How David Bowie & Ziggy Stardust Changed The Rock Star Narrative Forever
"I had to phone someone, so I picked on you." This lyric from "Starman" struck in my mind this morning when I, numb and still in bed, called my father to tell him that David Bowie died of cancer. "I didn't even know he had cancer, how old was he? 69?" I explained everything I could glean off social media, each word heavy in my stomach like I swallowed lead. When it was over I queued up Ziggy Stardust on my macbook to reflect on Bowie's profound influence on our society, especially when it came to music.
I had gotten a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars when I was a 15-year-old chartreuse-banged misfit, and it always existed in my collection as a rare Perfect Album. That is, an album one could happily listen to all the way through without feeling the need to skip. But my introduction to Ziggy was easily 35 years after its meteoric debut, long after it had paved itself a legacy and made Bowie into the ultimate changeling rock star.
Ziggy Stardust debuted in 1972 as a concept album detailing, well, the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust. Earth is ending in five years, and this coincides with the arrival of Ziggy and his band, the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy fancies himself as sort of a musical messiah, and this eventually leads to his downfall. Which is to say he's ceremoniously ripped apart on stage by a whole slew of black hole-jumping starmen.
Yes, it's bizarre, and I can't look you in the eye and say I understand it 100 percent myself. What I can say is that it brilliantly targeted that original rock and roll narrative: that fame breeds brevity, even in a world falling already going to hell. But what takes this narrative to the next level is that Bowie embraced Ziggy in concert, taking on the Ziggy Stardust alter ego for a series of next level performances. And the crowd went wild.
This wasn't Bowie's first rodeo, mind you. He had already walked us through galaxies with the likes of Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold The World. But Ziggy Stardust, and all the fantastical theatrics that went with it, incited pandemonium. The glam kids came out in throttles, playing with glitter and hairspray, playing with androgyny, playing with previously frigid expressions of sexuality. They all came out from their collective shadows of adolescent alienation to worship at the altar of Ziggy. Life imitates art. In a 1976 Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe, Bowie had said of the time:
"I fell for Ziggy too. It was quite easy to become obsessed night and day with the character. I became Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie went totally out the window. Everybody was convincing me that I was a Messiah, especially on that first American tour. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy."
Bowie eventually retired the persona, but rebranded with a new image: that of the 'lectric eyed Aladdin Sane. And then there was the Thin White Duke era, colder, and far less flamboyant. From crotch-bulges in Labyrinth to union jack coats in the age of Earthling, Bowie was never afraid to reinvent himself, to not let the public define him, to be in charge of his own identity. Over the course of his career, he became a million different people. But, above all things, he was David Bowie.
And, between Bowie and Ziggy, he was inspirational in letting people feel comfortable being their truest self. He allowed a young Morrissey to rebuke machismo and eventually become a grand near-asexual poet. He inspired 15-year-old Cherie Currie to get into music, to slap on a corset and front one of the most influential girl bands (or bands in general) in rock history. He is solely responsible for Marilyn Manson's entire career, but particularly for the Mechanical Animals era where Manson was partying with his t*ts out, the shock rock version of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie pushed so many creative minds who may have otherwise felt stifled to express themselves, and he did it by never apologizing for being one-of-a-kind and wonderfully weird. Oh, and impossibly talented.
Ziggy Stardust really nailed the first rock star narrative of our era, but, as the years go by and the glory days of rock n' roll fade in the rearview mirror, we're confronted with a different narrative. It's quieter, yet still sad: people get old, brilliance can't shield you from disease, and these things just happen. All you can do is feel grateful for the impact they left on the world, and the music that takes you to the stars.
So, if you haven't listened to Ziggy Stardust the full way through, now is the moment to do so. I would adhere to the album's original recommendation: "To be played at maximum volume."
Images: Giphy (2)