In reviewing one of David Bowie’s most influential works, I face a formidable challenge: I completely, utterly, firmly, decidedly and definitively reject the artist’s version of what Ziggy Stardust is all about.
Here’s how Bowie described the plot in a Rolling Stone interview with William S. Burroughs:
The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ‘cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. ‘All the young dudes’ is a song about this news. It’s no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite. […]
The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage. […]
Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a Starman, so he writes ‘Starman’, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately…The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie, the Infinite Fox . . . Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starmen. He takes himself up to the incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make them real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ roll Suicide’. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible.
If Bowie really believed this was a viable storyline, I’d certainly never want to read one of his novels. If he was fucking with Burroughs’ head, I’d feel so relieved.
The problem with Bowie’s explanation is that there is very little evidence of such a storyline on the record. His version of events begins to unravel in the opening track, “Five Years.” In the interview, Bowie described a world without electricity. In “Five Years” we hear the following lines:
News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying
How did he watch a news broadcast without electricity? Did he have a special, alien-provided screen that operated through brain waves? Later in the song he describes seeing a girl in an ice-cream parlor, “drinking milk shakes cold and long.” While I suppose it’s possible to make a milk shake by hand if you have the biceps of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, doesn’t ice cream melt if you don’t have a freezer? A freezer that runs on electricity?
Let’s file Bowie’s imaginative rendition in the “Whatever” file and listen to what the record tells us. Ziggy Stardust has been rightly praised as one of the great albums of the ages, and it has earned that status for many reasons. The band line-up is outstanding, and particularly sharp on the tracks that make up the real storyline on Side Two. In extraordinarily economical fashion, David Bowie managed to capture in lyrics and music the mood of the time, a period of dark transition and multiple forms of outrage, whether you’re talking about terrorism or the emerging challenge to society’s heterosexual bias. Along the way, he explores the self-destructive nature of stardom, the agonizing socio-emotional barriers that anyone who chooses to love differently must inevitably experience, and the desperate human need for connection with other human beings. Ziggy Stardust is rich, thrilling and throbbing with the defiant energy that drives great rock ‘n’ roll.
The elegiac “Five Years” describes a world on the brink of collapse. There is no specific reference to the cause, but there is a metaphoric explanation in the history of the era. 1972 was light-years removed from 1967. The Summer of Love was all about love, peace, hope and optimism; 1972 was all about fear, loathing and pessimism. The environmental movement had become a force and essentially spoiled all the fun by demonstrating how our profligate ways were turning the planet into one huge garbage dump. The Peace Movement had failed to bring peace. The inflationary spiral that would consume incomes throughout the decade had just begun. Terrorism dominated world headlines courtesy of the IRA and the Palestinian group Black September. Later that year, Richard Nixon would be elected in a landslide through a combination of dirty tricks, the cynical exploitation of the so-called Silent Majority and police-state tactics designed to castrate the left-wing opposition. The world seemed to be going down the toilet, and while “Five Years” doesn’t depict that reality, it does accurately capture the bleak mood that pervaded the 1970’s.
The music is driven by a steady, relentless beat mirroring a funeral march, a relentless journey to oblivion. The song builds from deathly quiet to pushing the limits, a progression that is especially noticeable in Bowie’s vocal, which moves from bleak lethargy to near-panic at the realization of impending doom. While the performance is certainly noteworthy, the core meaning of the song is captured most poignantly in a single line of verse. As our narrator strolls through the market square and down the now bleak city streets, he begins to notice the people around him—people who had always faded into the background until now:
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people
Through all his incarnations, David Bowie was at heart a humanitarian who fully understood that unless we all come together we will all fall apart.
“Soul Love” is an odd duck of a song, with a few great lines scattered here and there attached to a rather uninspiring melody. The same is true of “Moonage Daydream,” where the space-oriented lyrics get little support from an arrangement that meanders from biting guitar to an out-of-the-blue appearance of a string section. This is supposed to be the key moment of Ziggy’s metamorphosis into a rock star, but how the song demonstrates that is a puzzle beyond the capabilities of mere terrestrials.
