Wednesday, April 23, 2014

David Bowie - Lady Stardust - He was Alright (Song for Marc)

“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” is a far out concept album. The general premise is that a bisexual alien picks up some radio waves from earth and decides to join in on the fun. However being an outlandish bisexual alien, his vision of rock and roll is radical. This is also set to the backdrop of the earth coming to an end as the opening track of the album is “Five Years” as in “earth is really dying” - “five years, that’s all we got” one of my earliest Music In Reviews tackled that song: and it also topped my list of 27 songs about the end of the earth post: The final act in the Ziggy Stardust concept album is the song “Rock N Roll Suicide” where the character Ziggy dies and with him the earth goes too, which I believe is meant to metaphorically represent the narcissism of the Ziggy character, as if the world could not go on without him.

In between the announcement about the end of, and the act of, the end of the world, the album takes us on a strange ride with songs of tripped out space rock and roll. Earlier tracks are about Ziggy dreaming of being a rock star like “Moonage Daydream” and “Star” then he decides to come down to earth in “Starman” and by the time we reach tracks like “Ziggy Stardut” and Suffragette City” Ziggy is the world’s biggest rock star, at least in the narrative of the story. Bonus tracks like “Sweet Head” and later on the “Aladdin Sane” album the Rolling Stones cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are bluntly suggestive of Ziggy’s bisexuality, what with him bragging about how good he gives head in “Sweet Head” and transforming one of the most suggestive heterosexual songs on the radio at the time, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” into a aggressively gay song. Ziggy’s bisexuality may just be scene dressing in the overall concept for the album and story but it is a significant aspect to Mr. Bowie’s life at that time.

Sweet Head
Just in case you were unsure if Ziggy Stardust was bisexual or not.

Now we know what a bisexual
alien rock star looks like.
One might argue that Ziggy Stardust being extremely sexually liberal is not a necessary component to the overall story. An alien becoming a rock star and his death paralleling the end of the earth offers plenty of ideas to work with for a concept album, or arguably two if we include “Aladdin Sane.” However the pronounced moments where Bowie is loudly portraying Ziggy’s sexuality works two fold. First it really emphasizes how “alien” the Ziggy character is, Bowie would wear crazy amounts of makeup when portraying Ziggy in concerts and he also cross-dressed and did all sorts of things to remind us that Ziggy was different, his unconventional sexuality adds to this, but also fits nicely with him being an alien, who might not see sex and gender the same way we do. Second this was clearly a chance for Bowie to broadcast his own bisexuality.

“Lady Stardust” is a very good song right in the middle of this fiasco, I mean both symbolically and literally, literally as in it is the sixth track on the eleven track album. “Lady Stardust” at a glance might appear as if a female equivalent to Ziggy Stardust has joined him on earth, or perhaps this song is to introduce the bride of Ziggy, but even a cursory glance at the lyrics lets us know how extremely incorrect these assumption are:

“People stared at the makeup on his face.
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace.
The boy in the bright blue jeans,
Jumped up on the stage,
And lady stardust sang his songs,
Of darkness and disgrace.”

People stare at the makeup on HIS face?

So after learning “Lady Stardust” is about a male rock star wearing makeup and looking feminine, I would naturally think it was about Ziggy Stardust and his cross-dressing and makeup wearing ways. Lured by the music, people are struggling to make sense of the bisexual alien rock star, which is a sentiment I imagine most rock and roll fans experienced with the release of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That makes sense right? This song is actually about Ziggy’s vague gender neutrality and that aspect of himself confusing people here on earth.

However, the original name for “Lady Stardust” was “He Was Alright (Song for Marc)” and the Marc is question is Marc Bolan, front man of T.Rex and inventor of glam rock.

He was Alright (Song for Marc) - Lady Stardust Demo

“And he was alright, the band was altogether.
Yes he was alright, the song went on forever.
And he was awful nice,
Really quite out of sight,
And he sang all night long.”

I really like this part of the song, a calm moment telling us everything is alright, no matter how weird you are.

So now we know that “Lady Stardust” is actually Marc Bolan and this song an ode to him. “Lady Stardust” is not just a tribute, it is sort of a love song, which could mean that Bowie might have had a bit of a crush on fellow rock star Bolan, or at least he envisioned someone being in love with him;

“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.”

A love he could not obey? This line seems odd coming from Bowie, even odder considering this song’s existence on the concept album about a bisexual alien rock star. Also if this song was about Marc Bolan there are even less barriers to consider since he too was bisexual, I mean of course he was; he invented glam rock. So why could he not obey?

