When you say “Ziggy Stardust” most people know the David Bowie work you’re referring to, although the actual title of the 1972 album is “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
This was a concept album that may have been a bit bigger than its concept. It was preceded by The Who’s “Tommy” and by The Beatles’ “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which began as a concept album even if it didn’t end up as one). Several rock critics and other people have said Bowie wanted to write a rock opera. With the visuals, the clothing and makeup incorporated into the stage sets, there is no doubt that the Ziggy era of the band was over-the-top theatrical.
I never appreciated Ziggy until 1985, a full 13 years after the album’s release. My taste in music began to broaden during this period. Prior to that, I had little interest in anything that wasn’t straight-ahead, in-your-face rock-‘n’-roll. I have always had a natural aptitude for playing piano. In spite of this, I never fully embraced keyboards in the music I preferred prior to the mid-’80s. Oh, there were exceptions, of course. I liked The Cars. And Rush. The Billy Joel album “Glass Houses” was my gateway drug into his music. Still, my favorite music rested in a narrow band within the rock genre. Even Eddie Van Halen lost me for a time when he began monkeying around on the synthesizer (and the pre-”1984” Van Halen music is still my favorite).
What began to change me, you ask?
It was a confluence of things. My introduction to a nightlife that was more than parking under the bridge by the Catawba River and drinking beer while listening to Skynyrd was a part of it. I began to go to nightclubs and dance to music I would have dismissed with a “Disco Sucks” only a few years before. This helped to move me from the three-guitars-and-a-drum-kit phase. While the opportunity to mingle with the opposite sex was my entrée, my appreciation for diversity in music stayed with me even when there was little chance of canoodling.
My early impressions of David Bowie as an artist make me feel ashamed now. I saw him during an appearance on Saturday Night Live. I realize now that he was performing the song “The Man Who Sold the World,” which became one of my favorites. Both times: when Bowie performed it and when Nirvana covered it. I didn’t pay close attention to the song at the time because I was distracted by the visuals. And, frankly, by what I took to be Bowie’s blatant homosexuality. He even wore a dress during the show, if I’m remembering things correctly.
I know, I know. I already said that I was ashamed of this now. And I am. You have to consider the time this was all occurring. I was a male raised in the Southern US, and although the times were indeed a-changin’, even then, change has always been a bit slower to arrive where I was raised. Plus, I had a father who thought playing with G.I. Joe dolls would make me a sissy, and boys didn’t cry no matter how badly they were hurt or how much they were bleeding.
Was it a homophobic culture? You betcha.
I’d like to say that it and racist attitudes were a thing of the past in all of America, but we all know that’s not true. Some progress has been made, though. If that doesn’t ring true to you, just trust me. Things are still not perfect, but they are definitely better.
I moved from the smaller town where I went to high school and attended college in the big city of Columbia, South Carolina. That’s a bit of an inside joke, since Columbia is not a big city. Compare to where I came from, it was Metropolis.
It was here that I began to meet people from all over America. From all over the world, in fact. I was even friends with a couple of Iraqis, which was okay then, you see, because they were our allies at the time because Iran was our common enemy. Years later, when we were bombing his country for reasons that never were crystal-clear to me, I would think about my friend Ibrihim. He had a metal plate in his skull from fighting the Iranians. I also had an acquaintance from Hong Kong named Simon, who truly was a bad driver. It’s not racist when you’re stating a fact about an individual: Simon had his license to drive in the US revoked after causing several accidents and then had to ride his bicycle everywhere.
It was also in the South Carolina capital that, for the first time in my life, I met people who were openly gay.
I used the word “openly” because I grew up with people who were gay, although I never knew it for certain until many years after high school. This included one of my high school graduating class’s co-valedictorians, who was once the steady girlfriend of my college roommate and who is now married with a wife and living in, of all places, San Francisco. Another was one of my junior-high buddies, who now has a husband and is a professional dancer in Las Vegas. I know this all sounds cliché, but there’s a reason that some things become clichés, you know? If I were making any of this up, it would just be bad writing. Of course, if I were making it up, I’d have said he was a dancer at Disney World or on a cruise ship. I’m sure, according to statistics, there were many others as well, including a few teachers and other adults I knew. But, the key word here was the “openly” part.
