With Ziggy Stardust, he stepped back from his attempt to be a rock star, looked at it backwards through a telescope, absorbed both sides of that central contradiction, and Ziggy was born. One part messiah, one part androgynous alien, one part pre-fab star, and all rock and roll glitter, the character was a masterstroke. Inspired in part by an aspirant rocker named Vince Taylor who took too much acid, went mad, and thoroughly believed himself to be Jesus, Bowie constructed a character that embodied a rock and roll parable. Said Bowie in 1990:
"[Vince] always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock n roll. I'm not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both probably. There was something very tempting about him going completely off the edge. Especially at my age, then, it seemed very appealing: Oh, I'd love to end up like that, totally nuts. Ha ha! And so he re-emerged in this Ziggy Stardust character." (taken from The Ziggy Stardust Companion)
In fact, everything Bowie had ever wanted to be emerged in the Ziggy Stardust character, alongside the embellished Vince Taylor story. Here was all the androgyny that he had been hammering us with since the beginning, plus some. Here was the pose, the purse-lipped strutting rocker that Mick Jagger was, and whose audience Bowie wanted to capture. Here was the sheen and swagger of every rock star ever invented (and yes, I think "invented" is exactly the right word), and the house band, headed by Ronson and freshly dubbed The Spiders From Mars, provided the crunching riffs and tingle-inducing drumbeats that such over-the top rock required. Most importantly, though, here was a man who had found new confidence in an invented character. Here was excruciatingly tight, deep, meaningful, and evocative songwriting, exceptional production, a hugely powerful sound, and finally - finally - a star. Ziggy gave Bowie the mental freedom to make this album, and for a time, Ziggy made Bowie who he was. The invented became more real than the real. Or, as Courtney Love once put it, he "faked it so real" he was "beyond fake."
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars succeeds, and endures, because it is always careful to be true to both sides of the rock dichotomy. It is fake, and Bowie puts on a hell of a campy, glittery show, but it is also very real and moving and beautiful, capable of capturing our hearts even while it stirs our baser instincts. Ziggy may be a "leper messiah" in the end, crushed as Vince Taylor was crushed by the excesses that rock lends itself to, but it never feels that way while the album is playing. Bowie and/or Ziggy is the messiah for a short time, or at the very least channeling the power of God as well as any traveling revival show.