Giving us further proof that Bowie’s explanation of the narrative was something he came up with ex post facto, “Starman” wasn’t added to the album until the last minute, replacing a cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round.” RCA wanted it on the album because they thought it would make a great single, and they were right—especially with “Suffragette City” on the flip side. One of Bowie’s more melodic numbers, the song flows beautifully over crisp acoustic guitar and just the right amount of strings. It fits nicely with the theme of “Five Years” in that it expresses the wish for an out from our miserably earthly existence.
Side 1 ends with additional evidence that there really is no story on Side 1. “It Ain’t Easy” is a cover of a Ron Davies song originally recorded by Three Dog Night, and I’m sure Mr. Davies didn’t have the slightest idea he was writing a song about extraterrestrials for an album that would not exist for another two years. Three Dog Night’s version is more of a modern roots song; David Bowie’s take is closer to soul with a whole lot more oomph.
Conclusion: Side 1 is a collection of some very good songs, but when it comes to a storyline, there is no there there.
The story is all on Side 2, and it is one hell of a story. No one has better captured the complex and corrosive effects of rock ‘n’ roll stardom better than David Bowie did on Side 2—and that’s where you’ll find the real story of Ziggy Stardust.
“Lady Stardust” introduces a budding rock star by the name of Ziggy Stardust, as experienced through the eyes and ears of someone catching his act. This someone (“The Observer”) may be a devoted fan, a music journalist or someone in the entourage—it hardly matters. What matters is his reaction to the performer on stage—a force who appeals equally to both traditional genders:
Femme fatales emerged from shadows
To watch this creature fair
Boys stood upon their chairs
To make their point of view
I smiled sadly for a love
I could not obey
Lady Stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and dismay
The love The Observer could not obey is homosexual, an interpretation supported by the random comments that pepper his narrative: “his animal grace,” “Yes he was awful nice/Really quite paradise” and “Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name.” Stretching the definition of gender was the drive that fueled the glam rock scene, a theme Bowie had already begun to explore on Hunky Dory. “Lady Stardust” is a beautiful and subtle piece that captures the tension in human polarities—attraction/repulsion, she/he, somebody/nobody. The backing band of Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodamsey really raise their game here and continue to play on a higher level throughout Side Two.
“Star” is Ziggy’s assessment of his life options at this early stage of his career. He looks at the lives his friends have made for themselves in early 1970’s Britain and rejects them all as roads leading to dead ends. As it was for so many talented young men (and a few women) of the time, rock’ n’ roll appears to offer far more in the way of career satisfaction:
Tony went to fight in Belfast
Rudi stayed at home to starve
I could make it all worthwhile
As a rock and roll star
Bevan tried to change the nation
Sonny wants to turn the world, well he can tell you that he tried
I could make a transformation as a rock and roll star
Looking for a marketable angle, he decides to “play the wild mutation” and add some shock value to his act, well aware that outrageousness translates into attention and attention translates into success. At this point, his dreams of rock stardom are still grounded in bourgeois payoffs and the lure of sexual gratification:
I could do with the money
I’m so wiped out with things as they are
I’d send my photograph to my honey and I’d come on like
A regular superstar
He falls asleep dreaming of fame and of the chicks who come with fame. His last words on the track are “Just watch me now,” a wink-wink phrase that serves as the narrative segue to “Hang Onto Yourself,” a stunningly explosive sample of the sound and style of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The song combines raw sexual power with erotically playful lyrics, effectively capturing the naughty-boy product the band has decided to peddle to the listening public:
We can’t dance, we don’t talk much, we just ball and play
But then we move like tigers on Vaseline
Well, the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
You’re the blessed, we’re the spiders from Mars
“Hang Onto Yourself” is one of the great ass-kickers in Bowie’s or anyone’s catalog, a song that is shot from a cannon and never lets up. My parents saw David Bowie perform Ziggy Stardust live at Winterland on October 27, 1972 (my dad kept all his ticket stubs) and both agreed that Bowie was one of the greatest performers they’d ever seen. My mother appreciated the acoustic set where he did some Jacques Brel, but my dad was completely knocked out by the opener. I’ll let him tell you about it:
They always played music between the acts, and somewhere in the middle of all that I heard what sounded like a chamber orchestra playing something between between baroque and folk music. Strobe lights lights started to flash—slowly at first, but gradually picking up speed, so that when the band came onstage it was like they were moving in slow motion because of the strobe effect. Bowie appeared center stage like he came out of nowhere, also in slow motion, smiling and waving hello with his right hand, holding his guitar with his left. At that moment the music built to a climax and wham! In perfect sync they cut the strobes and the band came in with those sharp cuts that open “Hang Onto Yourself.” It felt like centrifugal force was slamming me back in my seat—I’d never heard anything so powerful in all the years I’d been going to concerts. They were really, really loud but there wasn’t a hint of static—the sounds were as clean as glass. I couldn’t even applaud after it was over—I was flattened by the force.
