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by Ron Ross - Words & Music (July 1972)
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.
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---This page last modified: 28 Jun 2002---