Archive for September, 2012


Ages Past

Tables have perfect memories, so it’s a shame they don’t have voices. They have a complete and inerrant record of a family’s life, but no way of expressing it. The simple act of sharing a meal at a table binds and unites us, breaks down our walls, and makes us a little more of a family. Seriously, if you want fellowship with another person, sit at a table with them, and have food in front of you.

This is something Genesis understood, I think. The second track on Foxtrot is a song called “Time Table,” which speaks of “a carved oak table” that played host to kings and queens who “sipped wine from goblets gold.” Ages have passed, the kings and queens are dead and gone, and yet the table remains. The etchings left by all the dings and scratches over time tell a rich story, if only one would imagine it.

“Time Table” has more meaning than just that, however. It’s also a critique on the tendency among humans to start a noble enterprise and ruin it through gradual neglect. The kings and queens who sat at this table were valorous and honorable, high-born and deserving of their station. However, they solved their problems through violence, the simplest and least effective way possible. Who was right depended on who had the biggest lance or the sharpest sword, and who was last standing on the battlefield. Eventually, the ideals that made them kings and queens in the first place are forgotten.

The chorus asks why people kill each other over the belief that their people group (the song uses the language “race”) is superior. The answer the song gives, I think, is insufficient; it boils down to “that’s the way it’s always been.”

King Cnut

The most interesting thing about “Time Table” is its positioning right after “Watcher of the Skies.” We have a futuristic vision of a world where humans are extinct, and then a rewind into what made the humans go extinct: their own ignorance and infighting. “Time Table” takes us through history to a time when “only the rats hold sway,” which is perhaps the very time that the Watcher arrives on earth. I like to think “Time Table” is told from the first-person perspective of the main character of “Watcher of the Skies.”

The characters presented in “Time Table,” those kings and queens who perished in arrogance, could take a lesson from Cnut, King of England in 11th century A.D., and subject of the fourth track on Foxtrot, “Can-Utility and the Coastliners.” King Cnut’s name is sometimes spelled Canute, which is probably where “Can-Utility” comes from.  The Coastliners would be his courtiers the rest of his royal court. Honestly, I’ve always thought “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” sounded kind of like a cover band of 50+ guys who didn’t play anything made later that 1964.

The story which the lyrics lay out comes from history, or at least records from such antiquarian historians as Goscelin and Henry of Huntingdon. Some of it may have never happened. King Cnut was being flattered uproariously by his courtiers, as kings usually are. In some cultures, kings were treated as gods or divine avatars. If a person is told a lie enough times and often enough, they’ll start to believe it.

So King Cnut took his throne and his courtiers down to the beach at Southampton, planted his throne at the water’s edge and commanded the tide to halt. As we in our modernity can imagine, the tide did not halt. In the words of Henry of Huntingdon, “…it dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’”

The “Him” Cnut was referring to was of course God. After that, he took of his crown and hung it on a crucifix, never to put it on again. This was a sign to all the people to fear God, not the king. Some historians recast Cnut as a much wiser man, knowing that the waves wouldn’t obey his command to stop, but staged the whole thing to rebuke his courtiers and their profuse flattery.

Genesis tell this story with much grandiosity, matched only by their obscurity. It took me a lot of digging to figure out what the heck “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” means. But the song is great art, the lyrics particularly highlighting the irony of a man pretending he’s God. The lines “crown him, crown him” remind me of the old hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” which is probably exactly where my mind was meant to go.

Then comes the vinyl flip and the short guitar instrumental “Horizons,” written by its sole performer, guitarist Steve Hackett. It’s very pretty, ethereal and pastoral. Genesis has a reputation of doing songs like this, with their previous 3 albums being riddled with finger-picked 12-string acoustic guitars. The fact that “Horizons” is the only song like it on the whole of Foxtrot says something. You can repeat the past, but only for a little while.

Next: get on your bibs, people, because Supper’s Ready.

Telephone Spindle

a telephone spindle

The dining room table I grew up with was unlike any I’ve seen. It was made using old pieces of telephone wire spindles; one of the circular pieces was cut in half and formed the ends of the table, with other end of the spool being cut to form the middle of the table. In the very center of the table, where the hole of the spool was, a ceramic disk was added. Legs were also added, carved roughly to look slightly arty, and the whole thing was stained for protection and smoothness. It looked very rustic and DIY.

