By Terry Barr | Contributor Published: 06/26/2013 8:00 am EST
Ziggy Stardust: the dangerous feel of the different.
Last week a good friend asked me what I thought of David Bowie’s latest album, The Next Day.
“It’s pretty good,” I said, as if I knew what I was talking about. I had listened to the record and had downloaded the video of “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” featuring Tilda Swinton.
“How does it stack up to Diamond Dogs or Aladdin Sane,” he asked then.
I looked at him like I thought he was crazy, but it wasn’t really that exactly. His being crazy that is, although questions like that don’t make much sense. Like comparing Hitchcock’s Frenzy with Rear Window, or whatever latest record McCartney’s made with Rubber Soul. No, what was crazy to me was that forty years ago, if you had told me that in Greenville, South Carolina, in the year 2013, two middle-aged, middle-class, respectable, straight white men would be evaluating the latest Bowie album, I’d have directly pursued whatever mind-altering substance was most readily available.
For there are some scenarios that you can see coming clearly down your path though they might be decades away. And there are others that you just know will not only never come to pass, but that if they somehow did, it would surely mean that communist subversion had absorbed us one night without our being able to switch the channel from “The Rockford Files” in time.
Actually, the new Bowie record with its near-replicated album cover of Heroes is quite good. I especially love the ballad, “Where Are We Now,” and I’m not being ironic at this moment. Still, listening to Bowie in the wide open, talking about him in public and not minding whose ears might be overhearing and then preparing to punch your face in is, even after all these years, confusing and a little unsettling for me. Because I do remember where I was when I first heard him, when I listened to him non-stop, and when it felt dangerous to do so.
In the summer of 1973, I was dating my second steady girl. In one of those “Jean Genie” kind of moments, my meeting her occurred when I was standing stupidly in the Bessemer Public Library, staring at the Main Librarian who also happened to be my first girlfriend’s mother. She never much liked me, I thought, though I wonder now what she understood about her daughter and me. The previous week, her daughter had dumped me with the words, “Don’t call unless you have something to say. In fact, after last weekend, why would you call me at all?” The weekend in question, at a dance held at a distant school, she had left me sitting alone while she danced several times in a row with a guy she’d never seen before. Then she really disappeared.
Back in that old stone library, I listened to her mother ask me why I don’t take out the cute summer intern working at the help desk. Since I had no answer, no other prospect, and nowhere else to be, I did. Three months passed, playing ping pong in her basement with her brother; going to bad Burt Reynolds movies [amazing just how many of those there were] and enjoying pizza at either Shakey’s or Pasquale’s.
I turned seventeen that summer and for my birthday she gave me a record I wanted: Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night, a double-live album on which, in an incandescent moment that I see now foreshadowed his duet with Barbra Streisand on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” Neil called to the people sitting just above the outdoor theater: “Tree People, can you hear me?”
My girlfriend was so pleased with herself. I had seen Neil live a few summers before when “Sweet Caroline” hit the charts. He had shoulder-length hair then, but he still sang “Cracklin’ Rosie.” But I was older now, and Neil had lost most of his shine for me. After a couple of plays, Hot August Night got consigned to the corner of my room with other castoffs like Tom Jones and “A Band Called Smith.” Two months later this girl and I broke up over the stuff that people that age can never agree on: where are we going, and how far?
I got another album for my seventeenth birthday, though, from my best friend Jimbo.
David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
This record I could only play late at night at a fairly low volume, my parents not quite getting Bowie’s sound.
By this point I was listening to “hard” rock and roll: Santana, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, The Allman Brothers. But as with Neil Diamond, I still held onto my softer, AM radio side: Bread, The Chi-Lites, Seals and Crofts. I still bought their 45 rpm’s, the ones my favorite AM station, WSGN, “the Big 610,” played in heavy rotation. I didn’t feel schizophrenic, just happy. My harder friends might ridicule The Chi-Lites, but I think they also knew that when it came to “make-out” music, “Smoke on the Water” just wasn’t as effective as “Ooh Girl.” And who cared really if others made fun of you when you had a girl who melted to “Have You Seen Her?” Nothing wrong with your manhood there.
Not like with Bowie, though. Was he even male? What guy looked like that, dressed like that? Nope. The guys in suburban Alabama in 1973 knew that Bowie, and anyone who listened to him, were of a certain order. And yet, there was Jimbo, and now, there was me.
As I played the record that first night, late on my birthday, I heard Bowie describe his friends as “droogies,’ (“Hang Onto Yourself”) a reference to A Clockwork Orange which Jimbo had also given me to read earlier that year. God, was Bowie cool. And then there was “Five Years,” which The Next Day samples a bit of in “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.” And “Suffragette City.”
But my favorite song then, and maybe still now, was “Moonage Daydream”: “I’ll be a rock and rollin’ bitch for you,” for “The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be.” I got lost in the song and didn’t even know what it was about. I’d tell Jimbo about it, but only him, for I knew no one else would understand, not then, and maybe not ever.
Ziggy Stardust was a record that changed my life, much like The Catcher inthe Rye had with fiction. I thought we were so rare, Jimbo, and Bowie, and me. And I guess that’s the definition of seventeen.
Eventually, WSGN folded into my rarity. Somehow, they heard some of their fans clamoring for them to play “heavier” music. That summer, they began devoting their 10-12 pm slot to a show called “Spaceship Earth.” I sat in my room, faithfully listening on that first Sunday night, a month or so after my birthday. And somewhere during the second hour, the DJ announced a song by David Bowie and it was “Moonage Daydream,” and I wondered who in Birmingham was listening and if the station would still be on the air in the morning.
Of course it was, and for a few more years too, until it went oldies or country and then, finally, off.
I started college the next year and met a few other Bowie fans, only they pronounced his name “BOW-ie” like a dog’s bark. Diamond Dogs had just been released, so maybe they were just playing along. All I knew was that it felt good to not be alone, though I wasn’t sure how good. There were moments when I longed to be back in my parents’ bedroom, listening to “Ziggy” or SpaceOddity’s “Letter to Hermoine” alone in the dark, hoping maybe that Jimbo would call and we could talk about all the oddities in our life.
But as college grew deeper, I grew older and so did Bowie. We all changed. And then, over the next few years…well, I guess “Fame” about says it all.
Or maybe it was when Bowie sang the “duets” with Bing Crosby. My world flipped then (or was it just my stomach?). I exchanged Bowie for New Order, Depeche Mode, and Laurie Anderson, though on occasion I would buy his latest record, whatever it was. I think that Tonight was the last one I bought, back in 1984. Until now. I’m glad for The Next Day. At least I’m still listening after three turns. And at least he never teamed-up with Diamond or Streisand, though who knows what I’ll be writing about him in five years?