Saturday 31 July 2021


”I’m Glad I Came Here…”

If Grunge was about reuniting Punk with rock, Hole played a characteristic twist on things. They set the two against one another, and so sounded like an arms race between the anti-social and self-loathing, creating music that was simultaneously furiously assertive and absolutely self-destructive. Tony Wilson famously said that Joy Division had moved music on, from Punk’s credo of “fuck you” to “I’m fucked”. Hole upped the ante with “fuck you, I’m fucked.” A fairly typical lyrical sentiment was “here you are just as ugly as me.”

Albums can split into tracks like libraries divide into sections - the cheery up-tempo one here, the melancholic ballad over there, and so on. Hole just curdled it all into one tangy taste. And with Courtney Love’s lyrics even the metaphors were fucked up, tangling, contorting, turning in on themselves. (“I love him so much it just turns to hate/ I fake it so much I am beyond fake.” Or “If you live through this with me/ I swear I will die for you”) She once said “whenever I write about something I end up writing about something else.”

‘Celebrity Skin’, their third album came out in 1998 and was in part “dedicated to all the stolen water of Los Angeles”, with an accompanying picture of the Department of Water and Power. The title track opened, riffing on the ruined decadence theme of classic films such as ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’, nicknamed “hag horrors” by a crassly cynical marketing machine. (“Wilted and faded, somewhere in Hollywood.”)

But the dominant image is of an LA all surface and superficiality - “Miles and miles of perfect skin/ I swear I do, I fit right in.” (The title comes from a cheap porn mag that went in for paparazzi celebrity shots.) It conjures up images of endless boulevards and avenues, all interchangeable, each only leading to more of the same. Populated by equally interchangeable people, plastic surgeried into sameness, where even those not in movies pass through an arbitrary series or roles. (“Hooker, waitress, model, actress/Oh, just go nameless.”) Guitarist Eric Erlandson confirmed “We used this great hollow city as inspiration for the album.”

With the opening line "oh make me over” it’s in many ways a post-break-up album. And like break-up albums immemorial, it’s full of regret for what’s passed (“It’s the emptiness that’s all you have left”) mixed with the desire to create a new identity for yourself.

And that break-up was in part with Punk. Perhaps not surprisingly after a four-year gap, the new album had a new sound. Well, not just one. It’s generally dubbed ‘alternative rock’, most likely because that’s a tag so elastic it can stretch as wide as anyone might need it to. Which is handy. The transition between the intense, strident acoustic ‘Northern Star’ to the FM/ West Coast sound of ‘Boys On the Radio’ is a particularly memorable leap, but really the album’s full of such moments. The cumulative effect of which is, to borrow a lyric, “hit so hard/ I saw stars.”

But let’s back up… Hole with a West Coast sound? Yes, really. Punk is perhaps at its most cliched with the “we won’t sell out” song, which mostly means “we will never change the record.” On the second track, ’Awful’, they launched into a now-familiar diatribe against Grunge being prettified and presented as mainstream rock. (“It was Punk/ Yeah it was perfect, now it's awful.”) Except it’s pointedly given the mainstream rock sound it ostensibly criticises.

Even with the previous release, Punk purists had been shouting “sell out!” at gigs. And to respond by goading her critics even further, to introduce more of a mainstream rock sound for punkish reasons, seems characteristically Courtney. Ben Hewitt in The Quietus called it “magnificently defiant, like someone raising a middle finger clad in swanky velvet gloves.”

“Have you ever felt so used up as this?”, she asked on her most inspired release. On a later track she states “when the fire goes out you better learn to fake”. And indeed this went on to become their best-selling album.

”All That’s Cold and Cruel”

That dedication continues “…and to anyone who ever drowned,” and the album’s also illustrated by Paul Abert Stick’s painting ‘Ophelia Drowning’. It’s about as lyrically consistent as it is musically varied, with themes and images constantly recurring shaken into different forms. Throughout opposites are juxtaposed, fire/water (even making it onto the cover), but also sweetness/sugarlessness and numerous others.

But most of all surface is contrasted with depth. Except here depth, even when you get it, is only for sinking into. (“Our love is quicksand/ So easy to drown.”) Proceedings turn into a tails-or-tails choice between surface and drowning, between un-life and death, between a headstone and a hard place.

And to understand that, we should remember something about this break-up. When Love sings “I know that you don’t love me any more”, her ex does have a good excuse for that. To try to make a twist out of something everybody knows very well, Kurt Cobain’s suicide had happened just before the previous album was released. So everyone had been waiting four years to hear Love’s reaction. And there is something creepily voyeuristic about all that, as if we’re keen to find out what use she’ll make of such great material.

She would often deflect this by insisting his death didn’t feature at all. And it’s true, none of the previous recordings had come in sunny side up. She’d started wishing she could die on the opening track of the first album. And the title track of the predecessor, ‘Live Through This’, was in memory of Black Flag’s roadie Joe Cole. Yet perhaps that just played up the problem. Simon Reynolds once described her lyrical style as “emotional nudism”. So this type of material, it really was just up her street. The difficult truth is that, however ghoulish it might be, all this did lead to the band’s greatest album, the one Love was born to make.

All of which Love took head on, audaciously and laceratingly. “You want a piece of me?” she spits on the opening track, “Well I’m not selling cheap.” ’Dying’ opened with the audience-confronting line “see the cripple dance”. ’Petals’ featured a violating stripping away (“Tear the petals off of you/ And make you tell the truth”), reprising a lyric from the last album. As if the whole point of the thing was for her to get her scars on show. Underlying the whole thing, Courtney’s stage surname, punned on throughout, started life as her stripper name.

The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Gone Again’ may bookend musical reactions to bereavement. A jolt of stricken grief against a redemptive coming to terms. Given the time distance from the moment, we might expect from Love something closer to Smith’s. In fact it covers just about every point between, and including, the two.

So there’s anger (“How are you so burnt when you’re barely on fire?”), guilt at failing to prevent his death (“Put me up above the boy/ The one I love I should destroy”), survivor guilt (“I want what’s yours/ Oh I’d give anything/ And I’ll take the pain”), post-relationship bitterness (“And now I understand/ You leave with everything”), no-I’m-leaving-you wilful defiance (“No loneliness, no misery is worth you”) - and more. Quite a lot more, in fact.

