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Sound Takes: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars


David Bowie
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (RCA Victor)

The narrative David Bowie concocted and ascribed to his 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars will be familiar to most: An alien from another world visits earth bearing the gift of rock ‘n’ roll, becomes a sensation, and martyrs himself, succumbing to his own fame in the end. It’s a story that, notably, provides both Bowie and his listeners with an escape route via fantasy from the big problems of the early ’70s, not to mention an opportunity for transcendence. Bowie steps outside himself for Ziggy Stardust and beckons his fans to join him. Given world events at the time the album came out—a new “space age” heralded by the Apollo 11 moon landing, a collective global hangover from the tumult of the ’60s, and the cold war—we can start to see why everyone was so eager to seize on an alternative storyline, absurd though it might have been. Consider the historical context, which includes the real possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, and the tale of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars begins to sound less absurd.

That historical context takes center stage right from the outset. “Five Years” sounds like the soundtrack to a party marking the end of the world. “Five years, that’s all we’ve got,” Bowie sings. A suspenseful, yet celebratory tone permeates the song, as though he and his band, the Spiders, have resigned themselves to their fate. The implication is that we should too. It’s coming, they seem to proclaim, so why not enjoy it? The instrumentation on “Five Years” is perfect—the anchor of the piano buoys us like a raft in a storm in the face of the repeating refrain from the title. The chord changes, a result of just one of the divine powers attributed to Bowie, are unusual and wonderfully appropriate, reinforcing the sense of impending doom and abandon. Decorative strings lend a final, classical flourish that tips us off to an exciting realization—we are in for a treat. The record introduces itself with a demure bow and a smug smile; it seems aware it is the rare creation of an artist with unique vision and the wherewithal to express it.

By now, if you’re hoping for a taste of that story about the alien known as Ziggy Stardust, you’re forgiven for feeling stymied. The second track presents itself as a love song—granted, one that is beamed down to us from outer space, but still a song belonging to a recognizable archetype. While we might think of this part of the album as the preamble to Ziggy’s story, that also feels like an excuse. In terms of that story, “Soul Love” stands as a less focused aspect of the record alongside the sublimely-written but otherwise distracting digression of “Five Years.” And that’s okay. It really is. “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving,” Bowie sings in a chorus that would make a Sufi mystic proud. The pairing of lead guitar and jaunty saxophone reiterates Bowie’s mastery of instrumentation. In one sense, it seems to echo and sum up his earliest stirrings as a musician—the sax was the first instrument he ever owned. We can rightly assume that the album is, in many ways, his manifesto and a manifestation of influences from half a century of recorded music leading up the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. At any rate, our willingness to forgive slight lapses in narrative consistency is partially what makes the record great. If you’re still not convinced, ask Lady Gaga, Eminem, Beyoncé, Prince, or any other influential artist of the last thirty-five years who has benefited from an alter-ego or the freedom to dress provocatively. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars made it all possible.

Like many lines from the album, the “church of man love” that the singer praises in “Moonage Daydream” takes on a dual meaning, thanks to the shifting point of view of the speaker and the newly-introduced character of Ziggy himself. Ziggy’s perspective as an outsider affords him poetic license and the liberty to criticize earthly things. But could “the church of man love” be an allusion to Bowie’s own bisexuality? This was, after all, shortly after he publicly came out in the news media, despite being married with children. Then again, maybe the curious phrasing, which sounds like a line out of Flash Gordon or the original Star Trek, is just another knowing wink by the earthling behind the music.

The bridge is pompous, but self-consciously so. We’ve heard such tongue-in-cheek stuffiness before from The Beatles, but the rest of “Moonage Daydream” is straight rock on par with the best of the day. For the first time on the record, we get the image of distant galaxies conjured up by Bowie’s echoing vocals. The thumping staccato of piano and bass is punctuated by Bowie’s celebrated guitarist Mick Ronson, whose storied solos helped make the Spiders from Mars such a formidable backing group. Ronson’s eerie, squealing guitar makes us feel small in the face of a starry void. Here, the mind’s eye of the listener tilts upward to the night sky, where it beholds a playground whose bounds extend outward in every direction—fitting for a record that exploded prior limitations upon genre and stage performance. “Freak out in a moonage daydream,” Bowie cries, and Ronson is right there with him, adding power and verve to the melody. If Bowie is telling us to follow him, Ronson is showing us how.

Ziggy Stardust Back“Moonage Daydream” debuts a central theme in Ziggy Stardust: There’s safety out there in the unknown, as long as you’re open to it; “Starman” makes that theme explicit. Today, the single is a touchstone, not only for the character of Ziggy, but also for Bowie’s career overall. The live performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops in July of ’72 provided many British viewers with their first view of Ziggy in all his glory—complete with the sparkly bodysuit, wild auburn hair, and heavy makeup. “Freak out,” he sings on “Moonage Daydream,” and indeed, many people watching at home probably did. The warmth and obvious camaraderie between Bowie and the Spiders likely served to highlight their unspoken challenge to prevailing sexual and artistic norms. A wince of discomfort must have rippled through conservative Britain when Bowie put his arm around Ronson during the Top of the Pops performance. This, here, is an important component of this revelatory album’s central message—the “weird” is more “normal” than you’d ever imagined, and it’s a lot friendlier too. While “Starman” ruffled feathers, it also opened the eyes of British youth to a thing that would come to be known somewhat pejoratively as “glam rock.”

