Friday, February 19, 2016

Stardust, Thin White Dukes and Labyrinths

“What I’m doing is theater and only theater, what you see on stage isn’t sinister, it’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint our time on it.” - David Bowie

Like the rest of the world and like anybody who cares about music and rock and roll in general, I still mourn David Bowie’s death. He wasn’t just any regular Joe, he was special kind of human being, he was different and he reveled in the fact that he was like no other. He certainly shook the notions of a few conservatives, thankfully he also shook the pillars of heaven for all those rock and rollers out there, myself included. Bowie was a consummate artist and performer, always creating; be it through his music or through his many performances as an actor. Not only that, he was like Freddy Mercury, lead singer of Queen. With just the right lyrics and the according, perfectly chosen four cords, both of these singers could “get to you”; they could slither their way into your soul. For years, David Bowie portrayed himself as ‘Ziggy Stardust’, an being from another world who played with a band called ‘The Spiders from Mars’. Together they toured earth, collecting data on our behavior. The information Ziggy gathered would filter into his songs, songs that in turn spoke of who we are. Bowie was an observer of humanity, looking at us, like an alien “floating in a tin can” in space. He distanced himself from chaotic humanity, troubling themselves with rules and regulations. Bowie created his own unique persona so he could live by his own rules, Ziggy Stardust was a symbol of the unique, the different, it was also a response to the Glam Rock phase rock and roll through went through the 70’s with bands like KISS, The New York Dolls, The Sweet and T. Rex amongst many others.

Despite the fact that he played an alien on stage, Bowie was a very human entity. Sure he turned into a rock and roll god, but he wasn’t a perfect one. After Ziggy, Bowie would go on to live through some very dark passages in his life story. In 1976, after he’d squeezed the life out of his Ziggy Stardust persona, he transformed once again, becoming this time ‘The Thin White Duke’, a far more sinister version of Bowie. According to Bowie himself, he’s was a chameleon, acquiring, like some sort of mimicker, a hodgepodge of personalities. You see, Bowie, like most of us, was on a continuous journey of exploration, he wasn’t exempt from trying to find himself and in doing so, many a persona emerged. The Thin White Duke had pale skin, orange hair and always dressed in black and white, partially based on Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien he played on Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). At this point, some accused Bowie of being “pro-fascist”. These accusations came from some comments he made about Hitler, and a picture they took of him that looked like he was giving a “Hail Hitler!” salute. He stated that America needed fascism to “sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up” he also stated that he believed “very strongly in fascism” and that he thought that Hitler was “one of the first rock stars”. He later refuted all that, chalking it all up to theatrics, a reflection of humanity, He went on to clearly state he was not a fascist.  

At first glance, The Thin White Duke seemed, at least from an aesthetic point of view, like a “normal” persona when contrasted with the flamboyant, glam of Ziggy Stardust. But in reality, The Thin White Duke was the persona that almost killed Bowie. Bowie would call these years “the darkest years of my life.” During those years, Bowie was dangerously close to the edge, He’d turned into a coke fiend that spoke and acted in nonsensical ways, this is probably why Bowie described the Thin White Duke as an “amoral zombie”, so those fascist comments were probably a byproduct of his monstrous cocaine addiction. He admitted that during that time, he was out of his mind, totally crazed. For proof of this, just type ‘Bowie on Cocaine’ on YouTube, you’ll be treated to an interview in which Bowie is coked up out of his mind and a video where you can clearly see him partaking backstage. Thankfully he evolved yet again and left this dangerous creation of his behind, The Thin White Duke nearly killed Bowie, but before that happened, Bowie killed the Duke at a rehab clinic, accompanied by the one and only Iggy Pop. Thankfully, Bowie realized the folly of his ways and emerged a far more “normal” individual; I guess we could call it ‘the real Bowie’. He wasn’t playing any character, he was just himself. Funny part is that during all these transformations and self explorations, he never stopped acting or making records, art was imitating life and to Bowie, life was one big theater.

I came to know of Bowie when I was about eleven years old, that first time I saw Labyrinth (1986). Back then I knew he was some sort of rock persona, but I had no idea. In fact, if I remember correctly, my Christian family had problems with me watching Labyrinth because to them Bowie was the lead singer of a satanic rock band! I always ignored these comments and watched Labyrinth more times than I can remember because it was just too cool of a movie not to see it and I found Bowies songs so addictive. I still say that if I ever get married, I’m dancing ‘As the World Falls Down’ with my wife. I place Labyrinth on my top five favorite Fantasy films from the 80’s.

