Released: 19 April 1973
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, vocals
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums, tambourine
One of the Aladdin Sane album’s hardest-rocking songs, ‘Cracked Actor’ was inspired by a week of decadence in Los Angeles during the Ziggy Stardust Tour.
Bowie and the Spiders From Mars had a four-day break during the tour, prior to two shows at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on 20 and 21 October 1972. During their time in the city they stayed at the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel, racking up a $20,000 bill in the process.
Aladdin Sane, Track 5 – Cracked Actor
I love this one. David grasped what was going on in society. Sadly much of the same is going on today. He seems to have had an intuitive insight even way back then, of what was still to come. That’s David for you. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) June 28, 2020
Bowie lapped up the delights LA had to offer, immersing himself in the sights, the sounds, the sleaze. There was abundant sex and drugs available, with Quaaludes, red wine and much more in copious quantities. Bowie’s already extensive entourage was augmented with hangers-on including DJ and club promoter Rodney Bingenheimer, Cyrinda Foxe, Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop, and various groupies.
‘Cracked Actor’ conveyed the tale of an ageing Hollywood star and an encounter with a sex worker (“Forget that I’m fifty ’cause you just got paid”), but was almost diary entry-like in its depiction of decadence. The lyrics are awash with onomatopoeia (smack, suck, crack) and double entendre (“I’m stiff on my legend”, meaning elderly and yet erect; “show me you’re real”/”your reel”).
Although Bowie had included sex and drugs references in his previous songs, he tended to couch them in ambiguous imagery. That ruse was wholly abandoned on ‘Cracked Actor’, which explicitly described both – from “Suck baby suck/Give me your head” in the chorus, to the “since he pinned you baby you’re a porcupine” – “pinned” being a term Bowie learnt from the Velvet Underground to convey being hooked on heroin.
‘Watch That Man’ and ‘Cracked Actor’ both reminded me of Stones songs. Kind of a heavier version of some of the songs on Exile On Main Street, just good, straight-ahead rock tunes with a honky-tonk piano and wailing backing vocals supplied by Linda Lewis. The lyrics were very Bowie, though, ‘Watch That Man’ suggesting to me a decadent, anything-goes-type party, and ‘Cracked Actor’, about an over-the-hill Hollywood star who had managed to pull some young chick who mistakenly thought he was a drug connection. So I had a no-nonsense approach to both these songs: no frills, just a good rock beat that sounded exciting.
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie
The inner sleeve of Aladdin Sane contained the song lyrics. Due to a printing error the opening words of ‘Cracked Actor’ were omitted: “I’ve come on a few years from my…”
In the studio
‘Cracked Actor’ was recorded in January 1973 at Trident Studios in Soho, London, during the final sessions for the Aladdin Sane album.
It was taped during a week of recording from 19-24 January that also saw Bowie lay down ‘Panic In Detroit’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ (sax version), ‘Lady Grinning Soul’, ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, ‘Time’, and an early version of ‘1984’.
The only word that comes to my mind with this track is ‘nasty’, just the way we wanted it. From Ronno’s guitars to David’s harmonica through a Marshall amp.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
The harmonica was fed through Mick Ronson’s Marshall amplifier to give it a dirtier sound, befitting the song.
We tried a regular harmonica, which would have been like going back to a 60s blues thing, and it just didn’t feel right. So I suggested trying it through an amp. So we cranked the amp up, and, suddenly, that was it, it worked. It needed to be nasty like that.
Aladdin Sane, 30th anniversary reissue
David Bowie performed ‘Cracked Actor’ throughout the 1973 dates of the Ziggy Stardust Tour. A performance from the farewell show, recorded in London in July 1973, is available on Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, and on the b-side of the November 1983 single ‘White Light/White Heat’.
Bowie sang ‘Cracked Actor’ again during the following year’s Diamond Dogs Tour, wearing an Elizabethan cape and addressing it, Hamlet-like, to a skull. Recordings are available on David Live and Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74).
‘Cracked Actor’ was dropped by the time the tour became the Soul Tour later in 1974. The skull routine was revived for the Serious Moonlight Tour, however, a recording from which can be heard on Serious Moonlight (Live ’83).
The song was performed again during some of Bowie’s 1999-2000 concerts. A version from the BBC Radio Theatre in London on 27 June 2000 was included on the bonus disc with initial copies of Bowie At The Beeb, and reissued in 2021 as part of the box set Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001).