The ZIGGY STARDUST Companion
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The wide range of musical styles and lyrical viewpoints expressed on the various albums might have indicated a failure to find a groove in which he worked really well for a lesser artist. Yet from the surprising ironies of his superficially straightforward pop tunes on Deram, to his brooding myths for our time like "Space Oddity", "The Cygnet Committee", and "Memory of a Free Festival" on the first Mercury album, to his exploration of the essential passivity of a drug culture happy to be steam-rolled by heavy metal music on M.W.S.T.W., and on his Beatlish return to relative simplicity with reference points like Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, David Bowie had been a unique example of the rock artist as critic, an attitude toward the art and lifestyles going on around him which his long time fave Oscar Wilde had deemed ideal some seventy-five years earlier. David Bowie knows what audiences like about any given style of pop, as certainly as he knows how to get the most from any given style with which he is working, and by adding his own peculiar overview, Bowie brings to light not only the essential value of a style, but promotes his own constantly changing image at the same time. Since he has never really been in a position to lead the public wherever he felt like taking it, it has been strategic for him to reflect what's been happening, but pop is listened to superficially by almost anyone, including many who make a living from it, so the tendency to dismiss David Bowie as imitative has been strong amongst those who haven't listened but merely judged, as loyalty to David has been fierce, sensitive, and intelligent among those curious enough to put two of his albums together and ask a few questions.
Tired perhaps of winning over people who didn't have to pay to hear him, Bowie apparently decided he'd tie up all the loose ends, aesthetically and professionally, by getting his ass on the road to perform THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, an album about rock and roll designed once and for all to make a rock and roll star out of David Bowie. The content of ZIGGY STARDUST and how its concepts relate to Bowie's earlier albums should be the most pertinent aspect of any discussion of Bowie's validity and his chances for success in this country, but one last dramatic and political episode shall intervene to point up just how hard a record company has to try these days without American Bandstand or Woodstock to count on.
ZIGGY STARDUST was an instant nova with Bowie's wide following of writers, mainly because it combined some of the best energies of what has been a very good year for the Beatles (in the form of Todd Rundgren, Badfinger, and Nilsson) and the Stones (in the form of a monster tour, Alice Cooper, the Flamin Groovies, the New York Dolls, and other phenomena still on a subterranean level). "Starman" was ostensibly a sure-shot single, easier to hum and more optimistic than the rest of the album, yet no less original or strangely reassuringly familiar. Wise-ass top forty music directors decided that it sounded too much like Elton John's "Rocket Man", a huge hit coincidentally released the same week as yet another manned space flight and produced by none other than Gus Dudgeon. Set-backs like that sort of typify the straight-thinking music biz, but a lot of promotion men at RCA had probably never heard of "Space Oddity" either, so Bowie's Trendiness out-did him once again.
AND LET YE BE JUDGED BY YOUR FANS, ER, CRITICS
Early in July RCA publicity decided rather abruptly that if Mick Jagger (of whom David had said in May of 1971, "the Rolling Stones are finished") could make the cover of Life, the least they could do for the company's number one progressive rock priority was to get a spread in Playboy, New York magazine, or maybe the Earth News. To that end they would send a small select team of un-converted press to England to hear Bowie's so long in coming rock and roll show in context. A number of New York writers, notorious as a group for getting very far on very little, invited themselves aboard, and like the goose that laid the golden eggs, David Bowie was about to be sacrificed to the emotions that well up in a straight writer's breast when someone offers him a free trip to Europe to hear and interview an allegedly gay rock star he has never heard of, who is described over the phone, somewhat sketchily, as "the next Elvis Presley" and who is almost certain not to sympathise too deeply with one's culture shock upon discovering that London is un-air conditioned. The following account of the "junket" was written in a somewhat hysterical frame of mind, my introduction to one of my colleagues taking the form of a question "Did I feel I had to earn my way over?" when he learned that I had actually been talking about David Bowie of my own free will. With the exception of David's actual performance, the trip was downhill from there. Our story begins....
