The story behind David Bowie's 1976 weed arrest and subsequent mugshot


After quietly battling Cancer for 18 months, rock and style icon David Bowie died Sunday. He was 69 years old.

The artist’s death has fans and friends reeling the globe over, recounting their favorite Bowie stories — his uncanny way of putting things into perspective and his undeniable, unflinching commitment to his own spectacularly unique singularity. (Reverb just posted my final interview with Bowie, dating back to my music critic years.)

David Bowie’s mugshot, dated March 25, 1976 (Rochester Police Department)

One example (of thousands) involves Bowie’s stylish and even classy Class C felony arrest for marijuana possession in 1976 — a night in jail that resulted in the single-coolest mugshot ever. And here is that story.

On March 21, 1976, Bowie played a Saturday-night show at the Community War Memorial Arena in Rochester, N.Y. Later that night, or early the next morning, Bowie and a few friends — including (and this is important) James Osterberg, Jr., 28, of Ypsilanti, Mich. — were arrested at the Americana Rochester Hotel on marijuana charges.

Police at the time said they confiscated “about half a pound of marijuana” from the group. The arrests of Bowie, Osterberg and two others took place at 2:25 a.m. in Bowie’s three-room suite; Four vice squad detectives and a State Police investigator carried out the arrest, police said at the time.

Bowie paid all four bonds and then hit the road before his arraignment — for gigs in Springfield, Mass., and New Haven, Conn. — returning a few days later to plead innocent in Rochester City Court. “A crowd of about 200 police, fans and reporters looked on” as Bowie and his entourage were guided into the Public Safety Building, according to original reports in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Bowie ignored most of the reporters and fans — “except for one teenager who got his autograph as he stepped off the escalator,” the Democrat and Chronicle wrote, adding that Bowie’s “biggest greeting was the screams of about a half-dozen suspected prostitutes awaiting arraignment in the rear of the corridor outside the courtroom.”

And guess what date City Court Judge Alphonse Cassetti set for the preliminary hearing for Bowie and the three others facing cannabis charges? April 20, a.k.a. weed holiday 4/20.

In a short interview in his lawyer’s office, Bowie complimented the city’s law enforcement: “They (city police) were very courteous and very gentle,” Bowie said. “They’ve been just super.”

As the Democrat and Chronicle later wrote, “Bowie faces a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment on the drug charge but could get as little as five years’ probation if convicted.” But in May 1976, as the paper wrote, “the charges were effectively dismissed after a grand jury declined to indict the legendary artist. Bowie never performed in Rochester again.”

And remember that James Osterberg, Jr. guy, the one who was with Bowie that Rochester night and was also arrested? He’s better known as Stooges frontman Iggy Pop.

The Democrat and Chronicle this morning posted both of its original stories on Bowie’s arrest and court proceedings, and they’re very much worth a read.

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