And isn’t that how it is? When something momentous happens in your life, a hundred contradictory reactions collide in your head. So ‘Celebrity Skin’ captures them all, not resolving or even cataloguing them so much as externalising them. It’s not the sound of of someone feeling at times angry, at times despairing, at times redemptive. It’s feeling angry and despairing and redemptive, a dizzying whirlygig of emotions and images. The mix may ebb and flow, but each remains in the mix. Just when you think how have an image pegged to a symbol or a track to a theme, something else will appear to throw you off balance.

All of which are typical reactions to bereavement by suicide, about which there’s presumably been psychological studies. Yet because all this happened so much in public there can’t help but be an extra element…

Blaming suicides for suicide is like being one of those right-wing shock-jocks who blame poverty on the poor. Yet at the same time there’s a Romantic fixation with dying young, with screwing your life up to the ultimate degree made as some kind of social statement. People talk of That Stupid Club (which may even have got its name from Cobain) like its some exclusive hip establishment you should be clamouring to get into.

Whereas Love famously told Cobain’s fans to chant “asshole” at him for quitting before break time, commenting (fairly astutely) “so fucking what? - then don't be a rock star.” And this appears on the album too, Courtney knocking down Kurt the Idol of Easeful Death - “I had to tell them you were gone/ I had to tell them you were wrong”. Riffing on his Neil Young-quoting suicide note (“it’s better to burn out that fade away”) she countered “It’s better to rise than fade away”.

”Get Well Soon”

If LA dominates the album, even its sprawl can’t encompass the whole of it. The dark and brooding ‘Northern Star’ seems set in Seattle (or at least Washington state), as a kind of opposite pole. The refrain “run to the pines” recalls the folk standard ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ (also known as ‘In the Pines’), often played by Nirvana. But of course its depth is again that of the grave. (“Praying to the wound that swallows / All that's cold and cruel.”) This reinforces the binary.

But the one point that things break from that system is where a third place is referenced. And it gives the title to the single, ’Malibu’. (Disclaimer: Three singles were released in total. But this is the one which sounds like the single.)

The sea is the only non-stagnant water on the album (“Down by the sea is where you drown your scars”). While the titular light on ’Northern Star’ got you nowhere except lost, here multiple stars morph into angels. The second-person address seems (as ever) to slip between her talking to Kurt and to herself. But the overall sense is one of escape - “And the sun goes down/ I watch you slip away/ And the sun goes down/ I walk into the waves.”

Referring to the most redemptive Hole album might be like naming the most danceable Leonard Cohen album or Von Stroheim film made most in colour. But it remains the case. “Can you stand up,” Love rails, “or will you just fall down?” It’s a classic Punk taunt, demanding inner strength and castigating those who lack it. But like all such taunts, the question rebounds on the questioner.

And the answer we got back was yes. But there’s little redeeming about this, no pines-and-sea version of “hello trees, hello flowers”. Ultimately the album may not decide life is worth the living so much as describe survival as a kind of reflex action, the way you reach out when you fall. As Dorothy Parker said many years before - “might as well live.”

Saturday 24 July 2021


Beware! Plot Spoilers below!

Given that Natasha (aka the Black Widow) first appeared in the third Marvel Comics Universe film, ‘Iron Man 2’, back in 2010, there are those who have seen this solo outing as somewhat overdue. And this is almost literally true, you need to retrofit its events between already released films.

But perhaps the much-criticised delay was in part down to a wariness over how to do it. Natasha’s more spy than superhero, a creature of the shadows. And how do you spotlight that? As I said at the time, despite all the shared screen time, ‘Captain America The Winter Soldier’ (2014) got its title for a reason - Cap was the moral centre of the film. She inhabited the blurred line between right and wrong he fell into and struggled with. But what does a shadow do when there’s no goody-two-shoes for her to cast against?

One solution is to hold her at a distance. She’s twice shown as ahead, not just of other characters in the film but of us in the audience. Early on, she leads an enemy - and with him us - to believe she’s still in a building she’s already flown. And in the finale her plot to defeat Dreykov is revealed to us piece-by-piece, by repeated flashbacks. In this genre plots and calculation are more commonly seen as a villain’s thing, against which the hero brings his innate virtue and bulging biceps. All this helps her keep her anti-hero credentials.

And so we’re given not a new Cap but more Widows. With the help of one real sister (Yelena) and several proverbial ones (the amassed Widows), she works to overthrow the manipulating Dreykov. It’s almost the ‘Marvel Team-Up’ scenario, where the girls first tight one another, then figure out they’re better off working together. Even the armour-clad adversary Taskmaster, this film’s equivalent of the Winter Soldier, turns out to be another Widow, and hence turnable. (I plead guilty to first assuming she was male, and now have to march at the back on demos.)

The only man in on their plot is the sisters’ father, Alexi, a boastful but bumbling and ineffective figure. (Though there seems no continuity between how he’s played in the opening flashback and later.) In one gag he speaks into his comms, only to be told they didn’t bother issuing him with any. This isn’t just to give the show a clown, it provides a contrast between the weak father and Dreykov, the ‘bad Dad’. In a great gag, once free of Dreykov’s control Yelena immediately goes for every girls’ dream - clothing with pockets.

When Natasha confronts Dreykov, the twist is that he’s saddled her with a “pheromone lock”. This latest piece of sci-fi gobbledygook makes less sense than usual. Once she smells him she’s rendered incapable of fighting him. So did he have to avoid showering prior to the showdown? But pheromones are used by animals to perpetuate kinship, a notion often reinforced in popular culture. (Remember those Lynx adverts?) So this establishes Bad Dad as Natasha’s True Dad, the strong man, rather than the semi-useless Alexi.

And Natasha reacts in typical fashion. Just as she did with Loki back in ‘The Avengers’, she uses her enemy’s hubristic boasting against him. She goats him into breaking her nose, blocking her capacity to smell him and so breaking her link to him as pack leader.

So does that make this an anti-patriarchal film? Plenty will argue so, and from both sides of the ‘culture war’ divide. And Marvel seem smart enough to have clocked that the frothings of the anti-woke mob give them free publicity, so are worth stirring up. (Though intriguingly, and alarmingly, Marvel boss Isaac Perlmutter is a yuge Trump donor.)

But there’s another way of reading that moment. Remember her now-notorious line in ‘Age Of Ultron’ (2015)? Revealing to Bruce Banner she’d been sterilised by the Widow programme she adds “you still think you’re the only monster on the team?” And we’re reminded of this when Alexei sarcastically asks Yelena “is it that time of the month?”, for her to explain the details of her forced hysterectomy. (Admittedly a good moment in itself, nailing us boys’ yukkiness at female biology.)

