Friday, June 11, 2010

Ziggy Stardust

'Ziggy Stardust' is the song that started it all, the seed from which the Ziggy tree, or better yet the Ziggy forest, grew. Ziggy Stardust, at first, was merely the hero of this record, an archetype of a fallen rock star. It was yet another one of Bowie's comments on the rock world of the late sixties, an era which saw rock stars being treated like messiahs, and sometimes crumbling under the image. Only later, it seems, did Bowie connect this song with some additional songs that comment on other aspects of rock'n'roll and youth culture, and a larger narrative emerged. The entire album then became an analysis of rock'n'roll and youth culture, with Ziggy playing the leading role. In the context of the album, this is the moment of Ziggy's fall, and of the destruction of the subculture that grew around him.

So the record can be seen as another commentary on the collapse of the Hippie culture, and of cults or subcultures in general. But mostly, it is about the fall of the individual, the star. Bowie, of course, already had many examples to draw upon. There was Brian Jones, the beautiful narcissus, the perennial rebel who formed the Rolling Stones in his own image, until that image drove him into self-destructive drug abuse and early death. There was Syd Barrett, leader of Pink Floyd, who embodied the spirit of the psychedelic movement in England, until the psychedelics robbed him of his own spirit and left him an empty shell. There was Jimi Hendrix, worshipped for his guitar heroics, and put on such a high pedestal that he fell to his death. There was Jim Morrison, the messianic cursed poet, who wished to embody the search for the ultimate truth, and sacrificed himself in the process. Finally, and a little more obscurely, there was Vince Taylor, a minor rock figure in England who became a big star in France, until he started to believe he was the second incarnation. Bowie knew Vince personally and witnessed his mental deterioration firsthand, and took it all into the Ziggy image. Ziggy, in short, is all of these rockers put together. Let us now see how his tale plays out.

When we set forth to analyze 'Ziggy Stardust', I believe we should pay attention to the way it is sung. Bowie switches his vocals several times during the record, and to me it suggests that the story is told by several different people, each from a different perspective – kind of a miniature Citizen Kane. It is the Spiders who are speaking here (let's call them Ronno, Weird and Gilly), telling their story, and each tells it a little differently. I will therefore heed Bowie's vocal changes, and assume that the speaker changes as well.

Ziggy played guitar, jammin' good with Weird and Gilly,
And the spiders from Mars

The track begins where the preceding one ends. In 'Hang onto Yourself', Ziggy introduced his act in the plural: "we're the Spiders for Mars". There was no one in the band who was above the rest – it was a communal affair. We find the same thing here: Ziggy is jamming with the rest of the Spiders, and the music is an expression of the collective spirit of the band. However, here it is told in past tense. Did something happen to change the situation?

He played it left hand
But made it too far
Became the special man, then we were Ziggy's band

"He played it left hand" immediately invokes Hendrix, and paints Ziggy as a shamanic figure, electrifying his audience with his ecstatic guitar playing. Seems that the speaker (let's assume it's Ronno, since he mentions the other two) is in it just for the music, and doesn't seem to grasp this more spiritual side: he describes Ziggy's playing in technical terms, when actually, the guitar hero doesn't just play an instrument, but turns it into a conduit to conjure up the spirits of our time, and set them into our souls. He takes us with him on a journey, and through identifying with him we rise above our boring everyday existence. But herein lies the snag: because of this ability, he is elevated above the band, and the initial unity breaks. At first, Ziggy was merely the mouth that expressed the collective spirit of the subculture, a spirit that engulfed the fans and the band. At some point, as the result of the reverential relationship between the rock hero and his audience, it became all about Ziggy.

Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo
Like some cat from Japan
He could lick 'em by smiling
He could leave 'em to hang
He came on so loaded man, well hung and snow white tan

A different voice speaking now (let's say it's Weird), describing it from another perspective, showing a deeper perception of what makes the rocker so special to his fans. He talks about Ziggy's singing (with which the rock hero gives a voice to our innermost feelings), his otherworldliness (Japan, back then, was as otherworldly as you could get), his unique hairstyle (an essential part of any rock'n'roll sensation), his ability to manipulate the crowd, his sexual prowess, his ecstatic delivery (the "screwed up eyes" can be a reference to Bowie's own weird eyes, but also calls to mind some holy roller with his eyes rolled up), and his being "so loaded", either with the help of drugs or simply as a quality of his volatile personality. It is this package, along with the guitar, that enables him to fire up the wild part in us, and take us as high as we can ever get.

So where were the spiders, while the fly tried to break our balls?
Just a beer light to guide us
So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands?

All the Spiders singing together now, complaining about being left behind, and plotting revenge on Ziggy. "The fly" could be the band's manager, who is cheating them out of their share, while Ziggy does nothing to help them. On the other hand, we also get a hint of the spiritual poverty of the Spiders – the light that guides them is light beer – which prevents them from being true counterparts to Ziggy. These discrepancies lead to the breaking of the collective spirit, of that magnificent feeling described in 'Lady Stardust' - the band is no longer all together. Dissension, jealousy and resentment set into the ranks of the once united Ziggy cult.