"Well the idea is, you see, that Friday and Saturday is the only time that kids can stay out all night" David Bowie's manager is saying, "so the Kings Cross Cinema is still a movie house until midnight, and then..." Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Flamin Groovies and Brinsley Schwarz rock out between disco selections of underground faves, the red-blue bijou Soho smoky from street hash smoked casually through special filters. "Bet you wish you looked this pretty" Lou and Iggy both say in their turns at different times to the same kids. It's émigré rock at its slinkiest and jaded best.
The bands argue as to who goes on first, the desirability of a four am breakfast show somewhat less than ultra. A champagne blond, silver lame Iggy Pop slides off stage unstratched to ask Tony De Fries, with his most nasally endearing motor city moue, "Still want to manage me?" It must seem a superfluous question to a man who within half a year will bring back to the United States both David Bowie and Mott The Hoople, polished and spitting, nit-bound to be sure.
In between sessions at the Cinema, a Canterbury cackle of dazed blasé writers, flown at no little expense from New York to behold David Bowie's Words Become Flesh, motorcoach to Aylesbury, a veritable village after the left-handed hustle of summertime London. In Aylesbury, a quarter to three is rather much, but Mott, Sabbath, Genesis, Bowie and the like pass through with refreshing frequency and good looks are jolly logically par for the course. This is Bowie's last gig on his first full scale electric tour of England, all small halls and many of them, but after some six weeks his ZIGGY STARDUST is breaking big and though "Puppy Love" tops the pops, the oddity that is "Starman" seems headed for the top twenty. Unlike Bolan's boogiers, Bowie's fans don't scream or ooze.
No matter how much this music, this country, this pop star, informs one's sensibility, the experience of David Bowie and the Spiders in Aylesbury Friars becomes oddly and pleasantly abstract, a set-piece, just right, and one hopes bewildering for the folks from Playboy, from New York and the New Yorker. Because if they think they understand it, they'll ignore it. Bowie cannot be too self-consciously bee-zaah; he must know himself better and more flexibly than their pre-conceptions of rock stardom. The necking teens can't be too much of a distraction. But as David moves chameleon-like and lithe across his act, one feels that things are copesetic after all, if naught else but guitarist Mick Ronson's Townshend-like majesty bears testimony to the Spider's sting. They play it left-hand, don't take it too far.
Yes there is something quaint about the mimic gestures, the lights, the scream of Ronson's one handed flash on "I Feel Free." Despite David's crew-cut, despite Mick's platinum and red-sequinned splendour, the show is not so much Decadent as fun, the band itself a bitch and accessible even, loud, groovy, and completely without pretensions. Its very magical, but it is not Alice Cooper, nor the Who, nor the Stones; surprisingly its almost too accessible, and Bowie's American fans will expect him to be Ultra to the point of an insanity he just doesn't seem to feel these days. Its very nice, probably the ultimate teenage dance, and the stakes are just very much different from those David is anxious to play for in the States. At home Bowie is no hype, and the more blasé of American visitors will maintain that Iggy is "just much more outrageous, so much closer to the edge." But Iggy doesn't pour hot wax on himself no more, stabs pencils into his side, and his band, who look fine, can't play to save their asses. Ain't rockers the craziest people?
The strangest thing about David's show is that the band is magnificent, and they suit Bowie down to his platforms, but there is still a sense in which David Bowie stands alone, a step removed from his band, a step removed from the kids, a step removed from his own growing self-view as a superstar. It is this aloofness, a promise of an intimacy never, never to be granted, that will make him that superstar. Anybody can have a lot of David Bowie, but no one is going to get all of him.
So in some ways the acoustic numbers, which give Mick a chance to get his act a little tighter off-stage, to fix his do, are the most compelling. On "Space Oddity" and "Port of Amsterdam", Bowie's power as a rock actor is awesome, sophisticated to a point where his performance makes a full circle and comes back to put a bemused smile on the face of anyone who hears him. With Mick whispering a countdown on "Oddity" which all the kids know and love, David has the audience whoop the rocket rush and even as they whistle and shriek, they turn to one another knowingly and it really is nothing but far out, totally unexpected and very right. Imagine a thousand people getting into it and then coming down so David can finish the song. On the Brel number, he sits so still, sings so smooth, brings the words to emotional life with such mystery and electricity, that the unreality of the whole situation is just fluffed up and made comfortable. A Lou Reed encore and hundreds of thrown out Ziggy posters prove the caper.
