Ghostwood Farm


Before there was rock, you only had God.
April 12, 2020, 10:10 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“To be played at maximum volume.”

So it states on the back of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album ever recorded: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, by David Bowie. I have thought about this record as a single (and singular) piece of art for well over a decade, and today, on Easter Sunday, 2020, I will extoll the virtues of this singularly messianic rock ‘n’ roll odyssey.

I will stress here that this is my interpretation of this record. I have no idea how close it is to what Bowie had in mind. I will add storyline to some songs that clearly isn’t there in the lyrics, but makes sense, based on the timeline and what I think the story is. I would dearly love to hear what you think.

Side 1, Track 1. “Five Years.”

In “Five Years,” we learn of a corrupt and intolerant world. A cop kisses the feet of a priest. A woman beats some children nearly to death. The main point of the song is that a  man on the television tells us that the earth has just five years to live. But live goes on: Our narrator (whom I call John, for reasons I’ll get to), sees a girl he is in love with in an ice cream parlor, and uses the news of impending doom to approach her. We’ve only got five years, after all: Let’s make the most of it.

Side 1, Track 2. “Soul Love.”

The song opens with John’s mother at the grave of her son, John’s brother, Tony, who was killed during the occupation of Northern Ireland, “The Troubles”. Tony was in the British Army. Elsewhere, John and his new love (who remains unnamed–let’s call her Lori) are getting to know one another. John tells Lori about the band he is trying to start with his friends Weird and Gilly, the Spiders From Mars.  So forms the relationship between John and Lori, and so begin The Spiders From Mars.

Side 1, Track 3. “Moonage Daydream.”

What is this? John, unable to sleep, thinking of Lori, is listening to pirate radio. Suddenly, the transmission is interrupted! Is…is this REALLY someone from space, broadcasting to Earth? Is that possible? And if so, what can it mean? Now really unable to sleep, he calls the only person he can, the only other person awake at this hour: His best friend, Weird.

Side 1, Track 4: “Starman.”

John describes what he heard to Weird. Weird, of course, heard it too! They discuss what it could possibly mean. The Starman wants to come to Earth, but he’s afraid that he will blow everyone’s minds. Apparently, though, he has overcome his concern, because they can see his ship sparkling in the sky, and they think he’s coming! Let the children boogie.

Side 1, Track 5: “It Ain’t Easy.”

Interestingly, the lyrics for only this song do not appear in the LP liner notes; the rest are all there. This song does not have an obvious narrative link to the story Bowie is telling. It could be that it was a track to fill out the side, not intended to have a place in the saga (which is why the lyrics are missing?). It could be that it’s the interlude, while John and Weird look for the Starman. I think it’s something darker. I think it’s a side story of Lori, meeting the Starman before John and Weird find him. The line “It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down” foreshadows an unreleased track from the Ziggy sessions: “Sweet Head.” I’ll come back to that one. I think that Lori meets the Starman and, cheating on John, gives him a blowjob. This sets the tone and foreshadows the eventual downfall of The Spiders From Mars.

Side 2, Track  1: “Lady Stardust.”

Here, in one of the great rock ballads of all time, The Spiders From Mars meet the Starman. During the Spiders’ first gig, a stranger jumps up on stage with a left-handed guitar and takes the mic. Of course, he’s not a stranger to Lori, in the crowd. Playing on the androgyny of the character, the Starman is identified as “Lady Stardust.” He is the piece the band was missing: the charisma and power. John still doesn’t know his name, but here, the Starman, Ziggy Stardust, and The Spiders From Mars are cemented together for all of history.

Side 2, Track 2: “Star.”

After the gig with Ziggy, The Spiders are taking off. Offers are coming in from everywhere. John mentions his dead brother, Tony, in the first line. Perhaps he is fighting with his parents as The Spiders head off on tour, bound for stardom.

Side 2, Track 3: “Hold On To Yourself.”

Here we see into the growing ego and mind of Ziggy. To himself, he is thinking about seeing Lori, his friend John’s girlfriend, at the gig tonight. Then, aloud, he says to his friends, his disciples: The Spiders: “We really got a good thing going…you better hang on to yourself.”

Here, after eight tracks, we diverge from the album as released. Here we must insert two unreleased tracks, tracks that are at the end of the Ryko release of this album and tracks that are critical to my understanding of this story.

Sidebar 1: “John I’m Only Dancing.”

This song is why I call the narrator John. John is becoming suspicious of Lori and Ziggy. He catches them dancing. Ziggy protests, “She turns me on, but I’m only dancing.” His suspicion hurts Ziggy. Is that why he allows things to go too far?…

Sidebar 2: “Sweet Head.”

After the accusations of the last song, Ziggy and Lori continue their tryst. Ziggy protests that he tried to break away from her, but it isn’t clear that he did. In the end, he feels that he deserves what he gets from Lori. John, of course, finds out.

Now, back to the album tracks.

Side 2, Track 4: “Ziggy Stardust.”

With Ziggy’s ego out of control and sleeping with Lori, John makes the decision to break up the band in one of the great epic rock tracks of all time. The crowd at the gig finds out what happened and they turn on Ziggy. In the ensuing riot, Ziggy is killed. Or at least, it seems he is. His body is never found.

Side 2, Track 5: “Suffragette City.”

Having broken up the band and left Lori, John is a mess. He’s sleeping with anyone who will have him. At a nightclub with the band’s manager, Henry, John is doing all he can to pick up women, telling Henry to go sit somewhere else, because “…there’s only room for one, and here she comes!”

Side 2, Track 6: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”

The hard living has gotten to John, worn him down. He is out of touch with Weird and Gilly, his only friends, since his relationship with Lori cost them their livelihood. As he stumbles around London, alone and beaten, who should he find?

Lori.

After John is nearly killed by a car in the road, Lori follows him home. She tells him he is not alone. She stays with him. They call Weird. They call Gilly. They all gather, the four of them, what is left of Ziggy’s disciples, and wait. The world is ending, but they are not alone.

Postscript: I try to make this into a messianic story, wherein Ziggy’s death saves the world. But the deeper I look, I don’t see it. What I see is Ziggy, seeing what he has done to his friend John, sacrificing himself (returning to his home?) so that John can be happy with Lori. The world is still ending, I think, but John, having been prevented from becoming a rock ‘n’ roll suicide by Ziggy’s sacrifice and Lori’s love, faces it with his friends.

I try really hard not to think about the lessons we can take from this in the world of today.


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