Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ziggy Stardust Turns 59

A look back as Rocker David Bowie celebrates his birthday this month.

The 1960's were over. The Beatles had broken up and legends like Jimi Hendryx, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin were gone forever. The early 1970's seemed like a bad hangover resulting from an overindulgent and turbulent decade of drug experimentation, war, protest, assassination and political scandal. Aching psyches were now soothed by pop (The Partridge Family, Osmonds, Jackson 5) and mellow singer/songwriter stuff (Carpenters, James Taylor). And for those who still wanted it, hard rock (Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin).

Then David Bowie broke the mold.

After several early albums that didn't garner much commercial attention, "Ziggy Stardust" was born in 1973. Bowie reinvented himself as a flamboyant, guitar wielding, androgynous space alien bent on conquering the Earth through music. Omnipotent and self assured, he even predicts his own rise to fame in the song, "Star". The Ziggy album was an instant success, it's dramatic, electrified, space age rock energy ushered in a new era of Rock and Roll known as "Glitter/Glam".

Bowie's continued boldness in creating characters and bringing theater and a visual aspect to rock music was unlike anything before. He wore inventive costumes, cross dressed, wore makeup and was both effeminate and masculine at the same time. Unlike Elton John who hid from his sexuality, Bowie embraced his own and explored it openly, sometimes onstage.

Bowie's characters and corresponding albums and tours had elements of camp and high drama. His everchanging incarnations kept his audience guessing and enthralled: spaceman Major Tom, the anarchic Man Who Sold The World, the dress wearing Queen Bitch, rock demigod Ziggy, the apocalyptic Rebel Rebel, Aladin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and the list goes on. Never satisfied with mere commercial success, Bowie discarded personas like a snake sheds it's skin. Then created new ones.

Likewise, Bowie's fearless willingness to experiment with his music kept it creative and unique. His music spans Dylan inspired Folk, high energy Electro-rock, Disco and Soul, synthesizer and electronic drum based Pop and World Music. Rock's Chameleon smartly surrounded himself with top notch talent. Members of his ever revolving band line up have included Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Fripp, Carlos Alomar, Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, Adrian Belew, Roy Bittan, Brian Eno, Peter Frampton and Mick Ronson.

Bowie's motifs of alienation and ability to thrive outside the mainstream created a new category of rock expression. Long after the Glam era faded, it provided fodder for those wanting to explore fantasy and the dark side of life in their music. Without Bowie it's likely there would not have been a Depeche Mode, Cure, Morrissey or Duran Duran. He was THE major influence for much of the New Wave music of the 80s and beyond. Madonna, who inducted Bowie in to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame In 1996, admitted to being "terribly inspired" by Bowie.

As a live showman, Bowie has always been on the cutting edge of performance and technology. His sound, lighting and special effects push the envelope. And there's that voice. Vulnerable without being whimpy, dramatic without being over the top. One that blended as well with Bing Crosby as it did with John Lennon or Freddie Mercury.

Bowie's later releases have not been as compelling as his earlier ones. Yet as always, he forges on trying on new sounds and ideas. David Bowie will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy at this year's Grammy awards on Feb. 8, 2006.

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