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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Jean Genie

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The roaring riff that opens 'The Jean Genie' and sets the tone for the entire record throws us back to the British R&B pyrotechnics of the previous decade, to those domineering sounds made by guitar heroes like Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and others. Their role models, in return, were American R&B musicians like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, who worked in Chicago from the early fifties onwards and gave the blues a hard urban edge. These poor black men came over as individuals caught in an epic struggle against the harsh realities of the big city, with nothing but an electric guitar on their side. But through their music, they created their own fantasy world in which they had omnipotent manly powers and could take on anything. It was this fantasy that excited a generation of British working-class boys, resulting in the rise of a rebellious individualistic attitude that permeated the pop sounds of mid-sixties. Now, some years later, Bowie taps into that spirit to create his own mythic urban hero.

The name of the record hints at another influence. Any individualistic approach at the time was seen through the prism provided by French existentialism, and the greatest existentialist hero was Jean Genet. Genet was an orphan who in early childhood was already tagged as a delinquent by the system, and when he grew up he decided to live out this identity to the fullest, consciously alienating himself from society and making an art out of being a criminal, a sexual deviant and a sinner. Eventually he turned his aesthetic talent towards making actual art, making poetry out of crime and creating a reverse-morality to that of the "straight" world. In his art, he claimed that it is actually he, the outlaw, who is living the authentic existence, unbound by any external code, while those who are part of society are living in a fake world. This message struck a chord in many, and Bowie, who also presented himself in his art as an alien, could naturally find some affinities. Change two letters in Jean Genet's name, and you get the Jean Genie.

But for Bowie, the true models for an outsider existence came not from France but from the Wild West, from the inner city jungles of America. The model for the Jean Genie, he confided on occasions, was Iggy Pop, the wild rocker from Detroit. In Iggy, Bowie found someone who took rock'n'roll rebelliousness one step further than the sixties, with music that was like freeform jazz played on electrified guitars and a stage act that pulled out all stops. With his outrageous stage name and act, Iggy was one of the inspirations for Bowie's Ziggy, and now that Ziggy has gone on tour in America, the first song he wrote had Iggy in mind.

A small jean genie snuck off to the city
Strung out on lasers and slash back blazers
Ate all your razors while pulling the waiters
Talking 'bout Monroe and walking on snow white
New York's a go-go and everything tastes nice
Poor little greenie

Get back home

We are in the big city here, and we even know which one it is: New York City. But the Jean Genie isn't originally from the city. He came from outside, and tries to blend in. The chain of flashing images that Bowie spews doesn't make much sense, but it seems to suggest a fascination with the dazzling temptations of the metropolitan on the one hand and an inability to make sense of it all on the other. The shout "get back home" reminds us of the Beatles' 'Get Back', which suggests that everyone should go back to where they came from, because that's where they belong. So the Jean Genie, we gather, doesn't really fit in the city, and would be better off going back home. But who is he, and where is he from?

It's the line "poor little greenie", I think, that gives in away. A greenie is a Martian, and the Martian, of course, is Ziggy. Ziggy was the snow white tanned alien who talked about Monroe and other Hollywood superstars and tried to be like them. But the attempts of the Martian to blend in with the earthlings, it seems, didn't really work. His otherness finds ways to display itself, like when he eats razors (or bites on the neon, as we see later). He just doesn't belong.

The jean genie lives on his back
The jean genie loves chimney stacks
He's outrageous, he screams and he bawls
Jean genie let yourself go!

The chorus is more cheerful. Here the Jean Genie comes over as heroic, and his outrageous otherness is a cause for celebration. The first two lines are ambiguous. The fact that he lives on his back could suggest sexual promiscuity and the chimney stacks could then be a crass phallic euphemism, putting a gay twist on it. Or it could suggest that he's homeless, and sleeps in other people's chimneys. At any rate, the fact that he doesn't belong is taken as a good thing here and is regarded as freedom.

Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile
She love him, she love him but just for a short while
She'll scratch in the sand, won't let go his hand
He says he's a beautician and sells you nutrition
And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear
Poor little greenie

I think the Jean Genie is an actual alien from outer space. He isn’t human, as we learn from lines like "he sits like a man", and when he smiles he reveals himself to be of reptilian nature (which once again reminds us of Ziggy, the alligator). Bowie then returns to a recurring theme in his work, as the Genie discovers the fleeting nature of love and relationship, and the fact that the city can offer nothing that is long-lasting. He acknowledges it by using a symbol of fleetness (dead hair) to make his underwear, and probably sees this as making art out of his life, fancying himself an aesthete ("beautician") like Genet. But actually, it serves more to display his dire financial state.

He's so simple minded he can't drive his module
He bites on the neon and sleeps in the capsule
Loves to be loved, loves to be loved

More of the same, strengthening the impression that we are dealing with an extraterrestrial. But there's another layer here, I believe: he also represents Bowie himself, someone who presents himself as a Martian that's come to take over the big city, when he's actually just a simple boy from Bromley. With Ziggy Stardust, Bowie tried to create a fantasy that was bigger than anything R&B or rock'n'roll attempted before, putting together Iggy, Genet, Nietzsche and many other dream-weavers to construct the ultimate hero, someone who could actually stand up to the urban world and come out victorious. But when he met the urban reality of America, he suddenly felt that he has gone in way over his head, and that he is actually nothing but a simple-minded bloke who doesn't belong here. If Iggy Pop is indeed the model for the Jean Genie, it is probably because he presented Bowie with a mirror-image of himself, a suburban kid who became a rock star and acts like he's on top of the world, when his life is actually spiraling out of control.

With 'The Jean Genie', Bowie is still celebrating the joys and freedoms that Ziggy brought him, but also starts to see the downsides. On the one hand, we hear echoes of Chuck Berry's "go Johnny, go, go, go!", extending the myth of rock'n'roll freedom. On the other hand, it has a sense of losing touch with the world. In that, it points to Bowie's next identity, who will try to capture the Jean Genie in his lamp and make music that will reflect and deal with the situation he just unfolded.

The fabled Mick Rock promo captures that moment of transition. We see Ziggy on stage in all his glory, but also as a poor little greenie standing near the Mars Hotel in San Francisco and looking like he is feeling lonely in the city and wishes he was back on Mars. Model Cyrinda Foxe looks like the epitome of glam, which has now left Ziggy's body and dances out of his control. The quick cuts are a major step forward on the way to the art of the video clip.

'The Jean Genie' is a classic rocker, performed in numerous Bowie concerts and covered by many other artists. Here is the first live performance to be caught on camera, a Top of the Pops appearance from January 1973 that was considered lost for many decades, but then found in a private collection.

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