The chairs were part of the set, made from a similar kind of wood. They were also incredibly uncomfortable; they didn’t have any padding on them, so the only thing separating hard wood from your butt was the clothes you had on. The chairs and table stained and sealed, so there was never any splintering, but doesn’t make for an overly pleasant sitting experience. I had grown up with these chairs, though, so I didn’t even notice how uncomfortable they were until one of my college friends sat in them.

My parents bought it when they first got married from a hippie furniture co-op in San Diego called Many Hands. It was a popular thing in the early 70s to make stuff out of other stuff, to reclaim man-made objects and give them new life. It seems like something Jesus People would be into, to make functional things out of refuse and seemingly wasted material; out of death comes life.

I loved this table. When we were little, my sister and I would build forts using this table, plus blankets and couch cushions. It was the perfect height for sitting under, and it was the customary spot for sitting and counting to one hundred for hide-and-seek games. It had a giant, two-fist-sized divot in the underside, probably where there was a knot in the wood. I often wondered what had happened to it, if some great dog had taken a bite out of it. And I can remember just walking around it in circles when I was 4 years old, counting aloud by ones to see how high I could count. I think I got to over 600 before my mother made me stop and have lunch.

When I moved into my first apartment post-college, I inherited the table from my parents. When you looked at this table, you got the idea that it was from a past age, even if you couldn’t say what age. My roommate thought it was something medieval, and could picture huge bearded warriors sitting around it with mugs of ale and double-headed axes laid against the wall behind them. My sister’s husband Chris was helping me move in, among others, and he and a friend of mine carried the table up two flights of stairs. I never tried to lift it, but it apparently weighs a ton. Chris swore that if he helped me move the table out again, he was bringing his chainsaw.

Oh, the tales this table could tell. I’ve told some of them, but the table itself could tell many more if it had a mouth and a voice. Tables, I’m pretty sure, have perfect memories. Its stories would be not just of my own family, but of all its owners before us. Tables see the best and worst of human beings, serving as silent observers to the passing of years.

NOT our family’s table… just a table

When I moved out of that apartment, I didn’t have a place to put it where I was moving into, nor did I have storage space for it. My parents didn’t want it back, so I had no choice but to leave it with my roommate and his brother, who was moving in with him. They called me about a month or two later asking permission to get rid of it. It was very nice of them to make that call; they understood that the table held a lot of sentimental value to me, and they didn’t want to treat it unfairly. I shed a little bittersweet tear, but I consented for them to put it out by the dumpster. They told me later that when they walked by the dumpster the very next day, it was gone. Someone else had recognized the greatness of that table, and had decided to make it their own.

It makes me smile and sigh. That telephone spindle table had served my family well all through my formative years, and even before then. Now, it would serve another family. And it would have even more stories to tell.

All this is actually leading somewhere; trust me.

Imagination

As a kid, I had a pretty active imagination. I used to spend summers in our backyard and the forest beyond imagining scenarios in a fantasy world. My main sources of influence were sci-fi movies and the Final Fantasy video game franchise. I used LEGOs to construct my own Final Fantasy game when I was 9 or 10, with a host of main characters and villains, and an entire plotline and arc, all of my own creation… with some blatant ripping-off of things I’d seen in movies.

One scenario involved some felled trees in the forest beyond my house, all piled on each other right beyond a ridge. I could walk to the ridge and then climb down onto the trees, descending into what looked like a pit. In reality, it was only about 4 feet deep, the pit that was created by the trees, but I imagined it to be bottomless, or a portal into some other dimension, à la Narnia. What sorts of hellish things awaited me there?

Kids should be allowed to pursue their imaginations wherever they lead them, because those imaginations invariably dry up as they get older.

Perhaps I got into Genesis because they fostered and stimulated my imagination. Or perhaps my imagination is the size and shape it is now because of Genesis and their influence. Perhaps both. One of the things Genesis’ music does, and indeed that all progressive rock artists do, is present a richer and more robust narrative than other forms of music. Sometimes music lulls you into an inactivity of the mind, and that has its place, but prog stimulates you; it makes your mind move.

My mind really moved when I first heard “Get ‘Em Out By Friday.” I was about 14 at the time, and starting to consciously develop my writer’s mind. “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” totaling at over 8 minutes, is a play of sorts, the lead singer using multiple voices to represent different characters much like the reader of an audiobook. It was the first one I had heard, as my musical pursuits were previously more tame.

“Get ‘Em Out By Friday” was difficult musically, since it really took every cliché about progressive rock and amplified it. It put me off at first, but the lyrics drew me back in; they were fascinating. You have the first character named John Pebble, a high-ranking businessman with Styx Enterprises, who wants the tenants of the town of Harlow (which I imagined to be a fictional place) to leave. He sends his underling Mark Hall, known as “The Winkler,” to coax them out of their homes.

