The One Where I Live-Blog ‘Aladdin Sane’: I Want To Bite On The Neon Too, David

This past weekend marked the 11th annual Brooklyn Book Festival (#BKBF) and while navigating through the sea of wonderful totes on every shoulder and maneuvering through the maze of small press, large publishing houses, and independent booksellers’ informational booths, I found myself asking why do I keep coming to this? Honestly, you can spend an hour there and any book worm would be satisfied. Then there’s the annoying plus if you want to go to a scheduled talk (which there are always plenty of ranging in a wide array of topics) you have to camp out for at least a half hour before the talk begins to secure a spot, which also makes you miss a talk happening before it. So now back-to-back’s. It’s a hurry up and wait type of situation. I went to go to the ‘Sinatra, Dylan, and the Era-Defining Artist’ talk with Pete Hamill (author of Why Sinatra Matters–a great! book) and Elijah Wald (who wrote Dylan Goes Electric–the only book about Dylan I’ve read and I can’t recommend it enough) but the line and amount of people turned me away. It wasn’t at capacity, but I knew I’d have to leave early for the Prince and Bowie talk ‘The Pop Star As Artist.’ Mainly, because I told a friend I’d meet her there and didn’t want to go back on a promise. The Bowie/Prince talk itself was underwhelming. Barely a full hour, the panelists Greg Tate, Toure, and Rob Sheffield all could’ve spent an hour each lecturing on each artist. The moderator Amanda Petrusich (!!) asked great questions.

The point of this story is I’ve been meaning to Live-Blog some more Bowie records. Life got in the way there for the last couple of weeks, but I’m back in action. A co-worker gave me Bowie listening homework: Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Heroes, and Aladdin Sane. I probably know the hits from some of them, certainly I know “Heroes.” And once, years ago, when I was getting into The Runaways, I put on Aladdin Sane because it was Cherie Curry’s favorite Bowie. I know the cover of ‘Sane’ and when I look at the track listing, only one melody, “The Jean Genie,” enters my brain.

Aladdin Sane

After chatting with Rob Sheffiled while my friend had her book signed (we learned he is writing a new book called, Dreaming The Beatles. I can’t imagine what it’s about) it inspired me to get back to my self-discovery phase of Bowie. Aladdin Sane is an earlier record than Heroes and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) so I figured why not start here? I know nothing about this record other than it’s famous art and “The Gene Jeanie.” You know the rules. So let’s do this.

1. Watch That Man: Hard rock guitar, and I’m in. This is the kind of rock music I live for and I have a feeling I’m going to like this record. This track is definitely a party track and here’s hoping it’s a party record. There are ten tracks and it’s just about forty minutes long. Released in 1973, I like to think about what other kind of music was being released then. Let’s take a look: Dark Side Of The Moon, Houses of The Holy, Innervisions, Raw Power, a Bruce Springsteen record, Brothers and Sisters, Goat’s Head Soup (lol), etc. I like the piano coming in at the end. Aladdin Sane was recorded in London, New York, and Nashville. Maybe that’s where the hard rock comes from….deep south America? (Deep south, Sarah?) Who knows…I like to think it has an impact on the recording. There are backup singings are the end, which I dig.

2. Aladdin Sane (1913–1938–197?): Ah, a title track with an entirely different feel. The piano trickle here is doing more than the noodling guitar in the background, while it slips and slides up and down the keys. This record came out just after his breakthrough ‘Rise and Fall…’ and people called it “underwhelming” compared to ‘Rise and Fall…’ and ‘Hunky Dory’ (his over fan-favorite). “You’ll love Aladdin Sane.” Is Bowie Aladdin? What do the three different years mean in the title there? Holy fuck the piano, hold on a minute, Aladdin. The piano is doing some free jazz shit on here and even though free jazz usually gives me bursts of panic (I never quite developed as that kind of jazz listener) this is extremely inventive stuff here. Think about Dark Side Of The Moon, also a concept album, also released in 1973 (and is one of the highest selling records of all time, still) but it didn’t sound like this with bouts of wicked crazy piano, Bowie harmonizing with himself. The guitar in the background is almost menacing without being scary. Ahh, the internet tells me that this song marks the change in Bowie moving towards more experimental music after his previous success. No shit. OK so Bowie was born in 1947 so it’s not really “about him.” Maybe?

3. Drive-In Saturday: This one has a slower tempo and a chorus of horns in the background–mostly saxophones, with snapping fingers, that force me to picture doo-wop groups, or, at least, music from the 50s, the kind you sway to. Maybe it’s the “doo-doo-waaaah’s.” Bowie’s vocals here cover so much ground. He is groaning, screeching, singing, and squawking at times. This song was the second single off this record, the first being “The Gene Jeanie” and reached Number 3 in the UK charts. It’s crazy to think that I imagine myself listening to David Bowie records and completely understanding him more. There is so much to tackle in this man’s creative output. I’ve read about him, listened to him, and all the faces he dances around in make me feel unwelcome. I am so late to the game here, how could I ever possibly grasp what Bowie was doing sonically? I understand his social, progressive, gender, political forces but musically he continues to challenge me. I don’t think as a listener I will ever crave the Bowie deep cuts. The more I revisit the more I wonder…am I giving it enough?

