Wed, June 12, 2002

by Brad Kava
San Jose Mercury News

For 13 years one of rock music's biggest secrets has been tucked away, working as a night watchman in Santa Clara.

But this week, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy is getting his shot at fame.

Norman Carl Odam, 54, is about to meet David Bowie, the man who borrowed his name for a 1972 album, ``The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.''

Bowie is flying the Cowboy and his San Jose band to London to appear at an arts festival called Meltdown. Bowie, 55, is this year's curator for the annual event, and his theme is ``outsider'' music.

Bowie even covers one of the Cowboy's songs on the album he released this week, ``Heathen.'' The song, ``I Took A Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,'' was written in 1968 and harkens back to Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and ``Ground Control to Major Tom'' days.

``I took a trip on a Gemini spacecraft and I thought about you,'' the song goes. ``I passed through the shadow of Jupiter and I thought about you.''

A friend of the Cowboy's heard the song on a Los Angeles radio station a few weeks ago and called him right away.

``I was flabbergasted when I heard he did the song,'' says the Cowboy, in an interview at the corner of Lava and Jackson streets in North San Jose, while he waited to rehearse his band.

``Then I thought, `It's about time. It's decades overdue.' ''

For years there were those who doubted the connection between the man who wrote ``Space Oddity'' and the one who lived it. But Bowie talked about the mysterious Cowboy, who many thought was dead, in the new issue of Interview magazine.

``I did it as an homage to him,'' he says of covering the song. ``Because, yes, f------ Ziggy Stardust did borrow his name!''

``The Ledge,'' as his friends call him, is one of those rare lovable characters in the music world, living in the dead pool of commercial obscurity while celebrated by those who have forded the mainstream.

He has been described as someone who looks like ``he went through the carwash with the top down,'' in a chapter in the book ``Songs in the Key of Z'' by Irwin Chusid. He's as hyper as a kindergartner on Twinkies, has a ``Rain Man''-like recall for small details and a down-home Texas brogue that seems to invite you to a good meatloaf dinner.

His biggest claim to fame has been a 1968 single, ``Paralyzed,'' a collection of war whoops and rebel yells over low-fi Texas psychobilly music. That got him an appearance on the television show ``Rowan and Martin's Laugh In,'' the biggest thing he did before this Bowie show.

Ledge grew up in Lubbock, Texas, with musician Joe Ely, and the two have remained friends. Ely calls the youngster who overcame his shyness by blasting out songs on the school steps, ``West Texas' greatest jazz musician.''

Not bad for a teenager who set his career path after he saw Tiny Tim on ``The Tonight Show'' and decided that was what he wanted to do.

He started driving his Biscayne eastward, but he only got 300 miles, to Fort Worth, where he hooked up with some vacuum cleaner salesmen and started performing rowdy songs in bars.

With his wild mix of space- and cowboy-themed songs, he got dragged into a recording studio after a night of partying. This was where T Bone Burnett, then 21, was learning his craft. Burnett is the producer of last year's Grammy-winning album, ``O Brother, Where Art Thou?''

Burnett played drums and mixed ``Paralyzed,'' which became a mutant novelty hit after KXOL, a radio station upstairs from the studio, started playing it.

That led to a recording contract with Mercury records, which lasted for only three songs, one of which, the one about the Gemini trip, landed in Bowie's hands when he too signed with the label.

While Bowie's career rocketed, Ledge's fell to Earth. A musicians' strike kept him off the circuit while the single was hot and left him unknown when it dropped. Then, he was arrested for vagrancy. The Fort Worth businessman who brokered his deal with Mercury tried to make off with 50 of his songs that were left in the studio, and Ledge broke into his office and destroyed the tape.

While some voted ``Paralyzed'' the worst song ever recorded, it was a cult hit for punks and rebels. Elvis Costello was a fan, as were the Cramps, the Meat Puppets and the Butthole Surfers.

And over the years, they brought him back to record and play shows. At one in Los Angeles, he met San Jose drummer Joey Myers, who persuaded Ledge to move here and tour the Northern California cowpunk and rockabilly circuit, with sporadic success.

Ledge worked what musicians call ``a day job'' -- at nights, doing solo guard work. He won't reveal the institutions he guards, probably with good reason.

He lives with eight roommates in San Jose's Evergreen Valley, ``two stop signs and nine traffic lights from the freeway.''

In his last live performance, two years ago in Austin, he had a full house looking like it was at the dentist's -- mouths were open wide through his whole 40-minute set.

He was sandwiched between performances by Jeff Beck and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, so there was an overflow crowd.

He ``sang,'' hooted, hollered, swung a bugle in the air, almost beaning his guitar player, and, to make sure the crowd never forgot him, he dropped his chaps and mooned it.

It was sort of like Jimi Hendrix, without the music. An experience.

Many wondered if he was drunk or on drugs. He wasn't. He's just that way.

``That was a good show. They really liked it,'' he recalls. ``There was a line around the block.''

For his show Saturday, he will be backed by a band that includes bassist Klaus Flouride, a member of the Dead Kennedys; guitarist Jay Rosen; and drummer Myers, who plays in the rockabilly band Hayride to Hell and is a clerk at San Jose's Streetlight Records. The show will be broadcast on the BBC.

Other outsiders on the bill include Daniel Johnston, the Texas songwriter who was in and out of institutions his whole life and was revered by grunge rockers Pearl Jam; New York elder punks Television; and the eccentric, lovable Dandy Warhols.

While some pose, the Ledge is really outsider, says Bowie.

Adds Myers: ``I think what Bowie saw in the Ledge is that wild, free American spirit, howling in the wind, all by himself.''

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