Tag Archive: Ziggy Stardust


Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - 11/18/1974

Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – 11/18/1974

In 1973, Peter Gabriel was concerned about including some sort of English conceit in the title of Genesis’s next album. He was aware that there was a sentiment among their English fandom that they were getting too American. I’m not really sure what that looks like, but I think I can imagine what getting too British might be. If Bruce Springsteen were to suddenly take an interest in cricket or start saying “bloody hell” in more than an ironic sense, I might get suspicious.

In reaction, Peter and the rest of Genesis doubled down and made their 1973 record Selling England By the Pound particularly and conspicuously British. The cover art was by a British painter, the first two songs had a British feel to the lyrics, and the title both had “England” in it and was drawn from a contemporary English political slogan. There ya go – English fans sated.

13 months later, that concern was apparently all gone. Just as their 5th album had “England” in the title, their 6th had “Broadway” in the title. What American isn’t familiar with Broadway? And just as Selling England featured Britain and British attitudes, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway centers on New York City and things Americans understand. The main character of this concept album lives in Manhattan! The story starts in Times Square! If Gabriel is still trying to soothe his British fans into thinking he’s still British, he’s doing a really crappy job.

artwork from The Amory Wars saga

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a concept album, which as I’ve explained before is a mostly useless term. In The Lamb, however, it finds its most useful definition, as well as other albums like it. The term “rock opera” better describes The Lamb and other albums like it (Quadrophenia and Tommy from The Who, Snow by Spock’s Beard, The Hazards of Love from the Decemberists, as well as the multiple Amory Wars albums by Coheed and Cambria). They do more than simply tell a story – Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust do that, but they’re not really in the same division as rock operas.

The Lamb is one of the only rock operas I like. The rock opera is fraught with peril – when you write one, you’re balancing on the razor edge between legitimate and ridiculous. What’s meant to be serious can very easily come off as stupid. The slightest miscalculation on your part, and your audience becomes aware it’s all a show, and starts to laugh. When that happens, you’ve lost them. It’s like a marionette show – the best ones are the ones where you can’t see the strings.

On The Lamb, Genesis plays some pretty risky games with plot and characterization (like the only cure to a horribly disfiguring disease being castration…), but it comes out clean on the other end due to… I’m not really sure what. The only explanation I can come up with for my high regard for it is that I first experienced it when I was a teenager, after my gaga-for-Genesis phase, but before I became a really critical thinker. I still swallowed some things whole, and Genesis still had that sugary candy coating. And I guess it’s still there in my stomach, unlike most other rock operas which sped through my system quite quickly.

But I also love The Lamb because it’s so fascinating. Every inch of it takes deep analysis and concentrated study to understand, and even then you only scratch the surface. In that way, it’s very similar to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; isn’t it ironic that what draws me in about The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is the same thing that keeps me at arms’ length from “The Waste Land”?

Next: Rael, Imperial Aerosol Kid

Concept-ish

My wife is really smart. I’m smart too, in my own way, but she’s smart in a way that’s much more acknowledged by the world. She even has a PhD to back it up. Not only is she a lecturer in chemistry at a very large state-run university, but she’s in charge of an entire lab space that is about 20x the size of our apartment. She has a very analytical mind, and she’s pretty good at ferreting out the truth of a thing as long as the information given to her is accurate. She has a phrase for when something seems legit, but isn’t: it’s a “bunch a’ hooey.”

bonus points/ridicule if you can name all 4 people on this cover

Several things have qualified for the bunch-a’-hooey status in her mind, but in mine, a chief one is the “concept album.” The best bead I can get on the definition of a concept album is that it has a unified idea that it puts forward. Back in February, when I started this blog, I mentioned that all the best albums are like this, that indeed this is something of a requirement for it to be considered an album and not just a collection of songs.

I looked up lists of the greatest concept albums of all time and found things like Sgt. Pepper, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Ziggy Stardust. With those, you could be just prattling off the easiest answers to “best album of all time” and avoiding telling me anything about concept albums. Still others were so obscure they’re hardly worth mentioning. Paste Magazine’s list was 90% you’ve-probably-never-heard-of-them. I forgot for a second that Paste may as well be called Hipsters Only.

Despite the questionable status of the term, it’s generally agreed upon that The Dark Side of the Moon is the best concept album of all time. To the rock music press in general, this is the Mack Daddy Holy Bible of all albums, in some cases trumping even IV and the mighty Sgt. Pepper. I respectfully disagree; it’s not even the best Pink Floyd album. And if the definition of “concept album” is just “it has a theme,” there are albums with much stronger themes that stick to them more.

Reading all this, you would think I don’t hold The Dark Side of the Moon in very high esteem, so I didn’t do a very god job of representing my thoughts. Let me be clear: The Dark Side of the Moon is AWESOME. It’s hard to believe this album was made in 1973; it seems about 10 years ahead of its time. It’s still influencing musicians even to this day. It doesn’t behave like normal albums of music do, but it doesn’t spiral down to esoteric obscurity as you would expect. It innovative and different while still having loads of appeal, which is a difficult trick to pull off.