In Greek myth, Charon the Ferryman would escort souls across the River Styx to the Underworld

What insidious purpose does Styx Enterprises have for displacing the residents of Harlow? Of course, I was familiar with Styx – yes, as a 70s rock band, but first as a river bordering the Underworld that if you touched the water you would die a horrible death. Because Pebble and the Winkler’s company was called Styx, its purposes couldn’t be good. Mrs. Barrow, a tenant of Harlow, even offered to pay double the rent, which the Winkler only laughed at. Obviously, they have some strange goal in mind other than money. In my mind, strangeness and nefariousness usually go hand in hand when you’re talking about corporations.

But the song itself doesn’t say why they want them out… until a little later. There’s a passage of time until 2012 (which in 1972 must have seemed a long way off). Peter comes back with an “Announcement from Genetic Control.” They are now imposing a four foot restriction on humanoid height.

Kinda hard to take seriously, right? My mind first rejected it as silly and a little embarrassing, especially with Gabriel’s exaggerated vocal histrionics. But then almost instantly, the scene changes to “Joe Everybody” in an anonymous pub talking about the directors of Genetic Control getting into the property and housing business, limiting the physical height of people to fit more of them into a single building site.

Then, a return to the original musical motif, with the return of John Pebble, now knighted and in charge of a new, bigger corporation. In a repeat of the cycle, he sends the Winkler to muscle out more tenants. The song ends with a memo from someone even higher up, a “Satin Peter,” about Earth, Heaven and the church. Could this be a plot that the planet Earth is only tangentially involved in? Could this be a bigger conspiracy than we, the audience, even imagined?

A block of flats with central heating…

My writer’s mind went down numerous avenues, taking the somewhat incomplete elements of “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” and running with them. But to Peter Gabriel, the writer and originator, “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” is a lot simpler. It’s merely about the British public housing situation in the 60s and 70s. “Winkler” is a British term for someone who did the very thing Mark Hall did in the song, who convinces tenants to move through charm, cash and sometimes intimidation. Genetic Control, the “Satin Peter” thing (Satin = Satan), and even the closing lyric of “invest in the church for your heaven” were all meant as insinuations of government housing officials’ greed knowing no end.

Well, I didn’t know about that kind of stuff when I was 14, and still find it pretty confusing. Honestly, I like my outlandish Atlas Shrugged meets X-Files explanation for “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” better.

Next: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

Prog

Genesis – Foxtrot – 10/6/1972

Genesis was heavily involved in the genesis (he-he…) of what’s termed “progressive rock.” By the early 70s, rock and roll had been around long enough that it needed to be stretched to keep the audience (and the musicians) from getting bored. Some wanted specifically to expand rock’s artistic credibility and give it more weight. Bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer took disparate influences like jazz and classical and combined them with rock to create a little Frankenstein’s monster, but that was only the beginning. Simple as that may sound, it’s actually very complex.

Prog rock is less of a categorically distinct genre as it is a collection of idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. Some rock musicians are just stranger than others, and their influences include some pretty far-reaching stuff. Some concomitants include odd time signatures like 7/8 or 13/8, frequent changes in time signature as well as tempo and key, songs that don’t fit the blues standard of verse-chorus-verse, and weird musical instruments or weird things done with standard ones.

But perhaps the most notable quirk of prog rock, at least from this period of the early to mid 70s, is lyrics that draw from mythology, fantasy and science fiction. And the best at this, bar none, was Genesis. While Chuck Berry was singing about his ding-a-ling, they had out songs about a magic box that rapidly aged the person who opened it, giant intelligent plants that wanted to destroy the human race, and the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. And their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a colossally strange odyssey through weirdness after weirdness that’s like a cross between Larry Niven and William S. Burroughs.

The album Foxtrot is a prime example of what makes prog what it is, particularly the lead-off track “Watcher of the Skies.” It starts with dramatic organ sounds; doomy chords being played with no sense of tempo or rhythm, hitting you like a sledgehammer with every change. After the 90 second keyboard intro, the volume drops and then slowly builds back up; I thought something was wrong with my CD the first several times I heard it. But it’s only so the drums and guitar can build to a towering inferno from the lightly nervous tone they start out on.

