Category: David Bowie


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.

Tarted Up

While projections about planet Earth’s expiration date are fraught with peril, the fictional world that Bowie created has its time limit announced from the very start: five years. It opens on people crowding around a television set to hear a newscaster tearfully tell the world that it has “five years left for crying.” The ostensible reason is a lack of natural resources. In the face of impending disaster, human do what humans do. Chaos quickly ensues, complete with looting and other savage behavior, including killing over food.

It is against that backdrop that Bowie creates his most enduring character, Ziggy Stardust. The song “Five Years” has a beautiful restraint to it, slowly building and building until it’s a towering inferno, dwarfing all other work Bowie has done previously. A big part of glam rock is ironically trussing up rock and roll to accentuate its more ridiculous curves and angles. Hunky Dory did that to a masterful degree, but Ziggy Stardust is totally serious about its camp. I know that’s a contradiction in terms (“serious camp”), but the way Bowie sells it, you buy the contradiction, a spare, and the t-shirt that goes with it.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine

Brian Slade, the Bowie-like character in the indie flick Velvet Goldmine, said in a press conference, “Rock and roll is a prostitute; it should be tarted up.” “Soul Love” tarts up its musical motif to exaggeratedly point out that it really is a prostitute, from the nasally performed vocals right down to the alto sax solo. Story-wise, I’m not sure how it fits in to the Ziggy plotline, though it makes perfect musical sense for it to follow the achingly epic “Five Years.” Lyrically, it seems to be about the narrator being in love with love, with the concept itself. Even so, he’s aware that he can’t have a practical application of the concept ‘til it’s directed at a particular person.

Segueing right into it is “Moonage Daydream,” a slow rocker and Bowie’s strongest attempt so far to blow the listener’s brains out. This represents the birth of Ziggy Stardust on Earth, his triumphant arrival and the start of his mission/ministry. Ziggy is a sort of futuristic Christ figure, a being from outside this world whose sole purpose is to save it from itself. This parallel isn’t lost on Bowie, and he plays it to the hilt, if pretty subtly. Ziggy’s means of salvation are generally the same as Christ’s, too; Jesus atoned for us by being a perfect replacement, the Platonic form of a human being. All over “Moonage Daydream” are suggestions of Ziggy’s identical nature to human beings, divine entity though he is.

There’s also the closing words of “Moonage Daydream,” spoken over the killer Ronson guitar solo that ends it. “Freak out! Far out! In-out!” It reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, in which in-out is a Nadsat slang term for sexual intercourse.

I could speculate wildly on what this means, getting further and further from the point, but what still remains is that Ziggy likes sex. Maybe he thinks that sex will save the world. On an extremely general level, I understand that line of thinking; if people had more sex, there would probably be less war, for one thing. However, it won’t fix our planet, and it won’t fix Ziggy’s, either. So what will?

The answer: rock and roll.

Ziggy Played Guitar

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie – 6/6/1972

By now we know that David Bowie was one weird cat. If songs about space travel, superhumans, and sex with the devil weren’t enough to tip you off, there’s the outlandish dress and wild makeup. My God, the cover of Hunky Dory is a photo of him inspired by a WWII-era German actress. And if by 1972 you’re still not convinced, he takes on a full-blown persona and presents a combination of music, theater and pageantry, complete with a storyline about an alien come to save a dying planet Earth. Just try to ignore him now.

Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s first real “character,” a fully realized other person he could be in his stage show. All his public appearances were in the guise of Ziggy, and he had a complete profile of how Ziggy would act, talk and behave. Never before had an artist appeared to lose himself so completely. It was like a Broadway show every day with Bowie; it looked like he didn’t just want to play this character, but be this character.

His band got into it too, actually giving themselves a name for the first time, the Spiders From Mars. They dressed up in costume just like Bowie, and had alter-egos. The band and Ziggy himself could still be recognized as Bowie and company; that was the beauty of it. It wasn’t an identity crisis or a case of DID; it was all a show, like an actor playing a part in a movie. Indeed, Bowie began referring to himself as an actor instead of a musician.

