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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2003/04/25
by David Steinberg

The Power of Crush

While wandering around Tower the other week I discovered that Ziggy
Stardust and the Spiders of Mars had been released on DVD. This is a
concert movie of his final pre-hiatus show. Exercising all of my
skills in resisting temptation, I didn’t actually run to the counter
to buy it.
I’m completely fascinated by early David Bowie. Just by itself Space
Oddity would rank him high in any list of my all time favorite
artists. The music is that of someone who is going insane and is
intermittently aware of that fact. One song starts out as a simple
love song and somehow ends up in a dystopian interplanetary empire.
Another starts out about a wrongful accusation of murder in a
village… until the sentient giant mountain shows up and destroys the
entire town as revenge. It’s an amazing work with actual insights
into how people think.
Not only are Bowie’s lyrics intriguing, not only did he write some
really good pieces of music, but he also managed to project this
unearthly persona. If you watch The Man Who Fell to Earth, you’ll
easily believe that Bowie is an alien. There just is something off
about him, something that makes it look like he’s not from this
planet. Sure some of that is judicious use of makeup and costuming,
but the rest is pure charisma. When you look at Bowie from this
time you just think, ‘There’s an alien.’ It’s part of what makes him
so fascinating.

This seems like the perfect deal. A talented musician who also has a
weird image would be the ideal subject for a DVD. The song selection
is good (not perfect but good), the crowd is into it, so why is it so
disappointing? The first problem is the video quality. The
screenshots that I made for this column clearly – or more to the point
not that clearly – show this. [1] The director (D.A. Pennebaker) was
having problems lighting the crowd. He actually made signs telling
the crowd to bring their flash cameras and take as many pictures as
possible in order to make it brighter. If you were expecting The Last
Waltz, you need to lower your expectations. Even Phish’s Live in Las
Vegas looks better.
Video problems can be overcome. Much harder is the actual show that
Bowie puts on. At times he lets the music shine through, but other
times it’s just embarrassing. Guitarist Mick Ronson looks at times
like he’s in Spinal Tap. He turns his back to the audience so they
can see his tight pants and shakes his groove thing. On vocals Bowie
hams it up a lot. Rather than sing he frequently acts out the line.
He’s especially fond of pointing to the crowd whenever he says ‘You.’
The whole show is obviously scripted. Long guitar solos are taken not
because Ronson is in a groove. They’re used to give Bowie a chance to
run backstage to change clothes. Even his dialog seems forced.

At the end of the show, a woman runs on stage. Security tackles her
away from her. Bowie then goes to the microphone and thanks the crowd.
‘We love you,’ he said. Apparently that doesn’t include the woman who
rushed the stage.
Despite the show being kind of lame (albeit with some pretty good
versions of some classic songs), the crowd most definitely eats it up.
I was watching their reactions with fascination. Clearly there’s a
bit of the teenybopper thing going on. The fact that they’re seeing
David Bowie seems much more important than what he’s actually playing.
I was feeling a bit smug about this until I started looking at their
faces.

When I look at this girl’s face, I recognize her expression. Why?
I’ve seen it before at concerts. In fact I’ve been the one making it
myself quite a few times. As much as I was tempted to mock her for
being that excited during the pause in Suffragette City, I can’t.
After all it’s not been a year and a half since I was jumping up and
down and screaming by the mere act of putting out extra monitors at
Vida Blue’s New Years’ show. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the
band plays. It’s just enough that your favorite artist is in front of
you and will be playing some songs. Maybe some of that expression is
because she has a crush on Bowie, but does that matter? The important
thing is that you feel it, not why you feel it. Musically this
might not be the best concert video ever, but Ziggy Stardust let me
understand and appreciate the boy band phenomenon. That alone was
easily worth my $25.
[1] I increased the brightness and contrast of the shot of the girl;
the other two are exactly as is.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts
at www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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