December 1998
s m u g
ear candy
by Ben Auburn

Velvet Goldmine

When Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was first released, I was two, but I still feel a strange, misplaced nostalgia for Glam. Bowie was, in fact, my first favorite rock star - I started with Let's Dance, but wised up a few years later and pieced his career together through a looping chronology, ending up with a still present, almost constant jones to listen to Scary Monsters and a deep-seated love for Ziggy, Bowie's most tuneful, least complicated (and therefore often most satisfying) meisterwerk. So the nostalgia I feel, then, isn't really a nostalgia for Glam so much as for my youth, for being twelve and realizing that the local classic rock station didn't know shit about what actually was classic. Bowie allowed me to feel superior, truly in the cultural loop, for the first time.

[I'd later learn that being a Bowie fan is always waiting for him to say "I'm sorry," but maybe that's for another column. . . . ]

Despite his almost total lack of participation in Todd Haynes's fictional history of Glam (Bowie's voice turns up in the background vocals of "Satellite of Love"), the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack is so evocative, so ultimately satisfying, that it practically leaves behind the negative connotations of the word "ersatz." And boy is it ersatz: Of the 19 tracks, only five are period recordings; six or seven more were written for the movie, with the remainder being covers by various bands and supergroups.

It is, in fact, much more satisfying than the movie, which suffers from Jonathan Rhys Meyers's playing of notBowie as a pouty-lipped lucky boy (where you want him to be as calculating as Bowie is) and Ewan McGregor's Detroit-Scottish accent. The soundtrack perfectly captures the arc of the movie, which is why it falls apart at the end but also why it works as something more than a greatest hits collection. Like any well-conceived album, it's a story in and of itself, tracking Glam's rise and fall, starting with Brian Eno's simple, devious "Needle In The Camel's Eye," (from his Here Come the Warm Jets, a whole record full of half-songs) and ending up with Steve Harley's "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)," a perfect bittersweet endnote.

In between comes all the hedonism, crazed rush, and bad hangovers you'd expect. Shudder to Think provide two of the originals, both of them filling in for Ziggy tunes that Haynes couldn't get rights to. Both "The Ballad of Maxwell Demon" and "Hot One" are tasty and oversexed (and thankfully not sung by Rhys Meyers, who makes hash of "Baby's on Fire" and "Tumbling Down" later). Grant Lee Buffalo's "Whole Shebang" is practically a Hunky Dory b-side, while Pulp's "We Are the Boys" sounds out of place, more like a Lodger outtake, but still hot-and-bothered enough to belong.

The record really belongs to one of the two supergroups: Roxy Music's Andy Mackay, Bernard Butler (on the mend from a horrific solo debut), former Grant Lee Buffalo bassist Paul Kimble, some guy named Clune, and Radiohead's Jon Greenwood and Thom Yorke, collectively known as The Venus in Furs, rip through a couple old Roxy tunes and the previously mentioned "Baby's On Fire" like men possessed. Yorke, no slouch, really outdoes himself, using a previously unearthed baritone - he manages to avoid channeling Brian Ferry (which would have been the easiest choice) while still staying slinky, like an oiled James Bond. Their versions of "2HB" and "Ladytron" are terrific, less rambling than Roxy's but pleasantly cinematic (which is a phrase rock critics are using these days to say "it doesn't really rock, but not in a way that makes me feel less manly"). Their songs hold the record together, keeping Placebo's version of T-Rex's "20th Century Boy" and Carter Burwell's "Velvet Spacetime" at ease with each other.

In the end, the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack is a remarkable piece of cultural resuscitation, rebreathing life into a movement that definitely had a sell-by date: eventually, everyone's gonna get herpes if they're all sleeping with each other. But still, there's something so satisfying, so filling, about simple hooks and celebrations of feeling good on purpose, not by accident. Even if you weren't around to see it come and go, Glam probably occupies some part of your cultural memory. In these days of condoms and Korn, at least we can still pretend to remember the feeling of letting go.


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