Ziggy and the Spiders have hit the big time, and while success breeds success, it also frequently breeds jealousy, envy and bitterness. This is played out in “Ziggy Stardust,” a painful exposition of the poison that often creeps into the group dynamics of rock ‘n’ roll bands. Resentful of Ziggy getting all the attention, the Spiders from Mars conspire together to overthrow this rock ‘n’ roll Napoleon:
So where were the Spiders
While the fly tried to break our balls?
Just the beer light to guide us
So we bitched about his fans
And should we crush his sweet hands?
Their revolt is successful, and though their diagnosis of narcissism is probably accurate, the band members seem to revel in the right of the conqueror to blame it all on the victim:
Making love with his ego
Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah
When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band
So Ziggy falls from grace and hits the skids, a narrative played out in the power twin of “Hang Onto Yourself,” the semi-comic, semi-tragic “Suffragette City.” At this point, Ziggy is no longer interested or capable of making great music. He’s in the throes of sexual addiction and he’ll fuck anyone in sight, even a dour, dull suffragette:
Hey man, oh leave me alone you know
Hey man, oh Henry, get off the phone, I gotta
Hey man, I gotta straighten my face
This mellow thighed chick just put my spine out of place
Hey man, my schooldays insane
Hey man, my work’s down the drain
Hey man, well she’s a total blam-blam
She said she had to squeeze it but she then she
From the train-out-of-nowhere opening power chords to the “wham, bam, thank-you ma’am” stop time line, “Suffragette City” is fabulous ass-kicker that never lets up, and is even better when you follow the instructions on the album sleeve: TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.
“Rock and Roll Suicide” reintroduces The Observer from “Lady Stardust,” who has no doubt followed Ziggy through the thrill ride all the way to the predictable crash. It has probably been a difficult journey for this man, clinging to the secret of his forbidden attraction while the object of his affection seems to be hopelessly heterosexual. Here he stands before his fantasy, his idol, and sees a pathetic figure, a bundle of nervous energy capable only of mechanical behavior:
Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall to wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Oh, oh, oh, oh, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide
The sight of this sad creature leads him to throw caution to the wind and express his deepest feelings in a desperate attempt to revive his hero:
Oh no love! You’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up
But if I could only make you care
Oh no love! You’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
The last passage raises the likelihood that Ziggy is strung out on drugs, as The Observer pleads with him to “turn on with me,” a curious attempt to help the addict by sharing in the addiction. Then again, it could also be a sexual invitation. In either case, his pleas are met with complete silence . . . all we hear is the sound of a cello in a closing thrust that seems both abrupt and appropriate. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a moving and memorable piece that brings the story of Ziggy Stardust to a close . . . or so it would seem.
In “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “ . . . Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” During the two years immediately following Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie would essentially become Ziggy in both form and substance, turning the glam rock persona into his personal brand and developing a monstrous cocaine habit that would lead to a personal decline even more precipitous than the one experienced by the character he created. He would finally shed Ziggy’s skin with the plastic soul sounds of Young Americans, then reconnect with his own “self-conscious aim to find expression” during his Berlin period. The essence of David Bowie’s life was the search for expression, and he was never afraid to change personas or do a 180 to explore new possibilities. While not all of his side trips led to artistic accomplishment, his restlessness is something I always appreciated, even when I didn’t care much for what he was doing.
I can think of no other artist in our time who so completely integrated art and life: the man was the narrator and story; the player, the played and the played out. David Bowie was a true original indeed, but what matters is that he achieved originality simply by allowing himself to become and to never stop becoming.
