Song Of The Day 1/13/2016: David Bowie – “Cracked Actor”


It's extremely difficult to write about my adolescent and teenage years without lunging into pathos — I wasn't going to do it until next year at the earliest and then I was going to be done with it before settling into a rewarding career writing captions for gardening interests — but circumstances regarding the pending astral transference of David Bowie dictate that I'll have to revisit them today. I'll try to be economical.

My first purchased Bowie album was either Changesonebowie, a very cautious compilation, or Let's Dance. Either a simple anthology free of potentially troubling subtext, or a studio album I had been assured by MTV was on the commercial up-and-up and didn't contain any overt suggestions that I should disrobe and wag my miniature copy machine for the Devil. It was a little similar to my discovery that Elvis Costello wasn't really a punk rocker and therefore to be feared.

You deserve some context. I was, at the time, emancipating myself from a constrained religious environment. (I'm tired of saying which one, but it's the people with the watchtower and they sometimes go by the initials JW.) I'd gotten a sense that this religion's dim assessment of anything and everything in the world that wasn't them was, perhaps, unfounded.

I'll give you an example. In fact, let's use you for the example. You're somebody who's either religious, agnostic or atheist. You have a loving family and a solid network of social support. You don't get into trouble. You have a glass of wine at dinner every once in a while. Maybe you tied one over a couple of times on a very special occasion, but clinically you don't have a substance abuse problem. You went to college — or maybe you didn't go to college, it doesn't really matter. You work an honest job doing things that don't directly screw other people over. On the weekends you do charity or volunteer work, and I mean something really charitable like food banks or hospice visits. You're well-respected in the community, and nobody could ever get any dirt on you. You're of a pretty special, unique and good breed that's rare and valuable, and other people see and compliment you on how genuine and good of a person you are.

Here's what my former religion thinks of people like you: You're under the influence of Satan.

Sorry about that. I really hate to be the one to tell you. But in all those positive things that you are, all the benefits your mere existence provides most people who shake your hand and a lot of people you don't even know, there's one fatal flaw: You're not a JW. You're "in the world." You're therefore under Satan's domain. God wants jack-all to do with you and thinks you're a jerk for not being a JW. All these great things you are, the great works you do? God thinks they're pointless because you're not a JW, and Satan is in the wings just licking his chops to finally lead you into a bottle of bourbon and maybe even some light witchcraft.

Don't tell me this isn't what JW's actually believe. This is what I was told. By them.

Every person, and their possessions, are subject to demonic inhabitation. And also: Armageddon's going to wipe everyone who isn't a JW off the face of the earth and they'll die painfully. Now, if you ask them, they might deny it, because it's not exactly a great sales pitch. But once you're in, you'll hear suspicions about people being co-opted by Satan, who also is reported to be in the souls of Smurf plush toys. That is not a bit. They actually believe that about the Smurf toys.

Feel free to inquire of them about this set of principles the next time you see them, but be gentle. The religion is going through several legal tussles relating to their rampant pedophilia problem right now and they're a little defensive about it.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. So in high school I come to the conclusion that rather stark belief system isn't true. They try to forestall it, of course — am I sure? Yeah, I'm fairly sure that these kids at school who want to be my friends aren't bathing in the vile blood of the harlot she-goat of Babylon the Great. Thanks, I'll take it from here.

Music was already an avenue out of this situation for me. I was using it for expression. I was collaborating with other kids. With my schedule relieved of liturgical duties I was able to work on it more, listen to it more. With my complex, tangled network of painful self-doubt, intimacy hang-ups and brutal fatalism, the one thing I can positively say about myself is that I play a mean piano.

One summer — six or seven months after my final liberation from that old time religion — I landed a job as rehearsal pianist for a district-wide summer stock theater program in suburban Sacramento. They put on musical comedies. I don't want to overstate the self-mythology aspect of this piece any more than already inflated, but even objectively this experience is of enormous significance in the Paul Pearson Narrative. For a lot of reasons. Some still relevant today.

In this program you had the kids who paid to be in it — to actually be in the plays themselves — and you had the kids who were paid to be in it, the staffers. And you had crossovers as well. The kid who got paid to make the costumes, well, perhaps they had a supporting role in the show as well. I was a crossover. I didn't take the job expecting to be a crossover, but I auditioned anyway. I got the lead part in one of the musicals. This was turning me into a monster. And then, after the morning sessions, all the paying kids would go home and we'd have our staff meeting in the faculty lounge. This was in the era when it was still permissible to smoke on high school campuses, and even students had their own smoking sections at the time (often located, ironically, adjacent to the gym). In my idealized memory of this situation, everybody in the goddamn faculty room smoked. It was fantastic. I didn't smoke at the time, but it was sure a gas to be in the vicinity of it.

We fraternized. I hung out with kids who had the same ballpark interests that I did. Our school district covered a wide portion of suburban Sacramento — I was in Okieville, some others were from upper class neighborhoods, some were closer to the rough part of town, a lot of them were in between. So they all were different, but we burrowed to find our common interests which we usually spelled out at Denny's, after the movie we'd just seen.