In that context the significance of that nosebleed takes another turn. You don’t need the most vivid of imaginations to see it as representing the return of menstrual blood. Tied in with her gaining her freedom from Bad Dad, with her de-monstering of herself, is the re-establishing of her womanhood. In other words, if this film is opposed to patriarchy it’s a patriarchy which doesn’t define and then place you in the role of ‘woman’, it’s one which specifically denies you that role. In other words, it’s not any kind of anti-patriarchy at all.

And the film pulls off another conceit on the back of that. The backstory has to be dated to the Nineties to work chronologically, but it breezily folds that era into the Cold War in order to re-establish the familiar formula: East = tyranny, West = individual freedom. Natasha’s family may be somewhat matrilinear, but family is still what this film is somewhat obsessively about. Sheep would be easier to count than the number of times that word is used. And as their family is split up immediately on returning to the East, it’s effectively treated as an American import. (Anyone familiar with the sexual politics of Stalinism is here invited to laugh risibly.) So when family = good, we can bet collectively = bad. In fact here collectivity isn’t associated just with conformity but complete mind control.

What we have then, is an apparent individuality which is actually based on a kind of essentialism. A contradiction which is liberal thinking in a nutshell.

It might be objected that most viewers are unlikely to think any of this, and are more likely to come out the cinema saying “cool white costume” or “that Black Widow, she kicks ass!” And even Freud once said a broken nose was just a broken nose. (Or something like that anyway.) But the subliminal nature is precisely the problem. It’s the odourless smells which travel the furthest. And patriarchy is probably the most deep-rooted, the most ‘naturalised’ of all oppressions. You almost don’t need to try to reinforce it, you just need to rub with the grain.

And the serum comes in here, Soviet collectivist ideology in bottled form, at odds with ‘human nature’ and therefore switch-offable by a plot MacGuffin, which essentially provides instant deprogramming.

We are probably better off looking to Hollywood for textbook examples of the disease rather than expecting them to administer any cure. (Particularly any cure not reducible to magic red pixie dust.) But then neither should we entirely forget the first explanation for that busted nose. Perhaps it comes down to the nature of the ‘culture wars’, where legitimate questions about representation are reduced to a crude form of accountancy, until supposedly progressive voices become no more than a kind of mirror image of the anti-‘woke’ mob. Many fans uncritically lauded ‘Black Panther’ (2018) for having a a black lead, overlooking a plot about a born royal reclaiming his throne from an ignoble troublemaker, in order to restore peaceful relations with the West.

The metafictional elements of the film come in here, with Natasha watching James Bond and Yelena teasing her for posing in fights and generally being a cover girl. But this gag rebounds. ‘Black Widow’ is much closer to the corporation who put a woman on the recruitment poster, and considers that job done. A cover girl with a broken nose is still a cover girl.

Saturday 17 July 2021


”I’m A Space Invader” 

The amount of science fiction in Ziggy can be overstated. There's at least as much animal imagery. But, much like gay culture, futurism and pop music seemed like natural bedfellows. It promised, in the famous phrase, tomorrows' sounds today. Tomorrow had already been the name of a Sixties psychedelic band. Phrases then still hip, such as “far out” (used on the album), also suggest this connection. Three years after Ziggy, the equally glammed up Slade would sing “many years from now there will be new sensations/ and new temptations/ how does it feel?”

Back then a pop star seemed so exotic, so at odds with your drab existence of school ties and table manners, that to see him as an alien didn’t seem so much of a stretch. Bowie effectively played with this with the video to the earlier single ’Life On Mars’. It’s essentially a succession of close-ups of him, filmed like his brightly made-up face is Mars. The cover to ’Ziggy’ shows the space invader juxtaposed with standard, drab London locations – backstreets and phone boxes.

Perhaps the most overtly science fiction song is ‘Starman’. And reasonably enough, someone first hears Ziggy by stumbling across him on the radio. (Yes, the man playing a rock star so he could become a rock star made a hit single about hearing a hit single.) He immediately picks up the phone: “I had to phone someone so I picked on you/ Hey, that's far out so you heard him too?” (I like to imagine that he phones a total stranger.) The radio and the phone are of course rock song staples, going back to the Fifties. But there’s a special significance to the radio here.

Bowie said of his own suburban teenage years: “I spent so much time in my bedroom. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player.”

And for my generation it was the same. A strange mixture of introspective self-isolation and exile from the world. And despite that drab normtown, every now and again something brightly coloured would fly briefly past your window. You’d only recently discovered you had your own will, and didn’t seem to have much of anything else. So you imagined you might be able to will another world into being. Having lived in that bedroom isolation, Bowie knew how to write directly to people still inside it.

Lemmy has said, when it first appeared, “rock ’n’ roll sounded like music from another planet.” But for their generation, that has an extra poignancy. Radio One didn't begin until 1967, when Bowie was already twenty. He’d have spent his formative years catching the new music through pirate stations, broadcast by necessity from beyond British shores. This strange new music was beamed in from outside, beyond the workaday world of suburbs and school uniforms. Alien form and alien content were in perfect alignment.

(Bowie himself recalled “It was very hard to hear music when I was younger. And therefore had a call to arms feeling about it”. The song compares radio waves to cosmic rays - “That weren’t no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive.”

And that theme was in the airwaves back then. Back in ‘66 the Byrds had released ‘Mr. Spaceman’ about hitching a ride from a UFO like a souped-up hippy van. And, tho’ not in the lyrics, Roger MgGuinn had speculated about aliens hearing his song through the ether. The psychedelic band Gong released the ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ trilogy of albums centred round a telepathic radio station, the first appearing only a year after ‘Ziggy’.) 

Yet ‘Starman’ is also based on the musical number ‘Over The Rainbow’, to the extent that live Bowie would sometimes swap the lyrics over. And as science fiction is really only useful as a metaphor for otherworldly, ’The Wizard of Oz’ meshes quite tightly. Bowie’s only real change was that he was now bringing someone from Oz to Kansas.

Also, science fiction was cosmological and quite often eschatological. And Ziggy is at least in part an angel, sent down to rescue the fallen of the earth. This is a belief system triggered by a starman rather than a star, but same difference.

In ’The Death and Resurrection Show’, Rogan Taylor argues “showbiz was the stump of shamanism”, surviving in disguised form into modern times. Unsurprisingly, it takes in Bowie and focuses on the Ziggy era. Bowie's described as “celestial… the most beautiful example of a modern master of heavenly flights” and “an Upperworld shaman”. He goes on:

”Uncontainable by any one mould, he was bound to become a sex-change shaman. Aerial spirits are very often depicted in myth as either sexless or androgynous, as in the paintings of medieval angels. It is as if their refusal to be bound by the either-or-ness of sexual identity provides them mysteriously with their power of flight. They cannot be held down in any one classification, so they drift upwards in consequence.”

