Lex on David Bowie (The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars)

Christmas 1980 – Lennon was just killed, and I was broken inside.  When there was no more Lennon music to buy, I used my birthday money to buy a copy of ChangesOneBowie, a greatest hits disc that covered Bowie’s career highlights from “Space Oddity” to “Golden Years.”  I got the disc mainly for “Fame,” a song that I used to like when I was a first grader five years before.  It was co-written by Lennon.  I guess I was looking for “the good ol’ days,” when I used to think that the world was a safer place.

On side 2 of ChangesOneBowie, there was the killer one-two combination of the songs “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City.”  One song slammed into the next without a gap, and the effect was brutal;  just the thing to make me tune into life again.  There were other great songs on that album, but these two songs were “it” for me.  It was wild, it was fun, it was weird, and it was righteous!

At the beginning of the 80s, the music of David Bowie was part of the air we breathed.  As pre-teens, Ava and I spent our allowances on anything and everything that had Bowie’s name on it.  It started with his then-current album, Scary Monsters . . . and Super Creeps.  The promo clip for “Ashes To Ashes” was on every music video show that existed on network television at that point in time, and we loved it. Ultimately, Ava bought a copy of Bowie’s The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars sometime in March of ’81.  She digested that album and handed it off to me for listening.  I, in turn, loaned her my new copy of Hunky Dory.

It would be another 5 years before she got Ziggy Stardust back in her personal collection.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was the weirdest album I’d heard . . . ever.  the album was cinema, theatre, science fiction, comic books, and androgyny all rolled into one sonic blast of vinyl.  Sandwiched in between the drum fade-in of “Five Years” and the strings that ended “Rock and Roll Suicide,” was some of the most intriguing music in pop / rock music I had heard since the Beatles.  The one-two knock out punch of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City” was put into a more meaningful context for me, and my “musical brain” would forever be changed.

“Moonage Daydream” seemed to re-invent the vocabulary of rock music for me.  The visuals that I got from the lyrics and music seemed to both make sense, and complete non-sense.  It was like listening to a Picasso painting.

I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you
I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you
Keep your mouth shut,
you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I’m busting up my brains for the words

Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love

Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah!

“Starman” was another song that I just could not get enough of.  It had a special kind of magic for my young ears, and quickly became the track on side 1 that was played more often than not.  The song stayed in my brain in school, and the “la-las” that end the chorus (as well as the song) was one of the first tunes that I picked out on the family piano.  “Hang Onto Yourself” was catchy, full-throttle rock and roll.  It took many listens to catch all of the words, and it would take years for me to decipher them.  But when I first heard it, the words didn’t matter; it was all about the heady feeling that I got.  It was like being on a roller coaster that was out of control.

Musically speaking, the other essential element of that album were the musicians.  Mick Ronson (guitars), Woody Woodmansey (drums), and Trevor Bolder (bass) were the Spiders.  For my money, they were also the best backing band that Bowie had, period.  There was a manic solidarity in their playing skills that made the sound of that album larger than life.  Bolder’s bass is loud in the mix, and he was one of the first bassists I noticed.  He didn’t merely follow the chord changes; he invented parts for himself that stood out in the songs.  Woody’s drumming was the pulse of the Spiders’ sound.  He provided just the right rhythmic foundation to songs like “Star,” “Lady Stardust,” and “Stone Love.”  Bowie would have many drummers after him, but for me Woody will always be the most sympathetic to the music.

Mick Ronson.  The name says it all.  He was the perfect foil for Bowie.  Every singer / songwriter who hopes to be a “rock god” needs someone who is a gifted, musical ally for his team.  Ronson could play in a reflective style that would enhance Bowie’s vocals.  He could also play in a style that was down and dirty rock and roll.  He also arranged the orchestral strings that gave Bowie’s best 70s work depth.  For me, he was the architect of the Spiders’ musical persona.

Ava and I would go on to buy a lot of Bowie material.  Together, we would own the bulk of his recorded catalog.  There would be albums that were good, bad, ugly, and great.  My school friends would finally accept Bowie and stop seeing him as “gay music” when he issued Let’s Dance only a few years after seeing him as “Ziggy” in the books I read.

Thing is, Bowie affected a lot of things that I would musically do later.  Listen to “Bitter Suite” by Poppermost, and you’ll here “Rock and Roll Suicide,” and a fair chunk of “Memory of a Free Festival”  If you look closely at Lex, you’ll see Ziggy.  If you hear my greeting to Royal (“Hey, man!”), you hear “Suffragette City.”  And if you listen to the variety of ingredients in Poppermost music, you hear the experimentation; it’s a product of Bowie, and others.

January 8th is David Bowie’s birthday.  Last year, I wrote about how he shifted the way I saw music when my neighborhood I saw him on “Soul Train” in the mid-70s.  This year, I wish to acknowledge his influence on the way I write music.  Happy birthday, David.  I’m still with you, man.  Thanks for Ziggy; your creation saved me from dwelling in my dark places, and changed my life.  Love on ya!

(Lex Neon is also known as Alex Oliver, the quirky and often eccentric musical genius of “sunshine pop / rock” band Poppermost.  Check out their music and Lex’s rock rantings at http://www.poppermost.com).

(Note: The album below was originally released June 6, 1972)

Currently listening :
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust
By David Bowie
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~ by Poppermost on January 8, 2009.

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