These were the kids who informed me I was missing a few vital parts of the David Bowie phenomenon.

I didn't know fuck-all about Ziggy Stardust. I knew it was on that compilation. But I didn't realize the whole album it came from was actually a single concept piece — you mean like a rock opera? No, not a rock opera, I mean David's ambitious and artistic but the last thing he'd call this is a rock opera. What's it about? Well, it's about a rock star of mysterious origin, resistant of sexual limitations, who becomes something of a prophet for a messianic figure, who's actually the invention of a group of unordered personalities who don't really know themselves. What happens? He gets dismembered and re-apportioned to the unordered personalities who have ripped him to shreds; they go around wearing his clothes and the world might possibly be ending but it's not stated exactly.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had a mysterious air about it that, I confess, I never really grasped for a very long time. I had a tendency, possibly affected, to disavow the major works of our Most Beloved Music Figures in favor of something less acclaimed in their catalogs that spoke more directly to me. I preferred Quadrophenia to Tommy (still do). I preferred Abbey Road to Sgt. Pepper (still do). Maybe I just wasn't that into messiahs at the time (could you possibly blame me?).

But that was okay, because it was time to move onto Aladdin Sane. Oh, what's the deal here? Well, David himself called it "Ziggy Goes to America." Maybe it was a side trip he took in between his bouts of prophesizing. There were pieces of the American myth that he wanted to get clearer on: the excitement, the sentimentality, those rumblings that are sounding a little more dangerous than they used to be. So it's another concept album? No, not really.

Did this guy ever just, you know, do an album? Songs that he wrote that didn't have any thread to them? You know, like Wham!'s Make It Big? Oh, sure he did! Then again… well, in the way you're asking, yes, Hunky Dory was a bit like that. But that was before he started doing a character; he was in a bit of a transitory phase. Hunky Dory was a series of portraits. But there's an activity to those portraits. They're heroes of his, but they're not perfect. Well, why would they be his heroes if they were perfect? That's better. That's a lot better. You're starting to get it, aren't you? Get what? Never mind.

Say, you know what I've been re-listening to lately? No, what? Lodger. Really? Yeah! It sort of snuck under there, between "Heroes" and Scary Monsters. It's a bit out of the way of the normal course of operations for him. It's not modal like Low, and it's not embittered and schizoid like Scary Monsters. Yeah — you know, Lodger almost sounds like he's dropping the character altogether. You think so? Well, a little bit. I think there's this segment of the criticism community that doesn't really trust the characters he plays. To be honest, I don't really understand some of them either. Well, that's because you're sixteen and you have no frame of reference yet. But on Lodger he might be coming out from behind the curtain a little bit.

And with Scary Monsters, I mean — God, what's wrong with him? You don't like it? No, no, I love it, but it sounds like he's imploding on himself. The Blue Clown. Especially in "Scream Like a Baby" — oh, God, there's a hilarious part of this song - "Now I'm learning to be a part of so-ci-e…. so-ci-e… s… Scream like a baby!" Turn it up! You got two speakers here, use 'em!

What else do we have? Um… didn't pick up Space Oddity, it's still in my room. You got Station to Station? No, actually I don't have that one yet. You wanna hear Let's Da — No. No, I don't. Okay. Um… what the hell, let's put on Ziggy again. All right. Click, snap. Slam. Rewind, play, click, whir. Jazz waltz drums, the hell? But it's nice."Pushing through the market square — so many mothers sighing (sighing) — News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in (cry in)…"

It didn't really read that way — not literally. And not all those conversations took place during that summer. Some of them we had years afterwards. Some of them I just had to myself. Some of them, I'll be honest, I stole from overhearing other's conversations.

But that's kind of how Bowie happened for me. All at once, from several directions, with different people, in awe that rock music could use the same tactics as art, literature, movies, whatever. I thought we were just supposed to suck this stuff down and excrete it back out — or that's what I was told, anyway. "It's temporary. It's a trap. It's a momentary, sensual, meaningless enterprise. It has no gravity. You want gravity? Go read Leviticus."

Starting to realize that popular music could take the shape of literature could cover the same ground, could address the same topics, could raise the same questions, could be of the same seriousness  only made me even more certain that I was right when I picked music as my vocation, and I was frickin' eight years old when I did. Bowie stretched his story out over years, multiple, apparently disconnected albums. Even decades. That seemed like a pretty good thing to do. A great way to order one's life. I think I'll keep pursuing this.

Music? Yeah, David Bowie played some good music. But that's not saying enough. For some of us kids, waiting it out in our little suburban pockets, David Bowie was our introduction to art itself.

That summer, as Johnny Rotten said upon exit, I'd "got the feeling I'd been cheated." And the gentleman with the lightning bolt painted over his eye was trying to set things right. As, I suspect, those types are wont to do.

To be continued.

Popular Recent Posts