Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Happy 40th Birthday Ziggy Stardust

David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released exactly 40 years ago today (June 6, 1972). Happy birthday Mr. Stardust.

I was only two when the album was released, so you'll have to forgive me if I didn't notice it at the time. I was not rocking the unisex sequined diapers and platform Stride-Rites back in 1972.

It was probably about 10 years after the album's initial release when I first discovered Ziggy. I think I snuck a cassette in with the groceries as my Mom was shopping at the local GIANT supermarket. Twelve is probably the age of maximum receptivity to Ziggy's message, and what followed was a several year period of obsession with the album and David Bowie's music in general. I think the appeal was partly similar to the fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien that I was also fascinated with at the time. Ziggy Stardust, the album, the myth, the persona, created this whole alternate universe for me to negotiate mentally, and doing so was intensely pleasurable. The notion that Ziggy was an alien--someone who could be in the world, but never of the world--sunk deep into my alienated pubescent consciousness and engendered a strong sense of identification.

A few years later I was a sophomore at Annapolis High School taking a Humanities class with a fantastic Social Sciences teacher named Phil Greenfield. Mr. Greenfield asked us to bring an example of music that we considered "great." I brought in my much loved Ziggy Stardust cassette and played "Suffragette City." When Greenfield asked me to explain why I thought it was great I completely failed to offer anything like a coherent explanation. Perhaps I thought the song's greatness was simply self-evident and needed no verbal justification.

Phil very politely and thoughtfully disagreed with my contention that the song was great. If I remember correctly, he gave something along the lines of the traditional critical knock on Bowie: he and his music were too "inauthentic" and lacking in genuine emotion to qualify for greatness. I don't know if that was his actual position, or if he was just challenging me to articulate a better case for Ziggy (probably both). Unfortunately, I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words and was able to do little more than stammer out a few meaningless sentences in Ziggy's defense.

It broke my heart a little bit that Phil Greenfield, a man I had such deep respect for, didn't think too highly of my choice of "great" music. I felt a little stupid. Worse, I felt like I had let Ziggy down. It helped a little bit when after class a kid named Danny Littleton (who later became a fairly well known musician called Daniel Littleton) came up to me and said, "Thank you SO MUCH for bringing that in!"

It didn't happen immediately after that incident, but over the coming years I became less enchanted with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and David Bowie in general. My own opinion of Bowie and his music probably began to take on the contours of the critical consensus that his art was insufficiently "authentic" and "genuine" (never mind that I could celebrate the work of a visual artist like Andy Warhol for lack of those same qualities). I don't think it had much to do with my very smart high school teacher's gentle rebuke so much as my own sense of embarrassment with my previously intense adolescent identification with the Ziggy persona. As my body and mind stopped undergoing intense and violent changes every year, I became less fascinated with Bowie's ability to shed various personas on a near yearly basis. It probably didn't help that Bowie was releasing uninspiring albums like Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine at that point in his career. I moved on to other things.

I didn't revisit Bowie's music very often until around 2005 when I first heard The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions Featuring Seu Jorge, an album that features covers of Bowie's music played by Jorge on only acoustic guitar and sung in Portuguese. Portuguese is a fascinating sounding language to me, but I can barely understand a word of it. With the music stripped to its essence and the lyrics indecipherable to me, I recognized something that had been lost on me for too many years: this David Bowie guy knew what he was doing! His songs are beautifully melodic and masterfully constructed.

And now that I'm a little (okay, a lot) older, and no longer experience any sense of embarrassment reflecting on my pubescent self, the whole Ziggy concept doesn't seem quite so precious and contrived to me either. Was it a phenomenon of it's place and time that is especially likely to appeal to people of a certain age? Yes, but I also think it stands up to the test of time a lot better than I would have given it credit for twenty years ago. Ziggy is clearly the product of a very thoughtful artist who was interested in performance traditions (kabuki, mime, etc.) in which concepts like "authenticity" and "genuine" expressions of emotion are essentially meaningless.

The Ziggy persona was also a rebuke of the kind of facile, self-satisfied, hippie mindset that says, "Just be yourself, man." As if it could ever be that simple. It's the product of a way of thinking that recognizes that every aspect of our lives is informed by some level of performativity. Whether we are being students, teachers, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, or certainly rock and roll stars, just being yourself is never a simple act. It's one that is constantly mediated and informed by the expectations of others. It was the guys who got up on stage with their guitars and tried to make me believe they were just being themselves, pouring out the contents of their eternal soul in song that were jiving me, not Ziggy. Ziggy never lied to me like that. But what was then, and still is, liberating about this realization is that even if "being yourself" is never uncomplicated, at least you can have some say in the self you want to be.

So happy birthday Ziggy Stardust. To celebrate, I plan to play The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars "AT MAXIMUM VOLUME," just as the back cover demands.


david brower said...

Nice Pete. I too went through a Bowie obsession, and even forced myself to try and like Tin Machine. One of the things I found great about Bowie is his reach. He was always reaching for something just beyond what we expected. He failed some, but was always worth a listen.

Katy said...

What a great post! I was just googling all things Ziggy and your story was really lovely. Ziggy has touched us all! :)