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A Catalogue of
NME advert (26 August 1972)
On the back cover of Ziggy Stardust, in the bottom left hand corner, is printed a simple instruction:
We know other kids in the village who had followed this advice and have blown the speakers of the family radiogram within two hours of bringing Ziggy home from the store.
We took a more cautious approach. The old portable turntable dad bought in the 60s no longer played records at the correct speed. After months of nagging from Paul, dad took us down to the Manchester Kash n Karry and bought a Decca stereogram with detachable speakers. One evening, as I was listening to 'Moonage Daydream', I succumbed to the temptation to turn the shiny volume button to maximum for a few seconds. "Shit" cried Paul, "turn it down or dad will kill you!"
This small blast does not prepare me for the full onslaught of the concert. We step out into the warm twilight and I hear an electric scream in my ears, like an improvised guitar jam that refused to fade.
I already know all the words to 'Rock and Roll Suicide'; words I turn to for their comforting familiarity, like the well-loved furniture in my grandparents house which never changes.
When mum and dad were out, we play Ziggy in the lounge and I lie on the floor listening to the last track with my eyes closed. "Don't close your eyes, you look like a hippie," Paul scolds, over the noise.
Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that puzzles me the most. Like 'Lady Stardust', the song places Ziggy in two subject positions: Ziggy as a suicide approaching the end of his life and Ziggy as watching saviour, our lady of the flowers, offering solace to the fading star before his end. A saviour-Ziggy who watches, counts and catalogues from the top of the mountain and the sacrificial-Ziggy whose remains are scattered, collected and preserved as relics by the followers whose love has slain him.
Ziggy lives on. He sees that part of himself that would die before the crowd, for the crowd. And what causes that suicide is another more menacing relationship to the gaze: youre watching yourself but youre too unfair. The crowd want him dead so they can live with their anonymity. At the same time, the crowd need a god so they can live with their anonymity. And what goes for the crowd, goes for Bowie.
These two positions play out Bowies own relationship to his rock personae. To kill Ziggy risks a return to anonymity, yet to achieve fame only through Ziggy also involves a certain preservation of anonymity. It would be Ziggy who would be famous, not Bowie. Theres a tension and paranoia between the two that spikes the savoir-Ziggys words. He doesnt want to reach out and help Ziggy at all; he waiting for the most opportune moment to push him off the stage into the savage hands of his fans.
ouvre le chien
We dont know it but the summer of '72 is the end of the golden age. My father has worked as a door to door Hoover salesman, a salesman for an industrial chemicals company, and as a travelling sales rep for Oldham Wallpapers. With every new job our level of comfort rises. The oil crisis, the miners strike, power cuts, a state of emergency, and IRA bomb threats will soon signal the end of the boom. Fragmentation, dissent and trying times are to fall upon us. Within three years, we will emigrate to New Zealand.
Seen in this light, Ziggy is the perfect finale for the post-war boom era.
By this time next year, Ziggy will be dead and Bowie will unleash the apocalypse of Diamond Dogs.
press your space face
Moonage Daydream begins and I turn again to look at the crowd, their faces glowing in the amber radiance of the concert lights. Is it my imagination or are some of the older ones looking weary and tired? I take in the red striped tank tops, yellow trousers, blue jeans, and enormous grey flared cotton trousers on the soul boys; the occasional skinhead sporting false eyelashes for the droog look. Some kids of an unknown clan wear make-up, a touch of eyeliner and a heavy Crombie coat over Levis. A sort of skinhead-cum-Mod probably into violence and vandalism. Most of the crowd look like the kids we laugh at on Top of the Pops. Theyre nobody kids, just like us. These new ones seem more ambiguous and menacing, like the kids you know on the housing estate who spent winter nights looking for stray cats to torment. Another strange melange.
The performance ends and we blink in the stark electric light of everyday life. The magic show is over and the magician has disappeared.
