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Bowie's stripped-down Tampa tour stop in 1974 still resonates

In the summer of 1974, David Bowie played a concert in Tampa that was unlike any other on his 73-date “Diamond Dogs” tour that crisscrossed North America that year.

Until that point, the tour featured one of the most extravagant, theatrical and expensive sets ever created for a rock show, complete with a hydraulic cherry-picker that carried Bowie over the crowd, and a six-ton, moving set depicting the post-apocalyptic “Hunger City” the “Diamond Dogs” album concept was based on.

The set and costumes, however, never made it to downtown Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Hall for the July 2 concert.

A truck carrying the gear overturned on rain-slick roads north of Tampa destroying much of it, a July 4,1974, article in the Tribune said. The truck’s driver crashed after being stung by a bee, according to a history of the tour published by NPR last year.

Bowie, the iconic rocker that transcended music, fashion and film, died of cancer Sunday, though the memory of that unique, stripped-down Tampa show lives on in bootleg recordings posted to fan sites and the memories of those who were there.

“The concert you are going to see tonight is not the show we had planned for you,” says a man addressing the restless-sounding crowd, the show almost two hours late, in the unofficial recording. “Due to an unfortunate road accident, half of our stage scenery, costumes, lighting equipment, is in a local swamp 15 miles north of here. There was talk of canceling tonight’s performance, but David Bowie would not hear of it, and insisted we go on in this handicapped condition.”

Moments later the crowd roars as Bowie’s unmistakable voice sings “Someday they won’t let you, so now you must agree. The times they are a-telling, and the changing isn’t free,” from his opening song, “1984.”

Tampa resident Cindy Davis, a high school senior at the time, was in the front row almost 42 years ago when Bowie stepped on stage in a bright yellow suit and performed a set she says she’ll never forget.

“I’m so close I can almost touch him — this was before everything was so secure, there’s no security guards,” she said. “I’m sitting there and I had my chin on my hand and I’m gaga staring at him. I thought he was looking at me, but then I thought, ‘no he was just looking down at the crowd.’

“Then he sits down on the stage and starts mimicking me. He puts his chin on his hand just like I had it. I put my hand in my lap, he puts his hand in his lap — everything I did. It was just awesome.”

Davis says Bowie then stood up, looking straight at her, and began miming a sex act.

“My mouth drops open in shock, and he looks right at me and his mouth drops open just like mine and he throws his head way back and just starts laughing,” Davis said. “He was just so edgy, he was unlike any other performer at the time, he was different, outrageous, edgy. That spoke to a teen, I guess.”

Bowie went on to perform a set that included “Changes,” “Suffragette City,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Time” and “Rock n’ Roll Suicide.” He even performed an encore, the only one of the tour, according to many accounts.

The crowd that night was elaborately dressed and could have been mistaken for “a convention of fashion models or costume designers,” wrote Tribune reporter Lenora Lake at the time.

“Red sequin stars formed one male’s eybrows, while glitter provided the rim of a painted-on pair of glasses on another,” the story from July 4, 1974, reads. Women were dressed in “Bette Midler”-style “mini dresses, bright jewelry and scarfs,” while “one male had even painted his body silver, which matched his glittering silver hose and shoes, showing beneath his brief cut-off jeans.”

“It ended up being so different than everything we’d been hearing about,” recalls Lake, who now works as a freelancer for the Tribune. “I do remember being kind of amazed. ... The crowd wasn’t upset, they were still cheering.”

Bowie would return to Tampa to perform only twice more; in September 1987 for the Glass Spider Tour at the old Tampa Stadium, and in May 2004 for A Reality Tour, the last of his career, at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center — now the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. His Sound and Vision Tour stopped at the Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field) in St. Petersburg in 1990.

In an interview ahead of the Reality Tour stop, Bowie told the Tribune that he’d come to enjoy performing again late in his career, and that stripping down the stage production helped that transition.

“The idea of doing straightforward performances of the songs ... takes a lot of the weight off trying to set it up as a more monumental thing than that,” Bowie said. “This show is just delving through the last 30 or 40 years of songs.”

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