Jilted Rochester embraces David Bowie at the Visual Studies Workshop. Even if he is still pissed.

Jilted Rochester embraces David Bowie at the Visual Studies Workshop. Even if he is still pissed.

David Kramer with cast of Bowie Goes to Jail [Photo: Jodi Neva]

In 1976 Rochester was just getting to know David Bowie.

Bowie had played here three times before, entrancing infatuated audiences who had fallen for Ziggy Stardust, one of Bowie’s many characters. But on March 20th of that year, the budding romance came to an abrupt — and apparently permanent — end.

Following a concert at the War Memorial, Bowie, his sidekick Iggy Pop and two others, were arrested by undercover police officers for marijuana possession. Escorted brusquely from his Americana Hotel room, an unflattering mugshot taken, imprisoned for several hours alongside prostitutes, and that morning arraigned on $2000 bail, Bowie was a gilded prize for Rochester police otherwise stymied by the exploits of the competing mobster teams, A and B.

Not a good way to end a fourth date.

Although never indicted, Bowie has never been back. Adding sting to the breakup, Bowie’s brief spell as a jailbird inspired some tainted love songs. Written after the Rochester court system tried to impose a $50,000 fine, Wham Bam Thank You Ma’m! is very probably about how fucked over he felt by Crapchester. In Suffragette City, Bowie appears to equate his own mini-martyrdom with that of Susan B. Anthony, herself jailed for trying to vote.

The estrangement seemed final when in 1990 Bowie played in Niagara Falls, and then in Syracuse, bypassing the Sour City. According to local music promoter, Joe Alessi, when Bowie’s 1987 Glass Spider tour was being booked, Rochester must have been asked. To which Bowie must have replied, not until Lake Ontario freezes over. The divorce complete except for the papers. David, we hardly knew ye.

The Mug Shot taken of Bowie. March 20th or 21st, 1976

The Mug Shot taken of Bowie. March 20th or 21st, 1976

Much of this came forth yesterday at Bowieoke night at the Visual Studies Workshop on Prince Street. About 150 people of all ages dressed as every imaginable Bowie persona with red face paint galore, including two women who had skipped school at Brighton High to go to the 1976 arraignment. We watched footage from Rochester in the 70’s when Main Street was filled with shoppers, Midtown Plaza had its monorail, and even images of blizzards back when we had those.

The highlight was a stage re-enactment of Bowie Goes to Jail, written by local film maker Matthew Ehlers. Replete with Afros, a quip about Women’s Lib, and police detectives using cassette players and typewriters, the campy romp clearly sided with David as the one done wrong.

(In Bowieoke a real Halloween treat, D & C‘s Will Cleveland writes; “Some, including this reporter, even got their picture taken with [a cardboard cutout of] Bowie.” Hah, this Talker got his picture taken with the whole cast!)

bowie 3

Jill Rettinger (as David Bowie), center. Admittedly, the D & C took a better picture.

I learned that Matt is working on a full-length documentary on Bowie and 1976. Matt, an Irondequoit native who studied film at UCS, has a long list of accomplishments as a writer and director. Matt and I plan to sit down soon to discuss this intriguing project, of which you will hear more.

As the evening progressed, I wondered, how did Rochestarians view their lost love almost forty years later?

To a person they agreed Bowie had the right to feel pissed. One man who was 16 at the time gave me his inside story of the set up and shake down, and would have felt the same way as did Bowie.  Another woman said Rochester had acted “prissy” back then, a real turn off.

But to hold a grudge for 40 years? Alas, everyone doubted that Bowie held a grudge that long. He just doesn’t care anymore about Rochester, a small town he outgrew decades ago. One said Bowie is a genius anyway, and geniuses don’t have to worry too much about the opinions of others.

But everyone enthusiastically said they would love for him to come back. We’re not the same prissy Rochester. The Blue Cross Arena would sell out in flash. One man suggested we offer Bowie an official apology like Georgia did for Ray Charles after he was banned from performing in the state.  Are you listening, Lovely Warren?

David, you can go home again.

More on the Visual Studies Workshop 

A little bit of the Moulon Rouge and Greenwich Village

A Fake Election at the Visual Studies Workshop

Activism Fair draws largest crowd of its kind in recent memory


No longer jilted Rochester mourns David Bowie (1947 – 2016)

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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