Hunky Dory was David Bowie’s breakout album, but hardly anyone noticed at the time.
While welcomed by generally favorable reviews, Hunky Dory didn’t do much on the charts until after Ziggy Stardust. This wasn’t uncommon in the 60’s and 70’s, when the record companies generally took more time to develop their artists and were willing to take some losses up front in the hope of a bigger payoff down the road. The closest analogy to David Bowie’s commercial trajectory is Billy Joel, who didn’t hit the big time until Strangers, his fifth attempt. After Strangers went platinum, Americans went batshit crazy for Billy Joel, digging into his back catalog and discovering “Piano Man,” a tune that appeared on his second album. It eventually became Billy Joel’s signature song.
And that’s the last fucking time you will ever hear me comparing Billy Joel to David Bowie.
Bowie’s attempt at airplay got off to a rough start. His first album was released on June 1, 1967. Hmm. That date sounds awfully familiar . . . oh yes. It was the day Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released.
His first few albums were characterized by artistic oscillations that probably made it hard for the listening public to get a fix on him. His first album, David Bowie, falls somewhere between British music hall, Engelbert Humperdinck and Herman’s Hermits—pleasant but surprisingly sexless and rock-free. His second album (also called David Bowie, but better known by the title of the 1972 re-release, Space Oddity) is more folk-tinged—still subdued but you can hear growing confidence in his voice. Bowie didn’t start to rock out until The Man Who Sold the World, and while the album has some interesting cuts, it’s obvious he was still feeling his way and hadn’t quite hit his stride.
And then it all came together on Hunky Dory. Whether it was his free-agent status (he recorded the album without a contract), the new band lineup consisting of the future Spiders from Mars plus Rick Wakeman, or the volumes of Nietzsche he was consuming at the time, David Bowie transformed himself from quirky, uncertain performer into a man brimming with confidence in an expansive artistic vision. I’ll let the rest of the world engage in the debate as to which David Bowie album is his best, but I would say that Hunky Dory is his most exuberant album, filled with delightful surprises, playful humor and enough stylistic diversity to keep things interesting. I would also say that this is the point when David Bowie became a great songwriter, a quality that has been often overlooked in the many retrospectives on his life’s contributions.
The album opens with what started out as a cheesy lounge number and became one of Bowie’s most memorable numbers, “Changes.” Many critics have interpreted the song within the limited context of rock music, taking the line “look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers” as Bowie’s challenge to the old guard that he’s on his way to the top. If such was the case, the song would never have connected so strongly with the general public. Careful listening (a skill many critics curiously lack) reveals a more universal tale of life and change. The repeated line, “Turn and face the strange” is a message for any human being on the planet who finds him or herself stuck in a rut—something all of us experience from time to time, not just rock musicians. Facing the strange, whether it’s listening to bebop for the first time or visiting a country where you know neither the customs nor the language, is an uncomfortable experience indeed, but it is also a growth experience that gives us new ways of looking at life. Only the first verse deals with Bowie’s personal growth, a journey launched by self-reflection (“So I turned myself to face me”). The second verse calls out the older generation for trying to control and limit the potential of their children, another universal experience dating back to the dawn of human civilization:
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through
“Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it,” sings Bowie—great advice that is too often ignored. When we get to the line, “Look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers,” Bowie is simply pointing out that even rockers can become brain dead losers resistant to change and to new possibilities in music.
Literary interpretation aside, “Changes” is an endlessly delightful song. The opening still retains a cheesy, easy listening feel, making the lyrical depth and variable phrasing of the verses all the more interesting. The stuttering “ch-ch-ch-ch changes” is a rhythmic masterstroke that breaks the pattern of more traditional transitions from verse to chorus, and producer Ken Scott’s panning on the chorus that places the “ch-ch-ch-ch changes” in center while we hear Bowie sing the lines in stereo makes for a terrifically engaging listening experience. Although it’s almost impossible to assign a signature song to an artistic chameleon like David Bowie, “Changes” is as good a choice as any.