Life is a labyrinth, we just gotta figure it out

Labyrinth is a coming age story about a young girl that learns that in life things aren’t always the way we’d like them to be. Labyrinth taught me many things, among them that the unexpected can happen and that when it does, there’s no time to complain, you just have to deal with it. It taught me that the world is full of lies and distractions and that we have to sift through them, searching for the truth. It taught me that we should focus on our goals and never give up on them, not even when we reach a terrible black oubliette. Labyrinth was the movie that taught me that “nothing is what it seems in this place” and that I “shouldn’t take anything for granted”. It taught me that we can go up against impossible odds and that we can win if we only stay true to ourselves and surround ourselves with true friends. It taught me that we should become masters of our own destiny, that we should take responsibility for our actions. It’s a film about evil wanting to corrupt purity, innocence and goodness, only that in the world of Labyrinth, goodness has the courage and the will to fight back! “You have no power over me!” says Sarah to Jareth, in this way teaching us that should we choose to do so, we could lead our lives in the direction we choose. Throughout the film, Sarah becomes an adult, leaving the things of childhood behind, but does this mean she’ll forget entirely about her beloved childhood? One thing I always liked about this film is that it doesn’t tell us to completely eradicate childlike innocence from our lives. Instead, it taught us that that innocence, that sense of wonder should always be there for us should we ever need it. 

Labyrinth is an amazing accomplishment on many levels, it’s an impressive production, but then again, no one should expect anything less than awesome with the talent involved in the making of this film. First off, Jim Henson himself directed this magical tale. Yes, THAT Jim Henson, quite literally, the master of puppets! Staying true to his title, Jim Henson and crew made sure this film was populated by a plethora of puppets. Literally every nook and cranny of this world is filled with a puppet of some kind. The way they made this film, entire sets were built above ground so that the puppeteers could stand below, maneuvering the creatures. No one makes films like this anymore, it takes special individuals to propel this type of production, and it seems no one is picking up Jim Henson’s reins, which makes movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal (1982) all the more special. If they remade Labyrinth now, I’m sure it would be populated with lots of CGI creatures. What Hollywood doesn’t understand or chooses to ignore is that what made these movies so magical were the puppets and the sets and the artistic talent involved. Labyrinth might be a fantastic tale about goblins and fairies, but behind it all was that human touch. We know there’s puppeteers pulling the strings and that makes the film a million times more special, it adds that human touch to it that is so sorely missing from today’s films. 

To top things off, Bowie’s songs are so freaking memorable. Sometimes when artists do songs for a film, they’ll do throwaways that they won’t even sing in their own concerts, but not with Labyrinth. On this show Bowie produced and performed tunes that were just as good as his regular records.’ Dance Magic Dance’, ‘As the World Falls Down’ and ‘Underground’ are all amazing. For a while there Bowie’s Labyrinth soundtrack was all I knew of the artist. Even then as a child, knowing nothing else about Bowie, I connected with those Labyrinth songs. I guess, even as a child I recognized greatness. When I reached my late twenties I decided to reconnect and explore the rest of his work. A whole new world opened up for me. I was immediately blown away by the coolness, the purely rock and roll aspect of Bowie. I loved the fact that Bowie reveled in his exoticness; he was a wild one as are most of us during our younger years, when we think we’re going to live forever, when we think we are indestructible. But time passes, and death and decease will eventually catch up with all of us, as it did with Bowie who died of cancer on Juanuary 10th 2016. Bowie was an artist to the very end and beyond, as he was working on a final album before he died, that album was ‘Blackstar’. He was such an artist, that he wrote a whole song, and filmed an amazing video, precisely to be released after he died. The chilling song is called ‘Lazarus’, a song in which he reviews his entire life as a rock and roll superstar, musing about it all with longing in his voice. It's a song performed by an artist who lived a truly rich life. Leave it to Bowie to send shivers down our spines even from beyond the grave. Speaking of which, as I sit hear in front of my computer, musing on how to finish this article, Life on Mars? started playing on my phone randomly...I can't help getting an eerie feeling and remembering those lyrics from Lazarus "Look up here...I'm in heaven..." Perhaps there is Life on Mars after all! 



Dom Coccaro said...

Excellent piece. I'm a recent Bowie convert myself. Just today, I was reading Rolling Stone's special issue dedicated to him (which I recommend, BTW).

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks Dom, thanks for reading after all these years! Hey Dom send me a copy of Deathgasm why dont ya? ;)

I will get that issue!

seamus o`reilly said...

Jennifer Connolly was like a literal living doll back in 1985, her beauty was quite astonishing.


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