As a lot of things in the musical sphere do, this whole Ziggy Stardust thing traces right back to Sgt. Pepper. The concept of that album, plain and simple, was a fictional band that the Beatles playacted. David Bowie is simply doing the same thing. I say “simply,” though it isn’t simple at all. The biggest difference is that the Beatles just wanted to escape the confines of the world’s expectations of them. Bowie’s interest is different; it’s a combination of transcending his humanity (or pretending to) and putting on a good show. And what better way to be a non-human that to be an alien?

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (its full name) is a concept album, not the first and certainly not the last. The storyline in the album itself is loose and rather hard to trace, though Bowie had a pretty specific progression in mind when he recorded it. But Ziggy Stardust the album is just one piece of how he was going to tell this tale. The concerts performed during the last half of 1972 were another piece, but still not the whole picture. What can be defined as “the whole picture” never really came to fruition. If it had, I’m guessing, it would have ended with the assassination of David Bowie at one of his concerts. His murder might have been staged, but it might not have been.

Though even with a plotline in mind, most of the songs on Ziggy Stardust can also be interpreted to be about real things. Ziggy himself, while a fictional character created by Bowie, is a criticism of the then-current music industry. And like a good novel, the fictitious Ziggy world bears out and reveals things about the real world.

Bowie & guitarist Mick Ronson – yes, that’s what it looks like

The story doesn’t even matter (I can’t believe I just said that; my mother would be so ashamed). It’s kinda hackneyed and doesn’t really have a point. The show and spectacle isn’t even the most compelling thing, at least not for me. It’s the music. I don’t really care if Bowie never wore a scrap if makeup, if he was a bespectacled accountant from Surrey with a passion for collecting Beanie Babies. With this album, he created some of the best music ever. Whatever else he did – and he did a lot – it shrinks in comparison. Ziggy Stardust isn’t great because of the grand showmanship it displays or the overarching scope it represents; it’s great because of the music.

Next: cheer up – the world’s gonna end in five years, anyway.

Andy Warhol

Ah, Andy Warhol; his presence is felt in rock and roll history yet again. The mad times of the 60s were over, and the differently mad 70s were off and running. Andy had lost only a little of his relevancy, being viewed as an elder statesman of pop culture rather than an active participant. He still created art, and he still inspired art, as well. And being the astute and cutting observer of culture that he was, David Bowie’s attention was of course turned to Andy for a bit.

The song “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory is probably the most accurate poetic statement of how Andy and the Factory actually were. Mind you, how they actually were is bound to be a little different from the prevailing public opinion; I wasn’t born yet and if you’re reading this, chances are you weren’t either. Bowie provides a razor-sharp glimpse here, clean as a surgeon’s scalpel. “Dress my friends up just for show / see them as they really are.” What more need be said?

I know how Andy must feel here, being talked about as if he’s not even in the room. Celebrities enjoy that kind of thing; Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” But the ultimate awkward silence moment came when Bowie invited Andy to the studio to hear the finished product before he released it. He played it for him, and Andy didn’t say anything. Bowie waited a few moments, and Andy still didn’t say anything. They were just staring at each other, Bowie waiting expectantly to hear an opinion on his art. Andy must have felt like a person does when they have that dream in which they’re naked in a public place.

When Andy finally spoke, he commented on Bowie’s shoes. The two of them then proceeded to have a 10 minute conversation about shoes.

Months later, Andy said in an interview that he thought the entire song was a heartless comment on his complexion. “Andy Warhol, silver screen / can’t tell them apart at all.” Even if this isn’t a purposeful reference to Andy’s paleness, I can’t hear it without instantly thinking of Andy’s lily-white, emaciated face. And I chuckle a little.

