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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Cracked Actor

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In 'The Jean Genie' and 'Watch that Man', Bowie dramatizes the effects of the meeting between his Ziggy persona and New York City, where he discovers that the glamour of rock'n'roll hides a lot of emptiness. 'Cracked Actor' takes Ziggy to L.A., where he comes face-to-face with the true nature of another one of his traits: his stardom. Through Ziggy, Bowie has been celebrating and singing the praises of stardom, describing it as an exciting form of existence. Now that Ziggy actually made him a star, he takes a second look at it.

I've come on a few years from my Hollywood Highs
The best of the last, the cleanest star they ever had
I'm stiff on my legend, the films that I made
Forget that I'm fifty cause you just got paid

The protagonist is an aging former movie star, a remnant from the golden age of Hollywood, a time when every star had a one-dimensional, larger-than-life image that became associated with them in the public's mind, and the people liked to believe they were that way in real life as well. Our hero, apparently, had the "cleanest" image of them all, and for the public he was a symbol for a wholesome way of life. But in real life he is actually an ego maniac inflated by his legend, and that makes him "stiff" and in constant need of sexual vent. He probably had no problem getting sex when he was at the height of his fame, but now that he is over the hill he has to pay for it, to relive his past glory.

Crack, baby, crack, show me you're real
Smack, baby, smack, is that all that you feel
Suck, baby, suck, give me your head
Before you start professing that you're knocking me dead

So he hires a prostitute, and tries to get that feeling again. It seems that he wants the prostitute to make him feel desired again, to tell him that he's knocking her (or him) dead, like people used to tell him in his prime. We also hear him begging of the hooker to stay, to keep him company. But the latter, it seems, can feel only the kind of feeling derived from heroin (smack), and is just hustling him for money.

You caught yourself a trick down on Sunset and Vine
But since he pinned you baby you're a porcupine
You sold me illusions for a sack full of checks
You've made a bad connection 'cause I just want your sex

The corner of Sunset and Vine is that place in Hollywood where male and female prostitutes would hang out and look for tricks. But it seems that one of the tricks got this prostitute hooked on needles ("pinned"), and now she's a "porcupine" who needs to stick more and more needles into herself. She thought that he was a "connection", someone who can supply her with drugs, but he disappoints her and tells her that he only hired her for sex. But he made a bad connection as well: he wanted her to give him the illusion of love, of being wanted, but she only wants his money.

That is one reading of the song, making it a drama of two miserable people who hook up for a while, each for a different reason, but don't get what they want. But there is, I believe, another level here. "Crack" and "smack" are violent words, sung over a violent rock backing, and to me they suggest sex of an S&M nature. Why would the actor want his sex rough? Because that's the only thing that he feels, the only way for him to feel like a real person, not an empty shell. The word "stiff" acquires another meaning: that one-dimensional star image that was thrust upon him became like a stiff outer shell, a fake identity which he is enslaved to and cannot shake. The mention of Sunset Boulevard is a reminder of the movie by that name, the most famous dramatization of a former star becoming a slave to her image and remaining stuck in a long-gone era. To free his real self the actor must crack that shell, and being smacked around gets it done in two ways: physically, in beating that outer shell, and mentally, in destroying the "clean" image through a form of sex that is considered perverted and unclean. In those moments, the actual person rebels against the star persona, and feels like he is in control over it. The "porcupine" metaphor would then suggest that he has been pinned in many different ways, as if his entire body was made object for sexually-oriented penetration, in his efforts to crack the shell. It's all in vain, though: he can't break out of the world of illusion, no matter how much money he pours into it. He feels real at those moments of sexual ecstasy, but when they end, he finds himself back in his fake persona.

And that shifts the focus back to Bowie himself. In songs like 'The Prettiest Star' and 'Star', Bowie idolized stardom, seeing it as a way to "rise up all the way", to transcend his boring existence and live an exciting and heroic life. He also believed that through stardom he could "make the transformation" and "play the wild mutation", live the life of constant change that he idealized in 'Changes'. And so he tailored and adorned the identity of Ziggy, a creature actually made out of Stardust. But now, he starts to fear his own creation. Ziggy starts to take over his life, and Bowie seems afraid that he will become stuck with that persona, and become a stiff person who cannot change. Eventually, reality will move on, and he will be left behind, a relic of the glam era, a non-entity. He must find a way to shed the Ziggy skin, or he might end up like the cracked actor.

Ziggy and the Spiders cracking and smacking, and definitely not sucking:

In the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang this song as Hamlet singing to the skull of the jester Yorick, who was once an actor full of life and infinite jest, and is now just a stiff corpse:

This routine was repeated in the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, but here it is made more obvious that the singer is himself an actor playing Hamlet, and the scene with Yorick's skull makes him think of his own fleeting fame and mortality:

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