As a genre, glam was still in its heyday, but Bowie may have witnessed its excesses adding up. The prevalence of glam’s vices may have led him to write “It Ain’t Easy,” a song that exhorts us, paradoxically, to some kind of higher salvation—“It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down.” Down where is a reasonable question, and Hell is a reasonable answer, but perhaps not the only one, especially when we consider that it’s posed by an extraterrestrial on a mission, in every sense of the word, to convert the masses to the cult of Ziggy. To many listeners in 1972, and plenty today, it may seem as though Bowie had, in fact, beamed down to us from someplace high above. You could think of it as heaven or another planet or simply the vast unknown. Either way, Bowie’s message is messianic and unequivocally encouraging.

The general consensus around “Lady Stardust,” a song whose lyrics shift playfully from third to first person and back, posits that it was written as a tribute to Marc Bolan of T. Rex. We can agree on that: Besides its early title of “Song for Marc (He Was Alright),” Bowie allegedly projected Bolan’s face onto a big screen while performing “Lady Stardust” at the Rainbow Theater in August of 1972. Bolan was a giant star in his own right at the time. There was much to admire about him. At the same time, Bowie’s “boy in the bright blue jeans” alludes to the first words of “Tiny Dancer”—“blue jean baby”—as well as to Elton John’s inflection on the same tune, especially when Bowie sings, “Lady Stardust sang his songs / of darkness and disgrace.”

The “wild mutation” embraced by the speaker in the next song, “Star,” expresses disillusionment with the typical earthling’s mundane, daily existence. On the other hand, the hopeful tone cues a progression of Ziggy’s storyline. His descent to earth is complete and his journey as a “rock ‘n’ roll star” has begun, a pointed phrase—conflating one star with another—that reminds us of interstellar space while suggesting that this journey might not turn out as our naive hero expects.

And, of course, it doesn’t. “Hang On To Yourself” prepares us for the denouement of Ziggy’s tale. In the first verse, Ziggy’s popularity surges. Subsequent verses seem to come from the Spiders from Mars, who play “like tigers on Vaseline.” The Spiders are undoubtedly enjoying themselves, and their momentum carries their leader along for the ride, whether he wants to slow down or not.

“Ziggy Stardust” occupies a unique place on the record, and not only because of its title. Mick Ronson’s unabashed opening riff has since taken its place among some of the most recognizable in rock history. The main character’s story reaches its climax here—Ziggy becomes “the special man,” and the adoring audience finally turns on him, killing their “leper messiah” in a moment that, since it is nestled among so many great moments, passes too quickly. Ziggy Stardust “was the naz,” Bowie sings, in an apparent comparison with beatnik orator Lord Buckley’s version of the Jesus parable, “The Nazz.” The chorus, strangely, sounds a lot like classic Black Sabbath. This is interesting because Black Sabbath’s first two albums came out in 1970 and ’71, a time period coinciding with the formative years leading up to the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. At the album’s zenith, Bowie goes out of his way to pay tribute to his influences. This is consistent with what’s been said by prominent biographers and critics—that much of Bowie’s artistic persona over the years amounts to a pastiche of other cultural ideas, characters, philosophies, and movements, from Iggy Pop to Vince Taylor to Japanese Kabuki theater to Andy Warhol. In a sense, the character of Ziggy Stardust did not originate from outer space at all, but from a place—or places—much closer to home.

The enigmatic track “Suffragette City” follows. It appears to ignore the death of Ziggy Stardust and rewinds to a time prior to it, when the character’s popularity is growing along with the power of one adverse influence that we all know to be the bane of famous rock stars—women. Ziggy rebuffs a male acquaintance in favor of the mysterious lady (“Here she comes!”). Some see this as a veiled renouncement of Bowie’s own gay orientation or bisexuality. Then again, he did come out publicly in Melody Maker magazine in 1972, though the timeline gets murky considering we don’t know for sure when “Sufragette City” was written or to what extent its writer identified with the character of Ziggy Stardust at the time. At any rate, we assume the ambiguity is intentional.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” is often interpreted as the finale of Ziggy’s story, the chapter in which he meets his demise at the hands of his admirers. But a closer analysis discounts that explanation. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” does portray a waning rock icon, but, unlike other tracks, it fails to name the central character of the record or allude to his rise and fall. Rather, it introduces a bittersweet and fatalistic voice that fails to match up with Ziggy or with any other peripheral character. Lamenting the dissolution of an archetypal rock ‘n’ roll career, it stops short of describing an individual death. In fact, we have to admit that the point of view and tone of the speaker point decisively to the man called, simply, David Bowie. The possibility that Bowie envisioned the death of his creation before the 1972 release of the record clashes with the popular argument that Bowie, suffering from exhaustion and a blurred boundary between his personality and Ziggy’s, decided to kill off Ziggy Stardust sometime around the date of his final show with the Spiders on July 3rd, 1973. The last verses of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” take an optimistic turn. Bowie—if it is really him—urges his listeners to “turn on with me” and repeatedly reassures them that “you are not alone.”

The last notes of this mind-bending and innovative record are notes of spiritual unity and community. What a beautiful way for us to remember its creator, especially at the current moment. We stand today at the tail end of an artistic career that enlivened and delineated much of the 20th century, and some of the 21st. But is David Bowie really gone for good? Part of me refuses to believe it, wondering if maybe, like Ziggy Stardust, death is just his latest transformation. Such an outrageous suggestion would verge on disrespect for anybody but him, the most outrageously gifted shape-shifter of them all.

Read more of Max Gray at Big City Sasquatch or follow him on Twitter @City_Sasquatch. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Encounters, Mount Hope, Conte, tNY.press, and English Kills Review. He co-hosts the etymology podcast Words For Dinner and is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. More from this author →