Friday, October 3, 2014

"You're NOT alone!" (Ziggy the Subversive)

David Bowie IS . . . Ziggy Stardust!
Last night I finally saw the Spiders.

I'm referring, of course, to the Spiders from Mars - and I "saw" them in the Pennebaker film of their performance at the Hammersmith Odeon (London) on July 3, 1973.

I originally expected to see the Spiders -- together, of course, with Ziggy Stardust -- when I went with friends to the David Bowie concert at Radio City Music Hall on or about Saturday, November 2, 1974.  Yes, yes, I knew Bowie's material would be somewhat different than the Ziggy persona -- but I somehow hadn't gotten the memo that Bowie was on to a totally new phase - epitomized by the cool nostalgia of "Young Americans."

So, though last night's film outing was a kind of baptism for me, I did come with some background (different, I couldn't help musing, than the background brought, for instance, by the enthusiastic fan in the front row of the theater who seemed to know all the routines yet certainly was born long after the Hammersmith Odeon performance) . . .

(a) On the one hand, I didn't really know what Ziggy was about: I knew some bits of lyrics, but they didn't really make sense. ("suffragette city"?)

Glam rock artist, c. 1973, Chatham, NJ
(Note transgressive fringed guitar strap!)
(b) On the other hand, I totally knew what Ziggy was about: in high school I played in a band, and not only did we cover a lot of the songs from the Ziggy Stardust album, we were devoted students of a very talented local band whose covers of those songs inspired us to cover the Ziggy oeuvre.

(c) As a member of a rock band, I was alert to alternative outlooks and yearning to go somewhere else and be someone different. (Personally, I was hoping to be Jimi Hendrix.)

(d) I grew up a conventional boy in a conventional (white affluent suburban American) community. In fact, when I went to that David Bowie concert in November, 1974, I know it had to be the Saturday night performance because I was playing high school football at the time and that was the only day of the week that I could possibly have gone to a concert in NYC.

So as I watched Ziggy for the first time last night, I asked myself, "What is it? What is it? What is the frisson that one feels? It's part charisma, part sexuality, partly the thrill of gender-bending, partly adolescent rebellion . . . . But what is it that Ziggy did (and does) for so many people?" (It can't be a single thing, can it?)



Ziggy: sui generis


One reason the Pennebaker film is worth taking the time to watch (e.g. on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLihS7KVvqI ) is for the shots of the fans. The emotional reaction is powerful. And yet all those thousands of people can't all be reacting for the same reason, can they?

I know it is the business of every rock star to connect to with the audience, and yet . . . .

"I'm an alligator!"
The audaciousness of Bowie's skimpy blouse, exposing his stringy legs, takes you to a number of places, but ends up landing on simple intimacy, I think.

And the timing of his saucy grins and winks and twerks are hard to interpret as anything other than in invitation. (Again, this doesn't come through in the stills - you've gotta see the film.)

Making love with his ego Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah
When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band


As a past practitioner, I felt a sublime pleasure at the transcendent feeling accomplished with a few lights shone on a mirrored disco ball and an unconventional chord progression:

"Here am I sitting in my tin can"
I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

By the end, I'm not sure I was any more clear on what it was all about, though I had lots of snippets of impressions.

There's a starman waiting in the sky
Hed like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds


As the performance draws to a close, Bowie tells the audience that he and the band will remember the Hammersmith Odeon concert in particular because it's the last stop on the tour; and . . .

Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do.

(Hey, we'd barely got started? And you're talking about finality and impermanence?)

I don't know if the term "queer studies" existed in 1973, or if people had begun to think about the connections between social convention, sexuality and gender, individual expression, and political power. My initial impulse is to say "I certainly wasn't" and "My peers in Chatham certainly weren't" . . . but then maybe that's not right . . . .


The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
RCA Records, 1972 ("TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME")


Maybe the truth is that it is exactly through inchoate expressions and acts of subversion of the conventional that we are given permission to start the process of thinking different.

So now a journey begins: trying to remember, how has my thinking evolved? What are the stepping stones toward freedom.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ends with a performance of "Rock and Roll Suicide" and with remarkable interaction between Bowie and the crowd as wave after wave of the chorus washes over the hall:

You're WONderful!
Gimme your hands!
You're NOT alone!

What is Ziggy saying to you?


David Bowie, July 3, 1973, Hammersmith Odeon: "Gimme your hands!"


Check out the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago through January 4, 2015: David Bowie Is


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