Monday, August 22, 2011

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 13 (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars)

With thankful apologies to Chris O'Leary of Pushing Ahead of the Dame.


1. Five Years


Some say the end is near
Some say we'll see armageddon soon
I certainly hope we will. - Tool, "Aenema"


The smart money, you have to realize, was not on reaching 1978. The question was just which of the myriad of ways we might kill ourselves would pull it off. Nuclear war? Ecological disaster? Social collapse into anarchy? Doomwatch, after all, made three seasons off of cataloging the myriad of ways humanist might slaughter itself.

So it's no particular surprise that Bowie starts the album with a song of apocalypse. And a remarkably concrete song of apocalypse at that - wandering through the streets and observing the people responding to the news that the Earth has five years to live. But notably absent is any explanation of how this happened - of which disaster will befall us. All of them. None of them. In a world in which the end is an absolute certainty, the means are beside the point.

The result, as Bowie exposes, is the fetishization of disaster. The Atrocity Exhibition writ large. The news isn't that we have five years to live. It's that we have only "five years left of crying." The end is a welcome thing. This has always been the logic of Doctor Who - the appeal of looking at the monsters, of seeing the threat. The money shot of Inferno is that we finally get to see the world end in fire instead of just being teased. At last, armageddon stops blue balling us and gives us our payoff. The end of this growing agony and the cathartic release of knowing there is a genuine resolution.  Finally, the finale. At its endpoint, Bowie's song explodes from its initial yearning sorrow into a soaring football terrace song. A rousing sing-along chorus of "five years," the end turned into the anthem it always was. You'll Never Die Alone. You're Going Home in a Nuclear Fireball. Come On You Daleks.

2. Soul Love


The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. - Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle


In a world defined by its imminent apocalyptic finale, the blinding flash of the nuclear inferno becomes the light of a film projector, pressing nuclear shadows to the screen for us to watch. There is nothing but appearances in a pre-apocalyptic world. Bowie's song begins with a mother kneeling before the grave of a heroic son "who gave his life to save the slogans that hover between the headstone and her eyes, for they penetrate her grieving."

When the ultimate disaster porn spectacle has become the teleology of the world, there is nothing outside the gaudy glory of slogans. Love is nothing but an ideology, a product, another slogan. There is only idiot love, the love of love. But here again, there is a countermeasure to the bleak cynicism offered by this. The fact that love is empty, cold, a rote formal process. Our contact with each other is nothing but the empty, hollow execution of hormones and rhetoric.

And yet there is some faint remaining value. "Love descends on those defenseless" is a cynical sentiment, but still a variation of the sloganistic "love conquers all." The priest kneeling, experiencing "soul love" in the final verse, still experiences and is involved in some transformation. The singer's loneliness evolves.

The spectacle is not the end of love, but merely its reconfiguration. A love that exists in shallow images, and finds its truth in them, the nuclear shadows burnt into the walls begin, tentatively, to kiss.

3. Moonage Daydream


Oh, I'm getting it wrong again, aren't I? I'm always doing that. So many mouths. - Prisoner Zero, "The Eleventh Hour"

Detournement, the great technique of Guy Debord, provides the crucial through line from the revolutionary ethos of '68 to the savage glory of punk and post-punk. Doctor Who rarely loses contact with this arc of history. Detournement devours the debris of images scattered across the culture and spits them back in a vehement parody, parroting the culture back. As he puts it, "in a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false."

There is a roar of power chords as Bowie's vocal track spits braggadocio. "I'm an ALLIGATOR!" Another power chord. "I'm a Mamapapa comin' for YOOOOU."


The whole song - the whole album in fact - continues in this vein. The cliches of rock delivered wrong, and incoherently, with images that are as alluring as they are wrong. "You're squawking like a pink monkey bird," Bowie intones, straight-faced, as if unaware of his own absurdities. And yet out of this we get the soaring, anthemic chorus.

Watching the Ziggy Stardust concert documentary, the most interesting moment that D.A. Pennebaker manages is when he turns the camera on a single fan during the song (about 50 seconds in on that video). In religious ecstasy, she sways and dances, cradling her head in her own hands, pressing her space face close to the music, freaking out in glorious rapture.

