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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Aladdin Sane

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In 1972, Bowie was living the rock'n'roll dream, soaring with Ziggy to the height of rock stardom. The next step, naturally, was to conquer America, and the invasion started in September. We can get a glimpse at Bowie's state of mind when we listen to 'The Jean Genie', a song written around that time, which talks about an outlandish creature coming to New York in order to make it his own. We can still sense his starry-eyed fascination with America in this song, his determination to let himself go and become part of Wild West mythology, but there is also a dark side to the story. The Jean Genie realizes that the big city is too big for him, that the American freedom leads to the loss of self and that he doesn't really belong. And the more Bowie continued his American tour and the more he became familiar with what hides behind the glamorous mask of the American dream, the more this feeling increased. There was now a need for a new persona, someone who will capture the state of mind of Ziggy coming to America and being crushed by it – in other words, someone who will capture the Jean Genie in a lamp. Aladdin Sane would be that persona.

The first thing we notice about Aladdin Sane is, of course, the astounding album cover. The famous lightning bolt is based on the sign for 'High Voltage!' which was very much in tune with Ziggy's supersonic gospel, but also, I suspect, appealed to Bowie because it resembles an inverted Z. Painted on Aladdin's face, it suggests that Ziggy had struck Bowie's mind like a lightning bolt and split it in two. And Aladdin Sane is a split personality, indeed. While Ziggy was a cohesive being whose different traits blended seamlessly with one another, Aladdin represents the unraveling of this inner harmony. On one side he is Aladdin sane, an artist who merely depicts the insanities of his hero's lifestyle but keeps a distance from him and preserves his own sanity. On the other side he is a lad insane, obliviously throwing himself into the fastlane of the Ziggy lifestyle, and getting closer and closer to the brink of losing his mind. In the first half of 1973, Bowie was teetering between these two positions, and it's hard to tell which one of them, if any, was dominant over the other.

Of course, the Ziggy story already predicted this development. In 'Hang onto Yourself' and 'Ziggy Stardust', Bowie is describing the moment when the rock'n'roll persona gets out of control and takes a life of its own, overpowering the person who created it and taking him spiraling down towards oblivion. Aladdin Sane opens exactly at that moment, with 'Watch that Man' where we sense the split occurring: the star is attending a wild party thrown on his behalf and behaving like everyone expects him to behave, but the person behind the star feels detached from it all and fears that the star will eat him up. And the next song, the title track, takes us right into the new state of mind, the new identity which is already conscious of the split.

The music says it better. The flashy, punctual, hermetic sound of the Spiders which dominated the Ziggy album gave the impression of a thriving rock'n'roll unit, ready to take on the world. Now, we sense them cracking up. The roaring sound of 'Watch that Man', which all but drowns the vocals, sounds like something out of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, one of the albums that embodied the shift from the optimistic spirit of the sixties to the harsh realities of the seventies. After this opener, which already rattles everything we think we know about Ziggy, comes the next track and takes him apart altogether in a cascade of discordant notes provided by the piano of new band-member Mike Garson, another acquisition made in America. This is no longer rock'n'roll, but modern jazz at its craziest. However, after shattering the Ziggy persona so thoroughly, the rest of the album sees Aladdin picking up the pieces to create something new. The piano is used to give the feel of cabaret, of musical theatre, while the other instruments maintain the raw feel of the opening track but in structures that allow the drama to unfold. This album does not have a narrative like the previous one but every song stands alone, a little theatre piece that takes a look at a different aspect of the Ziggy persona and thus entering into the heart of the matter from a different perspective.

So, what were those aspects of Ziggy which Aladdin now broke up and scrutinized? One aspect of Ziggy was his fascination with the urban world, which he depicted as a world where one can find ways of self-expression, freely change identities and join new communities. Aladdin, however, paints a different picture. 'Watch that Man', 'Drive In Saturday' and 'The Jean Genie' reflect alienation, an inability to belong; 'Aladdin Sane', 'Cracked Actor' and 'The Jean Genie' show people trying to overcome this alienation by forming relationships with others, but those relationships are always fleeting; 'Watch that Man' and 'Cracked Actor' show the personality of their heroes splitting and disintegrating; and 'Watch that Man', 'Aladdin Sane' and 'Panic in Detroit' give a sense that this whole urban world is sitting on the mouth of a volcano, which may erupt at any moment and destroy it. The entire album, meanwhile, is laced with allusions to violence, drugs, prostitution and madness, all part of modern city life.