And of course a shaman primarily has a healing role. The album repeatedly suggests only rock ’n’ roll can save the world – “I could make the transformation as a rock ’n’ roll star.” And if that seems more a Sixties than a Seventies notion, especially for the man simultaneously writing ’All the Young Dudes’ then Ziggy is very reminiscent of the title character from the earlier song 'Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud', “the missionary mystic of peace/love”. (The only track from the first album, bar 'Space Oddity' itself, to get played at the final Ziggy gig.) And the whole album is in the slipstream of the elegiac 'Memories of a Free Festival', which “talked with tall Venusians passing through.”

To date the furthest Bowie had taken this was 'Oh You Pretty Things' with its suggestion youth were “the homo superior”.

“Look at your children
”See their faces in golden rays
”Don't kid yourself they belong to you 
”They're the start of a coming race”

Yet, to quote myself (well somebody has to) when looking at ’Quatermass’: 

“It’s difficult to capture in retrospect just how contrapedal Seventies culture was. And how science fiction, which had always held to a view of the future which was bifurcated verging on bipolar, was the ideal arena to capture that. The future would either turn into a fluorescent silver techno-fix or else fall into pieces, with neither middle ground nor third option.”

It's easy to get the idea from this that the Seventies were ideologically split between hope and despair, dystopian and utopian SF flicks occupying alternate weeks at the cinema. But, as was not at all uncommon, in Ziggy the two are compressed together. This juxtaposition is at its keenest on 'Lady Stardust':

”Lady Stardust sang his songs
”Of darkness and dismay
”And he was alright
”The band was all together”

Early Bowie songs had tended to be epic, sprawling, multi-part numbers. But with 'Ziggy' they grew shorter, fell into conventional verse/chorus structures, both music and language becoming more direct. (The stream-of-consciousness style of 'Diamond Dogs' lay in the future.)

Bolan had made a similar journey from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T Rex, and it’s scarcely a secret Bowie used him as a role model. But there’s more than concision and simplicity, it’s also the sound of T Rex which is borrowed.

As Simon Reynolds pus it: “It is precisely as a lightweight that Bolan was a marvel. T Rex took the ponderousness and grit out of blues-based tock, made it lithe and succinct…. Cock rock became coquette rock. Instead of wham-bam bombast T.Rex songs moved to a reciprocal groove… active and passive roles slipped and flipped around.” (‘Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy’)

Bowie’s songs are more theatrical, less playful, less fey than Bolan’s. But he uses lightness positively in a similar way. Rock ’n’ roll has greasy knees protruding from ripped jeans. Rock ’n’ roll commonly cries “Get down!” Here the music seems to gleam and glide. The album sounds, in a literal sense, unearthly. This isn’t just true of the more show-like tracks such as ‘Starman’. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ is riff-based, but soars spaciously.

In other words, for an album about rock ’n’ roll mythology Bowie gives it a very un-rock ’n’ roll sound. A sound Simon Reynolds describes as “not particularly cosmic or futuristic but… cleanly produced rock and soul tunes… Rock is the theme that governs the album, but it’s not really the sound here which is lean and clean, light and almost unbodied.”

Think of Taylor’s description of Bowie as celestial, unweighted. Think of the line “Look out your window, I can see his light.” Perhaps we should even see Ziggy as some kind of Gnostic saviour, a being of light projected down into our tawdry material realm. It’s as if he arrived not from another planet but some ideal realm, where everything “sparkles” and nothing is worn-down or debased.

Perhaps the strangest part of Taylor’s description is “sexless”, particularly when Bowie was considered such a sex symbol at the time. As said earlier, the album has a predilection for nudge-nudge animal metaphors. (“I’m an alligator”, and so on.) But despite that, it’s not particularly sexualised. The animals are more flamboyant than bestial, strutting peacocks not rutting stags. Even on the jaded ‘All The Young Dudes’ they scoff at “television man” for “saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks.” (Though he may have a point about their shoplifting.) A thick line of innocence runs through it.

And this is made clearer by including one song which was all grit, all grind, very much wham-bam bombast. If the rest of the album is polished till it gleams, ‘Suffragette City’ sounds like a raw slice of something. And this time, that something is definitely sex. In lines like “don’t lean on me man, cause you can’t afford the ticket”, with a garnish of implied violence.

The album’s known for borrowing Nadsat slang from ’Clockwork Orange’, but it’s actually only used on this track. And Burgess’ gang of street-aristo apex predators are quite removed from the Dudes.

Again, serendipity saves us. This was the song Bowie first offered Mott the Hoople, perhaps because it sounded so unlike the rest of the album. Only when they refused it did he offer them ’All the Young Dudes’. 

Which means that the album starts out sounding ‘clean’ but gets dirtier as it goes along, the groupie tale ‘Hang On To Yourself’ leading into ‘Suffragette City’. From purity and innocence to decadence and corruption. (Which may be reading too much into it. Then again, that’s pretty much what we’re here for.)

Bowie’s next single (bar one) was ‘The Jean Genie’, described as “all muscle and sinew.” 'Starman' was a song, 'Jean Genie' a riff with an attitude wrapped round it taking the form of a lyric. It heralded a sound much less influenced by Bolan and much more influenced by the Stones.

Admittedly we’re now moving to the next album. But then, chronologically as much as with Bowie’s character, it’s hard to pin down where Ziggy ends. 'Aladdin Sane' never mentions him by name, but its concept was often described by Bowie as “Ziggy in America”.

And where best to get lost? Arguably the songs there take up the missing section from ’Ziggy’, and chronicle the character’s dissolution. Taylor called Bowie “an Upperworld shaman”. Yet, in the shamanic flight as anywhere else, what goes up must first go down. Ziggy merely lived the story in reverse.

In fact, so powerful is the rock ’n’ roll myth that, as if it possessed its own inexorable force, Bowie’s subsequent years mapped to it. After 'Diamond Dogs’, he became increasingly isolated, paranoid and delusional, sensing black magic plots against him everywhere, his lifestyle effectively a slow form of suicide. Simon Reynolds describes his state of mind as a kind of private apocalypse:

“In the nadir of cocaine dysphoria, Bowie made a total identification between his fractured ego and ‘World Collapse’. That’s Daniel O’Keefe’s term for narcissism turned apocalyptic: a state of mind that’s the inverse of being in love. Where romantic ardour reaches out for ecstatic fusion with the Other, paranoia withdraws from an external reality that’s become all Ominous Otherness.” 