Guitar player Steve Hackett performs a mighty feat with this song, hard-charging and vicious in his rhythm parts, blistering in his solos. Phil’s drums beat out a merciless barrage of notes that never lets you get comfortable, despite the song being in the fairly standard time signature of 6/8. Tony Banks drives the song on keys, though he occasionally sounds like the organist at a baseball game.

The lyrics are about a space alien who comes to a post-apocalyptic Earth, one where humans are extinct and the cities are just wasted ruins, returning to nature. Frontman Peter Gabriel wrote them while the band was on tour. One morning he woke up in his hotel room and looked out the window to see a barren landscape, one where he couldn’t imagine there being any life. It was like he was the only person on the planet, looking down on a world that once was, but is not anymore.

Peter is one foxy lady… get it?

With Foxtrot, Peter Gabriel started something that was a Genesis standard all the time Peter was with the band: costumes. Its genesis (okay, I’ll stop now) was with the cover for Foxtrot, which featured a woman in a red dress with a fox’s head. Paul Whitehead, the artist for every Genesis album from 1970’s Trespass until Foxtrot, suggested half-jokingly that they should have a woman with a fox’s head on stage with them. Peter heard that and thought, “well, if anyone’s gonna be on stage on costume, it’s gonna be me!”  He then appeared on stage in a red dress wearing a huge plaster fox’s head; he didn’t even tell his bandmates he was going to do it.

Other costumes soon followed, like the bat-hat for “Watcher of the Skies,” a centurion for “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” the Magog costume for “Apocalypse In 9/8,” and his most famous get-up, the flower mask for “Willow Farm.”

If scholars a century in the future were teaching students about progressive rock, and they had to pick one song that crystallizes most of the peculiarities of the genre (without being close to half an hour long), that song might be “Watcher of the Skies.” It’s one of Genesis’ best songs, and though a fan and concert favorite, it’s far from being their most famous. In my mind, however, it perfectly captures what I love about Peter-era Genesis.

Next: an announcement from Genetic Control.

Deep Water

The band that entered my consciousness earliest in life that qualifies as a full-blown obsession is Genesis. I was awakened to their music at age 11. Like it is with most bands, I had heard of them beforehand; the earliest time I can remember was when I was about 5 or 6, seeing the music video for “Invisible Touch.”

Those were the Phil Collins days, and for about a year after becoming Genesis-crazed, that’s all I thought there was. Then my dad told me they used to be fronted by Peter Gabriel. “That ‘Sledgehammer’ dude?” I thought. “Weird!” Even weirder, Phil wasn’t someone they hired after Peter left, but someone who was in the band all along as their drummer. When Peter went solo, they searched high and low for a new lead singer, auditioning belter after belter who just didn’t fit. In frustration, Phil just said, “well, I’ll have a go, then.” It worked and it stuck; search over.

I was enamored with their 80s pop phase, though I didn’t think of them as a pop band. To me, “pop” meant (and still means, to a certain extent) mindless clichés about romance and dating, and lulling the masses into stupidity and atrophy; I wanted no part of it. And yes, I did actually think about those things at 11 years old.

So Genesis wasn’t a pop band. I got a lot of superiority out of the fact that my favorite band sang about social decay, money-grubbing televangelists and the apocalypse instead of who they have a crush on this week. I was swimming in deeper waters than most of my peers, and I liked that.

…But Seriously

My interest in Genesis – alright, my all-consuming passion for them – led me into Phil Collin’s solo career as well. My dad happened to have a cassette copy of Phil’s 1989 album …But Seriously. I ate it up. The horn section and overdone synthesizers didn’t bother me; I was wooed by Phil’s honesty and passion, as well as his monster beat and groove. Trust a drummer to have a killer stomp to his music. Sure, most of what he was singing about was romance, but he seemed to come at it from a different angle than all those hordes of pop singers. He sung about romance gone sour, break-ups and bittersweet remembrances.

Of course, Genesis’s “In Too Deep” was a little more than I could stand. As one of Phil-era Genesis’s most successful songs, I was familiar with it before I became obsessed. Even committing myself to Genesis whole-heartedly, I couldn’t bring myself to like “In Too Deep.” Cloying and sickeningly sweet it was, but its biggest crime was that it was clichéd, the very thing I liked Genesis because they weren’t. However, “In Too Deep” was forgivable because it was on the same album as “Land of Confusion,” which at that time was my favorite song, and “Domino,” a song that contains the lyric Take a look at the beautiful river of blood! Gimme a break; I was 11.

Peter Gabriel on the Foxtrot tour. …a flower?