This is the central power of Ziggy, of Bowie, of glam, and, yes, of Doctor Who - that in amidst the mad collage of spectacles it is possible to build a genuine moment of drama. This is love in the age of apocalypse. But what is crucial is that it is genuine. We do not need to take this on faith. We do not need to qualify. Stare into the electric eye of this moonage girl and the truth is clear.

4. Starman


Unknown gods who visited the primeval earth in manned spaceships - Erich von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods?


The week after The Time Monster takes its final bow, David Bowie charts with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. In many ways glam's high water act, this kicks off a phase in which David Bowie effectively has five albums out within a year as his three prior albums, Ziggy, and his followup Aladdin Sane all chart within a twelve month period. But it's Ziggy that is the spark - the album that suddenly explodes David Bowie out into the world.

And the spark that explodes Ziggy is "Starman." The lead single, first creeping into the charts with the last episode of The Time Monster. More than any other song on the album, this is the one that nods at David Bowie's past. The thing about Ziggy is that, on paper, it is in no way Bowie's best album of the early 70s. That would be Hunky Dory, the album that has "Changes," "Oh! You Pretty Things," "Life on Mars?," and "Kooks" on it. But Hunky Dory initially died on the charts with only "Life on Mars" charting as a single years later.

It wasn't until Bowie returned to the themes of his until then one-hit wonder, "Space Oddity," that he took off. But "Starman" is no sequel. Rather, it's a complete inversion. The moment of Doctor Who that tracks most straightforwardly to "Space Oddity" is The Ambassadors of Death, with its bleak and scary portrayal of space and the Doctor sitting in his tin can. This is something else. A starman, waiting in the sky, fearful that his splendor will blow our minds.

This is one of the songs where the supposed concept of the album actually distinctly makes sense. An alien love messiah cum rock star, striding from the sky to offer us salvation, an alternative to the eschatological spectacle surrounding us. Youth culture's rebellion gets stashed in plain sight, the children losing it, using it, boogying their way to a newfound nirvana, a secret midnight rebellion providing the sparkling landing lights for our freaky space age savior.

If it is not too obvious a point to make, this is where Doctor Who and Ziggy come closest to intersection, with Pertwee cast as the transcendent Starman, the great cosmic protector of Earth, the coolest damn thing ever to wear a velvet jacket.

Watch Bowie performing the song on Top of the Pops - the performance that really broke him out. Watch as at first the camera creeps around him, treating the singer not as a beloved pop star but as an object of fear to be crept around - a Doctor Who monster. And then a minute in, Bowie's phenomenal guitarist, Mick Ronson, is suddenly wrapped up in a hug from Bowie, pulled towards the microphone, alien sex god and rock star arm in arm, the cosmos itself giving us leave to boogie.

5. It Ain't Easy


Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation? - Question in a 13th century Zen Koan.

In the aforementioned concert movie, perhaps the strangest inclusion on Bowie's part is "Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud," the overtly Buddhist b-side to "Space Oddity." Let us assume that this strange inclusion on the album - a song that Chris O'Leary astutely points out is a mildly baffling inclusion given that in hindsight better-known options like "Velvet Goldmine" thrashed about on the cutting room floor - is there in what is on the album instead of that track.

"Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" is a parable of a boy on the margins of his own village, a haunting piece that describes the marginalized prophet being put to death by his village and watching in horror as the Himalayan mountain takes a revenge he never sought on his behalf. This Buddhist parable - a detachment from the material world and society, an absolute understanding of the self.

The imagery of the mountain is present in "It Ain't Easy" as well, starting with a young man looking out upon the world and seeing the places he could be. But then he returns to the world, the strange materialism of the town and the hoochie coochie women. Enlightenment runs aground in the world. The singer of this song does not have the enlightenment of the wild-eyed boy, but instead claws desperately for it as it slips endlessly from him.