And what’s the solution but to invert the inversion, try to find that ecstatic fusion once more? And, being Bowie, as seen another time, he tries to bring that about by writing a song about it. ‘Station To Station’ sounds nothing like ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’, but follows the same formal structure – dissolution leading to renewal, disconnection yielding to reconnection.

And this may be part of the appeal of ’Ziggy’. If it kicks off a Glam trilogy it’s the only album to have this idealised sound. A friend once told me he always likes the idea of bands more than the actual band. ’Ziggy’ may be the ultimate album where it exists just so the idea of it can exist, and that idea is itself the idea of rock ’n’ roll.

The Stations of Rock ’n’ Roll

The closing 'Rock and Roll Suicide' cyclically brings us back to the themes of 'Five Years' - an isolated figure wandering the streets. We’re used to that, but it should feel odd. If this is the height of Bowie’s dalliance with Glam, then Glam was not normally given to this sort of downer vibe. Marc Bolan, Bowie’s big inspiration to go into Glam, wrote songs with titles such as ‘Life’s A Gas’ and ‘Solid Gold Easy Action’. Melancholia was the business of blues-based rock music. At least at the time Glam was seen as pop music, its home turf the singles not the album chart.

Almost every other track is sung about him, this one is sung to him. And this time Ziggy himself is the fraught, isolated figure. (It’s not specified it’s him, but come on - it is. Certainly, this is the only second-person song on the album, unless you count the filler ’It Ain’t Easy’.)

Bowie did explain at one point “it was his own personality being unable to cope with the circumstances he found himself in, which is being an almighty prophet-like superstar rocker who found he didn’t know what to do with it once he got it.” The man who’d showed up to save others, turned out he can’t even save himself.

In ’Shock and Awe’, Simon Reynolds points out that “Pop is a personality cult; it’s based on the belief that some people are extraordinary and that the ordinary can achieve elevation only by direct contact or through emulation”. But, when discussing Bolan’s later plummet from stardom, he comes back to refine the point:

”Charisma could be the attribute of a gifted preacher, a miracle-worker, someone endowed with gifts of oratory or oracular utterance. But charisma could also be possessed by the congregation itself, which in the early days of the Christian church was more like a band of outcasts than the hierarchical bureaucracies of subsequent centuries. It is arguable that charisma of this kind – collective single-mindedness – is a ‘vibe’ that generates itself within any cultic group that shares a marginal world view and renegade value system.”

And live music is all about the transference of energy between the performer and the audience, each giving back to the other. And this is formalised by the ritual of the encore, the star disappearing and having to be called back. It’s our “we believe in faeries” moment.

The song’s conceit is to start out descriptively, as if a dispassionate and omnipotent narrator is recounting the character’s actions. But then it jumps into addressing him directly, as if deciding it couldn’t stay uninvolved after all. At which point, as it cries “you’re not alone”, it becomes as rousing as a chorus. If Ziggy came down to save the kids, it’s they who now save him.

And in a sense he does die. The end of the album means the end of the character, this is in Bowie’s well-known phrase “the last show we’ll ever do”. But what dies is his ego, he discards his messiah status and accepts his own mortality. (Hence the “time takes a cigarette” opening.)

Try to think back to it. Those teenage years alone in your room, feeling at odds with the whole world, what did you most want to hear, but “no, you’re not alone”? Live this must have been magnificently effective.

In the film 'Velvet Goldmine’, loosely based on Bowie’s life, a character reflects sourly on the Glam era: “We set out to change the world... ended up just changing ourselves.”

Which is the story of most of our lives, I’d imagine.

Saturday 10 July 2021


(First part here.)

”I Smiled Sadly”

’Ziggy Stardust’ opens, logically enough, with an announcement of the end of the world: “News had just come over/ We had five years left to cry in”. As the song starts Bowie sounds mournful but strangely resigned. There's none of the “hey man” hep-cat slang that peppers future tracks, the language is direct and even flat. 

Mysteriously, the song never spells out just how or why this time limit came to be set. But we're lucky, because at one point Bowie did explain it, when he was being interviewed by William Burroughs:

”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.”

More precisely, we're lucky that this was said three years after the event (and for a musical that never happened), so we don't have to be bothered by any of it. (If you read the whole thing, you can follow him musing about the logistical difficulties associated with putting black holes on stage. While saying “I usually don't agree with what I say very much, I'm an awful liar.”) Just as we're lucky the Orwell estate scuppered his plans for a 'Nineteen Eighty Four' musical, meaning that instead we got 'Diamond Dogs'. Every reference you read to it suggests it would have been to Ziggy what 'Phantom Menace' was to 'Star Wars', elaborations which added nothing and in fact took everything away.

Of course we're better off not knowing. The disaster is like the shadowy monster in shadowy monster films, best kept that way rather than shining a spotlight over an extra sweating in a rubber suit. It’s the unspecified nature which makes the song so haunting and evocative. But there's more, which goes to the core of the concept...

At the time, he was less erudite but probably also less an awful liar:

“It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn't have fitted into the story of Ziggy... it could be within the last five years of Earth... I'm not at all sure... Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends on which state you listen to it in.”

And notably he doesn't seem to have ever played the songs live in album sequence.

So if Bowie wasn't yet applying Burroughs' cut-ups to his lyrics, he effectively cuts up the album. Every song comes from a different perspective. Though Bowie ‘played’ Ziggy on-stage and even in interviews, and though the majority of the songs are from a first-person perspective, few are from Ziggy’s. ('Star' is a possible exception.) We see him through others’ eyes. The classic line is “Ziggy played guitar” not “I played guitar”. (Just as well, as he wasn’t playing guitar at the time he sang it.)

You could, if you wanted, try to pin each one to it's narrator - 'Starman' to a suburban teen keeping his dreams of “sparkling” from his parents, 'Lady Stardust' an early fan watching others glom on, 'Ziggy Stardust' two rival fans in conflict and so on. But that's not the point. The point isn't where those different perspectives come from, it’s what they add up to. You can examine a mosaic by stepping up close, working out the size and colour of each piece. But the point of a mosaic is to step back, to take in the whole thing impressionistically, individual pieces disappearing into the pattern.

And is this even new? Earlier songs, such as ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Cygnet Committee’ had been built from multiple points of view. But each character was carefully tagged, most obviously through the radio call signs on ’Space Oddity’. The lyric sheet even helpfully wrapped their speech in inverted commas. But as those epic narratives condensed to hit single length, those identifying tags were lost, long speeches and passage of description were compressed into gnomic aphorisms.

