This edited version originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 13th October 2012.
By the first day of autumn, 2012 was already a big year for David Bowie.
First there was the unveiling of a plaque commemorating his iconic alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on London’s Heddon Street, heralding the 40th anniversary reissue of his concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, last June.
There was the obligatory BBC4 documentary that summer, and a book written by GQ editor Dylan Jones. Then early last month, V&A announced a major new retrospective opening next year, with over 300 objects on loan from his personal archives.
Now, the latest event to commemorate rock’s best-known chameleon is Strange Fascination?, a three-day symposium taking place at Limerick University in a fortnight’s time, where not just Ziggy but also Scarecrow Jack, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and many other stage personae will undoubtedly be dissected many times over.
Such renewed interest in a former rock deity – who figuratively and effectively tumbled to earth with a thud following emergency heart surgery in 2004 and his last album, ironically called Reality – may bemuse some people today. What relevance does a man with silly red-sun glitter, who frankly did too much white-gloved mime, have to present-day youth?
Most of the reminiscences have been made by men in their fifties who witnessed Ziggy Stardust’s explosive debut on Top of the Pops as teenagers in 1972 – hardly the best candidates to get the kids on their side. I have had no such privilege. I was two back then; how could I? Having studied Bowie’s work as part of a BA fashion thesis in the Nineties, however, I can understand why Lady Gaga would find it so immersive.
The fiftysomething boffins may well say that Ziggy was 10 years in the making, the product of many phases of creative experimentation that didn’t quite catch the zeitgeist: Space Oddity, dressing like a girl for The Man Who Sold The World, the theatrical collaborations with Lindsay Kemp, the Anthony Newley influences.
Some, like Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet or Jones himself, may talk about the liberation they felt at the sight of Bowie nonchalantly throwing his arm round guitarist Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops that day. Some may remind us that Vince Taylor was a major inspiration for the alien-cum-sci-fi-messiah concept.
Serious music journalists may hate me for saying this, but all those years of experimentation had given Bowie a perpetual love of the bizarre. He became so enthusiastic about mime and performance that he began to see being a rock-star as a form of acting too. Attitude thus established, he got to work on the package, recruiting Freddie Burretti to design the costumes.
And it really was the whole package. Ultimately the singer was too shy to be himself on stage. He needed to hide behind a façade so out-of-this-world that he could, paradoxically, sing and play music with confidence.
Thus Bowie carried off the paprika-red mullet and some extraordinary costumes with enormous panache because he relished pretending to be someone so detached from reality. (Of course, having the build, poise, neck and cheekbones of a supermodel helped, but that wasn’t the whole point.)
Watching archive film footage of him back then, you can’t fail to notice how contemporary Bowie looks, despite (or because of?) the weirdness. He seems so comfortable with himself that his look transcends time. In contrast, rock contemporaries like Roy Wood of Wizzard and Marc Bolan appear old-fashioned. As a matter-of-fact, it is all-consuming image changes like this that has left Bowie open to accusations of shallow pretensions.
But he wasn’t just pretending. He immersed himself in the Ziggy character, living with him day-in, day-out – indicating an artistic integrity that ran far deeper than his stylistic pretenders could ever manage. As Caspar Llewellyn Smith of The Observer puts it:
Yes, image was crucial to Bowie, but it wasn’t just his look that mattered; through the invention of multiple, subsequent personalities, he invited a different perspective on his art – his music. Perhaps put it this way: Lady Gaga can change outfits umpteen times in the course of a show, but the pop she produces, for all its slick attraction, bears little relation to any sense of an evolving identity.
Eventually, as Bowie admitted to Arena journalist Tony Parsons in 1993, he’d ‘created a doppelgänger’ so seductive that he feared for his own sanity, and had to ‘retire’ Ziggy a year later.
But the damage had already been done. Ziggy Stardust had become a classic template for all-out alienation, spawning glam rock, goth, punk, New Wave, New Romantic and electro-pop. The combination of sexual nonchalance, androgyny, sci-fi fantasy, swagger and flair he exemplified felt so dangerously real that at once ’70s youth lost its inhibitions – and pop culture found itself with a seismic crack that it is still recovering from.
‘Oh no/Not me,’ David Bowie has sung numerous times. ‘I never lost control/You’re face to face with the man who sold the world.’ After 40 years, you’d better believe it.
- The Story of Ziggy Stardust: How David Bowie Created the Character that Made Him Famous (openculture.com)