Meanwhile, back at the Dorchester Hotel on Hyde Park, London W1, MainMan management has a tea party in the most beautiful suite; money could not buy these rooms in America. The pink satin wallpaper, the summery opulence of this incredible park outside, always just a name and watering place for Blind Faith and the Stones, the charm of the antique Japanese Bed-stead inside are made for a David Bowie Party. But David is tired and very humanly, so a little flat after this tour, not up to head games and really just wanting very much to be liked. He's very likeable, very sincere, very soft-spoken and listens better than he has to. Bowie looks adorable. A tight fitting white filmy suit with polka dot sequins zips down to reveal the whitest chest. How come it doesn't seem an affection? The funniest white platform foot gear make him look like a very tasty orderly at a gay clinic, but today at least David isn't jumping through any hoops. Those of the press crew that didn't bother to listen to his records before crossing over are probably disappointed that he won't explain them. Too bad. They'll have to write the story themselves.
These are the boys who are changing the face (and body) for pop music as we know it....David Bowie, Iggy Pop (formally Iggy Stooge) and the dreaded Lou Reed. These are pop, and the world knows it.
He plays tapes of his Mott The Hoople sessions and glows, glad to have something to talk about besides himself, glad that some of us really do enjoy hearing how Mott's improved with some of his material and his production. All of their raw promise has been stylised by Bowie and it's very precise, excellent pop-rock, very sophisticated, but its not the Spiders at all so it would be silly to presume that Bowie has appropriated Mott for his own ego.
Iggy Pop and Lou Reed show up and add tone to the affair. Its becoming like a rock n roll comedy of manners, but very relaxed, very inclined to take the luxury and small talk as a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Bowie's wife Angie, is convincing Iggy that he'll be a smash outside London, and he's getting off on telling her that they'll go down a bomb and its really all just talk, because you know they will line up to see Iggy just because he's Iggy and worth the price of admission just in case. Somebody jokes about Iggy falling out the window before he gets the idea himself and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Lou Reed looks to have beaten himself to a pulp, but on him it looks good. Bowie talks him up, telling us about the sessions he scheduled for Lou with Klaus Voorman and Keith Moon. A press person is surprised to find that Bowie is producing Reed instead of vice versa; highly improbable. Lou has been plagued by a naked crazy lady that followed him home from his gig, and he's just to exhausted to do much about her one way or another. Someone asks Lou if he's living in London now, and with a perfectly straight face and a glance at his plum nails, Lou replies, "You call this living?" I can't take it anymore, more.
On two separate occasions David Bowie is shown in performance giving Mick Ronson as mock BJ on G String, a combination which is quite literally, unbeatable.
Before the press junket, Bowie had rarely if ever received a bad write-up, but what had been intended as good karma all around just aggravated what was already a strange and discouraging situation in terms of making the Record Buyer aware of David Bowie. A lot of the press people didn't write articles at all, a couple actually didn't think Bowie was very good, at least one important rock writer who had liked Bowie in the past changed his mind.
Just what David Bowie has expected out of making pop music has always remained a little mysterious. Recently he told an interviewer "I'm not a musician. I'm not into music, you see, on that level. I don't profess to have music as my big wheel, and there are a number of other things as important to me apart from music. Theatre and mime for instance...I have a creative force which finds its way through a musical form." Obviously rock has reference far more to certain intuitively understood emotional patterns and life styles than it does to instrumental or even compositional prowess. After all, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan have been pop stars as much as they've been anything else. If they hadn't been, we probably wouldn't have heard much from them.
The Miracle of Teenage
Bowie's been everything else: pantomimist, Buddhist, apprentice commercial artist, husband, father, record producer, and hit songwriter. Perhaps the link between his many talents and his present success as a rocker is another quote "I'm still very much a teenager, I go through all sorts of fads." By HUNKY DORY, Bowie had come to limit himself in a most deliberate and specific way: he would investigate and express, as had great rockers like Eddie Cochran and Pete Townshend before him, just what it was to be teenage. Todd Rundgren, Bowie's American counterpart as a repository of satin style, has come to prominence on this side of the Atlantic by drawing pretty much the same conclusion.