Plus Ziggy himself was a mosaic, a Frankenstein assemblage Bowie made from rock stars already existing. Except when people try to work out his recipe, it always seems dissatisfyingly limiting. Ideally he’d be based on every previous star. Bowie said “it’s an archetype really, it’s the definitive rock ‘n’ roll star. It often happens and I was just trying to document it as such.”

As well he might. Smart, striking-looking, talented… Bowie may have been a natural star. But he was not necessarily a natural rock star. For years he flitted between many paths. So he approached the role as an actor would, studying actual rock stars and copping elements as they struck him.

And before Bowie, appreciation of previous stars was normally expressed through cover versions or copycat numbers. Whereas on his previous album ’Hunky Dory’ Bowie had openly dedicated multiple numbers to his heroes. And he’d go on to use rock imagery, such as “Jagger’s eyes”, the way Romantic poets might have cited Aphrodite.

Plus seeing him through those multiple lines of sight, like a mosaic viewed through a prism, enhances this sense of him as something inscrutably strange, slightly beyond our understanding. Looking back years later, Bowie sounded less interested in Infinites in Greenwich Village: 

"I think that probably the best thing I did with Ziggy was to leave himself open-ended. It wasn't a specific story, there were specific incidents... but it wasn't as roundly written as a usual narrative is… because Ziggy was kind of an empty vessel you could put an awful lot of yourself into, being your own version of Ziggy." 

And yet the mosaic metaphor's imperfect. Here the pieces are just big enough to suggest they might fit together. We get a fractured perspective on a fractured figure in a fractured situation. And that fracturing is foregrounded. It may be significant that Bowie so frequently described himself as “mixed up”, as a synonym for “troubled”, when he was playing a character who was literally made from a mix.

Google-image “Ziggy Stardust” and most finds will be of the later Aladdin Sane. You can see why. It was all about being iconic and that was the icon that trumped the others. Aladdin was used for the mural made for him in Brixton after his death, he even has a zigzag constellation named after him. That zigzag became his motif, and it couldn’t be more clearly an emblem of a fractured personality.

And the fracturing may even be duplicated in the individual pieces, like Mandlebrots. When people argue over the recipe for Ziggy, the one most overlooked is the least known but possibly the most important. Through the medium of consuming too much acid Vince Taylor had come to believe he was an alien, or Jesus, or possibly an alien Jesus.

Bowie said of him “I’m not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both, probably. There was something very tempting about him going completely over the edge. Especially at my age then, it seemed very appealing: ‘Oh, I’d love to end up like that, totally nuts’. And so he re-emerged into this Ziggy character.” (From Clinton Heylin’s ’All The Madmen’) So Ziggy was based from the off on a broken prototype. Not Jesus but a John the Baptist who predicts himself, and is still proven wrong.

The script that Bowie wrote which called for Ziggy’s rise also had to call for his fall. And it was ever thus. In the Simpsons episode 'The Otto Show' Bart falls into a fantasy where he and Millhouse become rock stars. Before you know it he’s becomes bloated and strung out, lying backstage unable to go on. “You've changed, man”, yells Millhouse. “It used to be about the music.” Returning to reality Bart mouths to himself “cool”.

In rock ‘n’ roll if it’s working, that’s a sign it’s not working. It's meant to end up in failure, the car crashed into the swimming pool not retained and resold for its full market value. So in rock mythology “he took it all too far” is a compliment. 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide' is always going to trump 'Rock 'n' Roll Retirement With an Superannuated Pension Plan'.

’Ziggy’ is the rock 'n' roll story - rags/riches/rags again – blown up on a more cosmological scale. And if it wasn't rooted in rock 'n' roll, it wouldn't work. We're like a tribal group told a new iteration of its core myths. Just a few key words and phrases is enough. 

Which is why, in the moment of listening to it, Ziggy seems to make total sense. It’s only when you try to focus on it that it slips away. Because in a way we don't need to be told the story of Ziggy. We already knew it, from the very beginning, without even thinking about it.

And so rock music becomes almost innately built on a paradox, between the rock star as icon of cool and as shunned outcast. As Lennon said "Part of me suspects I'm a loser and part of me thinks I'm God Almighty,” no messing with Mr. Inbetween. Ziggy himself epitomises the ambiguity, built around the oxymoron of “a leper messiah”. And one way of resolving that paradox is to make it into a timeline, into a rise and fall.

And so, though Ziggy’s fall is telegraphed in the title its passing is barely recounted. It comes in the middle of the song ’Ziggy Stardust’, intercut with the triumphant. We’re expected to intuit these are two contrasting voices, the euphoric fan interrupted by the more cynical protopunk asking what the Spiders have done for them lately.

He “make[s] love to his ego”, the kids fall out of love with him, “kill the man”, “break up the band” and leave him alone and despondent. Or something like that. (It’s not clear how any of that happens, or even who turns against who first. Or how you can develop a messiah complex when you’re already a messiah.) And that was one of the songs demoed even before 'Hunky Dory', suggesting that however much it's elided over Ziggy's fall had been hardwired into the thing from the start.

Whereas in ’Lady Stardust’, just as we're being told of Ziggy's ascendancy the tone is elegiac, almost mournful, someone looking back on those happier times. The past tense seems important. The payoff line is “I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey”.

”Pushing Through the Market Square...”

So in short 'Five Years' makes no sense and was never intended to... well, perhaps in a way it does. But, despite the “Earth really dying” line, what it suggests is social not ecological collapse. The patchwork array of people in the street come off as disconnected, linked only by hearing the news guy's words. Reduced to a series of pronouned types, (“a girl my age... the black... the cop”) just like the agglomeration of discrete objects that assail the narrator (“boys, toys, electric irons and TVs”) all apparently walking single file, each internalising the portentous warning.

The most obvious assumption is that they act in this way in response to the news guy's words, shocked out of the ability to look one another in the eye. But what if the situation is the other way up? The news guy isn’t relaying to but reporting what’s happening in the street, that we can no longer relate to each other, that social breakdown is literal - it’s simply stopped functioning at the most fundamental level, and now each and every one of us is alone.

“I felt like an actor” should be a positive line, another iteration of the Glam credo about reinventing yourself. Here it's reversed. Everyone in the song is an actor without an audience, reduced to a role and trapped within it. Only the social outcasts, “the black” and “the queer” respond to what anyone else is doing – which in the queer’s case is throwing up.

