“There was a point in ’73 where I knew it was all over. I didn’t want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life. And I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, was trying to move into the next area, but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy” David Bowie – 2002
50 years ago, when David Bowie’s 6th album Aladdin Sane was released no one at the time realised how important and influential this masterpiece would become, least of all Bowie himself.
Like many outstanding performers and actors David was both exhibitionist and voyeur. These traits had been hidden during his early attempts at fame which encompassed elements of kabuki and mime but they surfaced in the Ziggy era when he was willing to explore makeup costumes and almost entirely naked performances so long as it resulted in more attention.
Why was David always fascinated with fascination?
Partly because he was always looking for the unattainable, and when he found fame it wasn’t what he expected it to be. It never is. It’s either more than you want, less than you want or not what you thought it was going to be. Invariably it’s a hollow crown, something that promises much, delivers little. And that’s what David discovered, as he recalled in 2002. “Fame can take interesting men and thrust mediocrity upon them.”
After several years of unprecedented fame Bowie shared his experiences with John Lennon when they wrote and recorded together in January 1975 and the resulting hit ‘Fame’ encapsulated Bowie’s (and Lennon’s) dissatisfaction with and resentment of the troubles of fame and stardom, including “mindless adulation, unwanted entourages and the hollow vacuity of the limousine lifestyle” expressed as “What you need you have to borrow”.
Although this is in the 1970’s decades before the age of social media celebrating followers as entourages the concept goes back to the Hollywood Golden Era when movie stars had entourages largely driven by the studios need to maintain control and at the same time generate publicity. David had a long history dating back to his childhood fear of being left alone reflected in attempts to seduce or otherwise persuade friends, lovers, managers etc to protect him. These became essential entourages which Tony provided including the band, the crew, Angela, childhood friends, girlfriends, early fans, the MainMan staff and of course Defries. This accomplished two aims symbiotically making David more confident and secure while projecting the image of stardom.
But during David’s Aladdin Sane era fascination with Fame, the songs he wrote reflected the pros of his newfound stardom and the cons of touring with images of urban decay, drugs, sex, violence and death.
Looking at specific example, let’s take The Jean Genie a song inspired by a long list of colourful characters that inhabited David’s world during the writing of Aladdin Sane, primarily Iggy Pop. The direct reference to Iggy, who David had become friends with, was the obvious drug line ‘walking on Snow White’.
The song’s main riff was created during an impromptu jam titled ‘Bussin’ on the tour bus between the first two US concerts in Cleveland and Memphis in 1972 when Mick Ronson began playing the Bo Diddley “I’m a Man” riff on his new Les Paul guitar. Later Bowie completed the song in New when he was with Cyrinda Foxe.
Bowie later asserted, “I wrote it for her amusement in her apartment. Sexy girl.” Bowie later in the 1990’s described the song as “a smorgasbord of imagined America” and “my first New York song.”
The title has long been taken as an allusion to the author Jean Genet. Bowie was once quoted as saying that this was “subconscious… but it’s probably there, yes”. In his 2005 book Moonage Daydream, he explained the song further “starting out as a lightweight riff thing I had written one evening in NY for Cyrinda’s enjoyment, I developed the lyric to the otherwise wordless pumper and it ultimately turned into a bit of a smorgasbord of imagined Americana … based on an Iggy-type persona … The title, of course, was a clumsy pun upon Jean Genet”.
Cyrinda Foxe was an important character in David’s life at this point. She was one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars that frequented the notorious Max’s Kansas City and became one of the many Warhol acolytes who tried out for MainMan and then became a Bowie fan and one of several who enjoyed a personal relationship with David.
Cyrinda, who was 20 years old when she met David, was a very accomplished Marilyn Monroe lookalike and you can see her resemblance in The Jean Genie video which Mick Rock filmed in San Francisco in October 1972. The street scenes in the video were filmed at the Mars Hotel and David wanted to capture the look of “a kind of Hollywood street-rat” while Cyrinda’s role was that of a “consort of the Marilyn brand”. David wanted Cyrinda to be in the video so she was flown from New York to San Francisco for the shoot.
Cyrinda was one of the first of David’s on/off partners who caused a major rift in David’s relationship with Angie. When she was introduced to Cyrinda Angie decided to welcome her into the fold and become friendly with her, rather than kick up a fuss and cause problems. So she made her a welcome new member of the Bowie entourage, much to the distress of Cyrinda’s then boyfriend!
Angie chose to repeat this pattern of befriending and welcoming each of David’s girlfriends to their inner circle until he began a relationship with Ava Cherry, which was one too far. David even moved Ava into their Oakley St home in London, which caused Angie to understandably get very distressed, cutting up Ava’s clothes and kicking her out, before threatening to kill herself. Even before this episode when David began to reach significant audiences in the UK he began making Angela stay away from his live dates and touring activities so he could enjoy more sexual freedom with different girls and this ultimately led to the breakdown and ending of their marriage and relationship. Much of this emotional trauma was reflected in the songs written for Aladdin Sane.
When David became the first rock act to perform at Radio City Music Hall in New York in February 1973, he was able to use all of the traditional mechanisms you’d expect in one of the world’s premiere theatrical venues to take the style of performance he had created for the Rainbow concerts in London the previous year to the next level, much to the delight of the sellout crowd. The reviews for the Radio City Music Hall concerts helped raise David’s profile in the US.
The first of the two sell out concerts on February 14 David decided to play several of the tracks he had written for Aladdin Sane, including the first performance of the album’s title track, grouped together in the middle of the set, but because they were unknown, the audience reaction was very muted. David was taken by surprise at the lack of enthusiasm, which then increased once he played more of his familiar tracks at the end, particularly the regular finale song Rock ’n Roll Suicide, during which he ‘feinted’ and needed attention to get off stage. All of which drew lots of media attention.
For the follow up show the next night David spread the new tracks throughout the set and had a much more positive reaction from the crowd.
Drive In Saturday is a Rolling Stones inspired song that references 60’s icons Mick Jagger and Twiggy as well as psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Heavily influenced by 1950’s doo-wop, the song describes how the inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic world in the future (Bowie once said the year was 2033) have forgotten how to make love, and need to watch old films to see how it is done. The narrative has been cited as an example of Bowie’s “futuristic nostalgia”, where the story is told from the perspective of an inhabitant of the future looking back in time.
The song is also an observation on the strange relationship between pop stars and their audience. The line “she’s uncertain if she likes him, but she knows she really loves him” references the impact of pop stars on their fans, many of whom form a very strong and often illogical relationship based on unrequited love.
David had been performing the song Time as part of his set for several months before he decided to record it for Aladdin Sane. The song is heavily inspired by Jacques Brel’s My Death, which David loved and had been performing on stage since the 60’s – and regularly played in his sets many times throughout his career. The performer is telling his audience that Time comes for all of us – death is waiting in the wings. Time, an unseen, unknown and unstoppable force is going to win in the end. A theme that Bowie revisited right up until his final album Blackstar.