By Peter Lindblad
|David Bowie - The Rise And Fall of Ziggy|
Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
It was an opportunity to rifle through a bargain bin of cassette tapes to strike gold at the low, low price of three for $10, and on one particular day, there was one nugget that shined above all the rest. How David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars ended up there I'll never know, but it was the deal of the century, at least to me. To an awkward teen struggling to fit in socially at a school that still seemed foreign, even though I'd been attending it for five years after moving from another state, finding it was a spiritual and musical awakening. Although at the time, the fact that it had "Suffragette City" on it was enough to warrant its purchase.
Hearing a preening Bowie at his bitchiest exclaim, "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am" was pretty suggestive stuff for a sheltered preacher's kid looking for a little excitement and finding loads of it in the glam rock glitter bomb that was, perhaps, the late musician's finest hour. It was a song that begged to be played over and over, at the expense of every other cut on the album, and every listen was a shocking encounter and a teasing invitation to explore worlds way beyond my understanding. It wouldn't be the last time Bowie, whose death the world is still grieving, did something that shook me to my core. There are at least four others that stand out:
Meeting Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: Others might point to the "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, Heroes and Lodger as more innovative and groundbreaking, and the '80s commercial success of the stylish Let's Dance sparks warm memories, but The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars brought about, in me, a revolution.
It was the gateway drug to punk and new wave for an altogether unfashionable, shy, clumsy and risk-averse small-town boy scared, but also excited, by what that album represented. Not that I was at all aware of any of it at such a tender age (being around 14 at the time), but the sexual ambiguity, the gender-bending, the depressed rock star undergoing an existential crisis and the idea of a "Starman" wanting to come and meet us, " ... but he thinks he'd blow our minds" actually did blow my mind. It was all too much for someone weaned on '70s progressive rock and Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and The Scorpions, and other tamer arena-rock acts.
Others obviously had a different experience, but it wasn't easy to fall for an album that challenged cultural norms so aggressively. It was audacious, arty and raw, with an androgynous, glam-rock swagger on the completely exhilarating "Suffragette City," which was raucous and fun. But, there was hard-bitten desperation and anxiety in the air of "Hang On to Yourself." A mental breakdown was coming in "Ziggy Stardust," and despair permeated "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide."
Nevertheless, the swooning beauty of "Moonage Daydream" and sweeping majesty of "Starman" – along with the the intoxicating resignation of "Five Years" – gradually eased the tension of the rest of the recording, and over time came acceptance, which grew into an undying romance with its overarching concepts, its incisive social commentary, its broad imagination and its wild, timeless vitality. I'm still madly in love with it.
Ashes to Ashes ... Major Tom's a junkie?!: Wading through hours of bad TV just to get to late-night music shows was a weekly ritual. "Friday Night Videos," anyone? The MTV generation had it so goddamn easy. Every so often, however, there was a reward for such perseverance. Bowie's video for "Ashes to Ashes" made the tough slog worth it. When it at first it popped up, it seemed disturbing, and surreal, but still utterly captivating. It was a continuation of the Major Tom story, and things had taken a very dark turn indeed for the intrepid astronaut. (Check out the behind-the-scenes making of the video below)
As skies blacken, Bowie, dressed as a French clown, walks along a deserted beach talking with an old woman. Joined by worshipers in orthodox religious garb, he leads a funereal procession ahead of a bulldozer and the scene is awash in solarised colors. Elsewhere, he's imprisoned in a padded room and plugged into a spaceship.
In a matter of minutes, the stunning visual feast had taught us all more about symbolism than four years of college-level literature and poetry classes. Innovative and artistically daring, the "Ashes To Ashes" video was breathtaking, a strange, melancholy dream world constructed by otherworldly creatures obsessed with themes of mortality and alienation. Or, maybe it was just being weird for the sake of being weird. Whatever the case, it left an impression and haunted my dreams for years.
Thanks to a high school and college friend, who was quick to buy us tickets, I was able to see one of the shows at Milwaukee's Marcus Amphitheater. It was the only time I ever saw Bowie, and it was an amazing, jaw-dropping spectacle. Completely over-the-top, the staging was ridiculous, and yet, it was also utterly brilliant. You couldn't take your eyes off it. Rarely have the worlds of theater and music collided in such an ambitiously artistic tour de force. It was a blazing supernova, accompanied by a great setlist. And it also revived the career of Peter Frampton, while confronting conventional notions of what a rock 'n' roll concert was supposed to be and spitting right in their tight, puckered faces.
"Saturday Night Live" – Dec. 15, 1979: Out in America's Heartland, nobody knew who Klaus Nomi was. David Bowie's appearance on "Saturday Night Live" on this particular date changed all that. A cabaret performer with an incredible, operatic voice, Nomi's legend was growing in New York City's underground, when Bowie plucked him from obscurity for a fiercely avant-garde coming-out party on national television that nobody expected.
With startling facial features, makeup and vivid costumes, Nomi and fellow New York performance artist Joey Arias were visually arresting backing up Bowie, who performed three songs. After a stirring rendition of "The Man Who Sold The World," Bowie dressed up in a skirt and heels for a "TVC 15" off Station To Station and when they closed with Lodger's "When You're A Boy," Bowie had morphed into a living marionette, with oversized arms that moved. Crackling with electricity, this outing was shock therapy, a carefully orchestrated attempt to cause the anesthetized masses some discomfort and make them squirm in their easy chairs. Mission accomplished.
The End: Blackstar came out two days before Bowie's death, a parting gift from one of the most influential and daring artists of this, or any, generation. It became Bowie's first No. 1 album, debuting at the top spot on the Billboard 200.
The video that accompanied "Lazarus," with a blinded Bowie levitating off what appears to be a hospital bed in an antiseptic, sparsely furnished room, is soothing and disquieting at the same time. The last time a video this affecting came along, Johnny Cash was reinterpreting Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" with stark instrumentation and confessing to sins and mistakes with trembling sincerity, all in the hope that redemption and salvation lay ahead in the next life. Like Cash, Bowie seems to be looking for closure as he clings to life, and he does it in such an elegant, understated manner that you can't help but wish him well on his journey into the afterlife and wave goodbye (the video's director talks about Bowie's last hurrah below).