Monthly Archives: March 2012

Bowie, Burroughs and the stage production of Ziggy Stardust

In December 1973, Rolling Stone journalist Craig Copetas brought together David Bowie and William S Burroughs in London for an interview. The piece was published in February 1974, around the time Burroughs returned to America, having finally had enough of the English climate and licensing laws. A wonderful photograph by Terry O’Neill captures the two icons together.

The interview itself isn’t quite as captivating. Bowie had only read one of Burroughs’ books (Nova Express), while Burroughs had only listened to two of Bowie’s songs (“Five Years” and “Starman”). This is my favourite exchange:

Burroughs: What is your inspiration for writing, is it literary?

Bowie: I don’t think so.

Burroughs: Well, I read this “Eight Line Poem” of yours and it is very reminiscent of TS Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

During the two-hour conversation in Bowie’s home, Bowie did most of the talking. At one point he discusses in length his plans for a theatrical or television production of Ziggy Stardust, which had been released two years before (and in June 2012 celebrates its 40th anniversary).

It’s worth repeating this section in full, as it is one of the fullest explanations of the story behind the Ziggy concept.

Bowie: Nova Express really reminded me of Ziggy Stardust, which I am going to be putting into a theatrical performance. Forty scenes are in it and it would be nice if the characters and actors learned the scenes and we all shuffled them around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just performed it as the scenes come out. I got this all from you Bill… so it would change every night.

Burroughs: That’s a very good idea, visual cut-up in a different sequence…. Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.

Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All The Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.

Burroughs: Yes, a black hole on stage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.

Bowie: Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman”, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch on to it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.

Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!

Burroughs: Yes, I can believe that. The parallels are definitely there, and it sounds good.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein of the 1970s never collaborated, unfortunately. You can read a full transcript of the Bowie-Burroughs interview – including discussions of German porn, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, science fiction and Mick Jagger (‘Jagger is most certainly a mother figure. He’s not a cockadoodledoo; he’s much more like a brothel-keeper or a madame,’ says Bowie) – here.

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We Stand Around by I, Ludicrous: the best football song ever?

I, Ludicrous were a two-piece consisting of John Prockter and David Rippingale that came together in South London through a shared love of Crystal Palace and The Fall. Formed in 1985, their greatest moment came on their 1992 album Idiots Savants in the form of a five-minute sinister, synth-led epic about being a football supporter called “We Stand Around”. The song was named Single Of The Week in NME by guest reviewers New Order despite only being available in Germany.

The lyrics are a masterful celebration of the essential pointlessness of terrace culture and football fandom, as this extended excerpt demonstrates:

We stand around in wind and rain, locked in voluntary,
All ages, all male, all swearing, all cold.
We sing and sway we punch the air,
We chant out names, we seek a wave,
In pens we huddle in corners too,
We shout out names we shout abuse.

We travel every Saturday,
We go wherever we play and pay,
spending money we cant afford,
We are the fans we go everywhere.

In groups of two we punch the air,
We sing and sway and dance and swear
We taunt the home fans humorously
The policemen eye us with ill disguised contempt.

We buy the fanzine its a con
Written by some Oxford don
who thinks he knows what’s going on.
But we know everything.
We know how much the players earn
where they live what they drink,
What happened on the Swedish tour
and why the right back was transferred.

We make a scene in every town
Our accents sting our voices loud
Old ladies in shop doors cower
We are the fans we have power?
Some have scars of well aimed boots
Some wear scarves some wear boots
The police escort eyes with ill disguised contempt

The video directed by Prockter that accompanied this minor classic has recently been put on You Tube and, like the song, is a beautiful evocation of football supporting in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the era, incidentally, when I began to attend matches). The opening sequence of floodlights and barbed wire – a typical sight at football grounds of the time – belong firmly to a different era, and here also are the crumbling stadia, the fanzines, the cheap programmes, the train journeys and the aggro. It’s a fine song and a brilliant video: enjoy.

For more on I, Ludicrous and football see this by Educated Left Foot.

