Velvet Underground

The mascara is the message: Jonathan Rhys Meyers's "David Bowie"

More than anything, glam rock was cynical. Art-scarred and unnatural, flippantly suspicious of tried-and-true rock orthodoxy, it attempted to offer an alternative, not just to the smoldering dreams of the '60s, but the impulses that inspired them. With the staunchly anti-corporeal Stooges and Velvets as American antecedents, Mott the Hoople and a school of lessers turned rock's boogie beat into a murky, if mercurial, sludge, while preening themselves daft singing disparaging send-ups to a clichéd Rock 'n' Roll Life that rarely rocked and hardly lived. Bryan Ferry trapped "The Pony" in his gadgetry and taught it to "do the Strand"; and Mark Bolan turned the suburban pinup boy into a shaggy menace. Oh yeah, and at its center stood a post-Dylan post-male--flaunting a fey, flat vibrato that sounded like Zsa Zsa Gabor looked, and bristling against an aged sexpot who flayed guitar like few before him.

"Bowie doesn't seem real," wrote Ellen Willis in the New Yorker in 1972. "At least he doesn't seem real to me--which in rock and roll is the only fantasy that counts." David Bowie inverted that '60s syllogism and posited fantasy as the only rock 'n' roll that counted. Making the mascara the message, he played with his various shades of android inauthenticity so alluringly that the only way he could possibly betray his audience was by making a soul record, 1975's Young Americans. As Ziggy Stardust, the first massive pop star of the '70s assumed a divine distance, not just from the world of rock 'n' roll he was already only vestigially related to, but from planet Earth itself. Bowie seriously boiled his inalienable alienation down to his membership in a benevolent caste of earthbound extraterrestrials called "The Light People." In '72, the deliciously decadent swarms of beautiful lovelies that flew to the Light knew of which he spoke, even if their trials were a bit more worldly. The English kids who embraced glam rock (or, as they knew it, "glitta rowke") were the first generation of English people in 300 years whose senses of self would not be governed, in whatever sense, by the English empire's eternally expanding tummy. Their parents existed in Churchillian black and white, and the flower power their more adventurous older sibs may have flirted with in the late '60s had long since withered. "Anarchy in the U.K." was still five years off.

From Rome to Reagan, world powers in decline have unearthed impulses for reactionary decadence. And in the post-Warhol manifestation that Todd Haynes explores in Velvet Goldmine, glam was fagged-out conservatism--music-hall camp, aristocratic effeteness--cranked up to 11. "Bowie is going to be an old-fashioned, charismatic idol, for his show is full of panache and pace," proclaimed a Melody Maker writer after seeing him share the stage of London's Royal Festival Hall with Lou Reed in 1972.

But old-fashioned charisma didn't look like Lauren Bacall with a mullet; it looked like Bryan Ferry's breathless vision of Humphrey Bogart on Roxy Music's 1972 ballad "2HB" (rendered beautifully on the Goldmine soundtrack by Grant Lee Buffalo's Paul Kimble). Somewhere between Bowie's irony and Ferry's longing is the heart of England's short-lived obsession with glam rock--and maybe Todd Haynes's, too, although the filmmaker takes his passions in a direction different from his forebears'. Bryan Ferry "appears" in Velvet Goldmine as the black-clad specter Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland), haunting the ascendance of Brian Slade (a.k.a Bowie) and playing an apocryphal role in his faked suicide. "Hey, there's Jack Fairy," one glamette notices while racing to see Slade, as Brian Eno's wonderful "Needle in the Camel's Eye" drones gleefully in the background. "Who's Jack Fairy?" her comrade responds.

The joke is that the most interesting things linger in the periphery--a very American post-punk tenet to which Haynes adheres throughout the film. Ignoring the legacies of soccer-rock yobs like Slade and Gary Glitter, his sonics follow a trajectory that begins with the influence of the Velvets' atonal jive upon, well, everyone, and ends up at the neo-Eno alt-rock of Radiohead (whose Thom Yorke sings on two of the soundtrack's three Roxy Music covers).

Yet this looking backward has its downside. The fictional backing band for the film's Iggy alter ego Curt Wild, the Wild Ratz, replaces the Stooges' primacy with a forced aggression that actually suggests a grungy Seattle take on Mott the Hoople's proto-metal. Placebo's "20th Century Boy" usurps Mark Bolan's slither and sounds like a belch from an overblown Jersey Shore bar-band.

Ironically (or maybe not, considering the context), the simulated Ziggy material (Bowie wouldn't give rights to the real stuff) struts perfectly, offering a droll antidote to the Man Who Sold the World's refusal to buy into the project. Which leaves us wondering what slipped through the cracks in place of "Rock and Roll Suicide" and "Oh You Pretty Things." Was it Roxy's Levitical rocktronica cut "Virginia Plane?" Or the image of Elastica's Donna Mathews goosing the New York Dolls' already transsexual "Personality Crisis"? Whatever the happy accidents, they're as fitting as every one of Haynes's lush, layered, narratological snafus and wildly ingenious historical inconsistencies--and they fit the cultural moment his movie chronicles like a glass slipper. After all, as one critic wrote at the time: "For the English, rock and roll has never involved doing what comes naturally." And really, why should it?

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