The vinyl flip is the super-campy burst of glam silliness “Fill Your Heart,” and the album turns to more traditional and guitar-oriented material after that, starting with “Andy Warhol.” Mick Ronson is one of the great guitar heroes of the 70s in this humble writer’s opinion, but he wears a different hat for half-plus of the record. His string arrangements, while not worthy of a Broadway play, fit in perfectly with the ironic song-and-dance timbre of Hunky Dory, most especially on “Fill Your Heart.” It’s almost a vaudeville routine.

Bob Dylan

But things change to a more rock tone, though the sarcasm and cutting wit aren’t reduced at all. “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Queen Bitch” are much the same as “Andy Warhol,” blurring the line between homage and devastating criticism. The subject of “Song For Bob Dylan” is rather obvious; Bowie addresses the dual nature of Dylan, commiserating with his desire to be somebody else while criticizing his efforts to hide his true nature. “Song For Bob Dylan” comes right after “Andy Warhol,” which is a little ironic considering Andy and Bob’s simultaneous affections for the same girl (pop superstar/media trainwreck Edie Sedgwick).

“Queen Bitch” is harder to penetrate, though. I’ve read from more than one source that it’s a tribute to the Velvet Underground, but I just don’t see it. It makes intellectual sense, since Bowie was very buddy-buddy with head Velvet Lou Reed, but I don’t hear “Queen Bitch” and get a Velvets picture. The word-scheme and meter are a little similar to “I’m Waiting For the Man,” but “Queen Bitch” has so much more energy and drive than anything the Velvets did. Regardless, it’s a great song, and one of the best on Hunky Dory.

The American press always makes more out of something than is actually there, and Bowie is no exception. “The Bewley Brothers” is his little joke on them. With this song, he invites those silly Americans to speculate at its possible meaning, and gives them plenty of fodder. In reality, though, the song isn’t really about anything. Like a college student majoring in literature, we dissect and dissect ‘til our dissectors are sore, and all the while Bowie is giggling that we’re wasting our time.

Hunky Dory can be most fully enjoyed in hindsight, knowing that the next album, Ziggy Stardust, builds upon the foundation it created. But even in the mere moment of the end of 1971, in a here-and-now context, Hunky Dory challenges us and takes us for a wild ride. How could Bowie get better?

Amazingly, he does; just wait.

Father & Son

Fatherhood has a tendency to turn the most macho of men into blubbering softies. One baby enters their lives and they instantly go from tough and uncrackable to teary messes totally in love with their child. It happens every time. Now, David Bowie can’t really be classified as macho (it’s really hard to classify him at all), but the pattern holds true that once he becomes a father, the gushiness starts flowing.

As always, though, he does it with a particular glam flare. “Kooks” is deliciously kitschy on the surface, but it strikes me as being honestly kitschy, which I’m aware is a contradiction in terms. The camp in this song doesn’t really seem campy; it just seems cute. Bowie is gushing over his son, but he’s also explaining to his child, “I’m weird; your mom’s weird, too.” Growing up with David and Angie Bowie as parents, little Zowie Bowie (or Duncan Jones, according to his birth certificate) was bound to be different, or “kooky” as the song puts it.

Besides the revelation of obvious love for his son in honesty that makes you go “aaaawwwww!”, Bowie also gives us insight into his projected parenting style. “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads / ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.” Bowie wants his son to be cautious with the whole my-dad-could-beat-up-your-dad thing; he must have been aware that as a stereotypical male specimen, he’s lacking in some areas. I know the feeling. “And if the homework brings you down / Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.” School isn’t everything, and following the rules isn’t as important as being true to oneself. Provided he was actually fully present and there for his kid, I think David Bowie would make an extremely cool dad.