Forgotten Londoners: Frank Harris, editor, prisoner and pornographer

Frank Harris was an objectionable little man. He was sallow as a gypsy. He had bat ears, dark hair with a crinkle in it that grew low on the forehead, and a truculent mustache. People remarked on the richness of his bass voice. His charm was great, particularly for the opposite sex. He had the gift of gab to a sublime degree and a streak of deep scoundrelism that was the ruin of him.

John Dos Passos, 1963

Frank Harris wrote My Life And Loves in 1922 when he was 68. It was partly about his career as an editor of the Evening News and Saturday Review in London, where he had championed critics like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but it was mainly about sex.

Harris was a rumbustious character with a voice so deep that one of his many mistresses claimed ‘it made her sex open and shut’ when she heard it. His memoir was scandalously candid, and featured several photographs of naked women, to emphasise the point.

It was these – ‘too much for the English’, Harris later observed – as much as Harris’s candid discussion of sex (he was particularly keen on cunnilingus) that saw the New York Supreme Court rule the book ‘unquestionably obscure, lewd,
lascivious and indecent’ and it was banned in several countries and pretty much did for Harris as a serious writer and journalist thereafter.

It had been a turbulent career. Harris was born in Ireland, educated in Wales and after a series of adventures in America, settled in London in 1882, where he talked his way into newspapers. His greatest triumphs were at the Saturday Review, the London paper he edited in the 1890s, publishing criticism by HG Wells, Shaw and Wilde and gaining a reputation for being unreliably unspoken and outrageously opinionated for a man of his position. He later wrote a biography of Wilde, who surely would have agreed with Harris’s insistence that ‘Modesty is a figleaf for mediocrity’.

As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘He blazed through London like a comet, leaving a trail of deeply annoyed persons behind him.’ Harris was briefly adopted as a Conservative candidate for South Hackney, resigning after he defended Charles Parnell during an adultery scandal. He also defended Wilde during his trial, and suggested he flee the country while out on bail, and took the side of the Boers during the Boer War. 

Years later, Harris looked back on his time as editor with satisfaction. He believed in positive criticism, not handing out brickbats and instructed his critics to celebrate, rather than denigrate. “When I was editor of the Saturday Review,’ he said ‘with the greatest assembly of literary men in history, I had a policy and I believed in sticking to it. There was Shaw and Wells and Rowe and oh, everybody else. I called a dinner and I said: “Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that people have started to call it the Saturday Reviler. Well, this sort of thing doesn’t get us any place. Hereafter the Saturday Review is going to try to find stars, and if it can’t find stars, it won’t merely hurl bricks. What good does it do? Insults, raps, knocks! Mainly lies. Nobody’ll remember them in fifty years. If we can’t do something constructive,” I said, “we won’t do anything.” Well, it worked.’

By 1913, Harris was editing a magazine called Modern Society and was charged with prejudicing a trial after publishing an ongoing divorce case.  ‘It seems to me you have a certain disdain for this court,’ noted the judge during his trial. ‘Oh, if I could only express all the disdain I have,’ replied Harris.

That did it. Harris refused to apologise publicly and was sent to Brixton Prison for contempt. The cartoonist Max Beerbohm visited Harris in Brixton and drew a cartoon, ‘To the best talker in London – from one of his best listeners’. Prints were made and posted all over London in a bid to raise public awareness with the message: ‘This is the man that was sent to prison.’

Harris was released after three months, complaining afterwards that ‘what I suffered most from in prison was lack of books’. Shortly after his release he left London and never lived there again. He died in Nice in 1931.

Max Beerbohm's cartoon of Frank Harris

For more on Harris, visit this excellent Odd Books website.

Now that’s what I call a bus trip, baby

Psychedelic Routemaster, from The Day-Glo Designer’s Guide, 1969.

Pole to pole: more forgotten London street furniture

Some months ago, Russell Miller noticed that London was filled with metal posts that are left embedded in the ground long after the signs they once supported are taken away. So he began to photograph them for his website, taking particular interested in the way people walk past these rusting remnants without even noticing. And then he told me about it.

I think they are great. Here are a few examples, but for more check out Russell’s website – We Do This Because We Forget.