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The Last Temptation of Ziggy Stardust

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(Note: Virgin recently released a special “30th Anniversary Edition” of this essential album. What follows is a review not of the repackaging, which, while well done, is of dubious value, but of the meat: the original recording that impacted rock in a way few other records have.)

In 1972, rock and roll was not even twenty years old, but it already had a past, a theology, and a reflexive sort of history that only the giant walking egos known as musicians could create. “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay” said Danny and the Juniors upon its birth in 1955, in a boastful fit of self-fulfilling prophesy that would not be out of place in modern hip-hop. Rock and roll began its life as just such a pose, a pure fabrication, a dilution of blues music served up like hot, thin soup to hungry kids, but that didn’t stop any of them from believing in its nutritious value.

Because in another way, the archetypal rock sentiment, that it is “Here to Stay,” that it is the greatest thing in the world, that it can save your mortal soul, is neither boastful nor fabricated. Something intangible had happened between rock and roll’s status as subculture and its leap to full-blown culture, and that something wasn’t just Elvis. Musicians near and far had heard The Word, and The Word was Rock. It was a sound that people wanted, it tapped into something very deep, made kids scream, and was, in a way, inevitable, like a dictate from on high. Rock and roll was from its inception a religion. To hear it was to already believe.

The central contradiction of rock has always been that it’s both real and phony, both infallible and fallible, the way Jesus is both God and man. Every rock fan knows this somewhere deep down (U2 fans must get a headache contemplating how manifestly this rule applies to their pet band), and every rock musician must play both parts. In the creation of Ziggy Stardust, and the album Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie found a way to take it to both extremes, to intellectualize the music while playing it, to be good at it and mean it from the bottom of his heart – and not really mean it. It’s one of the most comprehensive albums ever made, a slant-rhymed history of rock and roll itself, even when it’s being stubborn and maddening and incomprehensible.

Bowie was still largely an outsider to rock and roll at the time he made The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He started his career way back in the sixties as a folkie, and only moved to full-blown rock with Space Oddity (1969), a forward step into psychedelia that yielded a classic title track, but failed in almost every other way. From there he made The Man Who Sold the World (1970), an album that mixed a frankly odd sense of poetry with the heavy blues sounds that were prevalent in bands like Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac at the time. It’s a great listen, but perhaps only because its juxtaposition of deep strangeness and heavy blues is so alarming to hear, or perhaps it’s because collaborator Mick Ronson gave the album an urgency that Bowie could never have pulled off without him. With Hunky Dory (1972), he came closer to perfecting the rock form from a songwriting perspective, but with Ronson shoved aside to make way for fey cabaret numbers, it’s wildly uneven.

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.

On the album opener “Five Years,” he broods most operatically and convincingly. While “pushing through the market square,” the narrator (Bowie, probably – Ziggy doesn’t really make an entrance until “Moonage Daydream”) discovers that the world is ending. “News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in / News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying / Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.” The scenario is familiar to any fan of 60’s science fiction, or any survivor of the cold war, but Bowie fleshes out the story even more, personalizing it.

I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and TV’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
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.

Despite the odd assertion that warehouses hurt like anything, least of all brains, the lyric hits its poetic and emotional mark dead-on. This is our world, full of people and culture and junk, and what would we do without it? Some of us would go mad. “A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children / If the black hadn’t pulled her off, I think she would have killed them.”

Others, like the narrator, go somewhere else. “And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor.” Even in the midst of certain apocalypse, there is time to be cool. From the faded-in opening drumbeat to the small symphony of strings and synths that mark the song’s climax, it is honest, and real, and affecting. And artificial, of course – remember kids, it’s all fiction.

In the song “Star,” he states his artifice most plainly. “I could make the transformation as a rock and roll star / I could play the wild mutation as a rock n roll star,” he openly dreams. But the album flows so well, and is so musically cohesive, that the artifice becomes brilliantly mixed with the raw emotion, and it quickly becomes impossible to separate one from the other.

