by Ron Ross / Words & Music
Might one suggest that “the longer one studies life and literature, the more strongly one feels that behind everything that is wonderful stands the individual, and that it is not the moment that makes that man, but the man who creates the age.” Thus it is that David Bowie, the very essence of Tutti Frutti and Trendiness Incarnate, may come to represent to rock and roll in the 1970s the ideal of artist as critic that Oscar Wilde so languorously advanced as ultimately desirable some 75 years ago. In any given serving of rock and roll stew, groups like the Rolling Stones and The Who will be the meat and potatoes of our cultural sustenance, but rare individuals like David Bowie are the gravy that surrounds and defines the taste and texture of the staple elements, refining them as it seeks it’s own level in the pot of miscellany.
Bowie is paradoxically the most facile and the most profound of rock actors: he incorporates the kosmic kuteness of Mark Bolan, the working class narrowness of spirit of Rod Stewart, the strutting sexual versatility of Mick Jagger, the deliberate destructive perversity of Alice Cooper, and the pained self-imposed alienation of “non-actors” such as Cat Stevens and James Taylor, all seemingly undercut by the popular staginess of a matinee idol in the mold of Anthony Newley. Bowie is as Hollywood as the Byrds, Jackie Curtis, or Gloria Swanson, as didactic as an eighteen century essayist, as concerned with mutability as the greatest of British myth-makers, Edmund Spencer, and as compassionately observant of middle-class “tragedy” as the James Joyce of the Dubliners. David Bowie, his pedigree aside, is one bitch of a rocker.
Our story begins somewhat after David had absorbed both Little Richard and John Coltrane, seizing upon the tenor sax as his first instrument. After graduation from prep school, Bowie underwent the first of several splits in his personality. A Bond Street advertising firm (where one imagines he spent his time drawing shoes in the manner of Andy Warhol) and various prototypical pop groups divided his time and his talent. His original surname of Jones having been appropriated by the notoriously chewy Monkee, David changed his name to “Bowie” and soon after he acquired the razor edge couched-in popular pulpiness that became his trademark in the dear old Deram days of his first album.
He sang about life, love and death in middle-class England with a uniquely lush feeling for almost anti-rock arrangements and a startling penchant for moral didacticism, which vacillated between irony and pronouncement. Bowie’s literary skills on these early songs are remarkably sophisticated, taking fairly complex concepts of persona, tone, and dramatic (if not musical) structure for granted. His vignettes, especially Uncle Arthur and She’s Got Medals, though closely related to the Kinksy tradition of pub crawlers and boxty-pudding types, encompass moral and sexual stances that are radically uncomfortable for “popular” tunes. Although unhappiness is the predominant mood, Bowie, unlike most of his rocking contemporaries, is careful not to lay the blame on any one side of the generation gap. Rather, there is the more frightening implication that “we are all hungry men”, trapped regardless of age by our limited mentalities.
Beyond the Rolling Stones’ admonition to “Stop and look around,” Bowie’s moral overview constantly refers the meanness of his subjects to an apocalyptic post-war technologized society, where children comprehend their elders’ inability to cope, run away to the cities, join in-crowds, and die on the vine, as disenchanted with the “London Boys” as they were with their parents. The Songs are almost always written from the viewpoint of the “poet”, who sees and feels too much as though he dreaded being sucked into the drain himself. He empathizes with others, while his moral conclusions set him apart from them.
Nevertheless, one number, “When I Live My Dream”, a trite collapse of a love song, won Bowie several Grammy-type awards in Europe. With what we may imagine was characteristic petulance, he “retired” from pop after this first major effort, which had neither freed him financially to follow his muse, nor established the kind of audience / performer relationship he was seeking. A Bhuddist monastery and a mime troupe occupied him in the interval between Love You ‘Till Tuesday and David Bowie: Man of Words / Man of Music. Twixt the two lay a world of difference.
