Saturday, February 04, 2017

Hazy Cosmic Jive: Bowie and the Starmen, Part One

 "If I'd been an original thinker, I'd never have been in rock 'n' roll. There's no new ways of saying anything." David Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1976

You don't need me to tell you that the 1972 LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (or Ziggy Stardust, for short) was a major milestone, not only in the life and career of David Bowie but in rock 'n' roll history as well. It was with this album that the Glam era truly began, and pop music - and popular culture- would never be the same again. 

The aftershocks continue to resonate even now, and Ziggy's DNA can be directly traced to many of today's pop superstars, if not in a highly adulterated form.

Ziggy Stardust marked the radical transformation of Bowie from an exotically-androgynous but essentially-familiar folk rocker archetype to an endlessly-recombinant alien freak show, whose visual presentation was informed by the fringes of high fashion and drag culture. 

Homosexuality had only recently been decriminalized in Britain and now Bowie was bringing ideas from the cutting edge of underground gay culture into people's living rooms. But he did so with irresistible pop hooks and paint-stripping guitar rock. It was something brand new. 

It's difficult to understand how shocking it all was, given that we're used to nth-generation Bowie photocopies by now, but Bowie's new identity set off depth charges in the cultural collective and rejuvenated an artform that was threatening to morph into chamber music under the dominant prog paradigm.

Glam would-- for all its gender transgressing-- paradoxically reestablish the testosterone-soaked primal thrust of rock 'n' roll music; the stomping 4/4 beats, the glass-grinding guitar riffs, and the grunting, screaming rush of the early rockers. Not the least of which was one of Bowie's early role models...

As you're probably tired of hearing (but I'm obliged to reiterate),  Ziggy Stardust also redefined the concept of the alter-ego for pop stars, an idea that's been hijacked by performers as disparate as Garth Brooks and Beyonce. Hank Williams toyed with the idea and The Beatles did as well, but Bowie had taken the concept to an entirely new level of commitment.

The idea has grown stale through repetition but the audacity of self-reinvention was another crucial ingredient in the magic elixir Bowie was serving up, and held a special appeal in the stultifying inertia of the post-Aquarian letdown (especially so in the economically-depressed Britain of the early 70s).

Immersed as it was in the earnest singer-songwriter movement, America would respond with only mild interest (Bowie fans tended to exist along the margins, like Rocky Horror fans) but the UK and Europe went wild for Bowie, whose career had struggled to gain any traction since the mid 1960s. 

In fact, Bowie wouldn't be a bonafide major-league star in the US until ditching glam and sexual ambiguity entirely with 1983's Let's Dance album, his first album for industry behemoth EMI (whom Queen referred him to after their "Under Pressure" duet was recorded). 

Bowie's global earnings for RCA were modestly respectable at best (Young Americans, ChangesOne) and disastrous at worst (his Berlin trilogy). His importance as an artist lay outside the accountant's office and inside the nerve center of the culture.

Glam would be a marginal pursuit in the US for most part in the 70s- and die outright in the UK in the mid 70s- but would become nearly dominant in the US in the mid-80s when a new wave of LA-based metal bands took up its mascara brush.  None of these bands were as interesting or creative as the first wave, however. They also didn't have Mike Chapman or Tony Visconti, the two workaholic producers who actually defined the British Glam sound.

Strangely enough, neither were British themselves.


Ziggy Stardust was presented as a loosely-organized concept LP (which were all the rage at the time, thanks in large part to prog- and art-rock), though many of the songs were actually written and recorded before the Ziggy character was even developed. 

The "story," such as it was, told of a rock star who channeled an alien savior just as the planet entered its last five years before an indeterminate apocalypse. As the provisional title song tells it Ziggy couldn't handle the power given to him and fell victim to self-destruction (vaguely alluded to in album closer, "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide.).

However, the album's keystone single was not "Ziggy Stardust" but "Starman", which was in fact a late-stage addition to the set. It was the album's sole single during its initial release and told of a mysterious alien savior who comes preaching the transcendent power of rock 'n' roll.

Bowie would mine the Ziggy/Glam persona for three more albums - Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups and Diamond Dogs- none of which were as well-received as the first, suffering from a lack of focus and backstage and personal turmoil (though Dogs is a personal favorite of mine).  

