David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (pt. 2)

Ziggy

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think I get David Bowie.

Like, this is an OK album, I guess. I’m glad I listened to it. Art this legendary is always at least worth checking out, and this album is nothing if not legendary. I always try to remember that, if a lot of people really like something, they can’t all be wrong. But I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t love Ziggy Stardust.

Maybe this is just my own prexisting feelings about Bowie. I know his singles, because it’s kind of impossible not to, and I find them very hit or miss. ‘Fame’ is a jam, and I guess I can tolerate ‘Changes’. But I absolutely loathe ‘Space Oddity’. Everything about early Bowie is just so overwrought — whiny, almost. And sorry, but Ziggy Stardust is, for me at least, definitely still early Bowie. (Give me 80s Bowie any day.)

I realize that this is hugely hypocritical of me. I have no problem with musical ridiculousness. Perhaps more pressingly, one of my favourite records of all time is also a concept album about space bullshit. So, as I was listening and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to love Ziggy Stardust, I tried to figure out why that was. Why do I love the gritty weirdo space rap but not the gay space alien glam rock?

Maybe it’s that the gay space alien glam rock is too legendary.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but you know how I called Wu-Tang Clan the Seinfeld of underground rap? (By which I meant that they were so profoundly original that everything they did has been so thoroughly emulated that their profound originality isn’t obvious unless you know what came before?) I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In the case of Wu-Tang and Seinfeld, their imitators aped what they did with completely straight faces. Subsequent generations of rappers and TV producers saw something that worked, so they adapted it for their own purposes. It was doable, because they weren’t aping specifics of the work so much as general principles. TV sitcoms are now populated exclusively by sociopaths, but specific Seinfeld parodies are pretty thin on the ground. Rap songs with campy movie samples and bitcrushed drums are now a dime a dozen, but no one ever tries to literally be another Wu-Tang Clan.

But with Bowie, there aren’t really any general principles to ape, other than ‘overwrought androgynous rockstar’. Everything about what he’s doing is so wildly, inventively specific that the only way to cash in on its success is to parody it, or directly reference it. It hit me like a thunderbolt about halfway through ‘Starman’: I am more familiar with homages to / parodies of David Bowie than I am with actual David Bowie.

Flight of the Conchords. Daft Punk. The Venture Bros. My own cultural experience is littered with caricatures of all things Bowie, to the point of cliché. I feel like I’ve heard ‘Starman’ a million times, when really what I’ve heard is a million things referencing ‘Starman’. So is it that I actually find ‘Starman’ overwrought and annoying, or has that sentiment just been clouded by endless secondhand exposure?

I am, of course, doing that thing where I’m making it seem like I liked the album less than I did. I am still glad that I listened to it, and there are some great moments on the album. (‘Suffragette City’ kicks ass.) And for what it’s worth, I listened to Aladdin Sane immediately after I finished Ziggy Stardust. (Don’t hold your breath — my feelings about the two albums are pretty much the same.) But as with a lot of things from the 70s, David Bowie just isn’t really my bag.

— Matt

PS: Do you watch The Venture Bros.? I think you’d like The Venture Bros.

Advertisements

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (pt. 1)

Ziggy

Dear Matt:

Lately, I am obsessed with Todd Haynes’s glorious, thinly-veiled David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine. It’s got everything that I look for in a movie, including fantastic music. Of course, none of the music is actually by Bowie, because he loathed the screenplay and refused to allow the use of his songs. Thus, Velvet Goldmine is scored with a spectacular mix of great tracks from A- through C-list glam icons who are not David Bowie. And, any movie with this many Brian Eno songs is pretty much guaranteed to grace my top ten for at least a short while.

I was thinking about just giving you the soundtrack, in the hope that you’d go on to watch the movie. But then I realized that hearing the soundtrack, or indeed seeing the film, would be a strange experience without you having experienced the music that haunts the liminal space at the edge of its narrative: Bowie’s classic tale of love, eschatology and gay space aliens, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So, that’s what you’re getting this week.

In 1972, Bowie was already something of a known quantity, but hadn’t attained any semblance of his later fame. Even so, he’d already been through at least one major stylistic change. This would happen again and again with Bowie. Even at this early point in his career, Bowie was aware of his impulse to change constantly and radically. It’s the subject of one of his most famous tunes.

By this point, he’d had a massive hit with ‘Space Oddity,’ and a couple of acclaimed albums. But Bowie was about to break through in a big way, thanks to the gradual development of his first consistent stage persona: Ziggy Stardust, the gender-bending extraterrestrial who brought everything that the early glam rockers like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had built to its logical conclusion. Ziggy was new and exciting in a way that couldn’t not connect in the radical, post-hippie England of 1972. And he sang some great tunes.

Ziggy arguably predates the album that bears his name, but it’s this album that codifies him and his mythology — albeit vaguely, as we’ll see. Ziggy Stardust has guitar-driven cock rock, ultra-camp torch songs and inexplicable harpsichord. It is poetic at times, and self-consciously dumb at others. For an album with such iconic, mainstream status, it is very, very strange.

Way back when you assigned me Deltron 3030, you pointed out that it wasn’t like a traditional concept album in that it doesn’t have a distinct narrative arc. Well, that applies just as much to this particular traditional concept album. Ziggy Stardust posits a version of the 1970s where the world is set to end in five years. Suddenly, the radio airwaves are invaded by the cosmic rock ‘n’ roll of an androgynous Martian of indistinct and mutable sexuality. Ziggy Stardust’s revolutionary space music preaches a gospel of universal love and banging whoever the hell you want, regardless of normative social codes. In Earth’s final moments, Ziggy gives humanity its mojo back. But naturally, at some point Ziggy’s ego begins to supersede his message, and things end badly for him and his intrepid band, the Spiders from Mars.

If you try to situate every song on the album within this narrative (which, bear in mind, is just my interpretation — this album is super vague) you are not likely to succeed. I just think of it as a bunch of songs that could plausibly come from a world where the biggest celebrity on the planet is a glam rock alien. Like Deltron 3030, it is probably richer for its looseness of concept.

I’ll be honest: for all of its daring transgressiveness, Ziggy Stardust is quite far from my favourite Bowie album. (That would be Low, but that’s practically a Brian Eno album, and we’ve done that already.) I find Ziggy a bit inconsistent, and Bowie’s vocals — while incredibly distinctive — haven’t settled into the nuanced baritone register where I like them best. But I still think you need to hear this, because it is without question the definitive Bowie album where most of the world is concerned. You need to hear it because the highlights (for my money, ‘Five Years,’ ‘Starman,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’) really are staggering. And, of course, you need to hear it because you need to know what’s going on in Velvet Goldmine. And you need to watch Velvet Goldmine.

— Matthew

P.S.: One of the best blogs on the internet is Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie’s entire career, with substantive essayistic treatment of every track he’s ever released. For our purposes, I might suggest his essay on ‘Starman.’ If, you know, that sounds remotely interesting to you.