Ever hear a well-known record and feel like you're listening to it for the first time? I thought I knew David Bowie's work pretty well, but last week I got the fancy new reissue of Ziggy Stardust (Virgin) and found myself listening to it six or seven times in one day. It's still sitting getting a fair bit of play a week later; my neighbors may be tired of it (the sleeve, after all, commands me to play it at maximum volume), but I'm not.
Yeah, this is old news to some of you. On the other hand, I'm convinced that even many listeners who would attest to Bowie's greatness pay more attention to the moody, "serious" records he made with Brian Eno, or to his neo-retro pop circa Young Americans. But as everyone knows, the Thin White Duke went through many metamorphoses — and this early incarnation, in addition to being responsible for an epidemic of cross-dressing among teenage boys, is musically one of the most thrilling.
It may walk and talk like it, but Ziggy isn't really a concept record; there isn't a unifying narrative, and even the character for whom it is named is pretty sketchy. From the start, though, Bowie establishes a vaguely sci-fi tone that will reoccur throughout. "Five Years," the first track, announces what sounds like a coming apocalypse; but instead of panic, the mood is melancholy.
The singer moves quickly from despair to a "if it's all going to Hell, let's make the most of it now" sentiment. In "Soul Love," he's ready to embrace the world, with an insouciant saxophone honking away behind him; then "Moonage Daydream" explodes into silly bombast with ray-gun imagery and goofy lyrics like "freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah!" It also tosses out some of the sexual ambiguity that was making Bowie a troublesome celebrity in the real world, as he yelps, "the church of man love is such a holy place to be."
(When I told a music nut friend of mine that I'd "discovered" Ziggy Stardust, he shot me a "been there, done that" look — but as soon as his guard was down, he gleefully leapt into the opening lyric of "Moonage Daydream.")
Bowie provides a saucy delivery of the verse on "Starman" — "the lights were low-ow-ow" — then alternates with the Zeppelin pomp of "It Ain't Easy?" and this peculiar mix of intimacy and grandeur, of the personal and the near-mythic, is one of the things that makes the record so captivating as a whole.
Yet it's just warming up for the home stretch. The Elton John-ish glam ode "Lady Stardust," reportedly a tribute to T. Rex's Marc Bolan, manages to pave the way for Ziggy without speaking his name. "Star" and "Hang On To Yourself," two of the disc's most uptempo, straight rock numbers, start into Bowie's perpetual themes of shifting identities, fame, et cetera. "So inviting, so enticing," he swoons, "to play the part."
Then it's time for the curtain to go up. From the famous layered-guitar intro and the "Awwwww, yeah!" that sounds as if the singer is coming toward you in his own personal rocketship, to the grand fade to black that ends it, "Ziggy Stardust" is about as perfect as a one-song rock-and-roll epic can be. Bowie paints a portrait of the perfect rock star, full of sexual swagger and capable of leading bandmates who would like to kick his ass, a decadent demi-god or a "leper messiah" — all the time knowing that the part is his to step into when he leaves the studio. The song has the sound of musicians who know they're creating something immortal. Anybody who thought he was mortal would close the album with it, but Bowie pushes further with the adrenalized "Suffragette City," which is potent enough not to be overwhelmed by the song before it.
Even when his audience is spent, Bowie starts off another slow, spare number about a burnout. The dynamic builds slightly, as Bowie's empathy becomes clear, until midway through he exults "oh no love, you're not alone!" From there to the end is a wash of emotion, a flood of humanity to close this testament to façades and pop artifice.
Not a bad little 39 minutes.