The Dark Side of the Moon’s theme (it does actually have one) is madness. The album goes through phases that highlight a particular thing that drives people towards insanity. I can’t say it moves from song to song, since Dark Side is much fuzzier than that. There are 9 tracks (and technically 10 songs), but only four subjects are explored, with an intro and outro speaking about insanity in general terms.

The beginning of the first phase, the intro, is just a collection of sound effects that occur elsewhere on the album. “Speak to Me” isn’t really a song; instead, it includes a heartbeat, ticking clocks, helicopter noises, the sounds of a cash register, and some frantic screaming. “Speak to Me” also contains parts of a series of interviews Roger Waters had with members of Pink Floyd’s band crew, as well as people who just happened to be in the studio at the time. Waters started the interviews with mundane questions like “What is your favorite color?” Then he moved on to things like “When was the last time you were violent?” followed by “Were you in the right?” Everyone was a little sheepish with the former, but vehement in the affirmative with the latter. A female interviewee talk about an altercation she had with an older gentleman, saying “that geezer was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”

This leads directly from a backwards cymbal crash into the next song, “Breathe.” This is what Floyd is known for; soft, spacey music that both excites and woos. “Breathe” discusses madness in terms of doing what’s expected of you by everyone from society to your girlfriend. According to Pink Floyd, that leads to insanity. There must be a lot of insane people out there, then…

Henry David Thoreau, the original punk rocker (I’m only half kidding)

But maybe, just maybe, that’s the point Pink Floyd is trying to make. In another song, “Time,” the lyrics are “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and the Floyd calls on Thoreau’s tradition of absolute liberty and freedom to pursue any dream that enters your head to combat the attitude of complacency and inactivity. By falling in line, doing what you’re told and fulfilling everyone else’s expectations of you, you may be ignoring yourself and thus losing yourself. And what is insanity if not what happens to you once you lose yourself?

Next: an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone…

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.

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.

Bowie’s In Space!

Bret and Jemaine

I was spending a weekend in the Boston area back in 2007 or so. A bunch of us were hanging out when my friend Nancy said I just HAD to see something. She got her laptop and went to YouTube, excited as a schoolgirl, and searched for “Flight of the Conchords.” Then I saw Bret and Jemaine performing “Robots” live. My first thought was that it was a little hard to take seriously (it’s a parody, so you’re probably not supposed to). I rolled my eyes infuriatingly, looked at Nancy with smirking condescension and said, “Really?” She ignored me, bless her heart, and just laughed hysterically.

Nancy’s always been on a different wavelength than me, which makes her completely indispensible. She’s more than a friend; she’s a sister. Even though you may disagree with your sister over some pretty big things, your relationship never disintegrates because you love each other, and nothing is big enough to change that.

It took a little while, but by the time their TV show had finished its first season, Flight of the Conchords were my favorite musical comedy act behind Weird Al. Without question, my favorite song of theirs is “Bowie,” a moment where David Bowie (played by Jemaine) comes to Bret in a dream to guide him with his out-of-this-universe wisdom – while suspended in mid-air, ‘cause it’s awesome. The song is a trip through the ever-shifting styles of Bowie’s prodigious career, and the lyrics are about Bowie traveling through space to meet his doppelganger, hitting the most ridiculous aspects of his personality (spaceships, jumpsuits, “that’s pretty far out”) in a mocking yet reverential and adoring way. It’s great.

this is David Bowie

I’ll admit that Bowie’s an entity that I still don’t completely understand. Recently, my wife asked me, “So why do you like David Bowie?”, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer. His weirdness and spacey mysticism are at once bizarre and appealing to me. A large part of that is his androgyny. He challenges the conventions of gender in a complicated way, not like his imitators who think gender-bending means simply a man wearing makeup or a woman shaving her head. For him, gender seems to melt away, becoming of no consequence. He’s almost a third gender, one that sees no distinction between male and female, or at least sees the differences as not important.

This androgyny is just a piece of what 70s Bowie was really about, which was transcending his humanity to become something greater. Bowie (or at least his public character) didn’t fit in with any of the “normal” people; it got to the point where he started asking himself some fundamental questions. He somehow went from being an “abnormal person” to not a “person” at all. If not a person, what was he? That question is what he spent the entire 70s trying to answer.

this is also David Bowie; I know, right?

He’s not the first person to explore this theme. Friedrich Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and Franz Kafka are all cited by Bowie as influences during this period. He takes it to a different place then them, though, because his presentation is more visual, easier to grab hold of. His conclusions are different, too. Kafka, for instance, saw the transformation of man to end with something gruesome, but Bowie has a more open-ended outlook.

During the 70s – and even beyond – Bowie was on a journey to discover who he was. That journey’s most dramatic period is in ’72 to ’73, when he was playing the character of Ziggy Stardust. But it begins with The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, where we see Bowie at war with his own humanness. More than this, though, is that he made some astoundingly good music during this period. Strip away everything else and that still remains.

Thursday: the many phases and faces of Bowie