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.

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