Superficially, the first album had been mainstream pop-oriented as was Cat Stevens’, whose “Matthew and Son” was one of Deram’s first successes towards the hit single. No less than Cat did Bowie want mass popularity, but he was concerned then, as he has been ever since, that people would like him for the wrong reasons, buying his records but then failing to pierce the stylistic surface. 1969 marked his return to music, with a new label, a new image, and a new album. Bowie’s religious studies apparently lent to his new songs a mythic and mystical element that he synthesized into moral fables of entire worlds in the process of violent change, with a slant rather more metaphysical than political. A full-face portrait fills the cover of the first Mercury album which pictures David as blond, blue-eyed, and altogether beautiful. His halo of curls are radiant with light from an unknown source and his careful coiffure equidistant from either Mick Jagger or Paul Newman, but conveying the same kind of self-confident sexuality as both. Such portraiture was to become a built-in comment on Bowie’s continuing search for an audience, each photo signaling a change of art as well as image.
The only “mature” album with simply bad songs on it, Man of Words, has at times a James Taylor and Mr. Hyde quality, when doubtlessly its weaker moments were intended to be personal, intimate, and terminally soulful. In terms of vocal self-confidence and lyric content, however, songs like Space Oddity and The Cygnet Committee are not only major steps towards musical originality, but fairly clear prototypes for themes that Bowie would express with less elaboration in the future. Yet the extent to which love songs like Letter To Hermione and An Occasional Dream foreshadow the approach of Cat Stevens and James Taylor, testifies to the validity of Bowie’s intuition as to which pop forms would communicate. He erred only in choosing those forms for himself, thus denying time to his own, more special, if less easygoing, styles.
Space Oddity, while it demonstrates an appreciation of pop convention that was rewarded by its popularity, is also notable as the first important example of Bowie’s peculiar use of music as a metaphor. On one level, the now extremely self-possessed Bee Gee style vocal places the tune in the tradition of melodramatic narratives such as New York Mining Disaster. On another, Herbie Flowers’ Beatle-bass and Paul Buckmaster’s strings allow the music to shift with the tone of the lyrics. Technology is contrasted with God’s love and placed in God’s hands in the void, astronaut “Major Tom”, floating helplessly but happily, opts for outer space. This feeling of passiveness, as opposed to the petty mechanics of even a space flight, will become a recurring aspect of Bowie’s thought. Space Oddity was the first of his myths for our time, and one hopes, not coincidentally, a smash single.
A self-consciously sentimentalized reminiscence of a be-in, Memory of a Free Festival is thematically important. It is the first meeting of Bowie’s New Man, as represented by young people who claim the “very source of joy”, and visitors from another planet, who come in a sun machine to give a party. The “memory” of the title indicates that Bowie perceived the irony of marching songs like Woodstock and We Can Be Together before the fact. Overall, Man of Words shows Bowie caught between a side of his art that confused the “warmth” of James Taylor with the authority of Dylan, and a side that no sooner conceptualized what would become the Jefferson Starship, that he backed off from it, apparently judging it rhetorical and incapable of realization. The failure of cohesion reminds one that Bowie had chosen to be a musician instead of a poet, and having made that decision, it would become harder for him to come up with the right music for his metaphors than vice versa. The problem was solved by the brilliant, if spectacularly, non-commercial Man Who Sold The World. The cover art for the British version of the album is the most gorgeous Bowie portrait ever, as well as the most characteristically outrageous. David’s hair flows freely to his shoulders as he reclines aristocratically upon a blue velvet divan, bathed in diffused light, and attired in a splendidly rich-looking satin ball gown, with no make-up to speak of and the wreckage of a game of solitaire before him. The songs themselves present one paradox after another, designed to cut the listener off from his own capacity to judge “objectively”, even as they hold him at arm’s length from the singer. This is the first of Bowie’s “rock” albums, galvanized by a style that would have been impossible before Cream, but which raises the unleashed power of High Energy to a level that would be cathartic, were catharsis not a luxury that Bowie intentionally rejects.
Despite extremely literate lyrics, the stellar production and ineffably heavy bass of Tony Visconti, and Mick Ronson’s almost unbearably searing fluency on guitar, this is Bowie’s hardest album to hear. Had we been ready for the full aesthetic implications of the style pioneered by the Yardbirds, Cream and Jimi Hendrix-Bowie and his band might have inaugurated a new era of rock sensibility. Yet, even today, Man Who Sold The World hides its logic for listening after listening before falling into place on its own terms. Today the second Mercury LP is an orphan of the cut-out bin, buried with the tedious product of countless anonymous lead heavies.