Marc Bolan, not exactly the
epitome of masculinity.
Another thing that might be considered slightly derailing is how Marc is referred to as a Lady. To the best of my knowledge Marc Bolan never cross-dressed and I do not know how gender neutral he fancied himself to be. The man did dress effeminate but all that could easily be explained as an unintentional side effect of his unique choice in attire. This only really seems odd to me because David Bowie did cross-dress in those early years of his career, including a few times as the Ziggy Stardust character. So why would one rock star, who cross-dressed on occasion, dub another rock star, who while dressing eccentrically never cross-dressed, a lady; seems somewhat inverted. But perhaps I am thinking too linearly in regards to gender expectation both in behavior and attire. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that David Bowie and Marc Bolan were breaking so many social norms all at once that I am failing to identify key characteristics about Bolan that might identify him as “ladylike,” or at least more so than Bowie.

Here is an idea, the initial theory that “Lady Stardust” is about a perfect mate for Ziggy Stardust and the necessary working theory that “Lady Stardust” is an ode to Marc Bolan are both correct. Like so many things the truth lies somewhere in between, Lady Stardust is probably an amalgamation of Marc Bolan and Ziggy Stardust; this explains why the initial title was “He Was Alright (Song for Marc)” but changed later as additional elements to the song and story were added and it no longer accurately or appropriately describe Bolan.

From all this we should be able to conclude the story of this track tells the events of Ziggy Stardust coming to earth and falling in love with Marc Bolan of T.Rex, or at least a caricature of him. However being a somewhat gender neutral creature with desires for both earthly human genders, there is no confusion in his mind referring to Lady Stardust as both a man and a woman.

I am still no expert in fashion.
If you can look past all the potential complication of two men with variable gender identification and sexual preferences being the principal objects of affection you will find “Lady Stardust” to be a simple love song. It is a song of acceptances as well as love, after he was alright and the band was all together. The only real confusion arises when we try to connect alien rock star fantasy with reality or when we attempt to label traditional gender roles and sexualities to either individual both fictional and real. The reason the “Song for Marc” explanation fails to satisfy completely is because Marc Bolan does not exactly fit the description of “Lady Stardust” but then again David Bowie isn’t really a bisexual alien rock star, he is only two of those things, and this whole concept album is a fantasy a suspension of reality, so it is foolish of us to expect everything to fit perfectly.

I would argue that “Lady Stardust” is one of the best songs of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” which I would argue is David Bowie’s single best album, which means “Lady Stardust” ranks pretty high in my personal favorites of Bowie songs. I am not the sort of man who would let convoluted inspirations of attraction distract me from the quality of a great rock ballad, but can you imagine the attitudes of the average person in 1972 when “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” first came out? It must have blown their minds.

I cannot be the only person in all human history to have wondered about this very special song, created by one of the greatest song writers of all time, for another great song writer, and all the complicated dynamics involved therein. What do you think?

Until next month keep on rocking in the free world.

- King of Braves

Monday, April 14, 2014

T.Rex - 20th Century Boy

While many different people are considered pioneers of glam rock there is a unanimous consensus that the specific origin of glam rock should be credited to Marc Bolan and his band T.Rex. “T” “.” “Rex” because Tyrannosaurus Rex was already taken, as in Tyrannosaurus Rex was the original name for T.Rex. Thanks to Marc Bolan and T.Rex glam rock was born in the early 1970s (arguably 1968) in England and many British bands would follow suit in wearing spandex, makeup and glitter. While the ascetic of glam rock appealed very strongly with the psychedelic culture of the seventies and as well as the sexual liberated/confused (cross-dressing was common in glam rock, more on that next Music In Review) the sound was a out of this world, and in some cases that was exactly the theme, like T.Rex’s “Ballrooms of Mars” and “Cosmic Dander” or David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Ziggy Stardust character.

And glam rock was born.
The sounds of glam rock are very varied from band to band. There are bands like Roxy Music that were quasi folk rock and Velvet Underground is more like a far out art experiment more akin to progressive rock than anything else, and neither sound very much like T.Rex. So the uniting factor more than anything had to have been presentation and attitude. The pioneers of glam rock were colleagues, but also friends, and together they dressed strange and expressed some similar progressive ideas through outlandish lyrics and far out artistic flair. In the case of the founder, T.Rex had a very soothing sound, lots of mystical songs about cosmic love and dancing. The other day I listened to T.Rex’s “Electric Warrior” while I made black berry banana beard, it was one of the most relaxing moments of my entire life.