Next comes “Quicksand,” closing the side. The song’s a little hard to interpret because there’s so much name-dropping (Aleister Crowley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill, and Juan Pujol Garcia, codename Garbo), but the base of it has to do with what Bowie has been talking about all along. He wants to get to the future where he’s much more than he is now. Crowley and Nietzsche talk a lot about transcending humanity to a higher form of existence, and the reference to “Himmler’s sacred realm” is talking about a perfect, master race. I have a feeling he wanted to sing “Hitler,” but went with “Himmler” because it was less provocative, more obscure, or both. He didn’t want to look like a Nazi sympathizer, and he had to be asking himself if he actually was one.

Bowie had a fascination with Hitler and Nazism. The seeds of it are here on Hunky Dory, though it wouldn’t enjoy full fruition until the mid-70s with Station to Station and Low. At first glance, this is disturbing. However, Bowie’s life doesn’t bear out a single iota of the hatred or evil that Hitler’s philosophy drove him to on the world stage. Bowie’s fascination with him could be just intellectual, like that of a biographer. Or if it’s not (and I find this to be more likely), it focuses on the aspects of his thought which benefit this world, or rather that don’t destroy parts of it. Even as malignant as I find the “master race” thing to be, I must admit there’s hope in the outlining of a progression of humans into something better.

Zowie & Bowie in 2009

And my previous statement still stands: Bowie would make a cool dad, even though he had sympathy for the devil Hitler. After all, Duncan hasn’t grown up into the 2nd coming of Josef Mengele, or anything close. He’s actually a filmmaker, director of the lightly sci-fi action movie Source Code. The movie was every bit as good as critics said it was (Rotten Tomatoes gave it 91%). Goob job, Zowie.

Missing Link

Hunky Dory – David Bowie – 12/17/1971

The music video for “Life On Mars?” is as simple and low budget as can be. The whole thing is just Bowie in a white, unadorned room. You might not know he was in a 3-dimensional space. There are some camera pans and some close-ups, but that’s the extent of photographic acrobatics. All the focus is on Bowie himself; quite on purpose, he looks like an alien. He has near-white skin, baby blue eye makeup with accentuated eyelashes, and a nimbus of bright orange hair. He’s impeccably dressed in a blue sequined suit with a stripy tie. To top it all off, he’s talking about Mars.

Okay, he just mentions Mars. The song has Mars in the title, but it’s not really about Mars. It’s about a disaffected youth who wants to escape the confines of literally everything in this earthly life. There’s no space alien conceit or ridiculous drama about the world ending (that comes later). But there is a continuation of Bowie’s longing for transcendence, existential quandaries and frustration with his own human body, just like on The Man Who Sold the World. But the difference from his 3rd album to his 4th is the complete musical turnaround. Goodbye dreary doom rock, hello over-the-top glam.

Hunky Dory is the missing link between David Bowie’s confused and dark lurking on Sold the World and his focused blast of “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” on Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. There’s a wide gap there, and the jump from his gothic French man-dress persona to the wild and flashy Ziggy makes absolutely no sense, lyrically or musically, without Hunky Dory. But thanks to the transitional form from fossil to fossil, Bowie crystallizes, and what a glorious crystal it is.

In a way, Hunky Dory is a slight backpedaling, harkening back musically to the Space Oddity days. “Changes” is vaguely reminiscent of “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” though much more ironic and kitschy. It was just a toss-off for Bowie, but went on to become on his most enduring and famous songs, covered more than any other Bowie song. It even closed the show on his last concert before he officially retired from public performance.

From about age 12 to today, one of my favorite movies has been The Breakfast Club. Besides being very witty and well-written, it’s an intensely interesting sociological study. The first time I saw it, I snuck downstairs when my parents were showing it to the youth group they lead (I think they knew I was there). After the opening credits, there’s a title card before the movie actually starts. It reads:

And these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to you consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

the younger you are, the dumber you are

I had no idea this was from ”Changes,” or even who the heck David Bowie was. So when I heard “Changes” for the first time years later, I thought, “hey, it’s The Breakfast Club!” It only took me a second to realize I had reversed things. When I saw the quote in The Breakfast Club, I should have said, “hey, it’s David Bowie!” I kinda give some credence to the theory that the younger you are, the dumber you are.

