In the annals of 1970s rock and roll decadence, precious few figures could compete in terms of extreme and often insanely illegal indulgence with the likes of cutting-edge superstars David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
So on March 22, 1976, when police finally did manage to arrest the shock-rock giants for something — anything! — they got them on the most relatively innocuous of transgressions: possessing weed behind the locked door of a private hotel room. They weren’t even smoking it!
Still, the bust initially seemed significant as officers turned up about a half-pound of marijuana, enough for felony convictions and the possibility of 15 years of jail time. Of course we know that Bowie and Iggy, both 28 at the time, beat the rap.
It all went down after Bowie played a sold-out gig on his Station to Station tour at the Community War Memorial Arena in Rochester, New York. The superstar and his coterie then retired back to Bowie’s suite at the Americana Rochester Hotel.
Iggy was on hand as Bowie’s pal and creative consultant. The pair had suffered a falling out a few years earlier, and they were reestablishing a friendship that, for both, would soon spark creative “high” points (pun probably intended).
Unbeknownst to them, four local vice-squad officers and a New York State Police Investigator set up surveillance of the scene from an adjoining hotel room. Upstate New York must have been extremely safe that night for this full-scale platoon to protect citizens from a handful of rockers puffing doobies in private.
At about 2:25 A.M., the narcs reportedly heard somebody in Bowie’s room mention pot, prompting a discussion of how they could sweeten the stash by also scoring cocaine. The cops burst in, found the green goodies, and arrested all six revelers.
The following morning, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported the story thusly:
“David Bowie, the English rock singer, was arrested early yesterday at the Americana Rochester Hotel on marijuana charges. Three other persons, including a Rochester woman, were arrested with him.
They were charged with fifth-degree criminal possession of marijuana. Police said they confiscated what they described as about half a pound of marijuana. The charge is a Class C felony, carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
The Rochester woman was identified by police as Chiwah Soo, 20, of Owen Street.
The other two arrested were members of Bowie’s entourage, which appeared Saturday night at the Community War Memorial. The two were identified as James Osterberg, Jr., 28, of Ypsilanti, Mich., and Dwaine Vaughs, 22, of Brooklyn.”
To be clear: James Osterberg, Jr., is what Iggy Pop’s mom calls him (as a side note, Bowie always called him “Jimmy”).
Bowie posed for history’s most elegant mug shot and footed everyone’s $2,000 bond. From there, he took off to perform gigs over the next few nights in Springfield, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut. He returned to Rochester later in the week to plead not guilty and received a grand jury date of April 20. That’s right, dude — 4/20!
Once the date arrived, the grand jury quickly dismissed all charges. In an interview with his lawyer, Bowie said of the Rochester authorities, “They were very courteous and very gentle. They’ve been just super.” Still, he never went back and played there again.
Another noteworthy aspect of the story centers on Chiwah Soo, the local Rochester youth who got busted alongside her idols. Soo was 20 at the time. She had been born in China, relocated to Upstate New York when she was 11, and she says she learned English from rock songs. David Bowie figured as her favorite language instructor.
At the show, Soo made her way to the foot of the stage, where Bowie tossed her a bracelet. Afterward, a roadie handed her a note reading, “Meet me at my party, David.” That, she did and, from there, she went to jail (however briefly).
At the arraignment, Soo says Bowie gave her a traditional Chinese wedding blanket. She also says that an identical blanket turns up in the music video for the Bowie’s 1983 smash “China Girl,” which he cowrote with Iggy Pop.
So is Chiwah Soo the “China Girl” of rock legend? That seems like a fine topic for a couple of buds to ponder after toking up.
Main photos: David Bowie’s mug shot [Rochester Police Department]