The lyrics

Each of the Aladdin Sane songs, apart from the cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, was accorded a geographical location on the record label, to signify where it originated: ‘Watch That Man’ (New York); ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’ (RHMS Ellinis); ‘Drive-In Saturday’ (Seattle-Phoenix); ‘Panic In Detroit’ (Detroit); ‘Cracked Actor’ (Los Angeles); ‘Time’ (New Orleans); ‘The Prettiest Star’ (Gloucester Road); ‘The Jean Genie’ (Detroit and New York); ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (London).

Bowie’s widened worldview was also reflected in his lyrics. He expanded upon the themes of social decay and post-apocalyptic dystopia from the Ziggy Stardust album, introducing sordid tales of violence, prostitution, drug abuse, and other forms of criminality, but also lashings of celebratory sex, seduction and sensuousness. It is an album torn between the golden age of Hollywood and the sleazy decadence of 1970s New York and Detroit.

A new cast of characters was introduced by Bowie, based on various figures encountered as his fame and fortune grew. Aladdin Sane became a roman à clef: his travelogue documenting the cities and vistas of America and elsewhere, overlaid with a façade of fiction.

The scene was set in the opening ‘Watch That Man’, which harked back to the early 20th century: a jazz party with high spirits and flowing alcohol, and a broad cast of guests including Lorraine who “shimmied and she strolled like a Chicago moll”, the Reverend Alabaster who “danced on his knees”, a “Benny Goodman fan”, an “old fashioned band of married men” and assorted others.

‘Drive-In Saturday’, a Barbarella-style futuristic tale set in a post-apocalyptic world in which people have forgotten how to make love, and refer to old films to see how it was done. The lyrics make reference to Twiggy (“Twig the Wonder Kid”), Mick Jagger (“people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored”), Carl Jung (“Jung, the foreman, prayed at work”), perhaps even Marc Bolan (“try to get it on like once before”).

There were two other cryptic references in the song: “the Astronette” revived the name Bowie had given Lindsay Kemp’s dancers during a run of London shows in August 1972; and “crashing out with Sylvian” – not a person, but the Sylvian fissure in the human brain.

‘Panic In Detroit’ had a similarly elliptic meaning, though a smaller cast: the narrator and a gun-toting gang survivor who “looked a lot like Che Guevara”, apparently inspired by stories told by Iggy Pop.

Iggy was also embedded in the lines of ‘The Jean Genie’, its title a subconscious pun on French author Jean Genet, but otherwise set firmly in the sleazy depths of New York. In 1999 Bowie said the song was “focused around Iggy, an Iggy-type character to be fully fair. It wasn’t actually Iggy.”

The Grim Reaper himself appeared in ‘Time’, “waiting in the wings”, in Bowie’s meditation on mortality. The line “In Quaaludes and red wine demanding Billy Dolls” was a likely reference to former New York Dolls drummer Billy Murcia, who drowned in the bath in November 1972 following a drug and alcohol overdose.

There may have been another, more prosaic, inspiration for the song’s opening lines, according to one of Bowie’s former roadies:

I always thought that ‘Time’ was Bob See, our lighting man. He always worked in the wings, not at the back of the hall. He would shout his lighting directions into a head mic – which only the lighting guys understood – hence, ‘He’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things.’
Will Palin, 1994
Any Day Now, Kevin Cann

Aladdin Sane’s final song, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’, is perhaps its most beguiling. The subject is often identified as Claudia Lennear, an American soul singer who had previously inspired the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’.

Lennear and Bowie met at a dinner party in 1972, connecting over a shared love of American R&B. Thereafter they met when their schedules allowed, in London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and remained on-off lovers for several years.

Published: |