Thursday, January 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Ziggy Stardust

This past year, I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (which is a hell of a long album title for 1972) about 18 years after I first got into it, and I mean got into it: a friend of mine said that reading Hemingway in high school opened doors to art for him, whereas for me, it was listening to Five Years, Soul Love, Moonage Daydream, and the rest: songs that, as Allen Ginsberg described the effect of Beatles tunes, went right through my skull.

Such transport, I sensed then and know now, was due to the influence of my mother’s Parisian and North African background, which made it easy to identify with Bowie’s cosmopolitan music and style. Special shout-out to my Aunt Gabi, who is a thin, short-haired blonde given to wearing high-waisted pants and the occasional beret, and used to smoke cigarettes on the balcony of her apartment near Place de la Nation.

As I’ve listened, I’ve heard three things. The first is Bowie’s confidence. Already on Five Years, he sounds like he knows he’s good, a star who’s arrived. He must be confident because he drops some of the shittiest lyrics in his catalogue. After creating a tableau of urban confusion, Bowie focuses in on a love interest with the line, “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor / drinking milkshakes cold and long.” I didn’t mind those adjectives as a kid, but I wouldn’t criticize anyone who chortles at them today. In the next cut, Soul Love, Bowie explains that “All I have is my love of love / but love is not loving”; again, not necessarily so bad, but certainly open to mockery. The great Lester Bangs despised the opening line of the last track, Rock and Roll Suicide, rightfully asking what in the hell “Time takes a cigarette / puts it in your mouth” means, and the rest of the image doesn’t get any better: “You pull on a fing-a, then anotha fing-a, then your cigarette…”?!? But I don’t think Bowie-as-Ziggy minds, because, as Rob Sheffield might write, he knows he’s got the kids on his side. After all, “cold and long” milkshakes are appealing to sweets-loving nine-year-olds and coiffed teenage lovers alike, audiences that Bowie would later address in songs like Drive-in Saturday and Panic in Detroit on Aladdin Sane. So the throwaway lyrics serve to endear him to a young listenership that would grow up with him throughout the seventies.

And, as Rob Sheffield has written—see the excellent penultimate paragraph in his chapter on Bowie in Talking to Girls about Duran Duran—in the case of Ziggy Stardust, it’s the lyrics, towards the end of Rock and Roll Suicide, that ennoble the entire album. Lou Reed once said he hoped that listening to the Velvet Underground’s catalogue would “make you feel less alone.” It’s hard to remain isolated in the face of Bowie’s screamed insistence that “You’re not alone! You’re wonderful!” with the Spiders chanting “One-da-full” in the background. The artist is at his best here, because rather than setting himself up as someone for his fans to worship, he’s speaking, genuinely, to the common humanity of each and every one. Taken in the context of an outlandish decade, it’s a rare moment when the Starman is on terra cognita. (I have to give Mr. Sheffield full credit for that line—his sentence, “Even at his most out-there space-trippy, he’s making the case for earth,” has been in my brain for at least half a year.)
Speaking of earthiness, the second thing I noticed while listening to Ziggy, which other writers have also mentioned in one way or another, is that Bowie bolsters his self-creation as a crossdressing, alien star by identifying with the working class. The gritty little Star, nestled between the handsome balladry of Lady Stardust and the fast lane junket of Hang on to Yourself, depicts the lives of a group of regular, maybe hard knock young men. “Tony went to fight in Belfast / Rudi stayed at home to starve / (Ooh Wah Ooh) I could make it all worthwhile as a rock and roll star.” The kids in Starman, a kind of fantasy update of the Reed-penned Rock and Roll, could come from all walks of life, but by addressing them collectively, Bowie makes it seem like he is singing for everyone. And for all the lyrical references to stardom, the album cover portrays Bowie standing alone outside a nondescript London building. The sign reading “K.West,” with its epic resonance, may be above his head, but the cardboard boxes and garbage bag by his feet are just as constitutive. Ziggy may look scrawny and sound shrill, but the character’s origin in the street makes him built to last.

The third thing about the album is that its fixation on stardom, its glam and alien imagery, and its slighter kind of rock—sure, the Spiders could rip, but they don’t rip as heavy on Ziggy as they do on The Man Who Sold the World, two albums earlier—accommodated my fear of romantic and personal failure in high school. (Yep, it’s a blog.) Identifying with someone like Bowie first, and Morrissey later, helped me deny the fact that I wasn’t the academic superstar I thought I was; that girls, who liked me in middle school, had turned their attention to more athletic peers and upperclassmen; and that, for the most part, I was just an insecure little kid. At the time, bands like the Stones and Zeppelin didn’t jibe with my psyche—I needed remote, self-absorbed frontmen, not lusty dudes who sang and played about getting it on. But obviously I missed something (Exhibit A: All the Young Dudes, the 1972 chestnut that Bowie gave to Ian Hunter), ‘cause Bowie and the Spiders were probably getting it on every night. Mozza, not so much.

C'est la vie. On the occasion of the dude’s recent 65th birthday, I would just like to say once and for all that I love David Bowie. Seeing photograph #22 of him in this flavorpill piece, which depicts him walking down the aisle of a grocery store in Chinatown, wearing a straw-colored cowboy hat, a thin t-shirt, grey jeans, and a backpack, makes me think of the song Move On off of Lodger. Sings Bowie, in a gallant tone:

Sometimes I feel
The need to move on
So I pack a bag
And move on
And move on
Well I might take a train
Or sail at dawn
Might take a girl
When I move on
When I move on

The lyrics go on to mention Africa, Russia, Japan, and Cyprus, as Bowie admits, “I’m just a travelling man.” In the diversity of his seventies catalogue (’69 to ’80 to be precise, and Let’s Dance, commercial though it may be, is both good and relevant enough to merit inclusion here), he does something that the Stones and Zeppelin, at least in their work that I know, don’t, and that’s aggressively travel. Go places. Experience, describe, and embody different parts of the world, different influences. That’s why Bowie slakes a thirst for global, sophisticated pop like no other superstar can. Growing up outside Boston with Paris on the brain, this quality of his oeuvre, which is both contrapuntal to and inclusive of the Ziggy period, was also—well hello there Ric Ocasek, thanks for giving me my first autograph back in 1980something—just what I needed. It feels good to experience the fact that I still do.