A central part of the Ziggy persona was his stardom. Bowie had a Warholian fascination with Stardom, regarding it as a way of creating oneself as something bigger than life, a fascination that can first be heard in 'The Prettiest Star' which he cut as a single in 1970. Aladdin rerecords it, but the naivete of this early song now serves as an ironic counterpoint to the picture painted by the other songs (which is perhaps why the line "movies in the dark" is changed into "movies in the past", putting this whole attitude in the past). After he fulfilled his dream with Ziggy, Bowie sees a different side of stardom, expressed in 'Cracked Actor': you create yourself as something larger than life, but then you become stuck with that persona, like a stiff shell you cannot remove. Obviously, Bowie was afraid of becoming identified with Ziggy and ending up like the cracked actor after Ziggy will fall from grace.

The other central ingredient of Ziggy's identity was his sexuality. In his multi-sexual guise, he was the next step in the sexual revolution, an ideal of free love. The idea behind the Hippie sexual revolution was that humans are naturally inclined towards love, but this natural inclination is subverted by the puritan fear of sex, so if we release ourselves from this fear society will become a utopia where people make love instead of war. Here, too, the album provides us with a song that dates back to the pre-Ziggy era, a cover of the Rolling Stones' 'Let's Spend the Night Together' which Ziggy adopted as a personal anthem in concerts to entice his fans into frenzy. The Stones recorded their original in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, the year that the Hippie message reached the ears of the world. Most of the world, however, continued to regard sex as a dirty thing, and when the Stones performed the song on the Ed Sullivan Show they were compelled by the show's producers to change the suggestive lyrics. The song became one of the rallying cries for the sexual revolution, and Ziggy acknowledged it by turning it into a hymn for the divinity of free love, adding the supplement "our love comes from above / let's make love!" But the rest of the album documents the death of the ideology of the sexual revolution, showing that sexual freedom does not lead to a world of love. The Jean Genie is sexually free and loves to be loved, but his relationships are meaningless; the cracked actor tries to buy love, but all he gets is sex; and the sexual jadedness reaches its peak in 'Drive In Saturday', where the kids of the future are depicted as humans who have forgotten how to make love. Bowie seems to be suggesting that when sex is completely free it is no fun anymore. When songs like 'Let's Spend the Night Together' no longer shock the culture, the ecstasy contained in them will be lost as well, and the kids will have to watch Jagger on video to try to figure out how to recreate it.

And this all leads to what is perhaps the major theme of the album, and that is the change in the perception of time. The traditional perception of time is that it changes almost everything, and yet there are some things that are eternal and unchanged, and these are the things that are important. Most thinkers believe that our task is to find the eternal laws of our existence and arrange our lives to match these laws, and that once we succeed in doing so we will be happy. This analogy between eternity and happiness led to the complementary perception: when people found something that made them extremely happy, they believed that they managed to uncover the eternal part of their being and that if they hang on to it they will be happy forever. But Aladdin shows that there is no connection between eternity and happiness and that what makes us happy today can bring us misery tomorrow. The cracked actor discovers that stardom and fame are a passing thing and eventually he remains stuck in dreams of his glorious past; 'Panic in Detroit' shows that the once humanistic ideals of Marxism have now become ridiculous and murderous; 'Drive In Saturday' shows that even sex might die and even the ocean, which we take for granted, might evaporate one day; 'Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)', by virtue of its title, suggests that our world is on the verge of extinction; and the hero of 'Time', upon discovering that his love for his woman has died, realizes that everything dies in the end. Aladdin, then, shows us that there is nothing eternal to hold on to, nothing that can ensure everlasting happiness.

But the end of the album does provide a solution. 'Lady Grinning Soul' takes another look at these themes, and shows that there is a way to arrange your life to respond to the realizations presented in the earlier songs. The Lady has already internalized the notion that nothing lasts, and therefore, she never gets hung up on anything but enjoys it only for as long as it lasts. With that state of mind, she throws herself completely into her romantic attachments, makes the most of them and then moves on. And because of that, she will never become stuck with one identity but always be able to redefine herself and remain a viable person, a grinning soul. Aladdin aspires to become like her, and calls on all of us to do the same.

Aladdin Sane, then, was the figure that Bowie created when he realized he reached the stage of Ziggy's fall. As long as Ziggy was on the rise, he and Bowie were one and the same, but when he started to fall, he became Bowie's double, a double expressed in the punning nature of the name Aladdin Sane. Ziggy was now a lad insane, which Bowie, as Aladdin Sane, lived out but criticized, played out but aestheticized, identified with (it was only in that period that he started to present himself onstage as Ziggy) but kept at a distance. And finally, when he exhausted Ziggy's possibilities, he severed his connection with him altogether. But without Ziggy, of course, there was no existence for Aladdin either - it was time for another change.

Watch that Man
Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)
Drive In Saturday
Panic in Detroit
Cracked Actor
Time
The Prettiest Star
Let's Spend the Night Together
The Jean Genie
Lady Grinning Soul

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