My groundbreaking discovery was that homosexuals—like African Americans, Iraqis, Chinese, Jews and atheists, among others—were people, too. Maybe not just like me, but like me in a lot of fundamental ways. If this sounds like a stupid thing to have an epiphany about to you, I understand. Keep in mind that there are people you know who haven’t had this epiphany yet.
As I became more accepting of people who were different from me—in race, religion, sexuality, political party, professional sports team preference: all of the labels we use to divide us—my worldview changed, and continued to change afterward. It remains in a state of protean flux. This includes my tastes in music. I began to listen to jazz and classical, disco and blues. Even country music. As with learning to mingle with different types of people, I learned there were commonalities in music as well. My tastes, it became obvious, were pretty broad.
In this newly-minted frame of mind, I discovered Ziggy Stardust. One of my favorite hangout spots in Columbia became a bar named Group Therapy. It was located in an area known as Five Points. I think it still exists in some form, but in those days it was our version of New York’s CBGB, with too-loud music and graffiti-covered walls. It was where I would invariably end up when I wasn’t in the mood to hit the dance clubs. It was within walking distance of my dorm (which was much further than what I consider to be “walking distance” these days, but still pretty close). They had cheap brown beer on tap and the bartenders doubled as deejays, spinning their own LPs on the turntable behind the bar. We’re talking vinyl here. This was before CDs became commonplace (although I was selling early versions of CD players at Radio Shack).
A brief aside: As I was writing this, I had a vivid memory of running into the young woman I mentioned earlier—you know, the co-valedictorian who has a wife in San Francisco now. I saw her sitting alone at Group, digging the music the way I was, so I went over and chatted her up a bit. She hadn’t dated my roommate in years, but she was dating another guy I knew as I recall. She was the same cool person I remembered. I still didn’t know she was gay. She probably did, though.
One of the bartenders kept Ziggy Stardust in steady rotation. It was in this setting, with a warm brown-beer buzz, that I first listened to this album. I think it blew my mind the first time I listened to it. I know for a fact it blew my mind the tenth time I listened to it. It remains one of my favorite albums to this day.
Another aside: Group Therapy was also where I remember listening to early REM, The Clash, Mott the Hoople, Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello, The Grateful Dead, and—oddly enough—The Hollies.
Let’s listen to the album track-by-track. Still the best way to truly experience a record.
Track #1: “Five Years” — a great opening track with a metronomic drumbeat that never wavers as the song rises from simplicity to a screaming, crying crescendo. Its message is that the world is ending in five years. This was nearly fifty years ago now, but is probably more prescient than ever.
Track #2: “Soul Love” — a kind of romantic song with a great bassline, with Bowie also playing saxophone. I’ve always interpreted the lyrics to be about being alone and lonely while the rest of the world is in some sort of love: for instance, a mother’s love for her dead child, romantic love between a couple, God’s love, etc. The line “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving” seems to have a profound meaning that continues to elude me, like something just beyond my peripheral vision.
Track #3: “Moonage Daydream” — this is where the story arc of Ziggy Stardust really starts to unfold. This song was written by Bowie in 1971 and was recorded by a different band, Arnold Corns, before being released on this record. Of course, Bowie produced and performed on the Arnold Corns version as well. Any song that begins with “I’m an alligator” is guaranteed to get my attention for a few seconds. This has a soaring Mick Ronson guitar solo that also includes saxophone and flute—or is that piccolo? This one is a bit more rock-‘n’-roll than the first two tracks, though. I’ve read that this song is about an alien messiah (Ziggy) coming to save the world from the impending doom foretold in “Five Years.” Looking at the lyrics now, the science-fiction imagery certainly comes through, but I can’t swear to the meaning of the song. I like it, though.
