-artist father if he could get us tickets. The show had sold out right away, but he somehow managed to track down Cherry Vanilla, Bowie’s publicist at the time, and talked her into giving us VIP passes to the show.
Bowie was still in his Ziggy Stardust period, so every freak and weirdo in Los Angeles was there, decked out in Bowie-esque makeup and regalia. I was the only non-adult there. My father, as usual, cut in front of everyone else in line, insisting he and I were VIPs. Years later he would declare bankruptcy, but at that moment he seemed to me to have almost superhuman powers.
After befriending the bouncers and getting us through security, he offered to take me backstage to meet Bowie in person. I have no idea if he would actually have been able to pull off what to me sounded like the rock world equivalent of turning water into wine, but I begged him not to. Even though I loved his music, Bowie in ’72 was a very scary figure, at least to my 12-year-old mind, and the last thing I wanted was to get too close to him.
When Bowie came onstage, it was as if the entire crowd immediately went into a trance. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before or since. Every gesture Bowie made was immediately repeated by every person in the room, including me. If Bowie touched his hand to his head, we touched our hands to our heads. If he raised his arms, we raised our arms. And we didn’t just raise them. We raised them ecstatically and with fervor. We were like a zombie army of zealots, hypnotized by the power that was David Bowie at that time. He was simply the most charismatic person I had ever seen in my life. It was as if he was channeling God.
That Bowie concert was the closest I had ever come to a mass religious experience. We were all worshipping at the Church of David Bowie. He was like a Baptist minister from outer space, a Dionysian pied piper leading us to experience previously unsuspected dimensions.
Overnight, he became my new role model and, for the next several years, I found myself trying to talk and act like him. Along with Bob Dylan, he was the person I was always unconsciously trying to emulate during my teenage years.
Cut to 20 years later. Bowie was once again performing in L.A. (this time with Tin Machine II), and I couldn’t resist seeing him again. The thought of reliving the magic of that first concert-going experience was too tempting to pass up.
The crowd was nothing like the first time. These were just your typical run-of-the-mill concertgoers. Bowie had long since become mainstream.
When the then-current inhabitant of David Bowie’s body came out on stage and began to play some of the same songs he’d played 20 years earlier, I kept waiting for the spark to hit. But there was no magic anymore. No hypnosis. No hysteria. It was just a concert. The astonishing personal charisma David Bowie possessed during his Ziggy Stardust period was nowhere to be seen. I love David Bowie, the person, and I always will. But he was no longer otherworldly in the same way, and I couldn’t help being disappointed.
A few years later, I was taking ayahuasca when I had a vision of God. God appeared to me in the form of David Bowie. He was in a limousine and had an entourage of beautiful people with him. He was rich, successful, and enjoying life to the fullest. And I suddenly realized my image of God had always been informed by that of Jesus – i.e. someone suffering, impoverished and scorned. This was also my image of what an artist is.
What I believe God was telling me in the form of David Bowie was that God is neither poor nor suffering. He is in the world and of the world. He is active, successful and enjoying his creation. He is full of life – not on the verge of death. And somehow, David Bowie had been chosen by my tripping mind to be the human embodiment of God.
It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. It changed the way I think about art, money, happiness, and fame. My psychedelic-fueled vision of Bowie as God became my new role model. He has been a guiding light ever since.