Ziggy played for time, jiving us that we were voodoo
The kids were just crass
He was the nazz
With God given ass
He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar

Now we get Gilly's perspective, and he, it seems, despised the whole thing from the start. He doesn't get the spiritual side of rock'n'roll at all, and rejects Ziggy's attempt to persuade him that the band is "voodoo" – for him, it was probably just a way to get money. He also marks Ziggy's messianic quality, his divine sexuality and his guitar heroics, but says that he was merely "playing for time", as if the whole thing was just a scam, and that the way of life which the kids held so highly was actually nothing but crass styling. "The Nazz" is the title of a famous monologue by hipster poet and comedian Lord Buckley, delivered in jive talk and telling of a hip messiah called the Nazz. The speaker equates Ziggy to him, but from his point of view, when Ziggy was jiving like the Nazz, he was actually "jiving us" – i.e. lying.

Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah
When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band

Like most of Bowie's heroes, Ziggy is brought down by the very thing that made him rise. He started out by creating a superstar identity for himself, and that identity put him above regular people, and presented a new and heroic way of life which others could identify with, and come together in heavenly joy. But then, this creation of his own mind sucks him in, and takes over him. Rather than forgetting about his ego when he's among his friends, he behaves like he's above them as well. In the end, he becomes like a leper, who nobody wants any part of. Gilly, from his rationalistic point of view, tells us how Ziggy's egotistical antics ruined the scene, and prompted him to leave the band. "When the kids have killed the man" could mean that they killed Ziggy with their idolatry, which caused his ego to swell up and destroyed the good man he was at first.

But it can also mean something else. I hear echoes of 'Cygnet Committee' here, of a story about a messianic movement that turned murderous. Ziggy's new identity was meant to attract those people who suffered from the same alienation as he did, so that they could all come together in brotherhood. For them, he was indeed a messiah. But when he "sucked up into his mind", he (and some of his followers) started believing that because it worked for some people, it must work for all people, and that they should be made to see the light. I suggest that Bowie may be reacting to what happened in the rock world of the late sixties, when some of the Hippies started believing that their way of life presents the one and only truth, and set out to bring a revolution, sometimes resorting to terrorist means. Going by that interpretation, "the kids have killed the man" talks about an actual slaying, and the speaker realizes that the once benevolent Ziggy subculture has turned murderous, and that he must break up the band to prevent further bloodshed.

Ziggy Played Guitar

The catchphrase that opens and closes the record strips down the godly image of Ziggy, and reminds us what we are dealing with: just a guy who plays guitar. He is not the Son of God, not a holy man, not a seer. And yet, he became a messiah to his fans. Why is that? As we've seen, the one we've called Gilly seems to think it was all a mass delusion, and the fact that it didn't last seems to corroborate his stance. But not in Bowie's world. In Bowie's world, the fact that something doesn't last forever doesn't mean that it isn't real. For a while, rock'n'roll can take you to heaven, and the rock'n'roll star is therefore a true messiah, as long as he doesn't start believing that what he offers is eternal salvation. Ziggy is another in a line of Bowie heroes modeled after Major Tom, who created a vehicle that took him out of his world and into a joyful existence, but then took over him and swept him too far away, until he lost contact with reality. Ziggy, like Major Tom, took it too far, and therefore had to fall.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The masks are beginning to fall

So Helen Thomas, respected reporter and long time Israel hater, who just this week called the Israeli flotilla operation a "massacre", has been revealed (surprise! surprise!) as nothing more than a regular anti-Semite, who believes that the Jews are subhumans who do not deserve to have the same rights as other people.

When you scratch the surface of most of Israel's vehement critics, that is what you'll find.

It didn't use to be that way. In the past, it was rational to believe that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the root of the problem, the cause of the conflict. Those of us who are inside the conflict knew it is more complicated than that, but many of us, including myself, also believed that the occupation is the main issue. And the position that put the blame entirely on Israel was understandable.

In the past two decades, however, Israel has transferred control of the Gaza Strip and 40% of the West Bank to the Palestinians, offered to give them control over more than 90% of the West Bank, and publicly acknowledged the right of the Palestinian people to form a sovereign state in these regions. The majority of Israelis is in favor of the two-state solution, and wants the two nations to live side-by-side in peace and dignity. Only the extreme right still rejects this solution.

How did the Palestinians react to these changes? How do they regard the rights of the Jewish people? Currently they have three leaderships. The Gaza government openly declares it wants to annihilate Israel, and its ideology implies that all Jews should be exterminated. The West Bank government accepts the two states solution, but wants one state (Palestine) to be ethnically cleansed of Jews, and the other state (Israel) to have a Palestinian majority, and give away its Jewish identity. And the leadership of the Israeli-Palestinians warns its people not to play any positive role in Israeli society, and refuses to acknowledge Israel's legitimacy, defining it as a colonial entity. You don't hear any Palestinians acknowledging that Jews are also natives of this land, and have a natural right to live in it. The most they are willing to do is accept that since they can't get rid of the Jews, they are willing to let them stay.

And yet, the global anti-Israel rhetoric has only grown increasingly more hateful and violent, and now uses inflammatory words like "apartheid", "genocide", "massacre", and other words that have no relation to the reality of the situation, but are thrown around generously to describe Israel's actions. How come?

I believe what happened is that the reasonable critics of Israel have realized by now that the situation is more complicated than they thought, and adopted a more careful view. So that left the Israel-bashing to the anti-Semites who disguise themselves as human right believers, and since the media tries to be "balanced", the side that is against Israel is represented by these anti-Semites, who are poisoning the minds of the viewers.

Well, I'm drawing a personal line in the sand. The view that blames "Israeli occupation" for being the root of the problem is no longer reasonable or defensible. I will no longer regard it as understandable. There are enough facts to refute it, and anyone who still holds it in the face of these facts does so disingenuously. Anyone who in this day and age puts the majority of the blame on Israel does so because they are an anti-Semite.