January 19, 2016

The kids were just crass

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (DA Pennebaker, 1973/2002). This is no Dont Look Back: an enigmatic Bowie reveals nothing in the backstage sequences, not even Dylan-style cryptic messages or put-ons. Angie seems more present than him. Or perhaps it was his nerves or his dedication keeping him quiet. The usual notion is that Ziggy was a character, but that isn’t the right way of putting it, nor is alter ego. Instead, Ziggy was the concept of a rock singer, a vague outline, the presentation of Bowie as the leader of a cult of teenage girls, an adult playing knowing, even manipulative songs about teenage frenzy to frenzied teenagers, flashing ass and thighs, but through the shameless, inspired and nearly obscene distancing device of Ziggy Stardust. The songs address the kids, they flatter them, exalt them, charm them, turn them on (“You’re wonderful! Give me your hand!” in the closing song). Ziggy is lascivious, smirking and ruthless, more confident and extroverted than the man himself; you can understand that the concept might have threatened to take Bowie over and that one of them had to go, as though Ziggy was a long psychotic break or manic episode. Or more realistically, that Bowie grew bored and restless, limited by these teenage boundaries. The final Ziggy show in July 1973 was the first of Bowie’s staged exits over four decades; there were other departures and other comebacks before the departure we all mistook for a comeback (Blackstar this month). The shooting of the concert is murky but energetic and catches the mania – is anyone in the audience older than half Bowie’s age? Of course they are but this version plays to the myth. And there are such brilliant songs, of course, played by a small, tight band led by the ferocious guitar of Mick Ronson. The take on “My Death” is here but there are other places to look for clues and continuity, which we are all doing now: when I saw him do his mime act of opening a wall and stepping through during the long hard rock work-out on “Width of a Circle”, I thought for a moment about these esoteric comments about other dimensions and even the image in the very last video, “Lazarus”, of Bowie stepping back, into the wardrobe, almost the same act in reverse, slipping in and out of worlds.