In reviewing one of David Bowie’s most influential works, I face a formidable challenge: I completely, utterly, firmly, decidedly and definitively reject the artist’s version of what Ziggy Stardust is all about.
Here’s how Bowie described the plot in a Rolling Stone interview with William S. Burroughs:
The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ‘cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. ‘All the young dudes’ is a song about this news. It’s no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite. […]
The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage. […]
Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a Starman, so he writes ‘Starman’, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately…The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie, the Infinite Fox . . . Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starmen. He takes himself up to the incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make them real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ roll Suicide’. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible.
If Bowie really believed this was a viable storyline, I’d certainly never want to read one of his novels. If he was fucking with Burroughs’ head, I’d feel so relieved.
The problem with Bowie’s explanation is that there is very little evidence of such a storyline on the record. His version of events begins to unravel in the opening track, “Five Years.” In the interview, Bowie described a world without electricity. In “Five Years” we hear the following lines:
News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying
How did he watch a news broadcast without electricity? Did he have a special, alien-provided screen that operated through brain waves? Later in the song he describes seeing a girl in an ice-cream parlor, “drinking milk shakes cold and long.” While I suppose it’s possible to make a milk shake by hand if you have the biceps of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, doesn’t ice cream melt if you don’t have a freezer? A freezer that runs on electricity?
Let’s file Bowie’s imaginative rendition in the “Whatever” file and listen to what the record tells us. Ziggy Stardust has been rightly praised as one of the great albums of the ages, and it has earned that status for many reasons. The band line-up is outstanding, and particularly sharp on the tracks that make up the real storyline on Side Two. In extraordinarily economical fashion, David Bowie managed to capture in lyrics and music the mood of the time, a period of dark transition and multiple forms of outrage, whether you’re talking about terrorism or the emerging challenge to society’s heterosexual bias. Along the way, he explores the self-destructive nature of stardom, the agonizing socio-emotional barriers that anyone who chooses to love differently must inevitably experience, and the desperate human need for connection with other human beings. Ziggy Stardust is rich, thrilling and throbbing with the defiant energy that drives great rock ‘n’ roll.
The elegiac “Five Years” describes a world on the brink of collapse. There is no specific reference to the cause, but there is a metaphoric explanation in the history of the era. 1972 was light-years removed from 1967. The Summer of Love was all about love, peace, hope and optimism; 1972 was all about fear, loathing and pessimism. The environmental movement had become a force and essentially spoiled all the fun by demonstrating how our profligate ways were turning the planet into one huge garbage dump. The Peace Movement had failed to bring peace. The inflationary spiral that would consume incomes throughout the decade had just begun. Terrorism dominated world headlines courtesy of the IRA and the Palestinian group Black September. Later that year, Richard Nixon would be elected in a landslide through a combination of dirty tricks, the cynical exploitation of the so-called Silent Majority and police-state tactics designed to castrate the left-wing opposition. The world seemed to be going down the toilet, and while “Five Years” doesn’t depict that reality, it does accurately capture the bleak mood that pervaded the 1970’s.
The music is driven by a steady, relentless beat mirroring a funeral march, a relentless journey to oblivion. The song builds from deathly quiet to pushing the limits, a progression that is especially noticeable in Bowie’s vocal, which moves from bleak lethargy to near-panic at the realization of impending doom. While the performance is certainly noteworthy, the core meaning of the song is captured most poignantly in a single line of verse. As our narrator strolls through the market square and down the now bleak city streets, he begins to notice the people around him—people who had always faded into the background until now:
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people
Through all his incarnations, David Bowie was at heart a humanitarian who fully understood that unless we all come together we will all fall apart.
“Soul Love” is an odd duck of a song, with a few great lines scattered here and there attached to a rather uninspiring melody. The same is true of “Moonage Daydream,” where the space-oriented lyrics get little support from an arrangement that meanders from biting guitar to an out-of-the-blue appearance of a string section. This is supposed to be the key moment of Ziggy’s metamorphosis into a rock star, but how the song demonstrates that is a puzzle beyond the capabilities of mere terrestrials.
