Loving the Alien


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].

JCM: He’s a genius. I can’t wait. I was very impressed, for Hedwig certainly, by the stage shtick: the costume changes, the mime, the moment during “Time” when Ronson jumps on top of David for his guitar solo . . .

DP: You know, all the hippie rockers were out in the States in their overalls. . . . It never occurred to anybody that it should look nice, you know? And suddenly David—I mean, everything about him said, “Here’s something new.”

JCM: Now, this whole thing in the Ziggy movie about it being Bowie’s last show.

DP: [Bowie manager] Tony DeFries said to me, “You must not tell anybody. [David’s] gonna make an announcement saying this is the last concert we’re going to do”—meaning the last Ziggy Stardust concert. He had actually told Ronson, according to Visconti . . . and afterward all of the musicians were really upset and said, “How come you didn’t tell us about this?” and so [David] kind of looks to Ronson, saying, “Well, you knew,” and Ronson says, “I didn’t know,” ’cause he didn’t want to appear to be the rat, so David had to take the weight pretty much himself.

JCM: But then they did shows after that . . .

DP: They didn’t do Ziggy Stardust . . .

JCM: Well they did The 1980 Floor Show [a one-off variety program aired on NBC in 1974], which I just saw at the Museum of Television and Radio’s Bowie retrospective—geek!—and it was the same band with the same makeup.

DP: Oh, well, David—he’s kind of like Dylan; he doesn’t like to get put into any . . .

JCM: . . . box . . .

DP: I mean, he wasn’t going to find anyone else to do it . . .

JCM: I found people to play Hedwig.

DP: Did they?

JCM: Such a relief. Did you ever see [Dylan’s] glam period?

DP: Well, I heard of the time he ran into Kiss and he said, “Why do you put the white paint all over your face?” And they said, “So the people in the way back of the stadium can see us.” And the next day he painted his face white—which is very Dylan-esque.

JCM: Right, his Pierrot period. Whose work have you enjoyed lately?

DP: I saw the recent Kiarostami [ABC Africa] that I really loved.

JCM: [handing over a video of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence] Japanese interviewers always bring a present. This is my favorite film lately. It mixes a lot of documentary with re-enactment. [Makhmalbaf] actually stabbed a policeman in Iran during the days of the Shah, as an Islamic militant, and later when he became a famous filmmaker, a guy came up to him and said, “I’m the policeman you stabbed. I want to be in one of your films.” Makhmalbaf said, “Let’s make a film about what happened.”

DP: Amazing. There was a film, The Target Shoots First. The guy [director Christopher Wilcha] goes out to get a job, and he didn’t know anything about anything except Nirvana ’cause he loved Nirvana, so he went to the thing called Columbia House.

JCM: You mean, 10 records for a cent?

DP: That’s right. It really rips off performers is what it does. None of them know who Nirvana is, and this kid seems to know, so they hire him and give him an office. So he brings his little camera to work with him and he makes this fantastic film. It’s kind of Orwellian. But the thing that was marvelous is that he didn’t know anything about filmmaking, so he wasn’t trying to deal with fancy editing or trick shots.

When I first started, I was an asshole and I knew I came off that way. I just assumed that if you made a . . . good movie, you took it to a local theater and they would say, “Oh great, I’ll play it.” Well, when I did Don’t Look Back, I couldn’t get people to look at the second reel. All they saw was a raggedy-assed film, black-and-white, badly focused. But there was a guy who had a big string of porno houses, and he said, “That’s exactly what I’m looking for—it looks like a porno film but it’s not.” He was trying to shut his porno business because his wife wanted to get into the country club. And he gave us this theater in San Francisco. It played about a year.

JCM: So why did you say you were an asshole?

DP: In that I didn’t understand . . . it didn’t bother me that I didn’t understand how things worked, which is generally what assholes are, you know? They’re happy to go in and kick the machine until it starts.

John Cameron Mitchell is the writer, director, and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.