We shuffle out of the theatre in a long, orderly queue. How quiet everyone seems, as if everything that can be said has been spoken. The concert is already passing into memory as a whirl of sensations: the dark pool of the audience beneath the halo lit figure of Bowie; the soft acoustic rendition of Space Oddity; the cheers, yells, clapping and stamping of feet before his resurrection to deliver his final, now forgotten, encore. The magic of the concert is already passing and I begin my return to the diurnal, mundane world of school timetables, uniforms and home work. I know that dad will be waiting for us when we walked through the exit.
We will never be stars. We will never amount to anything. Is that what Pauls thinking when I look into his eyes?
On the drive home to Oldham, my brothers strangely quiet.
I wonder what might be bothering him. Dads in a good enough mood and theres no reason to believe that Paul has crossed him. We sit in the back and occasionally I turn and watch him as he stares out of the window. Speeding cars pass us on the motorway, blotting out the orange twilight glow. Why isnt Paul talking about the concert?
To pass the time I enter my fantasy world and play a new game. Were on a starship and dads the captain. When we go faster than 75 miles per hour, we pass the speed of light and enter hyperspace. If we travel slower than 75 mph -- the speed of light -- then passing cars can fire at you and weaken your shields. If you were going less than 75 mph and three cars passed you then BOOM!
I prod Paul with a few questions about his mood but he denies anythings up. I return to my motorway game again and forget that were even going home.
For the duration of the concert were spellbound. Our thoughts and senses are dominated by his performance. Its impossible for us to think of anything else other than whats happening on stage.
We cant tell whether this enchantment is due to our fascination with Bowie himself or the quality of his performance. No matter what he plays, would we sit in silence devouring his every word and gesture?
Bowie and Ronson's jam at the end of Moonage Daydream takes us to a new plateau of intensity. The song ends, theres a pause and you feel the audience coming down from the song, waking up to their bodies and their surroundings before bursting into applause.
"Well she's a tongue-twisting ..." What?
For the first week after buying Ziggy, Im sure that the word is "star": "Well she's a tongue-twisting star/ she will come to the show tonight/ drink to the light machine." A week before the concert, Bowies mumbling "swirl" and I imagine a bright young girl spinning on the dance floor beneath strobe lights.
The songs a throwaway, just trash to be forgotten. Yet like a lot of early rock, its an affirmation of the materiality of the word. Theres a sensual pleasure in the nonsense cry or call that you don't understand with your head but feel with your body -- like Little Richard's Tutti Frutti: "A Wop Bop A Loo Bop A Lop Bam Boom!" Little Richard's voice is like the saxophone; he doesn't speak or sing, he blows riffs. Bowie doesn't sing naturally either, with his affected, almost foreign voice, he appears to savours each syllable of every word as if his lyrics were vintage wine.
Hearing Bowie Hang On to Yourself live, I hear the word clearly or the first time: "She's a tongue-twisting storm".
Now I understand what the song's about -- Bowies singing about kissing!
As we leave the motorway and turn towards Oldham, I remember a flurry of activity in the bedroom that morning. I had gone downstairs to fix myself some cornflakes only to find that mum had made me some beans on toast. After serving my breakfast, mum left and went upstairs. I could tell from the sound of the door that she'd gone into our bedroom. Paul was still in the bathroom. Had he eaten before me?
I heard mum clomping down the steep, narrow stairs and left the table to ask if I should leave Paul any breakfast. As I entered the parlour I collided with mum who was rushing to the laundry, her red face barely visible behind the huge ball of sheets she was carrying before her.
Why was mum doing the washing? She normally ordered us to take our own sheets to the laundry and put them in the basket. Besides, the sheets had only been on for a few days.
The car swings past Mumps station and begins to climb the steep road over the Pennines. There was a funny smell coming from the sheets; a faint smell that I had hardly noticed, my mouth still sweet from my unfinished breakfast. I turn and stare at my brother's profile and a bar of orange light from a passing street light crosses his worried face.
The smell of urine.
