November 5, 2007

Bowie Kills the 60's

The Ziggy Stardust PosterJust before my older sister got into DC Hardcore (this was the '80's, when Georgetown was cool), she listened to rock music, but rock music that sounded more dangerous and mature than the stuff on the radio like the Thompson Twins or "Karma Chameleon." This was when I was 10 or 11, on the cusp of adolescence but still basically a kid. In this phase, my sister had the holy triumvirate of the 1970's represented on her wall. (No, RS reader, this is not Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles.) I didn't know who any of them were, but I was fascinated by them because they seemed so cool, exotic, and older sister.

There was a poster of Lou Reed, although I didn't know the name, blurred out (it was the "Rock n' Roll Animal" album cover), and a weird poem about "smack" and "jim-jims" and "politicians making crazy sounds and dead bodies piled up in mounds." I didn't know what any of it meant, but I loved reading it because of the way it sounded (the opportunity to discuss this one will come later in the blog's life). Iggy Pop did not have a poster, but was instead represented by some lyrics my sister had scrawled on the wall in ball-point pen next to the phone where she exchanged dark secrets with her cool older friends.

And the king of them all was Ziggy Stardust, in a huge black-and-white poster, gazing down on the room like an alien space God pharaoh, with that disk of make-up on his forehead, glowering. He seemed so weird, I didn't know if it was a boy or a girl, and I didn't even associate that poster with the David Bowie that my sister always prattled on about. I didn't know who this creature was, but I knew he was better than me, knew everything, had to have seen it all, and certainly was able to be cool in a room full of cool older people, and probably wasn't "such a fucking spazz," like me.

I also remember from this period the song "Starman" playing on my sister's tapedeck. I didn't associate the song with the poster or with David Bowie, but I loved it. It sort of seemed like a children's story, but with an extra dose of sadness that I always liked, like "The Little Prince." It was about an alien who knows all this stuff, but he's afraid to come let us know about it because it will "blow our minds." I wanted him to come anyway - I thought that I understood him, and that I could withstand what others who didn't get him couldn't. The song made me feel like I was an insider, and that there were squares out there keeping the world from cool guys like the Starman. But I could handle it, I knew it.

I did not pursue Bowie, and my sister moved on to DC hardcore, as I said, (but, to her credit, never took down the Ziggy Stardust poster), and then she went to college. I started listening to music like Led Zeppelin, the Who, Beatles, Dylan, all those guys, music I loved then and love today. And so when I rediscovered Bowie in high school, it was sort of coming at him through my blossoming interest in 1960's rock music.

Which is very appropriate. Bowie started off as a flower child, admiring Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd at the UFO Club. His grossly underrated first album, Space Oddity, trafficked in the mystical psychedelia of his peers, although it was already showing signs of something different, with the legendary title track's evocation of outer space travel not so much a Pink Floyd-ian freakout as it was an opportunity to meditate existentially on loneliness and insanity. Paralleling Marc Bolan's evolution from Hobbit-rocker Tyrannosaurus Rex to glam-god T-Rex, Bowie went in a new direction as the 1960's, at least on the calendar, came to a close.

Ziggy Stardust is the culmination of Bowie's metamorphosis. Gone was the flower child singing of free festivals and laughing gnomes, and here was this freak celebrity rock star, delivering a new message to the waiting masses from on high. This reinvention was total, requiring a new persona, that of the alien Ziggy with a new message for the kids. What was this message? In a lot of ways, Bowie's still the '60's kid, singing about space aliens, dreams, and freaking out, testing the limits. But things have changed, babies. The alien is not singing about a tribal, communal experience of mind expansion: this exploration is a personal trip. It is a coming-of-age story, telling the young ones, those at the feet of the knowing alien, that the new territory is sexual awakening. I mean, look at the video.

Look at these young girls being flattened, communing with something they had not yet experienced, sex with a superior being, the knowing one, the better one, watch them undulate at the 2-minute mark, watch the girl in post-coital extasy after Mick Ronson's guitar solo has taken her "out... far out..." This is a new message of rock n' roll, purely Dionysian, the rock god celebrity spectacle rather than the tribal communion. It is the moment when the Moon/Teenage Daydream, the devotion to the rock idol, finds its communion in the performance on the stage. It is a return of music to its nature as an ecstatic, sexual rite, away from the everybody politics of the 1960's. Listen Suffragette, leave your feminist trip behind if you want to really go places that are REALLY out there. You can't afford the ticket to my show, you've got too much baggage for the good time. Are you a real freak? Well, no more kid stuff.

This sounds cold, and it can be, this brutal reality. But your rock n' roll momma/poppa, he's been where you are, he understands. "Just turn on with me, and you're not alone." The trip we're taking, the one in which he leave the kid stuff behind, it's a suicide, in a way, the death of your old self so that the new one, a freak alien, but an aware one, unlike those perma-children who never test their boundaries and remain squares with their childish hangups their whole lives, can be born. Bowie was performing a rock n' roll suicide on all of the naive things he cherished - everyone cherished - in the 1960's, signaling that that ego ideology of exploration was reaching its inevitable and logical conclusion. Bowie was killing the 1960's; against the deeper, more basic power that he was representing, that era would seem quaint, nostalgic, too easy ("cuz it ain't easy.")

That's why, as exhilarating as the posters and their promise of coolness and dark secrets in my sister's room were, I also knew there was something scary about them, about what I was going to go through as I said goodbye to my childhood years. At least I would have Bowie to help me.


LenBarker said...

Persuasive and insightful with great use of the youtube clip!

Ancient Scientist said...

Thanks, lenbarker. I actually felt like I slipped: had wanted to say that Ziggy was taking to '60's sense of mission and exploration and applying it to sex and Dionysian release, but that's not quite how it came out.

venerableseed said...

seriously, all these posts are much better than I ever imagined. And my expectations were high!

So what did the poster look like? I've been searching for it on ebay to put a link up. I'm gathering it wasn't the movie poster b/c its not black and white but that would have been at about the right time. early 80's.

actually I think I just may have found it. Will put on site soon.

Ancient Scientist said...

At first I didn't think that was it - sort of remembered it being more head-on. But now I think that is the poster. Pretty good, no?

venerableseed said...

Its a great poster, especially b/c there's no print; it's just the picture! More classic artsy photo than the NFL sports posters I used to have in my room.