Or at least that's perhaps the point. The song is a weak spot all the same, a puzzling side-ender that mostly seems to encourage flipping the record earlier. The "concept album" status of Ziggy Stardust - of all of Bowie's four great "character" records, actually - is easily overstated, and the easiest explanation for this song may well just be that it's a piece of crappy filler. But this parallels Doctor Who at least as well as Buddhist parables and starmen do. A well meaning misstep, a piece that, not for lack of trying, never quite makes sense and never quite works. The only question is which of the many options within the Pertwee era we take as the analogue to this song.

6. Lady Stardust


Yates’ fingers shifted position over his mouth, just this side of a threat to clamp down if he said another word. Benton swallowed and stayed still. He felt himself getting hard against his better judgment. - "Keeping Secrets" by platoapproved, from A Teaspoon and an Open Mind


The faint, tentative cabaret piano that introduces Ziggy's second side moves us to a strange new place. For the first time in the album, we are invited to view the alien externally. A sad beauty, mocked and laughed at even as he pours beautiful music out, singing "songs of darkness and dismay" in sad beauty. Lady Stardust, in this song, is Marc Bolan, lead singer of T. Rex, yes. But perhaps the more interesting fact is that Lady Stardust is a male in the first place, referred to with the male pronoun throughout the song.

The obvious analogy is the drag queen. The main thing to recognize about drag queens is that they are overwhelmingly not transgendered. They are men dressing as women, playing at femininity. And crucially, the drag queen gets it slightly wrong, playing the part with too much gaudy excess. Drag sits on the line between idolatry and parody, between the sentimental embrace of camp and the cynical mockery of detournement.

Put another way, drag is weaponized camp, a loving attack. Drag is inherently marginalized. It transgresses, but is willfully blind to its own failure to "pass." But through its blindness, it manages an eagerness, an honesty, a, dare I say it, authenticity. Just as the girl rapturously presses her space face close to Ziggy's, drag is another moorage daydream, a collage taken seriously. Drag, like glam, is a secret handshake, a shibboleth to the world of the outsider. "He's faking it, so he must be one of us fakers." The closet becomes as much a source of pride as of shame.

(The original drag queen, of course, is Beau Brummel. The dandy is drag to begin with, doubly so when embraced as a slight mis-identification of the decadent cool of the James Bond-era action hero. This is why Doctor Who became  an iconic show within gay culture - because for five years in the 70s, its leading man was a drag action hero.)

7. Star


I cross the void beyond the mind, the empty space that circles time. - Jon Pertwee, "Who Is The Doctor?"

In all of this, there is an unasked question. If the purpose of the exercise is to build a new form of love and meaning out of the discarded scraps of apocalyptic spectacle, can the figure of the rock star ever manage this? There is much to doubt here. The basic idea of a revolutionary cult of personality jars.

But more broadly, much of the underlying theory of this performance is overtly Marxist. This Ziggy Pertwee and the Spiders from Metabelis Three concept works for the era, and I maintain that it is by far the interpretation that throws up the most fascinating wonders, but we have to accept the Doctor as an actively Marxist figure. Which is fine - the era came straight out of psychedelic revolution, and one of the architects of the Pertwee era was Malcolm Hulke. Doctor Who is always allied, on one level, with this.

But here we run into the problematic. The rock and roll star is a capitalist phenomenon, a creature of consumption. Here Bowie sings of a longing to be a rock star, but what he wants are the trappings: the money, the fame, the glory. Once those are obtained, perhaps, he can sleep at night and fall in love. The song begins with friends trying to change the world - fight in Belfast, or go on hunger strikes. But Bowie wants to be a rock star.

This is not a superficial refusal to join the fight. Rather, it is the realization that the revolutionary figure, the great celebrity who can change the world, is still an invention of the very system being fought. In his introduction to The Society of the Spectacle, Martin Jenkins describes celebrity as a capitalist lottery, a system by which just enough people are given the spectacular rewards of capitalism, and because it could be anyone, we all play along.

This is the sad truth underneath the song. The one thing that Bowie cannot do as a rock star is attack the system that creates the rock and roll star. The one freedom the Starman cannot grant us is the freedom not to have to look to the stars.