Looking at photographs taken around the time of the concert, I see a scrawny kid proudly holding up a copy of The Lord of the Rings. This kid could not possibly be me -- but I know he is. He is the kid who wanted his dad to buy him a velvet shirt to wear to the concert.
In recalling the concert, I discover that I do not have immediate access to my own past. As I examine each partial memory, each relic of family history, in order to reconstruct the details of the concert, I find myself not saying "I remember this" but rather "what happened?"
Joanne, one of my two younger sisters, believes that dad used to hit us a lot with his belt. I cant remember any beatings, aside from the time I was caught stealing penknives. Dad used to come up and threaten us, waving his leather belt around in the air but I saw it as pure theatre and was never frightened by his performance.
I do remember thinking about dad during the concert. About halfway through the concert, Bowie picks up an acoustic guitar and perches himself on a stool in the middle of the stage, his thin frame lit by a solitary spotlight. He began to sing a slow, haunting melody that I have never heard before called My Death. No electric guitars, no drums, no histrionic gestures. Very softly at first, sotto voce, then loudly, Ziggy delivers a sermon on mortality in words borrowed from Jacques Brel. Who will be there to watch over you when you die? Or when your father dies?
width of a circle
When we get back, I lie on the bed staring at the ceiling. All I can hear in my head is the song 'Width of a Circle.' What is the width of a circle anyway? That cant be the same as the diameter, or the radius, right? Maybe hes talking about the width of a circular line -- but I already know that lines are connections between points. You mark a circle with a line and suddenly you have a radius, a circumference, and a diameter, but the line has no properties of its own. For to mark a space is to generate properties.
Its late. In the bed across the room, Paul grunts in his sleep. What had he been fighting with dad about today? Had he wet the bed or had I misunderstood the encounter with mum this morning? There was a sadness about my brother that was difficult to fathom. Dad was clearly disappointed with him.
I get up, poke my head through the bedroom curtains and look at the yellow streetlights. Once, perhaps, the world had been magical. There had been gods, elves, myths and places you could hide where the world couldnt find you. You felt that magic when you followed the river from Delph to Uppermill. It was there but hidden, forgotten, like the power of the stone circle in Penrith. Now there were cars, streetlights, schools and factories. Someone had drawn a timetable in the air and had created routines.
You played the stranger
The one who stands on the threshold
Awaiting our reply
In the hard rock amphitheatre
I crammed in everything to store
yellow skin, beetroot hair, a few
idle remarks to the audience
You pushed the microphone stand
into waves of adulating hands
played the crowd for all we were worth
as all dictators do.
No grave Apollo, you asked:
would you follow the way from outside;
would you become an outsider too?
you were in this song
I had known loneliness -- the quiet walks by the river, the silence of the paper round when all I could hear was the soft crunch of my steps over fresh snow -- but I had yet to feel the loneliness that comes from a feeling of incompleteness. I was a virgin to the notion of romantic love. As Five Years drew to a close, Bowie sang:
I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour, drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine, don't think you knew you were in this song.
And then I was touched by a new feeling. I was alone but now there was the hope that this loneliness might be removed forever by a girlfriend. I was alone but somewhere out there was a girl who would love me and I would love her. Our New Love would be magnificent, monumental, the stuff of legend! Fated to be together for all time, we would live our lives laughing at the world. And all the songs you ever heard were about this one simple truth: you would always be lonely until you found the one you would love at first sight. The one you would love and who would love you. All I had to do was to keep my eyes open for her.
If you can slash your face by wearing the mark of a god, you are still a ghost who ignores the history of the sigil you wear and the debt you owe to the ones you haunt.
If you can put away the masks and puppets to uncover the face of the one you followed, this is still a ghost claiming anothers memories as his own.
Star and fan, adult and child: each one haunts the other, neither stands alone. Where is the face of the corpse to be found?
In the telephone box he stands waiting for the call; although the grave is only a cigarette away, still he savours the moment.
---This page last modified: 10 Dec 2018---