My Genesis phase was a source of irritation for my family, God love ‘em, but it would have been a lot worse had I been aware of the Peter Gabriel years. It wasn’t until a few years later that I bought a copy of Foxtrot, my first taste of this other Genesis. It was then that I realized that even though I was swimming in deeper waters than my peers, I was still wading in the surf compared to the ocean that awaited me.

Next: pencil-diving into the Dead Sea.

Velvet Goldmine

Director Todd Haynes has made his name on extremely stylized films that play around with the rules of linear plotlines and characterization, defying the normal methods of those things. His film I’m Not There features five different actors playing the same part, each in five segments of the story. Those segments even use different kinds of film in order to make them distinct from each other. That might sound confusing, but it’s helpful in the end since the segments are all jumbled together, one cutting in before the previous one was actually finished.

His movie Velvet Goldmine shows his willingness to experiment and to veer off into uncharted territory, some of which didn’t need to be charted in the first place. The setting of the movie is late 60s/early 70s Britain, as well as mid 80s America. In the 80s, a journalist for an American paper is assigned to do some digging and find out whatever happened to Brian Slade, a British glam rock superstar in the 70s who faked his own death on stage and faded into obscurity when it was revealed to be a sham. The film also tells the story of Brian Slade, his general anonymity in the late 60s until getting discovered, his rise to glory in the early 70s, and his extremely complicated relationship with wife Mandy Slade and fellow musician Curt Wild.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Brian Slade

This should sound familiar. Todd Haynes veils his historical accounts incredibly thinly, almost to the point of not veiling them at all. Brian Slade is in effect David Bowie, and Curt Wild is Iggy Pop. Curt and his band the Rats even perform “T.V.Eye,” an actual Stooges song. The origin of the band’s name is that rat is a synonym for stooge, meaning someone who gives away his fellow criminals to the authorities. Brian’s name is significant, too. Brian is an ordinary name, much like David, and Slade is the name of a slightly obscure 70s glam rock band. The name of Slade’s band is Venus In Furs, borrowing from the 1967 Velvet Underground song of the same name.

Also in the mix is a character named Jack Fairy, who serves as the originator of the entire glam scene. His name is rather like Brian Ferry, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist of the glam band Roxy Music, several of whose songs appear in the film. Even the very name of the film, Velvet Goldmine, borrows from a Bowie song of the same name, written and recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, but not released until 1975 as a b-side.

In the movie, a huge part of the glam takeover of both the music scene and the British youth is the shifting (and sometimes casting-off) of sexual morays. It was much the same in the real world; Bowie himself says that his declaration of bisexuality was a small mistake in hindsight, because it was much more about its social meanings and effects than actual sexual preference. As Curt Wild says in the movie, “you can’t just fake being gay.”

Toni Collette as Mandy Slade

If the similarities extended far beyond the names and circumstances, Velvet Goldmine would be downright insulting to Bowie, Pop and everyone associated with them. In the film, Slade and Wild have a sexual relationship, despite the fact that Brian is married to Mandy. At the beginning of his popularity, Slade announces that both he and his wife are bisexual, as well as indiscriminate with their sexual lives. Luckily, Velvet Goldmine avoids presenting history and takes a wild tangent into the fictional; the very suggestion of Oscar Wilde being a space alien is enough for us to take the whole movie with a giant-sized grain of salt.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ portrayal of Brian Slade is one of sinister defiance and cold self-advancement, almost sociopathic. Bowie, in actuality, is not like that at all. He broke from societal norms to be sure, but he treated it as natural and normal for him. He wasn’t vicious or belligerent like Slade is. In all the press interviews I’ve seen, Bowie is polite and even a little shy. Slade, on the other hand, makes statements designed to infuriate and cause controversy. “Rock and roll is a prostitute.” “Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner.” “I should think that if people were to get the wrong impression of me, the one to which you so elegantly refer, it wouldn’t be the wrong impression in the slightest.”

Slade purposely arranges himself to be in opposition to the establishment. He does what rock stars have been doing for ages, and it’s wholly unoriginal. Bowie, on the other hand, is told that normal people don’t do the things he does, and he shrugs and says, “No? Hmmm.”

Brian Slade’s relationship with his wife doesn’t really mirror Bowie’s, either. Brian and Mandy’s marriage had an over-abundance of infatuation but an utter lack of love. Bowie had lots of love for his wife Angie, and likewise a stinking ton for the son he had with her (of whom Velvet Goldmine makes no mention). David and Angie’s relationship didn’t really disintegrate until Bowie’s Thin White Duke stage, where he descended into extreme cocaine use. Slade’s connection to his wife becomes inconsequential by the time they get their divorce, but Bowie’s is clearly important to him all the way. He wrote and performed a simple and lovely song called “Be My Wife” on his 1977 album Low as a last ditch effort to preserve his marriage. It didn’t work; they divorced in 1980.

