Sunday, May 10, 2015

Micky Played Guitar

D.A. Pennebaker has a strong background in rock 'n' roll: he filmed Bob Dylan and Monterey Pop. He also recorded David Bowie's last concert as Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders: The Movie (1973).

I've seen a lot of criticism of this movie as sounding muddy, looking too dark and badly shot. It is very dark: It was shot with available light and pushed past the limits of the stock. I think that gives it a great processed look with posterized colors and amazing shots of the audience by strobe light or the light of a disco ball. The sound isn't the greatest, but it's a live concert, come on. Also, Mick Ronson's guitar was mostly wicked distorted anyway.

To set the stage: It's July 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon, a classic old theater that has seen it all - but it hasn't seen anything like the glam freaks that were showing up for the last show in Bowie's Ziggy Stardust show. Backstage, Bowie is getting made up and Angie is chirping in an outrageous babydoll British accent. He dons an immense kimono-like outfit and hits the stage as Mick Ronson kicks off "Better Hang Onto Yourself".

The Spiders from Mars Band featured Trevor Bolder on bass and Woody Woodmansey on drums, but the big noise was guitar god Mick Ronson. Dressed and made up as glam as Bowie, he vamps, struts and shreds like a monster. At selected points in the show, he revs up what is technically known as a guitar wank - an almost endless solo (or guitar-bass duel in one case) that spirals higher and higher, while Bowie flounces off backstage to do another costume change.

Oh the costumes - that kimono rips off to reveal a shorty robe that exposes his underthings when he props a foot on a monitor. A knit onesie that bares one shoulder and one leg. A pink bolero jacket and so on. Of course, he looked great in them even if they were silly. And a funny thing: I'm used to a wasted, vulnerable, wounded, self-protected Bowie, like in The Man Who Fell to Earth. But the Bowie in this concert looks healthy, strong, giving, open, and friendly. He makes eye contact with the audience and smiles - he is having fun.

If you are just passing familiar with Bowie's music, you'll hear a lot of favorites here, like "Cracked Actor," "Watch That Man," and "Major Tom," as well as "All the Young Dudes," which he wrote with Mott the Hoople, and "Let's Spend the Night Together," in honor of Mick Ronson's time with the Stones. The rockers really rock, but he does some quieter ballads as well, like "The Wild-Eyed Boy of Freecloud" (which I was not familiar with) and a Jacques Brel number, "My Death", sung solo with an acoustic guitar. He finishes up with "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", which is exactly what I was hoping for. For one thing, it is very Brelian, with more than a touch of humor: "You pull on your finger, then another finger, then the cigarette" - this line not only conjures a very concrete image, but has a little pun on the word "pull". But most of all, it's a generous, loving and forgiving song: You're too hard on yourself, you're not alone, you're wonderful. Maybe he is singing it to himself, maybe to you, maybe to anyone who needs it. Thank you, Ziggie, thank you, David.

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