4. Panic In Detroit: I can only imagine what this song is about…likely the riots and unrest in the Motor City. Oh and I know this song, I’m realizing, from the wail of his voice. I’m getting lost in the lyrics, as political songs of any color tend to do to me. “Panic in Detroit/I asked for an autograph/He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone/Panic in Detroit.” The lyrics to this song are a bit chaotic, as are the straightforward guitar and drums that are mixed with the guttural attacks Bowie’s voice is making. The woman “woah-oh-ing” in the background along with the cluster of percussion makes me think of unrest. This song is a good hit but cannot decide what it wants to do. It’s pulling and pushing me. As we get to the end of the song, the guitar slides up and down on the dirty channel (hardly glam rock, at least yet) and it winds up until it fades out. Talk about panic.

5. Cracked Actor: Hm, the title of this song is familiar. I like the hard rock guitar that’s going on here, I like the phrase, ‘Cracked Actor,’ and I like how Bowie sounds like a completely different person than he did on the previous songs. Crack is a such a simple sound and he manages to make it rhyme with so many great hard-shaped words. This song is about a Hollywood encounter with a prostitute. And apparently Bowie used to perform this song on stage while wearing sunglasses, singing to a skull he was holding, and then he would french kiss it. It became an on-stage performance piece for the current tour of this record. It was also his first single released in the U.S.S.R. (née Russia).

6.Time: Marking the beginning of side two, fading in with a piano tinkle that builds up and up. Noted as a “vamp” stylized song that he wrote in New Orleans on the Ziggy tour, it certainly fits in with the rest of the piano rock and wonder on this record. I wonder if this song influence more piano to be on here or maybe I just don’t know enough Bowie to know how prevalent the piano is on his records. WOAH what an electric guitar sound that sounds like a synthesizer. I just felt like the crowd listening to Marty McFly at the end of Back To The Future. I am not ready for that guitar sound–it’s so new! There’s something about Bowie’s weird poetry that has me listening harder to the words, more so than previous Bowie albums have. I am also so distracted by the arrangements of guitar and piano on this. Mick Ronson really is the man here. And holy shit! He plays the piano entirely on this whole record too. Can you tell I love piano rock? Bowie’s voice is so fragmented and solid at the same time. (Time?) Is that even possible? Perhaps one of few artists that can start singing “La-la-la-la-la” on repeat until the song fades out. Then there’s those closing piano tinkles. It’s like an orchestra, within this 5:16 song.

7. The Prettiest Star: More vamp-sounding music here. There is such hard rock guitar on this record but there’s also a walkabout sound going on here that makes you want to strut. Perhaps that’s how Bowie is the King of The Strut? This song features Marc Bolan (of T. Rex) on the guitar (who I recently learned died in a car crash because he was driving drunk. His girlfriend was with him at the time. She survived.) and wow it really wails. The “bahh-woop” doo-wop feeling here is stronger than ever. It’s backed up by an “um-pah” of saxophone. I wonder what it would be like to soundtrack a catwalk fashion show to this record and instruct the models to react. I bet it would go over marvelously.

8. Let’s Spend The Night Together: Holy mother of god, a Rolling Stones cover. I did not see this coming. It’s a total reinvention. I used to have this opinion about cover songs, particularly about artists covering Beatles songs. I would say, how could they even cover this, it’s fine the way it is. And my mother would tell me, well, perhaps it’s nice to have someone else interpret it. I am happy to say that my opinion on this matter has changed since then. Sure there are some songs I don’t think are good to cover (see me for list) and there are covers that are better than the original (see: Nirvana’s “Love Buzz”). I like hearing what Bowie is doing with this song. It’s obviously the same melody and lyrics, it works well. He jazzes it up, I can just see him in sequins romping around to this. There’s that free jazz piano feel at the end. I also like that he picked an early Stones song that originally got them in trouble for performing it on TV because of its “decadent” lyrics. What a fun surprise on this record. Bowie also adds a bit to the end: “They said we were too young/Our kind of love was no fun/But our love comes from above/Let’s make… love.” Let’s!

9. The Gene Jeanie: The more educated I become about Bowie the more I realize how stretched out his singles are, all across the board from so many different records. There’s something fun about “Gene” and “Jeanie” making the same sounds, spelled differently. It’s like a makeshift pun. I appreciate that. This song rocks hard, tells the story of the Gene Jeanie. What great lyrics on this track and throughout the whole record. I love these lines! “He’s so simple-minded, he can’t drive his module/He bites on the neon and sleeps in a capsule.” He bites on the neon. I wish I could bite on some neon. (See: my Instagram. I’m really into neon.) This song is so familiar that I’m half expecting for a classic rock radio breaker to come on at the end of it. It has a crisp, tight ending. Mick Ronson, dude. Way to go.

10: Lady Grinning Soul: Ah, the song I know from that terrible (yet important story to tell) movie about The Runaways. Cherie Currie performed this song in her high school talent show. In the movie she gets booed and made fun of, but in Currie’s memoir (‘Neon Angel’ which you should absolutely read if you give one care about rock music and women in rock music) she gets applauded wonderfully and everyone loves it. The vocals on this track make it an interesting vocal choice for Currie. But for Bowie, it’s no hard task. The internet tells me that Bowie was inspired to write this song after meeting popular soul singer Claudia Lennear for the first time. (Wow, it’s also cited that Jagger meeting Lennear was his inspiration to write “Brown Sugar.” What fucking incredibly different songs. Not only to have two songs written about you about vastly famous musicians, wildly different ones, one extremely popular and the other, just a weird bizarre turn of events that close out a record.)

Woah, that’s the end of it. I spent a bit more time researching this one as I listened. I will likely be spending more time with this record than I did with Low. (Come to think of it, I haven’t touched Low since I Live-Blogged it.) I love the guitar and piano sounds on this record. I love the album art–so simple and so creative. Bowie really is a shape-shifter. WHAT A GUY. Also I’m officially declaring today Mick Ronson day. Let’s do it.