Much has been said about Ziggy Stardust‘s status as a “concept album.” In truth, it is and it isn’t. If by concept album you mean something with a story, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, forget it. There are just enough tantalizing vignettes to suggest a story, but far too few to make any sort of logical sense. No, the concept of Ziggy Stardust is merely Ziggy Stardust himself, and what Bowie thinks he represents. This is a wide-open field of meanings and stories and oddities, tied together by consistency in mood and pace and depth, but not by any story, or even any consistent voice or character. Ziggy doesn’t narrate the album; he plays some songs on it. (Onstage, the character became far more real, but let’s stick to the record here.)

On the slower first side, he appears on “Moonage Daydream” alone, and even then is only identifiable by his distinctly caricatured voice: “Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe / Put your ray gun to my head / Press your space face close to mine, love / Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah!”

Deep into side two, “Ziggy Stardust” lends the haziest of details to the “story.” Some speculate that the song is narrated by Ziggy’s bandmates (suggested by the line, “Then we were Ziggy’s band,” but not definitively), and some speculate that his bandmates tried to kill him (suggested by the line, “Or should we crush his sweet hands”), but no clear narrative is discernable. “Ziggy sucked up into his mind,” and that’s all we know for sure.

The “Rock and Roll Suicide” that makes up the final track is equally without narrative, though not without details. There are cigarettes, fingers, clocks, cafes, cars, a bored walk through what one imagines to be the same city pictured on the album’s cover, a sunrise, and a pervading sense of isolation that Bowie blasts at the end of the song with the screamed reassurance, “You’re NOT alone!” The song is widely interpreted as the end of the “story,” and the suicide as being physical, and Ziggy’s own.

No such meanings are apparent within the song, and are gleaned from the title alone. It sounds a lot more like a song about one of Bowie’s alienated fans, and both an admonishment against and a prayer for what rock can turn you into. If that’s not muddy enough for you, let me put it this way: it’s the perfect compliment in mood and tempo to the opening track, “Five Years,” but neither seems to have anything literally to do with each other, or with the rest of the album, and almost certainly not with Ziggy. Yet without them, the album would fall apart. Such is the nature of this “concept album.”

The final effect of all this confusion is to further reinforce the fact that Ziggy exists, and yet he does not. He literally exists as a character, and yet floats in and out of the record as a mere idea. Perhaps this again ties into Ziggy’s status as “messiah.” As a real person, he is all but meaningless, and his story is drawn in the sketchiest of details, but as the embodiment of all that is good and bad about rock and roll, he straddles the album like a colossus.

Bowie’s status as a worshippable star began with this album. There is deep irony in this – that a mere invention could gain status as an icon. And yet, in another way, it makes perfect sense, in the same way that rock makes that perfect, skewed sort of sense to those who realize its danger, and even its emptiness, and choose to believe anyway. The record rode into history on the strength of rock’s central mystery, and it remains there forever, as a sort of apocryphal, self-aware, self-analyzing addition to the rock cannon. Call it The Last Temptation of Ziggy Stardust.

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About Kenan Hebert

  • Good essay. I’ve been a Bowie fan for years and consider Ziggy to be one of the top 3 or 5 albums of all time. A key aspect to the record musically is Mic Ronson. He gave Bowie a complementary depth that no other guitarist who played with Bowie ever matched.

    When I went to London two years ago, I went to the spot where Bowie shot the album cover. Took some videos of myself standing there (which I had taken stills). Also got some vide of myself next to the phone booth from the back cover (it’s actually a physically different booth, but same design and same location).

    FWIW: I’ve always taken the lyric “And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor.” to be an allusion to Gene Kelly and Singing in the Rain.” Given Bowie’s taste in music, I can see him as a kid doing what many of us did on a rainy day …

  • R.S.

    Nice essay, I liked it very much, Thank you for writing it