Sensing the motherlode had been mined, Bowie switched gears entirely and reinvented himself as an admittedly-odd blue-eyed soul crooner, mining the hot "Philadelphia Sound" for 1975's Young Americans LP, which would earn him his first real stateside hits with the album's lush title track and the funky, menacing "Fame." 

It was also during this period that Bowie would gather up the core rhythm section for his next several albums, the astonishing trio of Carlos Alomar (guitar and musical director), George Murray (bass) and Dennis Davis (drums). 

They'd stick with him for his next incarnation; the Thin White Duke of Station to Station and the early Berlin era, the cold-hearted, clean-cut aristocrat who was merely slumming in rock 'n' roll. Drawing heavily on Roxy Music and early Brian Eno, Bowie would reinvent his sound again with only modest success but with incalculable effect on the New Wave, New Romantic and synthpop hitmakers to come not long after. 

But for a lot of fans Ziggy would be their first exposure to Bowie and would continue to serve as his definitive identity. The album- and its immediate predecessor Hunky Dory- remain his most popular albums with many fans around the world. 

But where did Ziggy-- this revolutionary musical icon-- really come from? 

Bowie's told a number of different origin stories with varying degrees of conviction but his usual go-to explanation was that Ziggy was based on a meeting he claimed to have with 50s rocker-turned-acid casualty Vince Taylor, who made a splash with his manic, unhinged performances and leather-jacketed image in Britain and France. 

Taylor, somewhat unstable in the best of times, discovered LSD in the early 60s and went totally off the rails, scuttling his career when he proclaimed himself to be the second coming of Christ. Bowie said of Taylor in Rolling Stone:

"He was the inspiration for Ziggy. Vince Taylor was an American rock & roll star from the Sixties who was slowly going crazy. Finally, he fired his band and went onstage one night in a white sheet. He told the audience to rejoice, that he was Jesus. They put him away." 
Bowie later claimed to become acquainted with Taylor in the Sixties and found his particular brand of madness inspiring:
 He used to hang out on Tottenham Court Road and I got to know him then. And he had these strange plans showing where there was money buried, that he was going to get together; he was going to create this new Atlantis at one time. And he dragged out this map of the world, just outside Tottenham Court Road tube station – I’ll never forget this! – and he laid it on the pavement and we were both down here [Bowie gets down on his hands and knees, almost weeping with laughter] and he was showing me all this. It was so funny! 
The guy was unbelievable. He had this six-day party once in some guy’s house, that just went on and on. Just the weirdest kind of creature. 
And he 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 his 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.
But the madness and messianism were only two elements of the Ziggy character. There was also the very central extraterrestrial dimension to the entire concept. Bowie did ascribe an ET dimension to Taylor's bugfuckery in one interview but didn't seem terribly confident about it. And it was certainly nothing of the order that Bowie laid down when talking about his alter-ego's backstory.

Pay very close attention to what's being said here. It's more revealing than you could ever know.:
"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 traveling 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 starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world." 
 David Bowie, interviewed by William S. Burroughs in Rolling Stone, 1973
This whole rap here fascinates me on a number of levels, some of which will become obvious as we dig deeper into this story. It's also chock full of clues as to the true origin of the Ziggy character. Whether or not Bowie is doing so consciously or has internalized his unspoken influence is unknown- I'm personally inclined to believe he's actually given the matter a lot of thought- but either way he's giving the whole candy store away here.

And my suspicions will be reinforced considerably when you start to look at the timeline at work with his concept.

Ziggy and Glam didn't just pop up out of the ether- like Bowie's career itself they had a long gestation period. Glam was actually born not with Ziggy but with a prototype revue a couple years before. 

The iconic partnership of Bowie and guitar hero Mick Ronson-- so central to the Ziggy mystique-- was first established two years earlier (a lifetime in British pop years in those days), first for a loose collective with an evolving bandname and then for a short-lived proto-Glam outfit called The Hype (which also featured Bowie producer Tony Visconti on bass).

The Hype's founding concept was rather unique- the band weren't just musicians, they were intended to be superheroes come to life, with each member taking on a different alter-ego. Needless to say, the band didn't go over very well in the painfully-earnest early 70s, a time when "authenticity" was the buzzword. But it goes a very long way to shedding light on Bowie's frame of mind during this period.