“Oh, You Pretty Things!” has even more kitsch and camp to it, but the bouncy and ironic music hides a sinister undertone in the lyrics. It speaks of the “Homo-superior;” for the first time, Bowie is announcing the transcendence of humanity he yearned for on Sold the World, triumphantly announcing the demise of the human race. And don’t mistake him; he’s definitely not suggesting that we can all become something greater in a fluffy, “everyone is beautiful” way. No, he’s laughing about there being a new form of life on the planet, a greater form, and all the rest of us are going to die out. Great for Bowie, not so great for us.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “I’m not schizophrenic, and neither am I.” While clever, this joke is horribly inaccurate. Schizophrenia is a wildly misunderstood thing, being more of an umbrella term than an actual diagnosis. Saying “he’s schizophrenic” is kinda like saying “this book has a red cover.” It doesn’t actually tell you very much about the book. Psychologists must be beating their heads against boards every time they hear this joke.

It should actually go, “I don’t have dissociative identity disorder, and neither do I.” Just doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way, does it? The DSM defines DID as “the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behavior.” There’s usually memory loss; one personality doesn’t remember what the other one did.

Ed Norton in Primal Fear

A semi-famous example is the movie Primal Fear, where Edward Norton plays a young guy on trial for a murder that his other personality committed. He’s a mild-mannered and scared boy on the stand, but in the climax, his lawyer goads his killer personality into revealing himself. The switch is very sudden and startling.

Bowie didn’t exactly have DID, but he did have a sense of their being multiple shades of himself, with different Bowie-shades having more of the forefront at different times. The seeds for his Ziggy Stardust persona, the Thin White Duke, and all his shifting public faces first get planted on The Man Who Sold the World, but particularly on the title song.

The key to interpreting “The Man Who Sold the World” lies with a poem by Hughes Mearns. Here’s the last stanza:

Last night I saw upon the stair / A little man who wasn’t there / He wasn’t there again today / Oh, how I wish he’d go away

Mearns speaks of a splitting of the self, an evil twin you know intimately but have no control over. People sometimes say “I’m not myself today.” That‘s a glib and miniature version of this phenomenon.

While not even close to diagnosable, Bowie is having a dual-personality moment on “The Man Who Sold the World.” Like the one/two guys in the poem, each Bowie is aware of the other, which cancels out the “dissociative” part. The journey he’s been on for the almost-rest of the album (it’s track #8) has lead him through disconnect after disconnect with society and normalcy, eventually ending here where he truly meets himself. He thought he had killed his evil twin long ago, but it was there all the time. Eventually it stopped mattering where one Bowie ended and the next began. This disintegration of the self can only result in rebuilding it, which is what the rest of Bowie’s career is all about.

The cap is a rather epic and gothic piece of metal-pop crunch, “The Supermen.” The prodigious use of the timpani recalls Also Sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss’ musical interpretation of the Nietzsche book of the same name. To quote Bowie himself:

“I was still going through the thing when I was pretending that I understood Nietzsche… And I had tried to translate it into my own terms to understand it so ‘Supermen’ came out of that.”

This gives me a little chuckle. “Pretending that I understood Nietzsche” seems a lot like what every early 20s college graduate does with any philosopher. A cardinal rule: when it comes to philosophy, you don’t have to know what you’re talking about; you just have to know more that the people you’re talking to.

The Man Who Sold the World, like every David Bowie albums, exists outside of time. You really can’t hear the time period intruding into the music, and there’s almost no indication of what era it belongs to. His 40+ year-long career has taken him to all sorts of weird places in the musical world (German sythpop and drum-and-bass and new wave and “plastic soul”), and few of them have been where there were a lot of footprints before his. There are only a handful of musical acts that have been around as long as he has, and none of them have aged as well. Age doesn’t seem to have any meaning for Bowie, nor does time. He’ll probably be around when history catches up to his visions.