Bowie Bonds

May 8 1997 3:30 AM

Bowie Bonds

Rock 'n' roll officially stops being revolutionary.

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I have seen the future of rock 'n' roll and it's called Prudential Insurance. In case you're one of those old-fashioned rock fans who doesn't read the financial press, let me explain: Several weeks back, $55 million worth of David Bowie was put on the market and Prudential snapped it up in minutes.

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You can now buy bonds in David Bowie--if you can find them. Analysts at Moody's gave them their much-coveted triple-A rating, based on a 7.9 percent annual return against the projected earnings of "Space Oddity," "Jean Genie," and the rest of the back catalog. Bowie is the first pop star to hold a bond offering, so you can't buy bonds in, say, Gary U.S. Bonds, though that may be because he's only had one hit in the last 15 years.

You'd think the David Bowie Class A Royalty-Backed Notes, as they're officially known on Wall Street, would have caused a big splash in an industry that prides itself on permanent novelty, but in all the hubbub over his 50th-birthday celebrations, Bowie forgot to mention it. When the story did emerge, the rock press was mostly silent or flummoxed. Rolling Stone gave it a paragraph. Pop fans know their idols are rich, and they consider excess a respectable musical tradition. Few devotees of Michael Jackson begrudge him his llamas, or even the young Scandinavian lad, winner of a Norwegian Michael Jackson look-alike competition, who accompanies him on his world travels.

But bonds? That's not megastar hedonism, just boring squaresville suit stuff. It was left to Bowie's business manager to argue that, au contraire, it was just what you'd expect from the old Rebel Rebel. "The fact that David is the first musician to do it is wonderful," said Bill Zysblat, bullishly, "because he is always on the cutting edge." So that's what a cutting-edge rock 'n' roller is in 1997: a guy with a triple-A rating on Wall Street. Zysblat's other clients, Crosby, Stills, and Nash--that's a band, not a brokerage firm--are also expected to go public.

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O nce upon a time, rock stars weren't rated by Moody's. They were moody. They self-destructed, they choked to death on their own vomit, they hoped to die before they got old. But those who failed (to die, that is) grew increasingly concerned about the fine print. In the '80s, Columbia was so anxious to sign Paul McCartney to a new album deal that they offered $20 million. Chicken feed, he said; what else have you got? They rummaged around for a bit, and then told McCartney they'd throw in the entire song catalog of Frank Loesser, composer of, among others, Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. As you'll have noticed, both shows have had successful '90s revivals on Broadway and their scores have been continuous earners for McCartney. On the other hand, can you name a Paul McCartney album from the last 15 years? So who do you think came out on top of that deal? McCartney's no fool in this area: Among the other nest eggs he owns are the score to Annie and, believe it or not, "Happy Birthday to You." The latter was written in 1883 by two sisters, Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill but, thanks to a legal judgment in the 1930s, is still in copyright. Every time it's sung in public--for example, whenever a TV station uses that clip of Marilyn Monroe serenading President Kennedy--McCartney gets a check.

McCartney, of course, is now Sir Paul--the first rock star to be knighted. Having spent decades trying to maintain their pose as countercultural revolutionaries, the aristrockracy is finally coming out of the closet. To his credit, though, even Mick Jagger feels the trend toward rock respectability is going too far. Recently, he dropped in on Elton John at his country house in Berkshire and was shocked by his old friend's condition: "I've never seen so much porcelain," he complained, wondering what happened to the glitterballs, strobe lights, amyl nitrate, cocaine, and louche young men. "If I see another fucking piece of porcelain ..."

Not so long ago, Elton was routinely reviled in the tabloids as a corpulent, drug-addled old poof (as the British say). Now, having conquered the demons of booze, food, and drugs, he's the first rock star to be in danger of OD'ing on gentility. A beloved national treasure, second only to the queen mother, he's known to friends as "the Martha Stewart of rock 'n' roll" and offers such fellow pop stars as Jon Bon Jovi his services as interior designer. Last year, he was invited to jive with her majesty to "Rock Around the Clock," dancing queen to queen.

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A h, yes: "Rock Around the Clock." "It was mid-'50s rock 'n' roll,"Rolling Stone's Robert Palmer once wrote, "that blew away, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of the centuries." Revolution is a crucial part of rock's self-image. Like the Khmer Rouge, after their own "mighty, concentrated blast" in Cambodia, rock even has its own Year Zero. Pick up Billboard's Hot 100-chart reference books--or almost any pop reference book--and they all start on July 9, 1955, the dawn of "the rock era," when "Rock Around the Clock" got to No. 1. Never mind that one of the writers of the song was born in the 19th century, or that Mitchell Parish, veteran lyricist (though born in the 20th century, just) of "Sleigh Ride" and "Stardust," once described it to me as "a good, conventional Tin Pan Alley song"--there go the social proprieties of the centuries.

Some of those proprieties have proved surprisingly resilient. And, since rock's into defining moments, perhaps we can agree that, if July 9, 1955, is Year Zero, then the day David Bowie became the Man Who Sold Himself--for a rock 'n' roller's only inventory is his image and his songs--is Year Zero-Zero-Zero-Zero-Zero-Zero--the $55 million day rock 'n' roll finally gave up on revolution. Maybe we should treasure all those bullet-riddled gangsta rappers, the only pop stars who don't just talk the talk but walk the walk, even unto the grave. But how long can they hold out? NASDAQ Shakur anyone?

Mark Steyn writes about popular music for Slate and about film for theLondon Spectator.

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