And as usual, the devil is in the details. Pay close attention here as Bowie recalls The Hype's short career:
We did one at the Roundhouse about the same period when we appeared very much the same as we are appearing now, and that was with Mick Ronson. I was in a cartoon strip and we all dressed up as a different superhero. 
Who were you?  
No one in particular, but superhero type figures. We had silver suits, the thing that I used to wear for "Space Oddity:' that silver cat suit, which is exactly the same as this.  
It hasn't changed at all in three years, if you think about it, but it's different material. I was in silver lame and blue and silver cloak, and silvered hair and blue hair and the whole thing, glitter everywhere. 
The silver is particularly important, as it shows Bowie was processing a very specific idea. More on that later.

Ziggy came to life in the winter of 1971/'72, when Bowie was in New York promoting the recently-released Hunky Dory album. Like its predecessors, the LP didn't sell all that well but "Changes" got him some stateside airplay and people in the industry began to take notice (Barbra Streisand would cover "Life On Mars" in 1974). Bowie later said in an interview with Uncut:
Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, ‘Good album, good songs.’ That hadn’t happened to me before. It was like, ‘Ah, I’m getting it, I’m finding my feet. I’m starting to communicate what I want to do.”
Bowie spent time with his wife Angela in New York City after Hunky Dory's release, soaking up the scene, hanging out with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and other local luminaries. It would be during this crucial period that Ziggy would spring to life. 

December 1971 would be an important month for another reason, maybe one less-celebrated in the cultural lexicon. But it would seem to have made a major impression on Bowie then and continues to resonate in the culture today.


Bowie has often been cited for bringing highbrow artistic concepts in pop music, and biographers have made pains to highlight his studies of mime and modern dance, as well as his interest in painting and the fine arts. 

But in fact Bowie ransacked the lowbrow for ideas just as often as the high, even if he was usually very careful to disguise his source material. And one of Bowie's lifelong obsessions- and sources for lyrical inspiration- were UFOs and aliens. 

From 'Memories of a Free Festival' to 'Starman' to The Man Who Fell to Earth to 'Loving the Alien' to 'Looking for Satellites' to 'Born in a UFO', aliens and flying saucers have been the hidden backbone of Bowie's oeuvre, the often-unacknowledged animating principle. 

He was by no means alone in this; popular music and flying saucers have been adjacent since the dawn of the UFO era. Artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Sammy Hagar and Perry Farrell have claimed contact with or inspiration from extraterrestrial sources.

But Bowie's fixation is remarkable nonetheless. He even spent time as a sky sentinel for a UFO group in the mid-Sixties : 
Bowie had been an avid fan of science fiction since childhood, and maintained a belief in the existence of extraterrestrials. His fascination with aliens was in full swing when, as a teenager, he helped publish a UFO newsletter with friends. At that time, around 1967, he claimed many sightings of alien craft in the skies. 
“David was obsessed with UFO cover-ups”, wrote biographer (and author of Starman) Paul Trynka in 2011. “All those who had gone UFO-spotting with him around 1967 […] confirm, ‘We did see UFOs – absolutely.'” 
Bruno Stein, a rock magazine writer at Creem, once recalled what he’d heard from Bowie himself in 1975: “I made sightings six, seven times a night for about a year when I was in the observatory. We had regular cruises that came over.”
Not only was Ziggy inspired by UFOlogy, but the band's name was as well:
The name of the band, “Spiders from Mars,” is in fact a reference to a mass UFO sighting that allegedly interrupted a soccer game at Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, Italy on October 27, 1954. The game was stopped as 10,000 spectators witnessed a group of cigar or egg-shaped UFOs zoom overhead at high speed before stopping abruptly overhead, dropping a fine silver glitter over the crowd. 
Some subsequently explained the object as a mass of floating silk from migrating spiders in the upper atmosphere, though many witnesses still insist on extra-terrestrial visitation. 
The UFO/ET connection is crucial in another way, not only to unlocking the Ziggy Stardust mystery but to understanding who Bowie really was, as a person and as an artist. 

Understanding where Bowie may really have found inspiration for Ziggy's backstory tells us a lot about how he may have seen himself and what he wished to become.

How far you choose to take it all is up to you, but for my money it's very hard to look at Bowie's output and activities in the 1970s and not sense that there was something a bit more than human possibly at work there...


*For instance, did you know that the boxing pose on the cover of Let's Dance was not ironic? Bowie was a keen fan of the sweet science and took it up fairly seriously as part of his training regimen in the early 80s. But he'd toyed with it for some time. In the late 70s he even punched back a would-be mugger on the streets of Berlin, who was probably shocked by the wallop the diaphanous singer could pack.