Marc Bolan was not just an innovator in music but also in partying. Years before Slash of Guns N Roses paid someone to follow him around while he got blitzed drunk to keep him out of trouble and drive him home, Marc let his girl friend Gloria Jones drive him around while he was drinking. The great irony is that Marc died when his sober girl friend crashed his car while driving his drunken self home. The stereotype of inept female drivers has persisted ever since. All joking aside the death of Marc Bolan was a tragedy, like so many other rock stars he died far too young at the age of twenty-nine.

Despite being removed from the rock and roll equation so quickly Marc Bolan managed to release thirteen albums between 1968 and 1977 which averages to more than one album per year. So while Bolan was only with us for a short while he made his time on earth count. The most memorable albums had to be “Electric Warrior” and “The Slide,” two of the most easy going feel good trips ever recorded to vinyl. If you had to pick a single song that T.Rex is known for it might be “Electric Warrior’s” “Bang the Gong,” but I have never been a very big fan of that track, I am more of a “20th Century Boy” kind of guy. Despite being one of T.Rex’s biggest songs “20th Century Boy” never appeared on any of the thirteen albums, rather it was a single released in 1973 that never made the final cut on any album. This is mildly problematic for people like me because it forces me to buy a greatest hit compilation or track down special addition version of 1973 “Tanx” which also includes “Children of the Revolution.”

Perhaps one of the reasons “20th Century Boy” is so loved and radio friendly is that it is a faster, catchier song then most of Bolan’s work. It does have a fantastic rift at the beginning which repeats after every verse. This rift in question is a series of E-majors that involves a drag on the A-string, which is seemingly very simple and easy but it needs both perfect timing and the exact right amount of distortion to sound right. This series of E-majors in “20th Century Boy” is so iconic, and makes up a reasonable amount of the song’s core, that it is easy to forget about the rest of the guitar work in the song. Such is the fate of all songs with a perfect identifying intro; still it makes for a very effective hook to capture listens, hence the radio play.

There is also a lot of uncertainty regarding the lyrics for “20th Century Boy.” People can’t agree on whether it is just like “Rock ‘n Roll” or just like “Robin Hood;” and whether Bolan “talks like a rat” or “charges like a ram,” I have to admit “Rock ‘n Roll” and “charge like a ram” makes more sense, but I would not be surprised to learn otherwise, Bolan had a habit of saying/singing silly things.

So yeah I really like “20th Century Boy” and that awesome rift, and I am not the only one. Next to “Bang the Gong” few T.Rex songs have gotten as much love and radio play as “20th Century Boy” but T.Rex has international fame, and we should not forget that Japan loves their glam rock.

Brilliant writer Naoki Urasawa named his magnum opus after the song “20th Century Boy” and sort of based the story after what the song meant to him in his youth and what the culture of that time symbolizes to him now, set to the back drop of the end of world brought about by the villain “Friend.” It’s basically the greatest thing every, read more about it here:

While no literal interpretations of the song’s lyrics are invoked in “20th Century Boys” the manga its significance within the story is pervasive. The symbolic significance of 70’s rock as well as other cultural elements from that time serve two purposes, it aids in developing our primary characters and it works in a metaphorical way. Bob Dylan, John Lennon and T.Rex affected all of us in a very deep way, they are monumental events of our past and foundations to our future, and perhaps not just artistically. The mindset of rock and roll was always revolutionary, and it was believed by many that rock and roll would change the world. The world has changed since the 1970’s, crime rates have dropped dramatically, advances in medicines have allowed people to live healthier and longer, advances in science have enormously improved the efficiency of our resource consumption and improved our ability to feed the world, communication technologies have catapulted every civilization into a global community causing the free market of ideas to reach new levels of shared growth, and more people live in peace now than ever. Life has never been so good for human beings, not even close. How much of this is fair to credit to rock and roll? The spirit of rock and roll was always revolution and the attitude it has invoked in us forever has been to seek positive change, maybe rock and roll was the difference maker, maybe we just needed a few anthems to motivate us to accomplish all these great things.

When I think like this it makes me reconsider two things about Mrac Bolan, T.Rex and the classic rock scene in general. First what do songs like “20th Century Boy” mean to culture at large and what does it mean to me metaphorically in my life? Second is there any depth and secret meaning to a song like “20th Century Boy” that I previously missed; I do not think so, this is a fun love/pop/glam/rock song with some silly yet clever lyrics but little more... at least I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on, and I am content to let a great rock song stand on the merits of its own enjoyableness without any deep metaphorical messages.

We are now in the twenty-first century of modern human history. What did it mean to be a twentieth century boy? Are we the children of the children of the revolution? Maybe rock and roll did save the world and we just didn’t notice.

- King of Braves