“Changes” is a piano song, and the second number on the album follows that pattern. Many people don’t realize that “Oh, You Pretty Things” is actually a remake of the original, one that became a modest hit for the post-Herman’s Hermits Peter Noone. True to his cute boy brand, Peter changed the line “the Earth is a bitch” to “the Earth is a beast,” ensuring he would forever be linked in the annals of infamy with the Rolling Stones and their artistically gutless decision to sing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” on The Ed Sullivan Show. The common read on the song reflects the influence of Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley, particularly their ideas on the improvability of the human race, but I find that interpretation somewhat limited. As he did in “Changes,” David Bowie tied the theme to the unnecessary conflict between parent and child, a fruitless battle that defies the evolutionary progress embedded in the human gene pool. It makes perfect sense that Bowie would be sensitive to generational dynamics, having become a parent during the development of Hunky Dory. The “pretty things” are the children of the coming generation, especially the teenagers who were experimenting with flamboyant dress and make-up after seeing Marc Bolan all-a-glitter on Top of the Pops in March 1971. The Marlene Dietrich-influenced cover reflects also Bowie’s progression towards hermaphrodite status, which makes for a more provocative interpretation of the line, “Got to make way for the Homo Superior.”
“Oh, You Pretty Things” fades nicely into the piano intro to “Eight Line Poem,” where David is joined by Mick Ronson, who provides a sweet counterpoint to the keyboard. This short piece primarily reinforces the more reflective feel of Side 1, an intermission that seems to have come too soon. “Life on Mars” also begins with another reflective passage on the piano, but here the intent is satiric, as Bowie’s intention was to create a parody of Paul Anka’s “My Way,” especially the version sung by ‘Ol Blue Eyes. While that may have been his intent, the lyrics do not present the faux self-reflection of the original, making the satiric connection inferred at best. What Bowie does describe is life as a script rather than the exploration it should be, and continuing the theme of generational disconnection, he makes the heroine a young girl whose lack of physical perfection enhances her status as an outcast:
It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times before
The build to the chorus is intensely dramatic, thanks to Mick Ronson’s string arrangement, setting the stage for Bowie to express deep frustration with the absurd human obsession with violence that characterizes life on Earth:
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
The second verse shifts to a first-person semi-absurdist narrative where Bowie shares his read on current affairs. I think shifting to first-person actually weakens the poetry—the girl in the first verse gives us someone we can empathize with, while the second verse gives us opinions we can agree or disagree with. The result is we lose the emotional connection to the song. That said, Bowie’s lead vocal compensates nicely for the lyrical deficiencies, as you have to admire his command of dynamics and intensely expressive phrasing.
A generational song of a more personal nature, “Kooks” is a musical welcome to Bowie’s new son Duncan. I know it’s probably difficult for people to reconcile the David Bowie pictured on the covers of Aladdin Sane or Diamond Dogs as a responsible, loving parent, but I can’t imagine a kid not wanting a father who approaches parenting like this:
And if you ever have to go to school
Remember how they messed up
This old fool
Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads
And if the homework brings you down
Then we’ll throw it on the fire
And take the car downtown
“Kooks” is the only song I’ve ever heard that actually awakens the maternal urge in me. It makes me want to show the whole world that kooky bisexual perverts can make way better parents than self-important, sexless bores obsessed with getting their kids into Hah-vaad! Let’s move on to the next song before I get the urge to go shopping at the Sperm Bank!
“Quicksand” is definitely a mood-shifter, with its weary vocal singing of Crowley and Himmler riding over the shifting dynamics of a solo acoustic guitar. While I love Ken Scott’s arrangement of layered acoustic guitar mingling with another clever string arrangement courtesy of Mick Ronson, I find the lyrics both didactic and self-absorbed. I find philosophical dissertations boring in any context, but especially so in the context of music.
Side 2 opens with a playful interpretation of a song co-written Paul Williams (!) and a character named Biff Rose, who had brief fame as a comedian in the late 60’s, appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, among others. Tiny Tim, another curious only-in-the-60’s kind of guy, recorded “Fill Your Heart” as the B-side to his horrible hit, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Bowie has fun with the song, which is about all you can do with it. It ends with a rapid trip down the piano keyboard, followed by the odd sound of a single saxophone note flashing across the stereo spectrum—the opening to “Andy Warhol.”