It is now ten years since the Beatles released "Love Me Do", a longer period of time than from Elvis to them, and in England at least, Marc Bolan has so whipped up the raver yearning to breathe free in every teenage body that even Ringo has declared him "born to boogie" and documented T.Rextacy on film. It should be noted that Bolan, Bowie and Rundgren were all about fifteen or sixteen when the Beatles hit, an age when they were prepared to do something abut what the music did for them, or at least to perceive the possibilities of themselves as potential stars - "I could do with the money; I'm so wiped out with things as they are," Bowie would put it at long last.
Because Bowie quite frankly sees rock as ego extension, he is invaluable for his insights into teenage ego. As early as the "London Boys", "Join The Gang", and "Maids of Bond Street" on his Deram album, Bowie's concern with the juxtaposition of the Apocalypse and flipped-out kids has been one of his strongest recurring ideas, turning up at intervals in such diverse teentunes as "Memory of a Free Festival", "Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud", "She Shook Me Cold", and "Right On Mother" (for Peter Noone). Soon after, pop got heavy, started taking itself seriously, and the first generation of Beatlemaniacs presumed themselves to have grown up. Even if he never put together a blues group, Bowie's own circumstances meshed with the non-chewiness of the time and the Mercury albums were resultantly avante. But rock is not art, is not indispensable for what happens to be artistic about it. Rather it is a happy habit, a plastic psychic energiser, a silver dollar survey that enfranchises a teen by letting him know that other kids like the same things he does. Bowie's earliest in-crowd numbers were about how trendiness kills even the coolest cats - "speed jive, don't want to stay alive, when you're twenty-five" - and even at nineteen, Bowie could look from the group/clique/gang/band out, or form the outside in, to the individualistic and wildly decadent passivity of more recent songs such as "Life on Mars" and "Quicksand." Victimised by cosmic changes, the persona of "Quicksand" is a sacrifice to the evolution of Homo Superior, while the girl in "Life on Mars?", is hooked to a film on the silver screen which she's already lived "ten times or more" without realising that by now you "can't tell them apart at all." Have the teenage blues ever been more gloriously conceptualised, complete with Beatlish hand claps, plastic saxophone riffs, and Wagnerian strings?
Bowie has unique talent for looking entirely different each time the camera encounters him.
In the pose above we see the Katherine Hepburn quality present itself. And lucky for us.
HUNKY DORY demonstrated that Bowie could connect the generation that missed the Beatles with the real Stones with a generation that was waiting for theirs, and all he needed to be all things to all boppers was just far enough ahead of other rockers in the field. The clincher was ZIGGY, a boogaloo dude who faced with inevitable catastrophe became the special man only to be killed by his fans. Professionally speaking Bowie was up against the wall; nobody wants to make brilliant records and have nobody but his record company and reviewers care much, so taking the irony and evil of Lou Reed, the unpredictable energy of Iggy Pop, and the musical styles of the Beatles, the Stones, T.Rex and Jeff Beck, Bowie cut off his hair, dyed it red, and prepared not to give much of a damn what anybody over fifteen thought about it, "cuz he knew he had the aesthetes covered anyway."
In Britain, where T.Rex was getting a bit too pre-pubescently sticky for cats and kittens who already knew where to put it, Bowie hit home with a sparkling story-teller of hard rock album and killer stage act. The Rolling Stones, so eagerly and emptily awaited in the United States, were out of the picture on a teen level in England where you're either immediate or a myth. If glitter was glam, if T.Rex and Slade were the bees knee's, then all David had to do was to reach the kids that wanted something more, because the Stones and the Beatles had given more, and intuitively Bowie's potential audience already knew it.
