On this day in 1976, David Bowie arrested in Rochester


There was a time when marijuana was illegal in New York State, and on March 21, 1976, David Bowie and three associates found themselves arrested for possession in Rochester.

David Bowie’s iconic mugshot

On March 20, 1976, David Bowie was in Western New York to play in the middle of his 65-show Isolar International Tour, in support of From station to stationhaving played only once before in Rochester on June 17, 1974. That evening, as he had been two years earlier, Bowie was at Rochester Veterans War Memorial, and started the evening as he did at every stop on this tour – with no introduction and showing the surreal 1928 film An Andalusian dog by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, which includes a famous section of a razor blade cutting into a woman’s eyeball. Bowie appeared on stage immediately at the end of the film, while the audience was still bewildered.

9,200 fans turned out for this Saturday night performance, and although Bowie would have had the flu during the concert, he sang with no problem. As Bowie closed the show with “Jean Genie,” he told the audience, “Thank you very much, we’ll see you in about five months, thank you.” Seemingly implying a return to Rochester this fall, tonight would be Bowie’s last time performing in Rochester.

David Bowie – Rochester War Memorial Auditorium – March 20, 1976

set list: Station To Station, Suffragette City, Fame, Word On A Wing, Stay, Waiting For The Man, Queen Bitch, Life On Mars, Five Years, Panic In Detroit, Changes, TVC, Diamond Dogs
Bis: Rebel Rebel, Jean Genie

Band members playing with Bowie this tour included musical director Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Stacy Heydon (lead guitar, backing vocals), George Murray (bass guitar, backing vocals), Dennis Davis (drums, percussion), and Tony Kaye . (keyboards). The group became collectively known as Raw Moon.

The following week, the penultimate performance of the North American tour took place at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseumwhich was recorded by RCA Records with portions aired by The King Biscuit Radio Network, later released as Experience the Coliseum of Nassau ’76. It was from this show that Bowie and his entourage would return to Rochester for their eventual arraignment on the 25th.

The arrest of David Bowie

So how did Ziggy Stardust end up getting arrested in Rochester after the show? As detailed by the Rochester Democrat and Chronic in 1976, then in 2017 with a first hand account of the arrest, it appears Bowie was set up after the after-party, acting on a tip.

This first-hand account comes from Chi Wah Soo, who at the time was a twenty-year-old Rochester resident who had moved to Rochester from Hong Kong with her parents when she was eleven. Soo used the lyrics to his favorite music to learn English and attended the concert, catching Bowie’s eye from the front row. Bowie passed him a note through a third party, saying, “Meet me at my party. David. Obligingly, Soo remarked that he had a “halo around his head” when he arrived at the party, saying “Hello, my love.”

After the party, Bowie, his bodyguard Dwaine Vaughs, Iggy Pop and Soo went to the American Rochester Hotel at 70 State Street (now a holiday hostel), and met two girls (undercover cops) at the hotel bar, who were looking for cocaine. After receiving a seemingly unrelated prank call, and with the police listening on the side, the party was over for the night as the four were arrested for possession.

At 2:25 a.m. on March 21, three police detectives and a state trooper searched Bowie’s three-room suite, where they found 182 grams of marijuana, or just over six ounces. It appears Bowie assaulted the camera before being taken to jail, with the photo below showing Bowie posing for a photo op, with Iggy Pop to his right and officers arresting him on either side.

All four were incarcerated in Monroe County Jail for fifth-degree felony possession, which at the time carried a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. The four were all released around 7 a.m. on bail of $2,000 each, with Bowie covering the cost for everyone.

After being taken to jail, Bowie used his real name, David Jones, and an address at 89 Oakley St., London, England. The others he was arrested with were identified as 28-year-old James Osterberg, Jr. (Iggy Pop) of Ypsilanti, Michigan, and 22-year-old Dwaine Vaughs of Brooklyn, who was the karate instructor and guard of Bowie’s body. Soo was also arrested, and while the three moved on to the next show in Springfield, MA, it would be a few days before all four were back in court to face charges.

The return for indictment

On March 25, the first day Bowie took a break from touring to return to Rochester, the Thin White Duke was greeted by a large crowd that included a teenage fan who got his autograph as he descended from a escalator, and “half a dozen suspected prostitutes,” according to John Stewart of Democrat and Chronicle.

Bowie wore a gray three-piece leisure suit and pale brown shirt, holding a matching hat, and was represented by Rochester attorney Anthony F. Leonardo. He was arrested within 10 minutes, pleading “not guilty, sir”.

Apparently during the arraignment, Soo gave Bowie her traditional Chinese wedding cover, and Soo believes that in the music video for Bowie’s 1983 hit “China Girl”, her cover appears in the music video. The couple would not speak again after that day.

Bowie and his entourage used stairwells and elevators to avoid the crowds, using a side exit to get to Leonardo’s office on the seventh floor of the Times Square building. Although he had been silent all morning, Bowie gave a five-minute interview to reporters in Leonardo’s office, although his attorney wouldn’t allow any questions directly relating to the arrest, saying it was about the first criminal charge he ever faced.

While praising the city police, Bowie noted the protection they provided him upon his return to Rochester. “They’ve been very courteous and very kind. They’ve been just great,” Bowie said. His fans’ efforts were also noted, saying he felt “honoured” by the fan support and emphasizing the fact that the arrest would not belittle him at future concerts around the city. Bowie answered most questions in the brief interview with short answers, shaking hands with reporters as they entered and left Leonardo’s office.

Over the next month, all four were allowed to go free, and Bowie, being on tour in Europe at the time, was excused from appearing at the next hearing. Perhaps having a sense of humor about the case, Judge Alphonse Cassetti scheduled the preliminary hearing for all parties for April 20, 1976. The charges, however, were effectively dismissed in May when a grand jury declined to indict Bowie or the other three.

Another look at the Mugshot

The photo was discovered in 2007, when auction house employee Gary Hess was cleaning up the estate of a retired police officer. Hess gave the impression to his brother Todd to sell it on eBay, and wanting to publicize the sale, Todd leaked the photo to The smoking gunwho quickly posted the photos and helped the image go viral.

The photo ended up selling on eBay in 2007 for over $2,700 to a “super fan” in the Midwest, who informed the singer of the special purchase; Bowie was reportedly “satisfied” with the news.

As you might notice, the mugshot shows March 25 for the date, and while that’s not a typo or mistake, the circumstances are certainly unique given that David Bowie was arrested in the early morning hours of March 21, but the date posted is four days later. The reason was that Bowie’s attorney successfully argued to delay the arraignment until March 25, given that Bowie was halfway through — with four remaining stops in North America — and the penalties for being forced to appear in court on March 21 would be harsh, given that he was scheduled to perform at the Springfield Civic Center in Massachusetts that evening.

Bowie took the opportunity to make a “staged” photo look as dapper as possible, posing for one of the most iconic photos in rock n roll history. The mugshot even spawned a documentary, Bowie goes to jailas well as merchandise.

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