Ewan McGregor as Curt Wild

Curt Wild, played by Ewan McGregor in his pre-Obi Wan days, is much closer to his real world model, Iggy Pop. His first appearance in the movie, performing “T.V. Eye” to about 100 people in the middle of a forest, is spot-on exactly what a Stooges performance was like, complete with Wild defiantly dropping his pants. Curt Wild is drugged out, uncaring, chaotic and unpredictably dangerous. The name “Wild” is very appropriate.

Velvet Goldmine is one unholy mess of a movie. It has an incredibly sloppy plot structure and deplorable excess of visual flair that comes off as ham-fisted instead of beautiful. That’s balanced by its stellar performances by its principle actors and its devastatingly awesome soundtrack. But the reason I watch it over and over again – and felt it necessary to write this review – is that even though it’s extremely irresponsible with history and fact, the way it presents that history is infinitely fascinating. Being a student of music history, especially appealing to me is presenting an alternate form of it. Todd Haynes has created a behemoth of wonder and interest, but it will only be so for an extreme sliver of the movie-watching public.

Next: the fox on the rocks.

I’ve made much mention of the Ziggy Stardust storyline, but I haven’t taken the time to fully explain it yet. This is a general outline as far as I see it, containing elements of my own interpretation.

It starts with Earth in crisis, five years from its natural resources running out and it wasting away to nothing. An alien named Ziggy Stardust comes to Earth with the quest of saving it from destruction. Ziggy is flamboyant, hedonistic, sexually promiscuous and prone to decadence. He sends out a transmission that’s heard by the young people of the world on their radios, which leads them to organize and mobilize, rallying around Ziggy as a leader. As is only natural for him, he becomes a rock and roll star along with his band, the Spiders From Mars. They take over the world with their high-octane rock and sexually liberal attitude. As Ziggy becomes bigger and more popular, he becomes more egocentric as well, which leads to distance from and friction with his band mates. It also leads to paranoia. His fear is that he will die on stage, which comes true. He is consumed by his own glory and fame – possibly assassinated by one of his own band mates – but ascends to a higher level of consciousness, joining the spirits of rock and roll in a kind of heaven. With his exit, he leaves the Earth to its doom.

In what passes for a title track of an album with a prohibitively long name, “Ziggy Stardust” is one of the few moments in the album where Ziggy is looked at from the outside. The song’s narrator is a member of the Spiders From Mars who reverentially describes Ziggy with a poetic flare, but also details his growing pomposity and decadence. Make no mistake; Ziggy is an extravagant figure, and his band mate’s description of him is accurate. He’s a true rock star, larger than life and louder than bombs. And just as his rock stardom is legendary, so are his indulgences and excesses. The song eventually ends with the Spiders deciding to break up, but not before one last show.

The Spiders From Mars

David Bowie (the real person divorced from the Ziggy persona) was actually afraid he would die on stage, more specifically that he would be assassinated. I say “afraid,” but I think Bowie was more than just scared. He was excited and hesitant, but he mostly just thought that this was his destiny. With each passing concert, he felt more certain that it would end this way.

As a coping mechanism, he incorporated it into his stage show. In an intensely interesting and weirdly ingenious turn, he takes his actual paranoia about himself and funnels it into the story of Ziggy. Ziggy not only dies at the end of the album, but every show Ziggy gave was his farewell. On the 1972 tour, right before Bowie and his band performed “Rock and Roll Suicide” as the closer, Bowie in the guise of Ziggy would say, “this is the last show we’ll ever do.” In doing that, Bowie wasn’t going to die anymore; Ziggy was.

The song’s called “Rock and Roll Suicide” because Ziggy had a premonition and other-worldly certainty that he would die. He knew he would be killed at that show, but he went on with it anyway, marching knowingly towards death. You may be sick of hearing this by now, but this is yet another parallel to Jesus Christ. It part of the admitted story of the album that Ziggy is some sort of Messiah, so comparisons between him and Christ are only natural. Jesus, at some point, knew that he was put onto this earth to save its people from their sins, and that he would do that by being the eternal blood payment for those sins; by dying. He was certain of it being unavoidable, just as Ziggy did.

