Loving the Alien

D.A. Pennebaker's Stardust Memories

I first saw David Bowie in 1973 when I was 10 in a Scottish Benedictine boys' boarding school. Short trousers year-round, no radios or records. Two students, D. Ward and C. Ward, planned an escape (we were reduced to surnames, but the unrelated Wards were granted initials to tell them apart—we never knew what they stood for). The plan was to spend the night in a certain coastal cave, before heading . . . well, they'd figure that out later. Our hearts soared with the news of their defiance.

Father John announced their swift capture. He was the cool closet-case monk—he had a motorcycle and was protective of me (I was already displaying future art-fag signals). "Boys, that cave fills with water at high tide. Had the Lord not interceded, D. and C. might not be alive to be flogged today." When the Wards wept at the caning, they died as our heroes. That night, in a rare gesture of goodwill, the monks decided that we were allowed to watch Top of the Pops on telly.

First thing I see is Mick Ronson's face, sublime with the effort of playing the same two guitar chords over and over. Then I see Bowie and he scares the shit out of me. He's pale and he's painted, he's butch and he's femme, smiles like a reptile and lives on his back, snuck off to the city, loves to be loved, Jean Genie, let yourself goooo . . . Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!

I catch Father John watching me and I blush. Barely perceptibly, he smiles.

I recently spoke with documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) about the release of his newly restored and remastered 1973 concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (now playing at Film Forum).

JCM: Al Maysles was shooting with you on Monterey Pop. How come it was you guys who ended up making the best rock films ever?

DP: Well, that was when the rockers were around.

JCM: Were you a real fan though?

DP: Actually, I had grown up in Chicago and I was really into jazz. I got into rock when I met John Phillips [of the Mamas and the Papas]. He was a great friend.

JCM: Didn't you only have like two weeks to prepare for Ziggy Stardust?

DP: More like two days. I was out doing a movie with some friends on a raft on the Mississippi River and I got a message to call RCA about shooting some half-hour [demo] film. And the guy who got on the phone, I swear it was Marc Bolan, and I was kind of intrigued, you know, glitter rock, fantastic.

JCM: What did you know about Bowie?

DP: Nothing. There was some kind of airline strike going on, and we [sneaked] on a tourist charter plane. We got to London . . . the day before we were supposed to shoot. I saw Bowie perform that night and I realized it was madness just to shoot a half-hour and that this was a movie.

JCM: So nobody was interested in this as a film?

DP: It was the nuttiest thing. David had disappeared into the Midwest somewhere, so I am sitting on all this stock. . . . I had this friend at the Daily News lab. I'd pay him in bags of money, you know, that I'd pass to him at a bar and he would process this stuff at night. And I put it together. I was taking it around and showing to places like Yale, and the effect was so amazing. I thought, there has got to be an audience for this. Jeff Beck did two duets with David. He is not in the current version. I think he felt a little upstaged by Mick Ronson. [Beck] dubbed over his own performance, but in the end, he said no. He didn't like the clothes he was wearing, whatever it was. Anyway, ABC wanted to run it as a movie of the week, but they said they had this little problem with David mentioning suicide. David told me to cover over the words with a bell or something. So I did and it was kind of funny.

JCM: It was on ABC?!

DP: The FM-radio stereo simulcast kept the bad words in, and I never heard a word from ABC.

JCM: So it was never released theatrically?

DP: Only festivals.

JCM: I met Steve Jones, the Sex Pistols guitarist, and he said he went to the second-to-last [Ziggy] show. And he and his mates stole some stage equipment between the last two shows, including Bowie's vocal mic with the lipstick on it and everything. I asked him, "Do you still have it?" He said, "No, I sold it." I mean, that is the beginning of punk rock. He sold his idol's mic . . . and now, of course, Jones is doing glam-rock covers in an L.A. bar every Friday night.

I saw the [Maysles's] restored Gimme Shelter at Film Forum. Did you have a chance to see that? The sound was awesome.

DP: Well, Tony Visconti did an incredible new 5.1 mix [for Ziggy Stardust].

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