There should be a warning label placed on copies of David Bowie‘s Aladdin Sane, the eclectic follow-up to his messianic rock and roll masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The label should read something like this: “If your life feels turned upside down and overwhelming and nothing seems to be going right and you are feeling like a physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted lad who is going mad, the effects of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane will only serve to exacerbate your feelings of alienation, paranoia, and befuddledness. You may feel like Mike Garson’s anarchic piano from the album’s eponymous song. Bowie’s words may suddenly narrate moments of your life as they happen. Friends and co-workers may speak lines from Aladdin Sane songs as you listen to them. You may receive e-mails from people who inadvertently use lyrics from the album to insult or generally degrade you. It will be your living end.”
True story, swear to God.
A title inspired in part by Bowie’s schizophrenic brother and the need to create a new persona post-Ziggy, much of the album’s oddness may come from the fact it was written while his band was on the road. Bowie was taxed and torn by the rigors of extensive touring and wanted to push his musical mojo and explore new territory. Garson’s contribution to Aladdin Sane is also responsible for the album’s swings toward the avant-garde and eccentric. The end results are a strange batch that skips and hops to its own whims often laced with a sense of decay and unease, everything tethered together by Bowie’s lunatic and lovely lyricism. Beginning with a rollicking good old time, Aladdin Sane strays into a wacky, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi doo-wop romp via “Drive-in Saturday,” then throws in a cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and ends with a song that could have been used in the opening credits to a ’60s spy movie.
Aladdin Sane opens with “Watch That Man,” a slamming, bamming, energetic, straightforward narrative rock-and-roller about partying and living the high life. On the opposite end of the lushness of glam parties, “Cracked Actor” dwells in the delusions of Hollywood hopefuls down in the dumps. Mick Ronson’s opening guitar growls give way to an oddity of an ascending riff. Over Ronson, Bowie cuts lines on disillusioned actors given in to sleaze, drugs, and decadence. The bouncing chorus, “Crack baby crack / Show me you’re real / Smack baby smack / Is all that you feel / Suck baby suck / Give me your head,” is one of the catchiest things the Spiders ever caught. It’s the part of the song that instantly sticks in the memory both because of the dark territory it plows and the way it comes together. It’s the sing along song to sing when you see the wide-eyed fella or filly fresh off the turnip truck with big dreams of stardom just waiting to be trounced upon.
There is, of course, the brilliantly anarchic title track, the song that best showcases Garson’s flashes of mad brilliance and brilliant decadence. As Bowie howls about impending doom and approaching war in “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?),” the eerie, shadowy verse gives way to pounding paranoia and desperation at once caused by to Garson’s keys and Ronson’s consistent, uneasy crunch. The cut-up lyrics of champagne and screams and memento mori exhibit Bowie’s wild and adventurous lyricism. The evocative title includes the years prior to World War I and World War II, respectively; the third year anticipating another moment for millions to weep a fountain just in case of sunrise. One critic compared Garson’s piano solo, which features sections inspired by “On Broadway” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” to Jackson Pollock spattering paint across a canvas.
“Panic in Detroit,” a somewhat eerie though thoroughly catchy little ditty, is driven forward, once again, by Ronson’s crunch and the rise and fall of Trevor Bolder’s bass. Over relentless percussion, Bowie spins a yarn of a city falling into ruin inspired by Iggy Pop’s memories of riots in Detroit. The eclecticism pervades on songs such as the burlesque meditation on death, “Time,” or the bipping-bopping nostalgia of “The Prettiest Star,” an ode to Bowie’s first wife, Angie. On the former, Bowie sounds as if he’s singing in a loud pinstripe suit before a rapt audience, delivering his words as if part of an act or sermon. The bawdy highlight of this cabaret act is the image of Time itself wanking off and hitting the floor. On the latter, drenched in lovely ’50s-style back-up vocals and handclaps, top-hatted glam competitor Marc Bolan played guitar in what was apparently a tense recording session. Bowie affectionately called his then-wife “Star,” that tidbit adding something so lovely to those devotional lines, “How you moved is all it takes / To sing a song of when I loved / The Prettiest Star.”
“The Jean Genie,” released as the first single on the album, stomps and swaggers with a rough riff and a tale of screaming and balling. Inspired by the lives of both Iggy Pop and author/political activist Jean Genet, it contains one of my personal favorite similes, “Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile.” Something about the song’s rattle and constant push, something about its tale of an outrageous libertine who loves loving and to be loved, makes it a song that never grows old. Much like Bowie himself, it deifies the constraints of age. The same could be said of all of Aladdin Sane or most of the man’s work, for that matter. “The Jean Genie” inspired comic book artist and unabashed Bowie-fan Mike Allred to create a superhero named Gin Genie, a mutant able to create earthquakes whose abilities were enhanced by alcohol. Hers was sadly a life short lived.
The album closes on “Lady Grinning Soul,” a song that almost sounds, as a friend pointed out, as if Bowie was attempting to do an opening song for a Bond movie. With its slinky feel and its scintillating, tinkling piano keys, the song would lend itself well to silhouettes of women kicking, punching and chopping in front of smoky backgrounds.
Perhaps the paranoid observation that opened this review was unfounded, the product of a neurotic mind that was burdened by the weight of a life gone sour and a universe that seemed to be folding in on itself with no light in sight. Actually, come to think of it, perhaps being in such a mood is the right way to listen to Aladdin Sane. For the cracked actors and unlucky Buddys trying to get lucky, this is the album that knows you and will be there for you. For all the lads and ladies insane, for the prettiest star and the Jean Genie, this album’s all for you and about you. When your world is going batty and you’ve got no one to turn to, you will love Aladdin Sane and Aladdin Sane will love you back. It will be your living end.