Aladdin Sane (a lad insane…)

Bowie said himself that he got lost in the Ziggy persona, blurring the line between where David ended and Ziggy began. On that tour, so many people were telling him and acting like he was a real Messiah. He was eventually able to put Ziggy in a pen, but not before he mined him for all he was worth. In the same way that “Suffragette City” was a single by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, his next album, 1973’s Aladdin Sane, was as close as he ever came to making an entire album by Ziggy’s band. Pin-Ups followed that same year, which was a Ziggy album of cover songs. And finally, 1974 saw Diamond Dogs, morphing the Ziggy character into a post-apocalyptic wanderer.

After that, he left Ziggy behind and went into his “plastic soul” era, the Thin White Duke, his techno dalliances and his forays into dance music during the 80s. Now, 45 years after his musical career began, Bowie is rock and roll royalty. And the crown jewel of his glittering crown will always be Ziggy Stardust.

Next: director Todd Haynes takes the story of the glam rock era and does… something. I’m not really sure what.

David Bowie in Labyrinth

In 1997, Bowie released a remix of a track from his latest album, Earthling, called “I’m Afraid of Americans,” redone by none other than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. I was in high school at the time and pretty into NIN, but I only knew David Bowie in the context of his role as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth. Sure, I recognized him as a musician, but as an aging pop star, he was barely on my radar. So when “I’m Afraid of Americans” came out with Trent’s name attached to it, my ears pricked up.

I found the track a little boring, and of a similar style to his much-lauded contribution to the Lost Highway soundtrack, “The Perfect Drug.” I was pretty disappointed by that song, and was sad to see him declining even further with “Americans.” And who was this crusty British guy doing the singing? And why does everybody (including Trent, apparently) respect and admire him so much? Several of my friends viewed David Bowie as a sort of elder statesman of all things weird and unusual.

Mike, my college friend and musical mentor, thought David Bowie was just the bomb. When I heard him talk about Bowie in such a reverential way, I thought, “That dude from Labyrinth? And the one Trent Reznor did that God-awful song with?”

Ah, youth; the younger you are, the more forgivable your ignorance and stupidity are.

I thought (and still think) Mike is a pretty smart guy, so I took a closer look at David Bowie and discovered the behemoth of Ziggy Stardust. However, for whatever reason, I didn’t listen to it in its full form until several years later. I was talking to Mike then and said, “Y’know, Ziggy Stardust is a pretty great album.” He just shook his head in disappointment and said, “Duh.”

My first impression of Ziggy Stardust was uncharitable however. I was not impressed with the track listing. Some of the names were “Starman,” “Lady Stardust,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and one called simply, “Star.” How did this become one of the greatest albums of all time with such shoddy lack of originality and dunderheaded obviousness as this?

Ah, youth; the younger you are, the more forgivable your massive disrespect is.

While my thought process about Ziggy Stardust has become much more enlightened, I still think Bowie could have cranked out some more original song titles, but that aside, it’s a nearly flawless record. It even has two “star” singles (ironic, isn’t it?).

Released as a single a little before the album, “Starman” is a hooky piece of pop-rock gloriousness. Its lyrics have probably the most crystallized piece of the Ziggy Stardust story of any track on the album. It tells of a the youth of planet Earth hearing a message through their radios from an alien, telling of a starman waiting in the sky. That alien is Ziggy himself, and he brings a message of hope for the salvation of mankind. Most important is that this transmission comes first to the youth instead of the adults. It’s rather like the news of Jesus’ resurrection first coming to two women, the least reliable of sources in that time.

“Starman” was Bowie’s first hit single since “Space Oddity,” and proved to the world that he wasn’t a one hit wonder. He appeared on Top of the Pops performing “Starman” in full Ziggy costume, complete with Mick Ronson and company all dolled up as the Spiders From Mars, and shocked the audience with his outlandish and unprecedented appearance. Those watching T.V. that night had never seen anything quite like that before. After that, everything changed for Bowie.

A few years later, after Bowie had become a superstar, “Suffragette City” was released as a single. Pretty different from “Starman,” it has wild abandon instead of a pop sheen. The guitars are loud and vicious, and the even catchier than “Starman.” It also features a Little Richard-style piano part and an accordion sound produced by an ARP synthesizer.

“Suffragette City” is the hardest to understand as part of the Ziggy Stardust storyline. The way I choose it process it is this is a song actually BY Ziggy Stardust (not David Bowie) in the fictional world of the album. It’s about a guy who’s facing a choice between sex and drugs; he can’t have both, so he chooses sex. Consequentially, he can’t have his druggie friend Henry coming around anymore. He calls Henry his “droogie,” another reference to A Clockwork Orange, as “droogie” is the Nadsat word for “buddy.” And the narrator is very happy in his choice of drug-free lovin’ all the time; there’s even a celebratory sing-along shout of “wham bam thank you ma’am!”