8. Hang On To Yourself


They're great favourites with the children, you know, with their gnashing and snapping and tearing at each other. - Vorg, Carnival of Monsters

The companion piece, in most regards, to "It Ain't Easy," "Hang Onto Yourself" is an overdone pastiche of rock, a whirlwind tour of snippets from other rock stars. The sting in the trap, if you will, the song where the stitched together fakery of Ziggy Stardust stands revealed as the cheap fraud it is. The first verse sings of a cheap groupie "praying to the light machine," and seems like nothing so much as a slap in the face to "Moonage Daydream"'s space-faced dancer, a mockery of her for being thick enough to embrace something as stupid as the crazy space freak.

And the worst part is, the song knows full well that it's full of it. "You're the blessed," Bowie sings, "we're the Spiders from Mars." The song has the gall to dispense rock star ministry even as it laughs at the congregation. The singer has no such illusions, does not for a moment pretend this is anything other than a cheap act. "If you think we're gonna make it, you better hang on to yourself." Not only can the Starman not provide any relief from celebrity, he doesn't even want to.

9. Ziggy Stardust


This was exactly you. All this, all of it. - River Song, "A Good Man Goes to War"

A rock song after the end of rock and roll. Moments after admitting to the savage vacancy of the part, Bowie unleashes one of the great guitar riffs in rock history. The result is a riff that mourns its own passing, fitting for the song that introduces us to Ziggy himself by killing him. Consumed by his own fans, torn to pieces, consumed by the very spectacle he feeds upon, Ziggy nevertheless is here safely enmeshed in a knowingly iconic song, a glorious creature of guitar riffs and ear worms.

Even after his critique of the rock star, in other words, Bowie is acknowledging its allure. The rock star is in many ways the ultimate alien - always in a fundamental sense distant from the fans whose lives he supposedly chronicles and speaks the truth of. The bliss in which the young girl swaying to "Moonage Daydream" exists not because of the accuracy of the description but precisely because of its source - the fact that it is an alien who can never be a part of the girl's world that seems to understand her.

Ziggy and Pertwee are effectively indistinguishable. Space messiahs in drag, they stand astride the world with growing awareness of the fact that the salvation they offer requires their own death to realize. This song is that growing realization - the sense that even now as we understand the Pertwee era, as we reach his finest hour (and season ten is, without question, his finest hour), that there is something unsustainable here, that the whole thing will, in time, come crashing down.

This song, then, is its tombstone. Here, suspended in that moment, shuddering in the post-coital bliss of Mick Ronson's reverb, we mourn the end with the very excess that brought it around. How glum. How glam.

10. Suffragette City


A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. - Irina Dunn


Oh, all right, let's talk about Jo Grant - the one thing in Doctor Who more glam than Pertwee, more glam than Axos, more glam, perhaps, than glam rock. The thing about Jo Grant is that in the course of trying to create a dumb broad to get captured, Terrance Dicks inadvertently created one of the great feminist icons of Doctor Who.

The decadent virility of the rock star is necessarily uncomfortable with the feminine. Bowie can wear its trappings, make it fall in love with him, use it, and abuse it. And yet still this song exists, telling of a harsh city of women who can use him better than he can use them. Wham bam thank you ma'am indeed, Suffragette City is the remainder of Ziggy's fall, and, at that, what killed him.

But this is no panicked ball of castration anxiety cursing the vagina dentata. This is an anthem of self-consumption, a man happy to have his spine put out of place by this girl who's total blam-blam. The final form of the elusive lunar goddess in the audience for "Moonage Daydream," we see the power she had at last, the capacity to draw pleasure from the rubble of the spectacle. Even as Ziggy consumes himself for her, she readies her raygun for the next head.

Loved too much to ever be hurt, knowing she can get away with anything, well aware of our gaze, Jo smiles and goes about her business. The Doctor grasps her hand, stares adoringly at his companion, and they run off from whatever monster is chasing them this week, she having the time of her life, he deludedly thinking he's actually in charge here and that he exists for something other than her pleasure.

