Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Rock stars and their alien encounters

Do rock stars have more than the average number of encounters with aliens?

There is, as David Bowie once noted, a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d — to use Earth vernacular — “blow our minds”. So, what he does, it turns out, is make his presence known only to the most open-minded, space-attuned, alien-friendly creatures on the planet: rock stars.

You could certainly be forgiven for thinking so, anyway. First of all, just about every songwriter of note has written at least one song about the final frontier. Space is, after all, the perfect metaphor for . . . well . . . just about anything you’d like it to be. For Elton John in Rocket Man, space provided the perfect metaphor for (in those days) closet homosexuality: “I’m not the man they think I am at home. Oh no, no, no.” For Bowie, it served as the perfect metaphor for alienation, drug addiction and fear of madness, from Space Oddity (the chilling “your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong”) through to Ashes to Ashes (the terrifying “the shrieking of nothing is killing”).

The planet Mars has been another all-purpose symbol, either standing for remote desolation (“might as well be on Mars”, sang Alice Cooper); or a place where human beings could start out all over again and maybe make a better job of it this time. The former Byrd Roger McGuinn, modern-day bluesman Ben Harper and the Grateful Dead have all released albums ostensibly “from” Mars — wish fulfilment, presumably — although, admittedly, the Dead’s From the Mars Hotel’s chief claim to fame these days is that if you held it up to a mirror, the cover graphic seemed to spell out “Ugly Rumours”, the name of the rock band that Tony Blair used to play in. (Although to be fair to Blair, it should be pointed out that he wasn’t the greatest Grateful Dead fan in the band; that was bandmate Mark Ellen, now editor of The Word magazine.)

Yet above and beyond all the singers who reference space in their songs, there are many who also claim to have had alien encounters. Elvis Presley told his inner circle about alien experiences — hardly surprising since his father had noted a strange blue light in the sky when Elvis was born. John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix all saw UFOs, and Lennon had an extremely close encounter with an alien. If the fact that the source for this fact is Uri Geller doesn’t put you off, then you can find out more in the never less than fascinating book Alien Rock, in which the author, Michael Luckman, details the alien encounters of the great, the good and the also-rans. Somehow, the fact that it’s not just the Beatles and the Stones — that the Moody Blues, Jamiroquai and Olivia Newton-John also had their alien moments — makes the whole thing much more believable.

Of course, any natural cynic will point out that another thing that links many rock stars is a more than adequate consumption of mind-expanding drugs, and nobody will be that surprised to learn that Keith Richards and Gram Parsons once decided to go looking for UFOs one night around Joshua Tree (in fact, you may be more surprised to find that they didn’t see any).

One person who did see some is Connie Mitchell, lead singer with Sneaky Sound System, a brilliant new dance-pop outfit who have already taken their native Australia by storm, and are now set to unleash their Scissor Sisters-meets-Basement Jaxx sound on us. We know this because Sneaky Sound System’s new single (out November 17) is called UFO, and the chorus goes like this: “I saw a UFO but nobody believes me.” It’s a true story, except for the fact that, having had a good long chat with Mitchell and her bandmate Angus McDonald, I think I do believe her. (Of course, it’s possible that I have been influenced by the big keyboard riff, the squishy synths and the sing-along chorus of the track, not to mention Mitchell’s artfully measured vocal performance.)

Here’s Mitchell’s account of her encounter: “I was putting the washing out on the line, putting my underwear out to dry, which should only take five minutes, right? I remember looking at my watch, because I took it off before I put my hand in the washing machine to take the wet clothes out. When I came back in, people said, ‘Where have you been?’ I didn’t understand what was going on till I saw the time. It was 45 minutes later. That’s a long time to be hanging out underwear.

“I tried to remember what had happened and gradually it came back to me. I had seen two lights in the sky, and then each light split into three, and then went like that and like that and like that.” Mitchell draws fast, jerky, triangular movements in the air.

This seems like the end of the anecdote, but Mitchell is looking at McDonald with a “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” expression. “Angus doesn’t want me to talk about the rest because he thinks it makes me sound like a crackpot,” she says. “No, no, I like you talking about it,” McDonald disagrees. “I think it’s fascinating.”

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