David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
For a music fan, it's no easy task to choose just one album you'd never part with, but, for me, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars wins out mostly because of a slew of recent events. I already had the album in mind for this article, since my old vinyl copy was the record I used to inaugurate my first honest-to-God stereo system, and surely that means something. I was already immersed in a Ziggy reverie when Chicago critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis devoted a segment of the August 6 episode of their rock talk show, Sound Opinions, to debating David Bowie's talents. I was so horrified when DeRogatis laughed over the track "Moonage Daydream" that I just knew I had to do my part to defend it. Then, the weekend after the "Sound Opinions" broadcast, I put on a copy of Patti Rothberg's new album and was shocked to hear her sing "I'm an alligator / I'm a mama papa coming for you". Yep -- Patti covers "Moonage Daydream". The topic of Ziggy is also timely because Virgin just released a 30th anniversary edition on July 16. Are these things coincidences, signs from God, or, more appropriate to Ziggy's space age themes, a sign of intelligent life on other planets? Whatever it is, I've taken it as a sign that this must be my favorite album.
Praising Ziggy is an exercise that's been done to death, yet in all the talk about androgyny, identity, glam rock, and rock 'n' roll excess, my favorite aspect of the album is omitted every time. To me, Ziggy Stardust sounds like the most splendid celebration of teenage pleasures and priorities ever committed to tape. Its obsessions with gender-bending and outer-space aren't dated gimmicks or cheap escapism, but representations of a road of infinite possibilities lying ahead, of worlds -- sexual, sensual, literal -- not yet explored, and the music captures the madness, frustration, confusion, and (let's not forget) joy and wonder of adolescence. It sounds young, it sounds curious, it sounds like it's in love.
Ziggy also marked the first time that Bowie, who was formerly perceived as a hippie-ish singer/songwriter, seemed weird. It wasn't just the make-up, which would hardly raise an eyebrow today, nor the clothes, which seem merely ridiculous in retrospect, but the fact that this ostentatious glamour was painted on someone with such a frighteningly thin frame, disturbingly ugly teeth (since fixed), and two different-colored eyes. Who was this strange creature? No one would know, because he wasn't David Bowie -- he was the elaborate concoction of Ziggy Stardust, whom Bowie boasted was the most plastic of plastic rock stars. Yet in spite of the pretense of it being a concept album about an androgynous rock star on the downward spiral, Ziggy doesn't tell any literal story. Rather, its songs fall roughly into one of two categories: those about love and sex with a futuristic bent, and vague morality tales about the dangers of fame. Some of them are downright beautiful.
The title of the opener, "Five Years", means five years until the end of the world. Yet the song is not a tale of the apocalypse, but a celebration of humanity and what things the narrator would hold dear if faced with annihilation -- "telephones, opera house, favorite melodies, boys, toys, electric irons and TVs". Is this list tongue-in-cheek, created merely to point out the superficiality of what we hold dear in the modern world? It doesn't come off that way. It's more likely that Bowie, like his hero Andy Warhol, was pointing out that, despite what it might say about us, mass-produced goods actually do give us comfort, because they are now a substantial part of our world. More evidence that Bowie isn't just being cynical is that the pre-apocalyptic world isn't devoid of human interactions: "And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there / Your face, your race, the way that you talk / I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk".
"Soul Love" and "Moonage Daydream" are the album's most extreme explorations of crazed, space age, teenage emotion. Their lyrics simultaneously read like love songs for a future generation and melodramatic poetry from the past. On "Soul Love", Bowie sings: "New words -- a love so strong it tears their hearts / To sleep -- through the fleeting hours of morning". "Moonage Daydream" is a much more carnal affair: "Don't fake it baby, lay the real thing on me / The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be". Let Jim D. laugh all he wants at the song, but there's something kinda sexy about having someone's "electric eye" on you and a "ray gun to [your] head". Don't fake it, indeed.
Although there are depressing morality tales in the form of the well known title track and "It Ain't Easy", what often gets left out of the equation is that Bowie balances the darkness with a lovely humanism on this album. In "Starman" his fixation isn't so much on the freakiness of the idea of extraterrestrial life, but a sense of childlike wonder about the possibility that something more is out there, and the comfort of pondering that "it's all worthwhile". Even the ominously titled closer, "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", is more hopeful than its title implies. The song opens with an acoustic guitar and we are introduced to the subject: an old, washed-up rock casualty. But Bowie isn't cynical enough to leave him hanging or to leave us with a depressing cautionary tale. Instead, the song slowly builds, first with drums, bass, electric guitar, and horns. Then, as Bowie's voice grows more passionate, strings subtly creep in, and it's as though the song has been transformed into a hymn. "Oh no love! You're not alone!" Bowie cries, and that, really, summarizes what Ziggy Stardust is all about. There are boys and girls and "fat skinny people" and starmen and alligators and washed-up rock stars, every one of them with pain and disappointment and hopes and dreams, but ultimately they can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone.
In some sense, that is what rock 'n' roll itself provides: a place where misfits and outcasts can feel a part of something greater, if only for the duration of two sides of vinyl. And as far as such mass-produced comforts go, Ziggy Stardust is one of the best around.