Immediately accessible are Bowie’s exercise in various contemporary rock idioms. Black Country Rock is a fiercely bouncy tribute to the now renowned Marc Bolan quaver, and She Shook Me Cold is a killer Cream blues, comparable in attitude only to Hendrix’s Dolly Dagger, and interestingly, a complete reversal of the Heart of Stone premise of rock ego. In Bowie’s number, a sexually adroit and heartless youth gets a come-uppance that would resemble existential despair, if our hero wasn’t so paradoxically anxious for more. Bowie sings with an authority and a command of shifting tone that implies that he knows what’s going on. But we never know for sure.
The Man Who Sold The World includes David’s most original songs despite what eventually becomes a token similarity to metal music. All the Madmen is a study in insanity as a deliberately chosen life-style, with its passivity and irresponsibility symbolized by Bowie’s apparent advocation of lobotomy. All of the cuts are longish, permitting the band, stripped to a hard rock core of four, to stretch out; but surprisingly melodic arrangements structure even the most wild instruments interludes. Although Running Gun Blues and Saviour Machine are among Bowie’s most economically bitter statements on the immorality of technology and the near impossible responsibilities of free will, the album’s greatest strength is its application of what in other hands would be a limited and redundant style. Better than the most revered practitioners of dynamite dynamics, Bowie appreciated the mentality behind HEAVY.
A creation of second-generation psychedelicized rockers, what had originally been a revolutionary approach as exemplified by Cream and the Experience, quickly degenerated into an easy habit for fans more into downers and alcohol than acid and grass. To listen to Zeppelin’s You Shook Me was to give up the possibility or responding to any musical subtlety whatsoever, allowing oneself to fall into the music’s bottom-heavy and reassuring predictability. By framing his paradoxes with a more articulate variation on this same style, manipulating his production to limit the range of tone even further, Bowie pierced to the heart of psychological dependence of our inborn mental and moral laziness.
“Hold on to nothing, and [man] won’t let you down”, David advises, and though he offers awe-inspiring instrumental virtuosity on the one hand, he requires that one accept disorientation and emotional anarchy as the price of a heavy backbeat. Like the English cover picture, the music within seduces the listener with its flash, simultaneously disallowing both mental and physical nod-outs. Most of us didn’t get it.
So the David Bowie of the Man Who Sold the World could hardly have been the Cat Stevens or Elton John Mercury had hoped for when they signed him, and the sales from his two albums for the label did not appear to justify the value of his being merely himself. After a work permit to perform in the U.S. was denied him, Bowie and Mercury parted company, probably to the relief of both. Some months later David re-emerged more determined than ever to swell his following with yet another kind of album on yet another label, RCA, who to their credit reasoned that given Bowie’s flair for the dramatic, he would either make it huge or not at all. One of David’s greatest advantages has been despite his chronic obscurity and his seeming lack of commercial potential, he consistently engages ever growing numbers of fans who admire him with the loyalty of pop phenomena is made. His fourth album, Hunky Dory, set him up with a working band, a new stylistic flexibility, and an image destined to tickle even Andy Warhol to the roots of his platinum hair.
There is an off-centeredness to Hunky Dory, derived from David’s persistent split in focus: these are songs of both fathers and sons. Oh You Pretty Things, for example is aimed at young adolescents but the voice seems to be that of an older outsider observing the ch-ch-ch-changes they’re going through. On the other hand, Kooks is a tuneful ditty on the lines of Your Mother Should Know, which attempts to seduce a young child into staying with his hopelessly kookie parents, namely Bowie and his wife Angie.
In fact, all of Side One is a loosely unified view of the coming race as seen from a flying saucer. Yet this sense of disinvolvement does not prevent Bowie from holding up to the way adolescents whose self-awareness he seems to be trying to raise-an image of his blond-tressed androgynous self as a point of reference. And while the subjects of Bowie’s songs have grown progressively younger, his techniques have become sophisticated to a point where he seems to address himself to an unusually sensitive minority.
There is much surface fascination in the music itself, produced by Ken Scott with a Beatle-like clarity and economy. Gone is the wall of sound of M.W.S.T.W., and its place is sparse and the tasty arrangements that brings out Bowie’s voice, and just as importantly, his words and attitude. The vocals are finely interpreted theatrical performances, eschewing a need for production gimmicks that would presume to change his voice for him, as they sometimes did of necessity on earlier recordings. While the structure of individual songs is as free-form as ever, the cumulative effect is also Bowie’s clearest statement ever.
