In 1972, David Bowie was a rising singer/songwriter with a few hits to his name — songs that would later become legendary, like "Space Oddity" and "Moonage Daydream" — but he'd been largely absent from the public eye. He'd been releasing albums, to be sure, and found some kind of audience, but he wasn't the icon we know. He wasn't Bowie yet.
Then one night that February, in a dance hall called Toby Jug in southwest London, Ziggy Stardust was born.
In his new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, author Jason Heller explores the emergence of science fiction-driven pop in the 1970s. In a just-released excerpt featured in Rolling Stone, Heller examines in particular the emergence of Davie Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous, colorful pastiche of various influences that transformed Bowie's music and influenced countless acts for years to come.
Among the most noteworthy details Heller relates about that night at the Toby Jug, when Bowie first appeared with Ziggy's trademark bright red hair and facepaint, is that he entered to a section from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony used in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, which had been released the previous year. It immediately set a tone of something beautiful and strange mixed with something a bit frightening, something the now-seminal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would also embrace. Once onstage, Ziggy and his Spiders from Mars played a mix of established and new songs ranging from "Space Oddity" to "Suffragette City." The Ziggy album would not arrive for another several months, but news of Bowie's alter ego traveled fast, and the venues started to fill up.
In Ziggy the album and Ziggy the character, through songs like "Five Years" and "Starman," Bowie displayed a range of influence and interests. "Starman" calls to mind Robert A. Heinlein, as does the use of Mars as a key element. The character's name is itself a mash-up of Iggy Pop and the American psychobilly performer Legendary Stardust Cowboy, whom Bowie had discovered while in America. Then there's the Clockwork Orange influence, which Bowie credited for the look of Ziggy and the Spiders, along with perhaps the most important inspiration: William S. Burroughs.
Burroughs, like Bowie, was an artist who thrived on mashing various influences, genres, and story elements together to create something new. The legendary Beat writer was already an icon in the early 1970s, and Bowie credits his apocalyptic novel The Wild Boys as one of the biggest influences on Ziggy. So influenced was he by Burroughs and the author's approach to sci-fi that the pair actually met in 1973 — as arranged by A. Craig Copetas of Rolling Stone — and Bowie laid out the concept behind the Ziggy album for the author.
It was during this meeting, according to Heller, that Bowie revealed something about his concept of Ziggy that perhaps Bowie fans don't realize even today: He never really considered Ziggy to be an alien. At least, not in the traditional sense.
"Ziggy Stardust, according to his creator, is not an alien himself; instead, he's an earthling who makes contact with extra-dimensional beings, who then use him as a charismatic vessel for their own nefarious invasion plan," writes Heller. "But like Frankenstein's monster being erroneously called 'Frankenstein' to the point where it seems senseless to quibble with that usage, Ziggy Stardust continues to be widely considered the alien entity of Rise and Fall."
Heller adds that Bowie could have orchestrated this ambiguity on purpose, "considering the shifting identity and gender" of Ziggy Stardust, and notes that during that meeting with Burroughs, Bowie "ultimately labels Rise and Fall 'a science-fiction fantasy of today' before reiterating its similarity to Nova Express, to which Burroughs responds, 'The parallels are definitely there.' "
This is fascinating not just in how Bowie was actually approaching his sci-fi story — in creating a character that was transformed by aliens, rather than an alien himself — but in how we view Bowie today as a musician, artist, and cultural icon. We always remember him as a fluid creature, someone who could be at once masculine and feminine, profane and divine, pop and punk. He thrived on that kind of metamorphosis, shifting personas and identities as his musical and personal influences and interests shifted. It really always did feel like he was just an Earthly vessel for some otherworldly thing, and Ziggy might be the earliest — or at least the most easily pinpointed — reference to that.
And, of course, science fiction in pop music never went away after Bowie, not that it wasn't there before him. You can hear it in everything from Blue Oyster Cult's odes to the works of Michael Moorcock to the prog-rock operas of modern bands like Coheed and Cambria. Pop culture always crosses formats at some point. Bands see movies and keep them in their heads as they play (and Bowie himself starred in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth), and filmmakers hear bands and keep them in their heads as they shoot. It's inevitable, but the blending of science fiction and pop might never have been so thorough if it hadn't been for Ziggy and his guitar.
Strange Stars is available in hardcover now.