Next: rock and roll suicide and the further evolution of Bowie.

20th Century Bolan

T. Rex’s 1972 album, The Slider

40 or so years after the fact, when the term “glam rock” is brought up, those in the know usually think “David Bowie.” Rightly so, for his music endures. But Bowie wasn’t the only one making glam rock; arguably, he wasn’t even the one who invented it. That honor belongs to Marc Bolan.

Bolan was the Christopher Marlowe to Bowie’s Shakespeare. They were friends, no doubt, but also competitors; ringmasters in the same arena. A lot of the rivalry was probably created out of whole cloth by the music media – and their respective wives. June Child Bolan once told Angie Bowie flat out that her husband was too good to appear on any of Bowie’s records. But I think Bowie and Bolan themselves were fine with each other, and enjoyed some healthy iron-sharpens-iron.

For his first few albums, Bolan was calling his musical act Tyrannosaurus Rex, but he shortened it to T. Rex in 1970. About that time, he took to wearing top hats and feather boas on stage. A breakthrough was when he discovered a small bottle of face glitter belonging to his wife on a table in his dressing room. On the spur of the moment, he put a dab of it on his cheek. And with that, glitter rock was born.

T. Rex’s music simply blew up in the U.K., making up an astounding 6% of the total British GDP for record sales. But just like Marlowe, he was much more popular during his time than after it. Bowie is still a part of our musical collective unconscious, but you’d get a few more scratched heads if you mentioned T. Rex.  Some might know “Bang a Gong” or “20th Century Boy,” but most would say “wasn’t that a song back before I was born?”

Bowie and Bolan

Bowie’s music has endured the ages a lot better than the songs of T. Rex. For instance, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums feature five of Bowie’s albums but only one by T. Rex. That could also be due to Bowie having a career that spans nearly 40 years, while Bolan’s is only 9 years long before his untimely demise. Marc tragically died in a car crash in 1977, just as his career was seeing a resurgence.

Fading into the mists of time as he is, Marc enjoys a special tribute on Ziggy Stardust. The song “Lady Stardust” started out as a tribute/exploration/criticism of Bolan. Whereas Bowie created characters for him to inhabit, Bolan came by his glam tendencies rather honestly. He wasn’t being completely honest with his audience (that’s not what glam artists do, nor does their audience except it), but what he presented on stage was just Marc, not a contrived and intricate personality like Ziggy. As such, he opened himself up to ridicule. It’s explained in the first verse of “Lady Stardust.”

People stared at the makeup on his face / Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace / The boy in the bright blue jeans jumped up on the stage / Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace

“Darkness and disgrace” might be a gross overstatement, since T.Rex’s songs were always brighter and more celebratory than Bowie’s, but the sentiment is still understood. Like a good glam rock song should, Bowie points out the more outlandish aspects of Bolan’s public character in a lightly mocking but mostly admiring way.

Oh come on! He’s gorgeous!

Gender-bending is also part of Bowie’s breakdown, being an essential tenant of glitter rock. Rock and roll has always been about challenging social norms, about pushing the establishment into a corner to get it to fight. In 1972, the vogue way of doing that was sexually, challenging what it meant to be male and female. The very act of a man wearing make-up and being beautiful was enough. And let’s face it: Marc Bolan was one beautiful bloke. He stood out among the British male population by the fact that he was just so, so pretty. That was probably the largest thing that contrasted him with David Bowie; when stripped of his make-up, Bowie was actually pretty weird-looking. Marc Bolan, on the other hand, was like Venus de Milo and the statue of David with a top hat as the kicker.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m straight as one of Legolas’ arrows. I loves me some women (one woman in particular), but I’m secure enough in my masculinity to admit that if Marc Bolan was a woman (and not rotting in his grave), I’d tap that.

The story present in Ziggy Stardust can’t be forgotten, though, and Bowie doesn’t. “Lady Stardust” serves the dual purpose of also being Ziggy’s rise to popularity and first taste of stardom. There’s even a possible parallel to Peter’s triple denial of Jesus on the night after his crucifixion, further suggesting Ziggy as a Christ figure. He meant to save the world with rock and roll, but as the album unfolds, rock and roll will prove to be his own downfall and demise.