David Bowie’s magnum opus remains a thrillingly open-ended concept album
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Based on all evidence, David Bowie is retired now, having aged into the life of a respectable rock elder statesman who enjoys spending time with his family and pursuing his hobbies in New York. It’s the most recent, and possibly last, of a series of personas he’s worn throughout his career, a string of guises that stretches back to the wild-eyed ’60s folk-rocker of “Space Oddity.” In fact, Bowie’s mercurialism has come to define him. Who’s David Bowie? The guy with a different look and a take for every year of his career, from the “plastic soul” of 1976 to the peroxided MTV star of 1982 to the contemplative electronic godfather of 1999. Bowie is too clever and talented ever to fade away, at least without meaning to. He plays his current part so well that it’s almost hard to imagine he used to cut a threatening, divisive figure by assuming the role of sexually ambiguous—but sexually aggressive—space alien come to save the Earth by seducing its youth one concert venue at a time. Maybe.
Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, recently re-released in a remastered 40th-anniversary edition, has long since been canonized—it currently ranks 35th on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list, for what that’s worth—but like all truly great albums, it resists becoming a museum piece. Bowie’s fifth LP—counting his prehistoric self-titled 1967 release—is regularly referred to as a science-fiction concept album. And that squares with the contents of the album itself, but only up to a point. The degree to which it’s tough to pin down—to a narrative, to a style, to a point of view—is part of why Ziggy Stardust remains such a powerful album 40 years later. The fact that it has more to do with life on Earth makes it radical in ways that still excite and unsettle today.
Bowie didn’t singlehandedly invent glam, but no one embodied it more fully. A pop-culture movement obsessed with thrift-store glitz, the science fiction of B-movies, the heady paperbacks that lined drug dealers’ shelves, and above all, sexual ambiguity, glam thrived in the early ’70s when counterculture idealism gave way to self-consciously theatrical modes of rebellion. The misfits who might have dropped out a few years earlier or spiked their hair a few years later made themselves beautiful and androgynous using the cast-off clothes of yesteryear and some big, cosmic ideas modified from hippie antecedents and a professedly liberated attitude toward sexuality.
Squares of the ’60s made jokes about men with long hair looking like girls. Glam fans spoiled the punchline by actively trying to blur gender lines. For some, it was an opportunity to come out of the closet, but part of what makes glam interesting is the degree to which straight men adopted the look, if not the lifestyle. Bowie’s future collaborator Brian Eno was gorgeous in the flowing gowns he used to wear when performing with Roxy Music. He also, by all accounts, had even better luck with women than his bandmates. Mott The Hoople was just another meat-and-potatoes rock band on the verge of splitting up until Bowie gave them “All The Young Dudes,” and the group took on the glam mannerisms needed to put it across.
“Dudes” originated from the same fit of inspiration that produced the Ziggy material—Bowie offered the band “Suffragette City” first—and in an interview with William S. Burroughs, conducted for Rolling Stone, Bowie tried to fit it into the Ziggy Stardust narrative. But given that this interview spins a story convoluted to the point of making little sense, and also includes references to “black-hole jumpers” and characters called “Queenie” and “the Infinite Fox” that seem to have nothing to do with the album, it might be best not to pay Bowie’s explanation much mind. Not to get all death-of-the-author about it, but Bowie may not have been the best interpreter of his own work at the time.
Then again, the album’s story doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretation by anyone, in spite of some clear signposts of a storyline. Ziggy Stardust opens with “Five Years,” a depiction of a world given notice that it has the titular five years before everything comes to an end. The song features the most ominous-sounding autoharp ever recorded. The track builds slowly along with the intensity of Bowie’s vocals as he details the scenes of a world given notice by a “news guy” who “cried so much his face was wet.” The track winds down in chaos and wails.
The storytelling is similarly clear on the near-title track “Ziggy Stardust.” Placed two tracks from the end, it tells the story of the album’s eponymous protagonist, a rock star of indeterminate origin—he looks like “some cat from Japan”—who’s seemingly destroyed by his own fans (“when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”), who never deserved him in the first place (“the kids were just crass, but he was the Nazz.”)
It isn’t hard to connect the dots and complete the story, as the anonymous author of Ziggy’s Wikipedia entry has done:
Ziggy is the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence. Ziggy Stardust is the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, wild in drug intake and with a message, ultimately, of peace and love; but he is destroyed both by his own excesses of drugs and sex, and by the fans he inspired.
