David Bowie and Falling Glitter
By 1973, my mother was used to the Beatles. She even found parts of Bob Dylan's New Morning "nice" and was no longer aurally traumatized by the Rolling Stones. I didn't play her George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," but if I had it might have induced her to hum. Rock was in desperate straits. The only thing that could turn her stomach was the cover-photo of Alladin Sane featuring David Bowie coiffed, made-up and naked. She thought the music was disgusting, too. I listened to a lot of Bowie that year.
Bowie put rebellion back into rock. Other rock stars had become complacent and self-satisfied by turning to God, family and country music--Ziggy Stardust (as Bowie dubbed the rock permutation of his chameleon self) was a kick in the pants. Homosexuality was shocking and Ziggy flaunted it in both dress and verse. There was no question about his stance after hearing "Queen Bitch":
She's an old time ambassador
Of sweet talking, night walking games
And she's known in the darkest clubs
For pushing ahead of the dames
If she says she can do it
She can do it, She don't make false claims
For she's a Queen...
She's so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh god I could do better than that...
Sure your English Lit. teacher was letting his hair get good in the back, but was he ready for this?
Of course, Bowie was always more than merely jarring. To lump him with Alice Cooper, as many do, is a mistake. Despite Cooper's first name and penchant for mascara, his songs were as straight as the midwestern plains from which he came. Cooper's charm, nurtured by Zappa's aesthetic of ugliness, lies elsewhere, perhaps in the psychic territory of a sixth grader.
Unlike Cooper's mischievousness, Bowie's energetic bisexuality partook of something more profound. In projecting his adrogynous persona, Bowie expressed not just changing attitudes toward homosexuality, but he was also working out the feminist's expansive concept of sex roles. He galvanized people by presenting not just rock songs, but the glimpse of a whole other kind of life. His counter-sexuality had the electrifying effect that the counter-culture had lost. As Dylan could moralize in '66 about Mr. Jones and his closed mind, so Bowie in '73 could chide the prudes and exhort his followers in "Changes":
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their words
Are immune to your consolations
They're quite aware of what they're going thru
Don't tell them to grow up and out of it
Where's your shame
You've left us up to our necks in it
Glitter, however, was only one facet of Bowie's early work. The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane were concerned as much with mortality as with kinky sex. Bowie's lyrics reflected a fascination with aging and its immanence. On "Changes" he despairs that "Time may change me/but I can't trace time" and warns "rock'n'rollers" to turn and face the changes for ever they get older. And on "Cracked Actor" he paints a gruesome portrait of superannuated sex--"Forget that I'm fifty cause you just got paid/Suck, baby, suck, give me your head/Before you start professing that you're knocking me dead." But his evocation of transience and loss is even more vivid on "Five Years," a song that uses a cliched sci-fi formula--the sudden end of the world--to ingenious effect:
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five year left to cry in
News guy wept when he told us earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys toys electric irons and TV's
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the ta-short people
All the nobody people and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people
Futuristic sci-fi themes permeate Bowie's compositions. And for me, they increase the desperate quality of his songs. One has to be in the very depths of malaise in order to bank hopes on the possibility of star travel, extraterrestial visitors or any of the technological redemptions that Bowie offers in numbers like "Starman" or "Moonage Daydream." One of his most poignant cuts relates the paltry and vicious in everyday life, only to conclude with the mysterious chorus "Is There Life On Mars?" The frustration and loneliness is so extreme that a human solution is precluded.
The sci-fi fantasies also seemed to carry over to Bowie's music. A mastermind in the studio, he produced instrumental tracks that were almost chilling in their precision. But if you weren't bothered by the calculated flavor of it all, his instrumentals were every bit as rewarding as his lyrics. Bowie took advantage of nearly all the techniques open to him, from guitar to strings, from harmonica to horn arrangements and used them with economy and deftness. What's more, he had ace guitarist Mick Ronson at his disposal. The result was textured and complex, but at the same time forceful and rocking.
Such was the glory of Bowie's best years. Since 1973, he has contended unsuccessfully with the departure of Ronson, the waning of glitter's initial excitement, and the pressure to move from critical raves to a high place on the charts. The LP's after Alladin Sane were all disappointing. Pin Ups, a reworking of classic British hits of the sixties was a dismal failure. Bowie's vocals are so mannered to begin with that when he works with lyrics less surreal than his own he sounds like he's camping it up. Diamond Dogs was worse, an unintentional self-parody. And David Live took him out of the studio with disastrous results. A few cuts on Young American had promise, but most were leaden.
And Rolling Stone's recent interview with Bowie suggested his new material would be equally spiritless. The man who would have sold the world for rock stardom five years ago is now both morally outraged and bored by his medium. "Rock'n'roll has been bringing me down lately. It's in great danger of becoming immobile, sterile, fascist...." Bowie told Stone while disclosing mis plans to leave rock for films. Adding to our apprehensions, it was revealed that Bowie, with what one assumed to be an uninspired facility, had been turning out product faster than you can say Elton John. "Another song, that's the last thing I need. I write an album a month as it is..." a depressed Ziggy complained.
Station To Station could certainly have been composed in a month (much of it resembled "Fame," the hit single off Young American that took Bowie and John Lennon a scant 45 minutes to concoct) by a man suffering from terminal ennui, but I'm not complaining, well, not much anyway. The album is a testament to the efficiency of the Bowie machine. Stripped as he is here of many cherished pretentions (adrogynous messiah, apocalyptic visionary, etc.) and locked into a disco beat, Bowie can still captivate us. It's a creditable and also slightly curious accomplishment.
The title, Station To Station, iu apt, for there is something train-like in the crushing momentum of the disco rhythm tracks and about the sleek streamlined impersonality of the band. The cuts are longer (three fill each side), allowing songs to start out with splintering metallic rumbles that build up steam and reach a feverish, hand-clapping pitch by the ends. None of which would mean anything without the hooks, which are especially abundant and prehensile. In fact, it seems Bowie has subordinated everything to them. The musicians play anonymously (Earl Slick's keening feedback on the beginning of "Station To Station" notwithstanding), and there is little of the musical richness of earlier albums. There aren't even any strings or saxes. What Bowie has done is to concentrate his energies on creating various succinct and catchy integrations of riff and lyric. Sounds like Elton John but it's much rawer and more entrancing, particularly in the choruses, in which he chants enigmatically, "Run for the shadows/In these golden years" or wails his plea, "Stay? That's what I meant to say."
Unfortunately, the shallowness lurking behind "Golden Years" and "Stay" finally catches up with Bowie on the last cut, "Wild As The Wind," which has to be one of the most vacuous numbers he has ever penned. Even Bowie's new idol, Frank Sinatra, might think twice before crooning, "For we're creatures of the wind/Wild as the wind? I hear the sound of mandolins..." Let's pray it doesn't become his swan song.