Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Let Yourself Go: David Bowie: "The Jean Genie"

Suddenly - though he has been making music for years by this point - we have stumbled across a vital figure in music; not that I would have known about him, at the time.  By now I am six years old, in kindergarten, learning the alphabet and colors and numbers, not to mention tetherball* and the restorative powers of a cup of milk, a graham cracker and a nap.  In kindergarten we had to dress up like our ancestors, so I dressed like a little Mennonite girl one day; in sober black and white, no doubt the most sober of any outfits that day.

I don't remember much in the way of music in kindergarten; indeed for this year I have a kind of vacuum where music is concerned - other than Sesame Street songs, I don't recall learning very much, though I did have a toy piano, given to me in the hopes that I would somehow take to it, but it sounded like a toy piano, not a real one, and I was much more interested in actual music, not toy music.  Thus, I am not sure how I would have reacted to hearing David Bowie; I don't remember him from the time itself, obviously, and seeing him on our little black and white tv wouldn't have given me the full spectacle of the man; a sense that the 70s had well and truly begun.

By the time I got back to Los Angeles in '77 (yes, I leave, later in '73 - I'll explain when we get there) and I was in Grade 6, I got to know a tall, dark girl called Joy who said to me that she liked David Bowie; she said this proudly, and as if to mark a difference between her and the girls who all liked Andy Gibb or Shaun Cassidy.  Bowie was for those, I inferred, who liked music first and foremost, those who wanted something of substance.  I was impressed, though at the time I didn't know much beyond his big US #1 singles and if I was told that he and Iggy Pop (who? I would have politely asked) used to hang around L.A. and helped to create, just by their presence, the punk/new wave scene of right that minute, I wouldn't have known what you were talking about.

And so we come to this song, which Bowie wrote while hanging out with Cyrinda Foxe, one of the Warhol set, and what seems so complex in reality is so simple; he wrote it to impress her.  The subject is your average American guy, inspired by his friend Iggy Pop, though not directly about him.  It is a straight-up blues rock, a la The Yardbirds, but if you'd just heard it and not seen him perform it with his band, you'd miss how Bowie was taking the ordinary and the extraordinary and mixing them up to create a new thing - a song that was rock, inspired by another rock musician, that was cool and warm and distanced and intimate somehow all at the same time.  This is the solid gold easy action that Bolan was looking for.  The man - Jean Genie (a pun on Jean Genet, not a great one but I'm sure that the kids who got the pun would have enjoyed it) is one who screams and bawls, who is simple-minded (hence, Simple Minds got their name from this song), who sounds almost more like some kind of wild animal than a person; but it was that kind of wildness that must have attracted Bowie to the US in the first place - the kind of place that could produce an Iggy Pop or Lou Reed was something to be admired, and it doesn't surprise me that Bowie has lived in the US for some time now, the energy and possibilities of New York City and thus all of the country being an inspiration for him.

This song comes from Aladdin Sane, which Bowie describes as "Ziggy goes to America"; it is hard to know how much of David Bowie's life at this time was given to being Ziggy Stardust, but no one had ever created a persona in rock and had it more or less take over his life in such a way that he had to just stop - as he did six months after now - and finish being Ziggy.  We will back get to him before this happens, but it's important to note again how with this persona Bowie somehow inspires and liberates so many kids, in the UK and the US as well, to become musicians, and his affection for Jean Genie and even pity for him - he is so powerful and yet so powerless at the same time - makes this bluesy stomp quite different from HRS or Bolan; sure if you're a kid you can pretend you're Bowie or guitar foil/mate Mick Ronson, his yang to Bowie's yin, but somehow something big has happened; I'll get to what that might be soon, with another song from Aladdin Sane.    


*From what I can tell tetherball doesn't exist in the UK, which is too bad as it is excellent for hand-eye coordination, the fun of hitting things, and it rewards those who are good at jumping/who are tall anyway.  Play it badly and you get hit in the head, so you learn to wise up pretty quickly.


Mark G said...

This came out around the same time as The Sweet's "Blockbuster", with the exact same riff, which confused those who wanted to praise Bowie and damn The Sweet. In truth, they both use the riff well, but Bowie has the better song.

MikeMCSG said...

No Mark G, the public got it right this time - "Blockbuster" is the better song. "Jean Genie" was lucky it came out first.