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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Rock`n`roll Suicide

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The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is an album about rock'n'roll. Its tracks deal with different aspects of the rock'n'roll world, and try to figure out what it is that made it such a sensation. The picture that arises is this: rock'n'roll is an ecstatic experience, as powerful as any religious experience. It is generated in the psyche of kids who feel alienated from the society they grew up in, and carry a certain shared sensibility inside them, a repressed "inner self" that they cannot express in the terms provided by their parents' culture. But then they encounter someone from an alien culture, who provides them with the music that speaks for that "inner self", and by identifying with that alien they are set free. The result is a sensation of eruption, as if your bottled-up spirit breaks loose, and that joyous eruptive sensation is what rock'n'roll is all about. Following that eruption, you also find other kids who are like yourself, and come together to share a bond of love and unity. But the rock'n'roll experience is a temporary one, and the sensation inevitably fades away. After a while, the music doesn't cause the same joy, and the unity in the group unravels. Eventually, you are brought down from the heights of rock'n'roll happiness, and back to the old and boring everyday existence. 'Rock'n'roll Suicide', the closing track of the album, is the record that asks: what then?

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The opening is a reference to the poem 'Chant Andalous' by Manuel Machado, who wrote: "Life is a cigarette / Cinder, ash and fire / Some smoke it in a hurry / Others savor it." In other words, you can either take your life slowly, or burn it quickly. Our hero wanted to live an exciting life, to burn as brightly as he could, and after a few false starts, when he pulled on a finger instead of the life-cigarette, he finally found a way to do it. But now his flame has burned out, while he's still a young man. What is he going to do with the rest of his life?

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
You're a rock'n'roll suicide

Rock'n'roll is a joyful experience, but it is also a form of spiritual suicide. You can experience rock'n'roll when you have an alienated part in your being, an "inner self" that is repressed by society and provides the energy for the rock'n'roll eruption. But rock'n'roll sets this part free and transforms you: your outer-identity is now compatible with your "inner self", and the alienation is gone. And with it, goes the ability to feel the ecstasy of rock'n'roll. For just a short while, you experienced something cosmic and got a glimpse at an existence of total, wall-to-wall happiness. But then it fades away and you fall back to the ground, back to where you started from, but worse: after you've put your "inner self" out on display and let it become just another identity, you can no longer use it to generate rock'n'roll.

You're too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clock waits so patiently on your song
You walk past a cafe but you don't eat when you've lived too long
Oh, no, no, no, you're a rock'n'roll suicide

Our hero is out of cigarettes, and his time is out of joint. Once again, Bowie invokes Chuck Berry's famous definition of rock'n'roll: "Just let me hear some of that rock'n'roll music / Any old way you choose it / It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it / Any old time you use it". In 'Starman', Ziggy referenced these lines to tell us that he has come to bring rock'n'roll back, and even managed to deliver. But now his brand of rock'n'roll has played itself out, and we can no longer use it. Our hero tells us that he feels too old to lose it and too young to choose it, or as Jethro Tull would put it some years later: too old to rock'n'roll, too young to die. After living the rock'n'roll dream, everything else loses its taste, even food. How can he now go back to live the regular life, when he knows that there's something so much better?

Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road
But the day breaks instead so you hurry home
Don't let the sun blast your shaddow
Don't let the milk float ride your mind
It's so natural - religiously unkind

Stumbling blindly through life, he almost gets run over by a car. Cars, of course, are an essential part of rock'n'roll poetry, a symbol of discharge and freedom, from the days of 'Rocket 88' (considered by many to be the first rock'n'roll record) up to the modernized glam of T. Rex. But Bowie mentions cars only twice in the album, once in the opening track and once again in the closing, and he uses them to describe the shattering of the rock'n'roll dream. Who is driving that Chevy that almost runs him over? Could it be Don McLean, on his way to the levee to relive the glory days of rock'n'roll, only to find out that it had run dry and the music had died? McLean's 'American Pie', that reached #1 on the charts just as Bowie was developing his Ziggy character, is another record about the death of rock'n'roll, but its hero at least has an alternative to fall back on, as he has religious faith. Our hero doesn't have that faith, so he remains a vampiric presence, hiding away from the daylight, a shaddow of a human. Until…  

Oh no love! You're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! You're not alone
No matter what or who you've been
No matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain

In the pits of despair, he finds salvation. The beginning of the passage clearly paraphrases Jacques Brel's 'Jef', in which the singer is trying to convince his despairing friend to get up from the sidewalk and start living again. We imagine our hero sitting on the pavement after being almost run over by the Chevy, when someone comes and picks him up. What Bowie tells us is that it doesn't matter who you are and what your experience was, there will always be others who can identify with you, who can understand your pain. And one of those others now comes to offer our hero a helping hand, and show him a new love.

In other words, your life cannot be reduced to one cigarette. Life offers you an endless array of cigarettes, and when one is burned out, you will always be able to strike another match and start anew. You do NOT commit spiritual suicide with rock'n'roll, as our hero thought in his tangled up head. True, you exposed your "inner self" and destroyed it, but the "inner self" (as Bowie has been telling us for a while now) is not a fixed thing. When you transformed yourself and created a new identity based on your former "inner self", a new "inner self" was created along with it, and can now form the basis for a new transformation, a new identity, a new joy. You are never too old to rock'n'roll when you're too young to die – there will always be ways to revive the rock'n'roll experience. Just like Ziggy once came as a hand that reaches down from the skies to take the kids to heaven, someone else now comes to offer a hand to the post-Ziggy kids and ask them to turn on with him, to burn brightly once more in an existence full of excitement, beauty and love:

You're not alone, just turn on with me
And you're not alone, let's turn on and be
Not alone, gimme your hands
Cause you're wonderful, gimme your hands
Cause you're wonderful
Oh gimme your hands

…and a sublime chord of hope and harmony brings the story to a close.

'Rock'n'roll Suicide' was not only a perfect song to close the album with, but also the Ziggy shows...

The great Jacques Brel, providing the inspiration for the last part.

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