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....


Mister Pleasant said...

Ooooo, such a good one. I love how you called out the "Liberace" in the piano part. Critics seem to dock Aladdin Sane several points for not being a conceptual piece of the order of Ziggy, but I like it better. Drive In Saturday is the centerpiece for me but its all great including his weird take on the Stones.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you Holly for writing about one of my all-time favourite Bowie songs!
As you know, i love Bowie especially the early to mid-70s era of his music.
Nice write-up Holly.
Bowie was certainly original and artists of today should learn from the likes of Bowie and Marc Bolan and our beloved Kinks that being original captures people's imagination and inspires them more than todays rubbish!
Thanks again Holly!
Great write-up!!

Sixteenagain! :)

NickS said...

Funny timing, I was just listening to Bowies live Santa Monica '72 recording, thinking about how good it was, and wondering whether you would like it.

Based on this I would say, yes, if you haven't listened to it, I would recommend it highly.

I'm not familiar with that song, actually, and I have to say that the sound quality of that video is driving me slightly crazy. Part of what makes Bowie so wonderful is that many of his best albums (Ziggy Stardust, Low) have really fantastic production.

Also, while speaking of David Bowie live I will, again, recommend to you the videos linked in this post. I think you will really like all of them but, in particular the last one seemed like something you would like -- not his best performance, but so, so charming.

And I'll stop there, but it is fun to see you writing about David Bowie.

NickS said...

I was thinking again about this comment:

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.

I would agree with all of that, I think he's one of the great singers, songwriters, and actors of pop music but, you'd also have to say, that part of what makes Bowie matter is the specifically queer aspects of the Ziggy Stardust persona (which feels a bit odd to say, because I feel like people are more likely to point to his Berlin albums as being influential musically, and Ziggy Stardust is seen as dated even though, I would argue, it's a better album).

It's hardly a contemporary reference, but I know, for example, that Boy George has talked about that would never have thought of doing pop music in the way that he did were it not for the example of David Bowie.

If you look at the scene from The Runaways which features this song it's explicitly played as a moment of sexual and gender rebellion (side note: I listened to a little bit of the commentary track for The Runaways and Joan Jett is one of the coolest people in the world, and it was interesting that there were a couple of moments in which she seemed to be saying the film played up the images of rebelliousness in ways that weren't historically accurate (I remember he specifically making a comment about leather pants and saying that she had always just worn jeans). I have no doubt that the sense of rebellion is what resonates about the Runaways and Joan Jett, but I think the film makes that more explicit, for the purpose of the narrative, than may be completely accurate.)

See also, for example, this essay.

This is sort of a tangent to the music, but also a significant part of Bowies, "cultural radar." Part of what can make him difficult to pin down, as an icon, is that he has made so many different types of statements, in terms of music, fashion, etc.

Thinking about it, part of what's unique about Bowie's persona is the way in which he simultaneously an icon of glam excess and also frequently comes across as detached, cerebral, and aesthetic rather than visceral. He managed to be sufficiently outrageous to actually shock people while still making it look an act -- though a sincere act. It's hard to think of anybody else who does that as well (I don't know, Adam Ant? He's just not comparable).

Mark said...

Ah, this is one of my favorite Bowie songs! Supremely underrated, it's really one of his best songs. It just has a sound and feel that's not like anything else he recorded. I really wish he'd make another album.