With the line “never thought I’d need so many people” it’s the ‘need’ which sticks out. We’re expecting ‘see’, maybe ‘meet’, not so strong a term. Its people who are the problem here. But also, potentially, the solution. “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare” is about carrying the image of that fractured world in your mind, with no way to interact with it. Bowie said, if years later, “I'm feeling like a society in myself. So broken up and fragmented.”

And, you may ask, how does this theory explain the five year time limit? The answer to that is it doesn't really. But then that's happily forgotten from this point anyway. What it does convey is how it can feel to push your way through a crowded street, your brain auto-assigning descriptive tags to those you pass as if that helps you navigate them. Like you're a cut-out piece stuck in a collage, unable either to cross the bifurcating scalpel lines and interact with the other pieces or to remove yourself from them.

Bowie’s often said to have countered the collectivised radicalism of the Sixties, to be about individual self-transformation. But this is a song about the downside of individualism, the perils of too much of the heady stuff. He often said himself that he primarily wrote about alienation. But perhaps never more so than here.

”Ripping off Stars From His Face”

And, with the world collapsing around you, what’s left to do but act cool?

The album contains an out-and-out filler track, which doesn't even tangentially relate to the Ziggy concept – 'It Ain't Easy'. (Already rejected from 'Hunky Dory', it should have been knocked back again.) So it might seem a shame that a classic song which did (sort of) fit the concept got left off the album. Of course this is ’All The Young Dudes’, which Bowie gave to Mott the Hoople. (Some claim he wrote them the song on the spot.)

In fact, much like the musical getting aborted, it's the hidden hand of fate at work. Firstly, it was too similar to the album to actually find a place on it. Too many motifs recur – television men, suicide and so on. Chronologically it would have had to come before the Starman landed, but would then risk vying with 'Five Years'. 

But more importantly Ian Hunter sung Bowie's song better than he would himself. Bowie would have sung it poignantly and theatrically, pretty much the same way as 'Five Years'. Hunter just sounds jaded, soured on life. (Though Bowie did perform the song live, he never released a recording of it until a 1995 compilation album.)

So what’s so cool about Cool? It could be seen as just a more condensed word for people who can't be bothered to say insouciant. Except that ignores the term’s origins:

”The sum and substance of cool is a self-conscious aplomb in overall behavior… Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs, such as slaves, prisoners, bikers and political dissidents, etc., for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it.”

(And yes, it doesn’t count as cool to look up what Wikipedia says about cool.) Hence affected nonchalance became important enough as a survival strategy to acquire an almost spiritual devotion. Baudrillard described cool as “aestheticised nihilism”.

In fact, in today’s bid for Pseud’s Corner I’m going to suggest this song suggests a dialectical relationship. In one sense it’s acknowledging the hopeless situation society has pushed upon you. (As in the immortal line “is there concrete all around/ Or is it in my head?”) But being a “dude” is also an avowal, something taken up akin to being a monk, and so becomes your source of inner strength. (“That revolution stuff” of the previous decade is specifically rejected.) Which creates the paradox – you pose as if your very life depended on it.

To get more reductive about it than we probably should, the verses are a list of individuals feeling that concrete all around. (It starts with a planned suicide.) While the more euphoric chorus involves the dudes banding together. Even the recorded version carries instructions as if to a live audience - “I want you at the front”. 

Rags are the New Riches

I once watched one of those BBC4 music histories which cheerfully rolled out the old saw about music not reflecting the lives of alienated urban youth before punk came along. Scarcely ten minutes after they’d actually played ’All The Young Dudes’. 

Glam was naked aspirational, and often that meant a chance to do some social climbing. It involved many figures from working class backgrounds who affected middle class accents. Take for example Brian Ferry, son of a Geordie miner who took on a gentleman-about-town persona. Punk might seem the very opposite of all that. We could counter Ferry with Joe Strummer, ex-public school boy who learnt to drop his H’s in the newfound impolite company.

Nevertheless this still was the promissory note Punk inherited from Glam, embodied in Rotten's clarion cry “you don't need permission for anything!” If it replaced dressing up with dressing down, it took up dressing down as if it was dressing up, rags paraded like they were riches. Glitzy alter egos like Stardust and Glitter were swapped for ersatz names like Poly Styrene.

And the connection’s possibly at its clearest here. The “ripping off stars from his face” already seems Punk’s ostensible anti-Glam. While the discarding of the Beatles and Stones seems to presage the Clash’s “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones.” In fact the Clash were such fans they brought in Hoople’s producer Guy Stevens for ’London Calling’. (Though perhaps the bizzarest connection is anarcho-punk fundamentalists Crass naming themselves after a ’Ziggy Stardust’ lyric “the kids were just crass.”)

Last part incoming...

Saturday 3 July 2021


“Please don't ask me to theorise on Ziggy... its all too personal. He's a monster and I'm Dr Frankenstein. He's my brother, and God, I love him."
- Bowie

”Man is least himself when he talks in his own person... Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth” 
- Oscar Wilde

Ziggy and the Zeitgeist

After Bowie's death, when Call-Me-Dave Cameron tried to paid tribute to a man he barely even had a first name in common with, Newsthump cheekily suggested he'd cited 'Sergeant Pepper' as his favourite album. And like a lot of satire, it's not that far off.

'Ziggy' may to some extent be Bowie's 'Pepper', the name non-fans have in their heads as the correct answer to the question. Truth is, not only is it not his best album it's not even the best of his Glam era. Bowie himself thought so, preferring 'Aladdin Sane'. I’d most likely go for 'Diamond Dogs'. So how can we explain this fixation on 'Ziggy'?

It was that album which broke Bowie, and so the way most fans first heard of him. But there's more to it than that. Bowie may at other times have made better music. But arguably 'Ziggy' achieves a more important task of popular music - 'Ziggy' is zeitgeisty.

In look and sound Bowie intended Ziggy to come across like a landing Martian, like something so strange he'd beamed down from a different reality. And yet the genius of the thing was the way he plugged so neatly into early Seventies culture. His was just the strange our normal needed.

Perhaps significantly, Ziggy is the archetypal figure for Glam as much as for Bowie. Even though Glam was already well underway at the time. (It’s launch is often considered to be Marc Bolan’s ’Top of the Pops' appearance in March 1971. Bowie’s ‘Starman’ wasn’t until July 1972.) So what was there in Ziggy that allowed Bowie to eclipse Glam’s originator?