It was impossible this past summer not to be aware of David Bowie, just as it had been impossible to ignore "Bang a Gong" the summer before. Page after page of ads in Medley Maker announced a new Bowie, a new single, a new album, a new tour, and finally the funkiest advert of all, a pic of David blowing Mick Ronson's guitar on stage. At about this time, it began to appear to some that David Bowie was a hype. Ignorant of his chequered career, seemingly forgetful of even "Space Oddity", put off by his presumed fagginess, a lot of people decided that the whole trip was a lot of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
What this reaction did signify was that it was pretty easy to confuse ZIGGY STARDUST with David Bowie, since David wasn't going out of is way to distinguish the two. This kind of one-on-one identification can be a tricky problem for a rocker: it almost got Jagger killed at Altmont, and even John Lennon got so tired of vibe-suckers assuming he was a full-time Beatle that he turned hippy at a very late date. To make it, Bowie had to convince his audience that he actually lived what they were tempted to become, but he assumed an understanding of the nature of theatre which a rock audience denies almost by definition. We want our stars close to the edge, and we pay to keep them there. Daltrey and Townshend never quite became Tommy in the same way that the ads proclaim "David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust." Ray Davies isn't Lola yet, nor is Jagger very likely to become Performance's Turner. And nobody laughs at Joe Cocker as Joe Cocker or Sly Stone as Sylvester Stewart anymore.
SURE, WE CAN USE ANOTHER REDHEAD, WHERE IS HE?
One can hardly blame Bowie for taking advantage of what seemed like a foolproof way to get himself across, especially when the album is so stylishly great in the STICKY FINGERS down, out, and gorgeous genre. But this willingness to blur identities makes Bowie's future in America a bit problematical. If he is the archetypal pop star the he can't possibly open to Poco or Humble Pie, can he, but the way this first short tour has been set up, he is the first English act to tour as a headliner first time over since the Beatles and the Stones. We didn't really know what a hype was then; we just knew what we liked, and if we didn't like it we could turn off the television. A good seat to Bowie Carnegie Hall concert in New York will cost $6.50, just what it cost to hear the Stones on their last tour.
For another thing, he will play in only seven cities in the very classiest of concert halls before audiences of fewer than 3,000 people, most of whom will have already bought his album, which means that ZIGGY isn't going to become a heavy chart item the moment David finishes his third gig. After all this time, with such a dedicated following of hard core fans having waited for so long to hear him, Bowie will still not have been exposed to Alice Cooper/Sabbath/Grand Funk types who are indeed the People, who would chew a tasty and tasteful redhead up before spitting him out, and who buy the majority of hit records; they make stars.
Finally, no one is willing to let Mick Jagger retire, nor does anybody ever consider than Alice might want to do a few acoustic numbers. The examples are a bit ridiculous but what could Alice ever be but a killer? We want what we want from a star, and Bowie's real test will come after he inevitably succeeds here within the next couple of passes. David does know what makes a hit single, his band's the best trio since the original instrumental nucleus of the Beck group, and he's even the best looking star aside from David Cassidy that "16" could ever have a hand in creating. All of David's albums have been carefully calculated to get him to a point where he has a choice and consequently a certain amount of power; it is hard to know what tomorrow may bring musically and in terms of image. One really shouldn't be dependant upon the other.
David Bowie is so damned good at what he does undertake to do that he may just become one of those rare transcendent culture-makers like Dylan or the Beatles that can take a mass audience anywhere he feels like going. He has been very, very busy this year between the album, a tour of two countries, his Mott The Hoople and Lou Reed projects, a new single "John I'm Only Dancing" (making something of a backing off from the accessibility of ZIGGY), and special shows like his theatre presentation at the Rainbow in London. His energy and attitude have never been higher, and it would be great to have a superstar that could get records out every six months as in the pre-SGT. PEPPER days, with each one newer than the one before.
Hopefully Bowie won't get bored with the whole thing, won't discover that he loves money beyond all else, won't be found in bed with Racquel Welch's husband as he once predicted he might be. Artists like David Bowie can revolutionalise a business that all too often sits around waiting for another twist to come along or at least another Jethro Tull or James Taylor. Bowie can open a lot of heads and turn a lot of people on to themselves, their feelings and their sexuality. All of this hasn't a lot to do with on-stage symbolic blow-jobs, but somehow it all figures, and if you've ever thought it might be nice to see a band that combined the best of the Living Theatre with the Yardbirds, check out The Spiders when they come to town. When was the last time anybody asked you to freak out in a moonage daydream?
---This page last modified: 30 Jun 2002---