He comes out strongly for the children, warning them to avoid the “saccharin and trust” that comprise the “whale of a lie” the generation in power to seek to perpetuate. “Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief”, Bowie exhorts impotently in Quicksand, describing the state of mind of a youth caught in the cosmic changes between two ways of life. His decadence is clearly unsatisfactory, though cannily romanticized: Bowie realizes that rock fans want their heroes on the edge. In spite of the confusion, one point stands out: “Let me make it plain”, a somewhat out of character Bowie explains in another song, “You gotta make way for the homo superior.” Oh you kid. Hunky Dory promulgates the teen revolution mainly through isolated examples, considering them hardly at all as a part of groups. Although the victory of the homo superior over the outmoded homo sapien is a recurring theme on the first RCA album, Bowie’s latest opus, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, concentrates science-fictionally on the type represented in Quicksand, who in this clockwork epic plays the “wild mutation” as a rock and roll star in the last five years Earth has left to live. Bowie has gone out of his way to identify himself and his band with Ziggy (ne Iggy?) and his group, the Spiders from Mars. While his approach allows much less room for a variety of stances, the songs’ single-minded amorality and their incredible rocking accessibility should prove to be Bowie’s most rewarding pose ever. Beneath its 2001 gleam, Ziggy Stardust is one the first and most pertinent of commentaries on the rock ego as manipulated by such crowd-pleasers as Alice and Mick.
The album is performed entirely by the band with which Bowie has been closely associated since M.W.S.T.W.. Mick Ronson, whose protean lead guitar shines through his apt arrangements; Woody Woodmansey, a drummer whose vocabulary spans Ringo Starr to Keith Moon; Trevor Bolder on bass; and Ziggy-excuse us, David-on almost all vocals, acoustic guitar, and doo-wop saxophone. All of them wear Bowie-blessed costumes on stage, and their repertoire includes Bowie’s first real interpretive performances, Chuck Berry’s Round and Round, Beck/Paged to give you more of what you buy rock for, and the oft-covered but seldom well done, It Ain’t Easy. And Ziggy’s glad that you’re a Spider too. There is a loose plot to the album, motivated by the manic depression of adolescence in apocalypse. The music is mostly straight-ahead sixties rock and roll, and all resemblance’s to other groups, living or dead are merely a function of going forward into the past. Introduced and eliminated on Side Two, Ziggy is a compelling droogie, ultimately and almost tragically effete, but endlessly tantalizing as a manifestation of teen ego run amuck, an end in itself, justifiable, if you want it to be, in light of the imminent end of all. He is impossible, definitely an ineffectual sop against the full comprehension of man’s final lost opportunity. Homo sapiens indeed.
For all his glitter and loaded lubricity, Ziggy is a warning as clear as a red light, but after midnight, traffic signals are optional anyway. Such futuristic teen tunes as Moonage Daydream and Hang On To Yourself reduces sex, love and kicks to a merely mechanical expenditure of energy, dovetailing trendally with the violent fantasies of A Clockwork Orange, but it’s all right. As a matter of fact, it’s a gas. And to top if all off, this eleven-layer fudge cake of an album should bring David Bowie closer to a Time/Life cover than all of his more reasonably modulated work. The entire record says, “Now or Never”, and perhaps that’s what rock is all about-doing It now and Doing it like you’ll never get a change to do it again. In any event, Ziggy is certainly a more resonantly relevant concept than Tarkus or Karen Carpenter, and easily the most evocative pop-protagonist since Tommy.
The problems with Bowie’s newest image are a bit too obvious, unfortunately. If he does succeed in capturing the teenage imaginations he so facilely reflects on the album, will he be locked in by his new fans’ presumption that he and Ziggy are interchangeable? Will a mass following accept a more modest masterpiece like Hunky Dory having feasted on Ziggy’s bones? And if teens aren’t won over by even such instant classics as the wholesomely ingenuous fuck-song Suffragette City, will Bowie consider it worthwhile to continue to cultivate a following of enlightened rock critics who to virtually a man/woman have never had to pay for the pleasure of his company? It’s all academic, since David and company are very likely to kick more sonic ass in concert here than any group since the Stones. John Lennon once sang, “Now June-yah behave yourself!” Let it suffice that David Bowie has said, “Ooh look out you rock and rollers…”