Track #4: “Starman” — even the casual Bowie fan has heard this song. It reached 65 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, but performed even better in the UK. It adds to the Ziggy story arc, painting Ziggy as a messenger of hope to the youth of Earth, delivering his message through the radio. The chorus is loosely based on “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. The octave jump in “Star-MAN!” is similar to the “Some-WHERE!” in “Over the Rainbow.” I like the acoustic guitar in this song, and the strings (arranged by Mick Ronson) are nice. More pop music than rock, in my opinion, but still okay.
Track #5: “It Ain’t Easy” — a strange song to end the first side of the album. It’s not a bad track. Bowie didn’t write it. It was written by American songwriter Ron Davies, and had already been covered by Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry before it appeared on this album. It’s a strange song because it doesn’t seem to fit into the concept of the “concept” album. However, it’s worth it for Mick Ronson’s slide guitar work.
Track #5: “Lady Stardust” — the demo title of this song was “He Was Alright (a Song for Marc).” This leads many to believe it was written for fellow glam rock icon Marc Bolan, the leader of the band T. Rex. The lyrics about a boy in makeup singing on a stage don’t discredit that theory. Bowie and Bolan shared a manager and producer and had a professional rivalry. Bolan kicked off the glam rock craze and Bowie managed to eclipse him.
Track #6: “Star” — a solid upbeat rock-‘n’-roll song that never received any radio play. I like the riff, the banging piano chords, and the backup singers. The slow unwind at the end is also sonically impactful. This is the kickoff of the climax of this album. The buildup to this point has been for this track and the three which follow it.
Track #7: “Hang On To Yourself” — if this opening riff and chord progression seems familiar to you, just remember that Bowie influenced hundreds of punk rock bands. I love the energy in this one. Trevor Bolder’s bass-playing is a thing of beauty.
Track #8: “Ziggy Stardust” — yeah, this is the stuff. That opening Ronson riff and more Bolder magic on bass was the first song on this album that really made me listen, and then made me go back and listen to the whole album. Alien visitor, leper messiah, Weird and Gilly. You know this one. Packs a helluva punch in just a little over three minutes.
Track #9: “Suffragette City” — and immediately followed up by this driving “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” of a song. The first time I heard the one-two punch of Ziggy along with Suffragette made me a Bowie fan for life.
Track #10: “Rock n Roll Suicide” — finally, the perfect closer, a musical epilogue. This was the thematic death of the character Ziggy Stardust on this album. It also marked the real life end to the character. Before playing the song at The Hammersmith Odeon in London on the last date of their tour, Bowie announced that it would be their last concert as Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He wasn’t kidding. This was a dramatic end to a perfectly staged piece of performance art. As we all know, Bowie wasn’t finished making music, but the Ziggy persona was put away for good. Brilliant!
By the way, I never thought this song glorified suicide in any way. It’s refrain “you are not alone” seems very heartfelt and uplifting to me. It’s a plea to a depressed friend. When I was down, this song helped me feel better.
Years ago—maybe as much as a decade ago—when I was still working for Target, I recommended this album to a young man who worked for me. He was in his early 20s, a musician who played in a couple of local bands.
He said, “David Bowie? Isn’t he gay?” His distaste was clear on his expression. It reminded me of what was once my own backwater attitude. Smalltown bigotry.
Yet another aside: Although David Bowie came out as a homosexual in the early ’70s, well before it was fashionable, he later came out as bisexual, and then again as a repressed heterosexual. He married women and fathered children. This outrageous fluid sexuality may have just been one facet of his performance art.
“Who cares?” I said. “Listen to the music and let me know what you think.”
He later came to me and said that he had enjoyed it, especially the last few tracks. I’m sure I had a pleased look on my face, smug in the knowledge that I had broadened another young mind.
You should give it a listen, too. It’s a good record, man.