The first in series of three tribute songs on Hunky Dory, “Andy Warhol” is by far the strongest. The casual opening featuring David Bowie correcting Ken Scott’s pronunciation of the artist’s name immediately establishes a relaxed intimacy that is reinforced by Bowie’s delightful multichannel laughter. In contrast, the music is Spanish-tinged heat, with Bowie driving the acoustic rhythm and Mick Ronson deftly picking the cascading notes that form the counterpoint. While the music has little in common with flamenco in terms of either time signature or beat emphasis, the music captures the feel of Spanish folk music through the strumming style and the use of clappers. The music bears little apparent connection to the subject matter, which ironically reflects the character at the heart of the story—the music communicates a sense of mystery, and for many people, Andy Warhol was the ultimate enigma. “Why’s this guy painting Campbell’s Soup cans? What does that have to do with art?” You find yourself asking a similar question when you listen to “Andy Warhol,” namely, “What’s the connection between Spanish folk music and Andy Warhol?” The explanation from the Warhol Museum website is the best answer you’re going to get:
The social intent of his work may lie in its very ambiguity and the possibility for multiple interpretations. Do Warhol’s portraits pay homage to Jackie’s stately example of mourning—her public grief as the widowed First Lady? Or do they mirror, in their constancy and repetition, the media’s relentless portrayal of the events surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination? In this work, as in others, the artist seems to both celebrate and critique American culture.
Enigmatic music for an enigmatic artist makes perfect sense. Where Bowie’s lyrics really shine is in his ability to capture the mind of an artist who sees all cultural artifacts, including living, breathing human beings through the prism of artistic possibility:
Like to take a cement fix
Be a standing cinema
Dress my friends up just for show
See them as they really are
Put a peephole in my brain
Two New Pence to have a go
I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show
Warhol held up a mirror to American culture, and the line “Andy Warhol, Silver Screen/Can’t tell them apart at all” is the essence of his work. An exceptionally compelling piece of music, “Andy Warhol” is one of Bowie’s finest moments.
I’m far less enthusiastic about the second tribute song, “Song for Bob Dylan,” which I hear as competitive sniping and little else—and that’s from someone who’s pretty lukewarm about Bob Dylan. I’m far more excited by “Queen Bitch,” a tribute to the Velvet Underground, or, more accurately, to the Lou Reed faction of the Velvet Underground. Finally, some kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll! I remain stunned that Lou Reed never recorded this himself, as David Bowie perfectly captured the Lou Reed style and attitude right down to the offhand phrasing of the bemused observer of life:
I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo
Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low
‘Cause she’s hoping to score, so I can’t see her letting him go
Walk out of her heart, walk out of her mind? Oh not her!
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that
The band’s tightness here foreshadows the style of Ziggy Stardust, where they would really shift into overdrive.
Hunky Dory ends with “The Bewlay Brothers,” described by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray as “probably Bowie’s densest and most impenetrable song,” a point of view generally in concurrence with Bowie’s comments on the piece. Hmm. I’m not sure I agree. It’s obvious that the bulk of the lyrics have to do with the imaginative adventures of two brothers as they try to survive the dullness of their childhood environment; the use of the “we” form indicates that David Bowie is one of those brothers. In the last verse, something happens to the other brother—something so unspeakable that neither the brother nor the family will receive much in the way of sympathy:
Now my Brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, He could be not
He could be You
David Bowie did have a schizophrenic half-brother, and schizophrenics do tend to trigger more fear than compassion. The distorted vocals on the coda hint that the parents—particularly the father—chose to ignore the problem, virtually abandoning both children by refusing to deal with the unspeakable:
Lay me place and bake me Pie
I’m starving for me Gravy
Leave my shoes, and door unlocked
I might just slip away
Just for the Day, Hey!
Please come Away, Hey!
“The Bewlay Brothers” may remain a mystery for the ages, but I find the song oddly engaging and curiously inviting, like the creaky door to the abandoned house everyone says is haunted.
I have to say that I enjoyed the hell out of doing this review. I had the chance to listen to Hunky Dory several times during the process and I never tired of it for a second. David Bowie would lead us through many twists and turns during his multifaceted career in the arts, but Hunky Dory is the place where he gained his footing as both a songwriter and recording artist. For that reason, it remains one of his most important contributions to modern music.