Friday, March 18, 2016

David Bowie: Lady Stardust


I was tagged by my friend Dan on Facebook to post a David Bowie song a day for seven days. This is day five.
It's difficult to recommend a track from Ziggy Stardust. The album has reached such a saturation level that everyone has heard it, and worse, for the majority of Pop Pickers today, the album has literally always existed. It was released in 1972, and so for anyone under 43, it's part of the bedrock of society along with Mickey Mouse and the internal combustion engine. Some albums can escape this fate by being obscure - if I recommended J’ai Mal Au Dents from The Faust Tapes (1973), I could assume the vast majority of people have not heard it. But Ziggy Stardust is not a diamond from the hot and dark mine tunnels of ancient rock, a la Nuggets. It’s more like a large city limits sign on the Highway to Hell.

But it was once new. No punter had ever heard it before. Albums back then dropped with a couple of weeks notice, signaled only by hyperbolic wodges of text in the inkies (the weekly rock papers in England) either calling them out as better than the best thing ever or useless slabs of ruined wax by no-hopers who should just give up and go home. Yes, Bowie had played a few Ziggy gigs here and there, but you couldn’t watch them on YouTube, nor where there video cameras that could fit in your satin split-knee loon pants.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that when it was released, I had heard it was good (no one knew it was revolutionary until later) but I didn’t have the faintest idea what, exactly, was good about it. I’d be here all day if I gave an account of my reactions to it, so lets just concentrate on this one track. Lady Stardust. 

I don’t recall previously ever hearing a songwriter sing about himself in the third person. Star, the following track, is in the first person (“I could make a wild transformation as a rock and roll star.”) Lady Stardust is sung from the point of view a watcher. “Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and dismay.”

(It didn’t help that I assumed Lady Stardust was Ziggy’s girlfriend. Don’t laugh. I had *heard* of gay people and I knew rather more gay slang than most of my cohort, but for some reason the (no pun intended) straight reading fixed itself firmly in my brain and I imagined Lady Stardust (a combination of Elkie Brooks and Tina Turner) on the stage belting out Ziggy’s lyrics. (Ziggy himself being, obvs, the guitarist.))

It’s impossible to not believe the narrator is actually at the show and recounting what he’s seeing in real time - as though he was a video camera in loon pants. Even once I’d put two and two together and made one, so that the people who are staring “at the makeup on his face” are staring at Lady Stardust, not at her guitarist, the picture remains clear. I can almost remember seeing the boy in the bright blue jeans jump up on the stage, because the image is so bright it might as well be one of my own memories. And the way the narrator’s singing, it’s almost a lament. You surmise that something bad has already happened and Lady Stardust is not going to enjoy his fame for long, even if, as the narrator exaggerates for effect, the song seemed to go on forever. And that’s what special about this track. The words are plain and photorealistically descriptive; the melody is disconsolate and dejected, superficially because he cannot admit his love of the singer, but underneath it seems to be because the man he sees on stage does not really exist. He’s a projected image that will shortly disappear, perhaps lingering a while like the phosphor dot in the center of old TV screens as they were turned off.

Or not. There are other interpretations. One popular theory is that the song is about Marc Bolan (and you know how I love Marc Bolan). I can imagine Bowie thinking of Marc as a queen, but it doesn’t quite fit. His songs aren’t about darkness and disgrace, for one. For another, I don’t see Bowie looking at Bolan and thinking “animal grace”. If it is about Marc, the prediction still came true eventually, a little while after Ziggy’s own demise.

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