Giving us further proof that Bowie’s explanation of the narrative was something he came up with ex post facto, “Starman” wasn’t added to the album until the last minute, replacing a cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round.” RCA wanted it on the album because they thought it would make a great single, and they were right—especially with “Suffragette City” on the flip side. One of Bowie’s more melodic numbers, the song flows beautifully over crisp acoustic guitar and just the right amount of strings. It fits nicely with the theme of “Five Years” in that it expresses the wish for an out from our miserably earthly existence.
Side 1 ends with additional evidence that there really is no story on Side 1. “It Ain’t Easy” is a cover of a Ron Davies song originally recorded by Three Dog Night, and I’m sure Mr. Davies didn’t have the slightest idea he was writing a song about extraterrestrials for an album that would not exist for another two years. Three Dog Night’s version is more of a modern roots song; David Bowie’s take is closer to soul with a whole lot more oomph.
Conclusion: Side 1 is a collection of some very good songs, but when it comes to a storyline, there is no there there.
The story is all on Side 2, and it is one hell of a story. No one has better captured the complex and corrosive effects of rock ‘n’ roll stardom better than David Bowie did on Side 2—and that’s where you’ll find the real story of Ziggy Stardust.
“Lady Stardust” introduces a budding rock star by the name of Ziggy Stardust, as experienced through the eyes and ears of someone catching his act. This someone (“The Observer”) may be a devoted fan, a music journalist or someone in the entourage—it hardly matters. What matters is his reaction to the electric performer on stage—a force who appeals equally to both traditional genders:
Femme fatales emerged from shadows
To watch this creature fair
Boys stood upon their chairs
To make their point of view
I smiled sadly for a love
I could not obey
Lady Stardust sang his songs
Of darkness and dismay
The love The Observer could not obey is homosexual, an interpretation supported by the random comments that pepper his narrative: “his animal grace,” “Yes he was awful nice/Really quite paradise” and “Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name.” Stretching the definition of gender was the drive that fueled the glam rock scene, a theme Bowie had already begun to explore on Hunky Dory. “Lady Stardust” is a beautiful and subtle piece that captures the tension in human polarities—attraction/repulsion, she/he, somebody/nobody. The backing band of Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodamsey really raise their game here and continue to play on a higher level throughout Side Two.
“Star” is Ziggy’s assessment of his life options at this early stage of his career. He looks at the lives his friends have made for themselves in early 1970’s Britain and rejects them all as roads leading to dead ends. As it was for so many talented young men (and a few women) of the time, rock’ n’ roll appears to offer far more in the way of career satisfaction:
Tony went to fight in Belfast
Rudi stayed at home to starve
I could make it all worthwhile
As a rock and roll star
Bevan tried to change the nation
Sonny wants to turn the world, well he can tell you that he tried
I could make a transformation as a rock and roll star
Looking for a marketable angle, he decides to “play the wild mutation” and add some shock value to his act, well aware that outrageousness translates into attention and attention translates into success. At this point, his dreams of rock stardom are still grounded in bourgeois payoffs and the lure of sexual gratification:
I could do with the money
I’m so wiped out with things as they are
I’d send my photograph to my honey and I’d come on like
A regular superstar
He falls asleep dreaming of fame and of the chicks who come with fame. His last words on the track are “Just watch me now,” a wink-wink phrase that serves as the narrative segue to “Hang Onto Yourself,” a stunningly explosive sample of the sound and style of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The song combines raw sexual power with erotically playful lyrics, effectively capturing the naughty-boy product the band has decided to peddle to the listening public:
We can’t dance, we don’t talk much, we just ball and play
But then we move like tigers on Vaseline
Well, the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
You’re the blessed, we’re the spiders from Mars
“Hang Onto Yourself” is one of the great ass-kickers in Bowie’s or anyone’s catalog, a song that is shot from a cannon and never lets up. My parents saw David Bowie perform Ziggy Stardust live at Winterland on October 27, 1972 (my dad kept all his ticket stubs) and both agreed that Bowie was one of the greatest performers they’d ever seen. My mother appreciated the acoustic set where he did some Jacques Brel, but my dad was completely knocked out by the opener. I’ll let him tell you about it:
They always played music between the acts, and somewhere in the middle of all that I heard what sounded like a chamber orchestra playing something between between baroque and folk music. Strobe lights lights started to flash—slowly at first, but gradually picking up speed, so that when the band came onstage it was like they were moving in slow motion because of the strobe effect. Bowie appeared center stage like he came out of nowhere, also in slow motion, smiling and waving hello with his right hand, holding his guitar with his left. At that moment the music built to a climax and wham! In perfect sync they cut the strobes and the band came in with those sharp cuts that open “Hang Onto Yourself.” It felt like centrifugal force was slamming me back in my seat—I’d never heard anything so powerful in all the years I’d been going to concerts. They were really, really loud but there wasn’t a hint of static—the sounds were as clean as glass. I couldn’t even applaud after it was over—I was flattened by the force.
