Friday, July 13, 2012

Lady Grinning Soul /
David Bowie

Okay, enough of the two-bit troubadors with their guitars slung over their backs: What we need in these dog days of summer is a shiver of spangly glamour, delivered by glam rock's greatest diva, Ziggy Stardust. Of all David Bowie's stage personas -- and he's had a slew of 'em -- the ethereally androgynous Ziggy just may be my favorite. It was startingly weird back in 1973, when Bowie released this song as the closing track of the album Aladdin Sane, and it hasn't lost one bit of its creepy fascination since.  

I'm told that this song appears in the movie Runaways, lip-synched by Dakota Fanning; the filmmakers must have known it would capture early 70s rock decadence perfectly. I'm glad that movie introduced this to a whole new generation of music fans, who may not have know why Bowie was such a big deal. Bowie is a big deal, my children. The fact that he's rock's greatest shape-changer tends to disguise the absolute quality of his songwriting -- both music and mysterious lyrics -- his showmanship extraordinaire, and the pinpoint accuracy of his cultural radar.

"Lady Grinning Soul" was always the B-side, never the bride -- it backed up the single of Bowie's Stones cover "Let's Spend the Night Together" and then again "Rebel Rebel," both fine songs in their own right, but PLEASE.  I suppose its over-the-top drama -- those Liberace-like piano arpeggios, those screeching halts, those ever-pushed-higher vocal notes -- didn't exactly tailor it for AM pop radio.  But man, this is Bowie at his theatrical best, wringing out all the emotional stops with not a trace of sincerity to muddy the waters.

Really, how would you characterize this song?  Despite the slinky R&B groove, Mike Gerson's lavish piano seems almost Hungarian, while Mick Ronson's Spanish-style guitar riffs turn the mazurka into a tango. Those allusive lyrics trigger more Continental associations -- mentions of beetle cars and Cologne (even though he means perfume) trigger an image of dark Berlin cabaret or Reeperbahn clubs, while she'll "beat you down at cool Canasta" triggers a thought of Spanish flamenco castanets. Above all, it's movie music to the nth degree -- that opening phrase is basically the Gone With the Wind theme song in a minor key, arranged for a James Bond opening sequence. Bowie's jet-set femme fatale is dazzling and mysterious, compared to, say, Queen's "Killer Queen," which bounces along at a soft-shoe tempo that's clearly tongue-in-cheek.

"She'll come, she'll go," Ziggy croons, with a whimper of regret; "She'll lay belief on you / Skin sweet with musky oil / The lady from another grinning soul." I love that exotic touch of the musky oil, and the image he tosses out of clothes strewn around a room, his hand cupped on her breast. But with another wistful sigh he warns, "But she won't stake her life on you / How can life become her point of view?" Ah, the emotive power of the woman who slipped away into the night.

It seems generally agreed that this song was written about American soul singer Claudia Linnear, who sang with everyone from Tina Turner to Joe Cocker and Delany and Bonnie. This is the same chick who inspired the Stones to write "Brown Sugar." Now ladies, I ask you -- if you were Claudia Linnear, which tribute would you prefer?  Nothing against "Brown Sugar," but really....