Tuesday, September 9, 2008

transformers, six

Aladdin Sane and Berlin. Aladdin Sane is an impressionistic rock diary chronicling Bowie’s perceptions of America during his 1972 U.S. tour in support of Ziggy Stardust. The record is the beginning of the end of Glam, at least as far as Bowie is concerned, which is certainly not to say it’s a bad album. I know there are plenty of Bowie aficionados who rate Aladdin Sane as his best. I think the record is a bit patchy as a whole, though there’s no denying the dirty backbeat of “Panic in Detroit,” the relentlessly heavy guitars of “Cracked Actor,” the sing-songy desperation of “Drive-in Saturday," or the fist pumping rebelliousness of “The Jean Genie.” Still, the journey that began four years earlier with Space Oddity seems to be running out of steam by the time Bowie gets to Aladdin Sane. ...While Ziggy Stardust sounded crisp and vibrant, Aladdin Sane’s sloppy and muffled sound quality conveys exhaustion and even a certain sickness. Part of this is the inevitable result of trying to piece together an album in a number of different studios during a tour. But there’s obviously more to it. The rushed feel of the record gives the impression that Bowie knows the hedonistic worldview he embraced in the wake of the Great Collapse is about to reach its limits as a creative force…’Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise…’

The line separating Bowie’s various stage personae from who he really is has always been blurry at best. The enigmatic nature of his personality is a big part of what makes him so damn cool. Towards the end of the Ziggy tour, he announced that he’d never perform live again. This turned out to be bullshit, of course, but only if you assume that he was speaking as himself and not as Ziggy Stardust. Several years later – I believe it was during the Station to Station period – he told journalists that totalitarianism was the only way forward, and a photographer caught him giving a Hitlerian salute to a crowd of fans outside Victoria Station. Was this David Bowie, or was it a new character? When he started wearing those horrible red suits with suspenders in the 80s, was he David Bowie selling out, or was he David Bowie playing the part of a yuppie scum bag? When he took his song catalogue public and sold shares of himself on the stock exchange, was it greed at work or is it all just performance art...? His marriage to Iman is equally mysterious: Two insanely attractive yet completely desexualized people getting hitched. Who knows if it’s real or theater? Or maybe the age of high-tech celebrity worship renders the distinction between real life and theater moot.

Bowie himself deals with a lot of these heady issues in various ways on songs like “Fame”, “’Heroes’”, “Teenage Wildlife” and "Ashes to Ashes”, so I might come back to them next time. The point I wanted to make is that Bowie was in the midst of becoming a bona fide superstar during the recording of Aladdin Sane. Along with the album’s shoddier sound, the songs together suggest that the decadent ethos of his music and public persona had now completely spilled over into the reality of his life. Performance and reality became increasingly fused together, and the resulting concoction was the harrowing portrait of spiritual illness that comes across on Aladdin Sane. The major symptom of the illness is a fever hot enough to fuel one last gasp of unholy passion. You can hear it especially in the way Bowie cries 'Let yourself go!' in "The Jean Genie," and in the lurid imagery of "Cracked Actor", which sounds like something lifted from the pages of Hollywood Babylon or City of Night... But once again, Bowie saves the most haunting moment for last, closing Aladdin Sane with “Lady Grinning Soul.” As Mike Garson’s piano tinkers in the background, like the gentle feel of a lover's fingertips, or the weightless sensation one has after the first fateful taste of an addictive drug, Bowie sings, ‘touch the fullness of her breast, feel the love in her caress…She will be your living end.'

A little more than ten years ago, when I was still a graduate student at UCLA, I had a ten-day ‘crisis of confidence,’ which is a euphemistic way of saying that I broke down. Several things precipitated this ‘development’, or ‘event’, or whatever you want to call it. I had doubts about my ability to finish my degree, but I didn’t know what else I might want to do with my life. I had also just split with a woman I’d been with for a year. My family was on the other side of the country and all my friends were out of town for the summer. So I was all alone with nothing to keep me company but my self-loathing thoughts... The night before the crisis started, I made the mistake of playing Lou Reed’s Berlin for the first time. I had bought the album several months earlier but then never listened to it. I’m convinced that the record was the final bit of heaviness that sent me into my tailspin. Berlin is one of the most depressing records ever made – almost to the point of being a parody. I can’t say I care for the album all that much, but it expresses some of the same mood and spirit as Aladdin Sane, so it’s worth discussing here. But only quickly. Otherwise I might break down again, and I don’t have time for that anymore.

Berlin tells the story of a bohemian husband and wife in Berlin who start out happy and have children, but then quickly spiral downwards into a vortex of drugs, anonymous sex, abuse and depression. After they split up, the woman (Caroline) has her kids taken away from her because the authorities discover that she’s a neglectful addict who sleeps with all manner of men and women for drugs…

They're taking her children away
Because of the things she did in the streets
In the alleys and bars no she couldn't be beat
That miserable rotten slut couldn't turn anyone away

Pretty uplifting, huh? I might be missing some of the nuance here, but trust me when I tell you from experience that Berlin is guaranteed to bring you right down, and not in a good way. The films of Ingmar Berman, to give an example off the top of my head, bring you down, too, but they still leave you feeling nourished because they’re visually beautiful, intellectually penetrating, and they have something to say about the human condition. Lou Reed’s Berlin just leaves you lying face down in the gutter, and you don't gain anything for having gone through all that anguish. Maybe some people respond to this kind of thing. In recent years, Berlin has been reassessed and is now seen by some as a forgotten classic. It’s not my cup of tea… What’s strange to me, in a way, is that Lou Reed would make a joyful bit of amoral mischief like Transformer and then follow it up with something as relentlessly sad and upsetting as Berlin, as if all the things he embraced in an attempt to move beyond the Great Collapse suddenly turned nightmarish. Then again, this mirrors the way Glam breached sacred boundaries in an attempt to get out of the shadow of the 60s, but then fell victim to the consequences of its overindulgence.


Molly Stevens said...

A while back, we painted your bedroom orange to the sound of Berlin; I had asked you about it since the "art world" seemed to have appropriated it for their own morose and pseudo-profound purposes...

Max Stevens said...

I remember painting the bedroom, but I seem to recall that we were listening to The Beach Boys, not Lou Reed. Maybe I just blocked it out...