Ziggy and the Spiders have hit the big time, and while success breeds success, it also frequently breeds jealousy, envy and bitterness. This is played out in “Ziggy Stardust,” a painful exposition of the poison that often creeps into the group dynamics of rock ‘n’ roll bands. Resentful of Ziggy getting all the attention, the Spiders from Mars conspire together to overthrow this rock ‘n’ roll Napoleon:
So where were the Spiders
While the fly tried to break our balls?
Just the beer light to guide us
So we bitched about his fans
And should we crush his sweet hands?
Their revolt is successful, and though their diagnosis of narcissism is probably accurate, the band members seem to revel in the right of the conqueror to blame it all on the victim:
Making love with his ego
Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah
When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band
So Ziggy falls from grace and hits the skids, a narrative played out in the power twin of “Hang Onto Yourself,” the semi-comic, semi-tragic “Suffragette City.” At this point, Ziggy is no longer interested or capable of making great music. He’s in the throes of sexual addiction and he’ll fuck anyone in sight, even a dour, dull suffragette:
Hey man, oh leave me alone you know
Hey man, oh Henry, get off the phone, I gotta
Hey man, I gotta straighten my face
This mellow thighed chick just put my spine out of place
Hey man, my schooldays insane
Hey man, my work’s down the drain
Hey man, well she’s a total blam-blam
She said she had to squeeze it but she then she
From the train-out-of-nowhere opening power chords to the “wham, bam, thank-you ma’am” stop time line, “Suffragette City” is fabulous ass-kicker that never lets up, and is even better when you follow the instructions on the album sleeve: TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.
“Rock and Roll Suicide” reintroduces The Observer from “Lady Stardust,” who has no doubt followed Ziggy through the thrill ride all the way to the predictable crash. It has probably been a difficult journey for this man, clinging to the secret of his forbidden attraction while the object of his affection seems to be hopelessly heterosexual. Here he stands before his fantasy, his idol, and sees a pathetic figure, a bundle of nervous energy capable only of mechanical behavior:
Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall to wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Oh, oh, oh, oh, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide
The sight of this sad creature leads him to throw caution to the wind and express his deepest feelings in a desperate attempt to revive his hero:
Oh no love! You’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up
But if I could only make you care
Oh no love! You’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
The last passage raises the likelihood that Ziggy is strung out on drugs, as The Observer pleads with him to “turn on with me,” a curious attempt to help the addict by sharing in the addiction. Then again, it could also be a sexual invitation. In either case, his pleas are met with complete silence . . . all we hear is the sound of a cello in a closing thrust that seems both abrupt and appropriate. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a moving and memorable piece that brings the story of Ziggy Stardust to a close . . . or so it would seem.
In “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “ . . . Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” During the two years immediately following Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie would essentially become Ziggy in both form and substance, turning the glam rock persona into his personal brand and developing a monstrous cocaine habit that would lead to a personal decline even more precipitous than the one experienced by the character he created. He would finally shed Ziggy’s skin with the plastic soul sounds of Young Americans, then reconnect with his own “self-conscious aim to find expression” during his Berlin period. The essence of David Bowie’s life was the search for expression, and he was never afraid to change personas or do a 180 to explore new possibilities. While not all of his side trips led to artistic accomplishment, his restlessness is something I always appreciated, even when I didn’t care much for what he was doing.
I can think of no other artist in our time who so completely integrated art and life: the man was the narrator and story; the player, the played and the played out. David Bowie was a true original indeed, but what matters is that he achieved originality simply by allowing himself to become and to never stop becoming.