But do they really connect? Even without the “citation needed” warning dutifully attached to that plot description, a close listen would make it obvious that this description strains to find clarity that just isn’t there. Many of the songs between combine sex, messianic, and science-fiction imagery (“Moonage Daydream,” “Starman”), but just as many don’t. “Star” and “Hang On To Yourself” seem to be addressing different, more earthbound topics, and it’s hard to make much sense of what “Suffragette City” is about in any context. Even “Lady Stardust,” in spite of its title, is closer to Van Morrison’s “Madame George”—the tale of a transvestite first embraced, then abandoned by those she entertains—than the protagonist of “Ziggy Stardust.”
It’s hard, in other words, to put Ziggy Stardust into a box, and that’s part of its power. Making a concept album wasn’t that radical a move in 1972, a year that falls between The Who’s rock opera’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, and an early high-water mark for prog. But the concept of Ziggy Stardust had less to do with a doomful future and its extraterrestrial visitors than the year that produced it and the alien presence of Bowie himself. In January, while building up to Ziggy’s release date, Bowie proclaimed his bisexuality to Melody Maker. While he’s vacillated over the years on whether that declaration was a mistake, and while homosexuality doesn’t seem to have played much of a role in how he’s lived his life in the post-glam years, that wasn’t just a radical declaration for 1972, it was the only declaration that made sense for the image he’d created, and the images he’d inspired others to create, both onstage and in the world at large. Glam became an act of street theater that threatened the status quo and the heterosexual norm.
None of which mattered if the music didn’t rock. Ziggy balances theatrical impulses, orchestral touches, and chanson emoting against a primal sound that—driven by Mick Ronson’s guitar—reaches back to the earliest days of rock ’n’ roll for inspiration. The most homophobic rock fan of the day would have a hard time resisting a song like “Moonage Daydream,” even if singing along involved asking someone to “put your ray gun to my head.” The real story of Ziggy Stardust is how music could break down those sorts of boundaries, and how suddenly the unthinkable—boys dressing like girls, and maybe even sleeping with other boys—could become the stuff of the everyday.
It didn’t last that long. While Bowie, Mott The Hoople, T. Rex, Roxy Music, and others turned out challenging, first-rate music, the imitators that followed had less to offer. Bowie going down on Ronson’s guitar gave way to Gary Glitter hamming it up on variety shows. Bowie followed Ziggy Stardust with Aladdin Sane, a continuation that featured some of his best songs, but little of its predecessor’s cohesion. He toured through the summer of 1973 before dramatically drawing a line in the sand at a July concert by announcing, shortly before playing “Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide,” “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show we will ever do.” Cue shocked screams from the crowd. Cue Bowie moving on to the next thing. Cue a lot of the old attitudes about sex, gender, and identity reasserting themselves.
But what if Glam Bowie were the Bowie, and we had only the strange chapter in music and cultural history he helped open and close by which to judge him? Imagine, for a moment, that line of Bowies stopped after his first famous incarnation. That’s more or less the premise of Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, which unfolds in an alternate universe in which the Bowie-like rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) disappears after faking his own onstage assassination. That detail, like all of the film, has real-life roots. Bowie used to fear becoming the first rock star killed onstage. By killing Ziggy, he beat them to it.
If Bowie had disappeared at that moment, he’d probably be remembered as a transitional figure, one who helped pave the way for artists who followed his example, foregrounding sexuality and constructing an identity to fit around it. But the implications of Ziggy Stardust go beyond that. Bowie turned himself into a bisexual alien. Others followed his example because it suddenly became apparent that they could. So why not? It might have been make-believe, but what about identity isn’t? When I interviewed Haynes in 1998, he suggested the implication of glam went a lot deeper than just a bunch of kids putting on makeup:
It’s liberating to not think of identity as some organic property that we have to find and stick to, but actually something that is constructed, or that’s imposed, that we can then counter by taking a different route and re-dressing it, and then re-dressing it again, and then re-dressing it again. It’s like having every possibility at your fingertips, as opposed to some natural sense of who we’ll be imprisoned by for the rest of our lives.
That sense of opened-up possibilities continues to animate Ziggy Stardust 40 years and countless cultural movements later. Sure, it opens with the threat of an apocalypse, but it ends with the compassionate refrain of “you’re not alone.” And it uses those two points to bookend all manner of pleasure and tragedy, imagined and realized by an opponent to the norm who was ready to take that opposition to the masses in the form of pop music—even if he had to make up an otherworldly rock star and a half-built story to carry his point across.