Volumes of tributes have been posted and published since David Bowie’s death on Sunday. As one of the first to witness his arrival in Manhattan’s downtown club scene in the early Seventies, model-turned-musician Bebe Buell drew back the curtain on that not-easily-forgotten New York moment.
In town to perform at Thursday night’s 50th anniversary for Max’s Kansas City and a tribute concert Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, Buell said, by chance, that was where she first saw Bowie. “I was there the night he walked into Max’s for the first time in the baby blue suit and the bright orange hair. It was striking. Everybody else in there was dressed in black and this colorful alien came in and just enchanted and charmed us all. He was a divine brilliant special artist and a sweet man, a good man,” she said. “What I noticed later in life, when he found happiness and marriage with Iman, he became a real homebody.”
Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries had brought him to New York and he was living in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Buell told WWD, “He was careening around town in limousines. He was trying to make quite the impression, turning up in all the spots where one should turn up. At that moment in our New York pop culture history, Max’s Kansas City was the place to be. That’s where all the models, photographers, rock stars, poets, mavericks, actors, actresses…it was the gathering spot for all the artistic, like-minded soul mates. We were all in there together. We were all in this together.”
Having now been married for 16 years, Buell, whose daughter is Liv Tyler, was at that time Todd Rundgren’s girlfriend. “Alice Cooper was there. I know Todd was there. Andy [Warhol] wasn’t coming in as much. After he got shot, he didn’t come into Max’s as much, but he did come in every once in a while. I think Ronnie Cutrone was there. Leee Black Childers was taking David around the room to introduce him to everybody,” Buell said. “David and I just hit it off immediately. We became friends instantly. He asked me if I would go with him to see the Rockettes. He wanted to do all of these touristy things. Angela [Bowie’s first wife] was going to be leaving and she was her own kind of independent woman anyway. When they walked into Max’s that night she was off on the other side of the room holding court in her own majesty. You know at that time she was very stylish and they cut quite a striking figure – no eyebrows, very androgynous and dressed to the nines. He certainly did make an entrance, and he made a beautiful exit as well.”
As for their sightseeing in the early Seventies, Buell said, “I took him to the top of the Empire State Building; he wanted to go look at the river. He wanted to go to Saks Fifth Avenue. He wanted to go to Bergdorf. He was very fascinated. And I, of course, turned him on to Henri Bendel, which was my paradise at that time. Whenever I would make any money with my modeling fees for Butterick patterns and some of the other catalogues, as soon as I cashed a check, I would be down there to shop in the little cubicles.
“I will never forget going to the top of the Empire State Building with him. He was like a child. He just kept running around in a circle. He couldn’t get over the view. He had a beautiful viewpoint that was like a child with a kaleidoscope. He could take one visual and turn it into a thousand things,” said Buell, the author of the bestseller “Rebel Heart: An American Rock ‘n’ Roll Journey.” “He could be the most musical genius I have ever met because it was never something he turned on and off.”
Through Bowie, Buell got to know Suzi Ronson, the wife of Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. “So I was one of the lucky people who was in third row at Radio City Music Hall for the Ziggy Stardust show, the magnificent show,” Buell said. “I took him to see Todd [Rundgren] at Carnegie Hall. I think I’m the person who took David to see the New York Dolls for the first time as well. I’m pretty sure. Todd had produced the New York Dolls’ first album so I took David to see the Dolls. He really loved them. He was really into shocking people.”
Insisting their friendship was platonic, Buell said, “A lot of people have thought that we were lovers…never happened. We would sit around and experiment with makeup and try out new techniques for doing eyeliner and different kinds of eye shadow. He was very into scents. I used to do this thing, and I still do it to this day — mixing musky kind of smells with Chanel No. 5. And he said, ‘I just can’t believe you use Chanel No. 5 as a base.'”
One night in 1973 Bowie invited Buell to go see a musician that he heard about and he thought was going to be quite good. “We went upstairs at Max’s and there were
maybe seven or eight people [in the audience.] It was Bruce Springsteen. David was right. It was incredible.” Buell said.
“Very nauseated about some of the online tabloid-level” coverage of Bowie’s life, Buell said, “When you talk about a man like David Bowie, you have to go in there with dignity. I can’t stand that they’re still going on and on about, ‘Did he and Mick have an affair?’ It just makes me a little ill to be honest.”
Noting that Bowie studied mime, she added, “He was probably the greatest performance artist ever. I liken him to Chopin, Bach and Beethoven. He is Salvador Dali meets Bach. He’s just everything.”
And she would know, having met Dali one day at the St. Regis’ magazine shop where models like her used to look for their international magazine shoots and tear sheets. “That’s the way it was in New York City in the early Seventies, all the artists hung out together. I used to go to tea at the St. Regis with Dali. I was standing there and Mr. Dali walked over to me and asked if I would like to have tea with him and Truman Capote,” she said. “Normally if a person would come up to you in a magazine store and ask you to have tea, you’d run, wouldn’t you? But I sort of had a feeling that this was legitimate. I went up there and Amanda Lear showed up. She was the most beautiful woman. Truman Capote was there and the odd duck was Leonard Cohen. We knew him as the downtown poet then.”
As for her own musical performance at the Cutting Room for the Max’s Kansas City concert, Buell said, “If they want me to sing a Bowie song, I would be more than thrilled. I know every Bowie song backward. It will be impossible to not say something, considering one of the songs I’m doing is “Satellite of Love” from Lou Reed’s Transformer record.
At work on a book of unpublished photos from those rock ‘n’ roll days in the Seventies, Buell will also soon shoot a sizzle reel for a Rock ‘n’ Roll Traveler series. Despite that, she is a little maxed out about looking over her shoulder. “I’m just kind of exhausted about talking about the old days,” she said. “It’s just over and it’s never coming back. It will not be like that again. How’s that for harsh reality?”