11. Rock and Roll Suicide


Don't cry. Where there's life, there's... - The Third Doctor, Planet of the Spiders


A mournful eulogy to the burnt out rockstar that gives way to his own garish resurrection, his cheapest spectacle yet proving to be his apotheosis. Torn apart by the very absurdity of a revolutionary rock star, killed by the basic impossibility of being a messianic commodity, Ziggy somehow lives on.

This is no surprise. Created to counter eschatology, to turn the fetishized spectacle of death into a mad celebration, this comeback is not his final move but his first. Of course death is no particular obstacle or stress for Ziggy. How could it be? Built out of the wasted salvage of death to begin with, Ziggy can make himself out of his own death as easily as anyone else's. Consume and burn out a rock star and another will take its place. The role survives its actor, and exists independently from him.

The ironic thing, of course, is that Bowie went on to literalize this final move, nearly flaming out in a staggering feat of recreational pharmacology, reduced to a pathetic shell of a man. This was always a possibility, and Ziggy Stardust is as much a reflection of Bowie's own fears about his family's history of mental illness and how it might impact him as it is a prediction or a diagnosis. But as if to prove his final point, Bowie's own course was to burn out and then move on, to come back, reinventing himself again, and again, and again, as immortal as Ziggy's doppelgänger.

10 comments:

  1. "Social collapse into anarchy"

    Unless this means collapse into a peaceful, egalitarian world without coercive authority, where all human relationships are voluntary, this seems to be sliding into the defamatory use of the term "anarchy."

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  2. It is, certainly, though to be fair, the word is broad and does cover "state of nature/nasty, brutal, and short" among other things. I mean, the fear is not anarchists taking over, it's Mad Max.

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  3. Well, sure -- the word is used to mean "chaos and violence" in the same way that the word "jew" used to be (and in some circles still is) used as a verb. But both uses carry dubious presuppositions. The Hobbesian use of "anarchy" carries the presupposition that to be without an archos (ruler) is to be in a state of chaotic violence.

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  4. The difference being that "Jew" is not already stretched to include syndicalist anarchism and anarcho-capitalism. I mean, I feel like "anarchy" is a word that's stretched to where it has numerous contradictory meanings even among the ones used positively.

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  5. I should point out here for the benefit of Rod (or "7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194," as he's known in these parts), that Philip is, IIRC, a former anarchist.

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  6. Not with any particular activeness, though I have in the past been and remain largely sympathetic to left-anarchist ideologies and causes.

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  7. Well, anarchy as a genus certainly has incompatible species; but most genera do. "Opposition to a wide range of forms of domination and authority, specifically including the existence of the state" seems to cover the species pretty well, I think.

    Moreover, disputes among Jews as to who counts as a "real" Jew are not entirely unknown. (I have a friend of Jewish background who wants to identify as a Jew -- but his mother wasn't Jewish, so he fails one criterion; and he's an atheist, so he fails another criterion. So he decided to express his Jewishness by giving up pork.)

    On a completely different note, weren't you tempted to title your post on "Spearhead from Space" "The Man Who Fell to Earth"?

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  8. "Created to counter eschatology, to turn the fetishized spectacle of death into a mad celebration, this comeback is not his final move but his first."

    I know this is, like, six months out of date (and actually more) but this phrase reminds me of a scene from Night at the Museum, where Stiller is tracking the Pharoah and wonders why he'd "go back" to the Museum -- jump cut to a huge party at the museum.

    Without getting into a tedious explanation of what it means to "go back" (think Whittaker's alchemy) it evokes the same ethos of The Big Bang, and it its attendant celebration at the end, turning away from fetishized spectacle and towards the mad celebration of the Wedding (and again, think of Whittaker's alchemy.)

    Brilliant stuff here, Phillip.

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  9. "Loved too much to ever be hurt, knowing she can get away with anything, well aware of our gaze, Jo smiles and goes about her business. The Doctor grasps her hand, stares adoringly at his companion, and they run off from whatever monster is chasing them this week, she having the time of her life, he deludedly thinking he's actually in charge here and that he exists for something other than her pleasure."

    This is amazing.

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