It was Bolan who said “pop songs must be like a spell”. And, as said over the later 'Station To Station', Bowie often wrote songs as a form of sympathetic magic. Adam Sweeting wrote in his Guardian obituary “the [Ziggy] album effectively wrote the script for his own stardom”. Like wheels within wheels, he would perform as Ziggy but Bowie was already an alter ego. (He'd been born David Jones.) Bowie became a rock star by playing one, on and off stage.

But this was also the Bowie album which most addressed the audience, and in the most literal sense. Bliss it must have been to be young in that very dawn, and watching that legendary 'Top of the Pops' version of 'Starman', where he pointed out of the screen straight at “yo-hoo-hoo”.

And who was in that audience? Remember the opening monologue of 'Trainspotting'? Culminating in the spat line about “the brats you spawned to replace yourself”? Though set in the following decade it’s a statement even truer of the Seventies, when it wasn't at all uncommon for children to entirely replicate their parents' lives. As workplaces were often localised, sons would take up not just similar work to their fathers but the same work in the same workplace. While daughters were even more likely to stay home and change nappies, just as their mothers had changed theirs. The lines in your parents’ faces mapped your own future.

But this was also the time where fixed careers first started to erode, effectively the first generation for who replacing your parents wasn't an inevitability. In the Sixties, Mod had been about dressing up, looking smart and becoming a “Face” on the scene, in a way which related to social aspiration. But it was still tied to the fixation on your Saturday night respite from the daily grind. Glam took this further, into a form of self-transformation.

Young children, noting they have the power to name things, sometimes re-name themselves in an early act of re-self-branding. But we’re expected to grow out of that. Glam took it up at a higher level. Why did you need to keep the name your parents had given you? You could create an alter ego, and then become that person just by dressing up as them. Sartre had said “Man makes himself by acting.” Why should play-acting prove any different? The Glam credo was actually spelt out the clearest by neither Bowie nor Bolan but ’The Rocky Horror Picture Show’: “Don’t dream it, be it.”

And the spells Bolan spoke of are at their most potent in our teenage years. We wrap ourselves up in them, play their magic words over. Melita Dennett, frequent Brighton gig-goer to this day, has recalled why she found seeing Bowie so significant: “This was it: I knew there was another life, another world because I'd seen it, here in Brighton Dome. It wasn't just about Bowie, it was the realisation that you could step outside of stifling conformity, normality and find that other world for yourself.”

And Bowie himself said at the time: “If I've been responsible for people finding more characters within themselves than they originally thought they'd had, them I'm pleased. Because that's something I feel very strongly about. That one isn't totally what one has been conditioned to think one is.” 

(And this self-transformation was central to Glam. Genesis’ Peter Gabriel dressed up as his characters onstage. But not only was their music quite different to Glam, his were actor’s costumes to be worn and then discarded. Whereas Glam set up shop in the slippage between costume and identity.)

And its probably no coincidence that another great album of the early Seventies, Patti Smith's 'Horses', also plays with gender identity and general themes of transformation. If in her case with a more surrealist emphasis on metamorphosis.

From our vantage point, where varied careers have come hand-in-hand with precarity, we naturally dwell on the downside of this and tend to look back rather fondly on the time job security was actually a thing. Besides, how many times have Madonna or Geri Halliwell ‘reinvented’ themselves now, with ever-diminishing returns? The payoff line from the 2004 film ’The Edukators’ - “some people never change” – may prove a more salutary credo for us today. Nevertheless, in the early Seventies transformation was a powerful idea.

”He Played It Left Hand” 

In that legendary ’Top of the Pops’ performance, the moment where Bowie puts his arms round Mick Ronson's shoulder would now scarcely be noticed. At the time it caused astonishment. Just before the album was released, Bowie told the music paper ’Melody Maker’ he was gay.

Seeing as he was at that point married, even dedicating a song from his previous album to their child, a slightly cynical response might be in order. It’s true Bowie was bisexual to a degree, but this was at best a vast exaggeration. (He later conceded “I am a bisexual. But I can't deny that I've used that fact very well.”)

Is this any different to Tarantino notoriously claiming “there's part of me that is black”? It could easily be argued gay had simply become the new black - with black culture now so successfully strip-mined something had to be next. So a form of 'gay drag' was hit upon by a fledgeling music star. He later said he'd given the interview in character as Ziggy, something he did increasingly.

Yet notably only in 'Lady Stardust' is the title feminised, and even there every gendered pronoun is “he”. And arguably this was merely upping the ante of what was already present in popular music. From the Sixties, Jagger's stage persona had been a mix of high camp and hyper-masculinity.

...which is perhaps a bit too cynical. For one thing perhaps this is simply what Glam does. As Simon Reynolds argued in ’Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and it’s Legacy’ “isn’t it more radical – more glam – to say ‘I wasn’t born this way, I’m choosing to go against nature.’” For another it underestimates the degree of homophobia which was then prevalent. At the time he made that claim, legalisation was less than five years old. Many gay people were still to come out, playing it straight in public life. Now here was a predominantly straight guy saying loudly he was gay.

And why was that arm around a shoulder so significant? Culture was then not just homophobic, it was virtually expresso-phobic. These were the “felt nowt” years, when doing anything remotely out of the ordinary – particularly if it suggested some form of emotional expression - was met with the catch-all accusation of “that sounds gay”. “Queer” wasn't just wrong, it was a signifier term for all that was wrong. So the response to that accusation inevitably became “alright then, I'll be queer”.

It wasn't about arguing gay people could be considered normal. In many ways it was the opposite, the far more potent message we could all be “queer” if we chose to. Appropriating some gay tropes became a way of taking the stopper out of your own bottle. During the same era, Eno, neither gay nor trans, wanted to wear glamorous clothes, and the only ones he could find were made for women. In the previous decade, Timothy Leary had said we needed to go out of our minds to use our heads. By Bowie's time we needed to go a bit gay to use our hearts.

And, despite his first using the word “gay”, ultimately bisexuality became not just more accurate but more important. He may even have been using the more graspable term to acclimatise his audience. Bisexuality isn’t the same thing as gender bending, but they’re popularly associated and Bowie did little to separate the two. In both, sexual identity isn't fixed but fluid.

Partly this just turns flamboyance into a moving target. As a character in the film ’Velvet Goldmine’ says to the blatant Bowie stand-in: "You live in terror of not being misunderstood”. After all, what’s being a teenager all about except the desperate urge to be misunderstood? And what better element to set in motion than the one everyone had almost assumed was most fixed – gender identity? You could decide who you wanted to be, but you didn’t need to ever quite decide.

More to follow…