Saturday, June 09, 2012

Ziggy Stardust - forty years old this week

A couple of things were forty years old this week.

One of them is an album that fits in with this year's 40 years of Glam Rock theme.


One is a photo that really doesn't.


I'm not sure that I saw the photo of Kim Phuc fleeing down a road, her clothes melted off her back and her skin eaten through by Napalm, when it was first published in 1972.  I've seen it numerous times since, and even so it was only recently that I realized how badly she was burned. When you look closely, you can see the blisters on her left arm even in this photograph. She almost died; USA Today ran a story this week of how the photographer, Nick Ut, spurning the Star-Trek-non-interference-superior-civilization rules that encumber many of his profession, drove her to hospital, flashed his US press badge and told them to do their best to save her. Another correspondent, Christopher Wain of ITN, who had treated her at the scene with all he had on hand - a canteen of water to cool her burning back - got her transferred to an American hospital in Saigon. Most of the rest of the story is hardly happy (it's all at the link) but Kim seems to have survived it all with the aid of a big heart.

When the photo was printed in the US, she was, as far as anyone knew, dying. It was a powerful anti-war message that rang around the world. It may have helped to end the Vietnam conflict, but the vaccine wore off and the US has been involved in war after war ever since. It's in half a dozen right now.

You'd think that at some point some powerful people would say, "Let's see, we have some of the cleverest and best-resourced people in the world here. I wonder if we can come up with some sort of conflict resolution that doesn't involve burning everyone who doesn't like us (and passers-by) to death?"

Killing everyone who disagrees with you is quite a powerful way of resolving a conflict, and in theory would work swimmingly well. In practice it fails. That's because everyone whose kids or parents get cooked start to hate you for some odd reason, so every time it solves a problem, it creates two or more future problems. Obama is probably smart enough to know this, but he's not really in charge of the military. Arms manufacturers are, and they would be pissed if their Golden Goose died. So it carries on.

The Independent reports that the NATO commander apologized this week for killing 18 civilians.
Afghan officials have said the airstrike called in by Nato troops killed 18 civilians.
"I know that no apology can bring back the lives of the children or the people who perished in this tragedy and this accident, but I want you to know that you have my apology and we will do the right thing by the families," Allen told the group of about two dozen Afghans gathered at a base at the provincial capital of Pul-i-Alam.
(I'm not sure why NATO, Canada, UK and others followed the US into Afghanistan.  If I was their mother, I'd use this as one of those, "If you see your friend jumping out of a window, would you jump out too?" moments. Hopefully they'll know better next time.)You don't see apologies like that from the US, but that's because the US has a policy of just not apologizing for killing civilians.  It's probably not important anyway. If someone drone-struck my family and then said, "Oops - totally not what I meant to do! Sorry!" I would not be much mollified.

Anyway, as a tween in England in 1972, I had heard of Vietnam but it was all a long way off. I think I've mentioned before that British hippies tended to sing about gnomes, whereas the American hippies were more grounded in reality.

One of those who sang about gnomes was David Bowie, a chameleon who sat near a few snapshots to see how the color would look on his skin before settling on the orange visage of Ziggy Stardust. Unlike the torture of Kim Phuc, I saw it right away and reached out for it, and it did change my life.

I didn't have any earlier Bowie albums - with or without gnomes - and didn't hear them until later, when I started to frequent record shops and head shops which would always have Cygnet Committee or Andy Warhol or Width of a Circle or Changes playing over the PA. I've always been a guitar whore, though. I didn't learn that from anywhere - it was always there. So when Starman was released as a single, with the Morse code guitar figure, I was all over it. At least in the sense that I didn't buy it, but I did buy the album.

It didn't disappoint. Although getting up to move the needle to avoid Soul Love was a bit of a bother, the rest of it rocked. Marc Bolan seemed to have some secret door in his wardrobe to another world, where things were otherwordly, but more intimate, with moodier lighting and softer sounds and much more Kahlil Gibran Elfin poetry, but David Bowie, although quite as Glam, seemed to have a much more muscular, artistic and far less verbal approach. And I was all about guitars, so Mick Ronson's awesome playing kept me captivated.

I sort of got the story. In later interviews, the 'concept' of Ziggy Stardust seems to have grown to include what the Starmen were thinking and why we only had five years left to cry in, but at the time, without bonus tracks, and without any life experience whatsoever, it was possible to determine:  We have only five years left (for some reason) and Ziggy Stardust is a rock star. He is a bit of a drama queen (for years I assumed Lady Stardust was his girlfriend), but something something about becoming the nazz and a leper messiah and the kids killing the man, then he commits suicide. ( I love Rock'n'Roll Suicide - the imagery is vivid, like the view is unfolding right before your eyes.)

I fell out with David Bowie sometime in 1972 when he said in the papers that Marc Bolan was "prissy and fey and engrossed in his own image" - pot, meet kettle etc. - but continued to buy his albums as soon as they came out until the mid-eighties. I often listen to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars to this day.


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