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The Ziggy Stardust Chapter
This extract is taken from pgs. 113-120 of the hardback version of David Buckley's
acclaimed David Bowie biography STRANGE FASCINATION (1999).
Chapter 3 - Cosmic Surgery, 1971-1972
"I'm going out to bloody entertain, not just get up on a stage and knock off a few songs. I couldn't do that. I'm the last person to pretend that I'm a radio. I'd rather go out and be a colour television set." - Bowie in 1972
"You couldn't fuck a lot of girls unless you were wearing some mascara." - Bowie photographer and promo maker Mick Rock in 1998
HE HAD HIS OWN ALBUM. He had his own, very particular, hairdo, which was copied by both men and women.
He brought cross-dressing, glitter and make-up to the high street. He's the most famous fictional rock star ever. He has a website devoted to him. He's had whole books written about him. Numerous tribute bands have sprung up in his wake. He's had a film, Velvet Goldmine, based, in part, on him. His last ever performance was turned into a film, a documentary about a complete fiction. He's got a hotel named after him in Thailand. There's even a holiday resort there named in his honour, and a village in Cyprus for good measure. His creator, David Bowie, ne' Jones, has been inundated with offers to resurrect him in a musical. And, what's more, in the year 2002, thirty years after Ziggy made his first appearance on stage, he may do just that.
Ziggy Stardust will go down in history as Bowie's finest, most succinct creation. It's a truism that in pop one is almost always remembered for what one did first and, in Bowie's case, this means that his name will forever be linked with his most famous doppelganger. This is regrettable, since his best work can be found on other albums. Even on stage, Ziggy was arguably bettered by subsequent tours. But at no other time was Bowie on vinyl as hummable as he was in the early 70s, and media interest continues to focus doggedly on this, Bowie's melodic pop stage.
There were, of course, a number of dry runs for Ziggy. We've already seen how, aided by the supremely beautiful clothes designer, Freddie Burretti, a man severely more feminised than Bowie himself could ever be, the would-be star tried out a number of swishy camp looks for the Arnold Corns project. This piece of artifice was, of course, perfect for the sort of rock-as-pose stance Bowie took at the time. Another involved Bowie's mid-60s interest in mime, captured by manager Ken Pitt in a succession of eerie studies in black and white. In 1969 Bowie was shot by photographer Brian Ward as a strikingly androgynous sphinx in lipstick. According to Jungian readings, the sphinx is an icon which fuses the animus and anima, male and female. Bowie, whether wittingly or unwittingly, was coming across some interesting cultural bric-a-brac. He even began developing a Tutankhamen/Egyptian stage idea in the early 70s but it never got beyond the planning stage.
The original, punky Ziggy look. Bowiemania kicks in, 1972 (Chris Foster/Rex)
According to producer Ken Scott, the 'Ziggy' bit of the creation came about when Bowie spotted a clothes shop of that name while commuting to London. The semantic link to Iggy (Pop) (and the glamorous female model Twiggy) made it even more appropriate. Bowie was a huge pop fan and, back in 1971 when he dreamed up the idea of this cartoon pop star, he was looking to fringe players for inspiration. Ziggy was a composite rocker, based on two cult pop artists in particular. One was The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (real name Norman Carl Odom), a sort of thrash country-and-western star, four months Bowie's junior. That Bowie knew about him at all bespoke a certain engaging idiosyncrasy, since Mr Cowboy, or 'The Ledge' as his friends call him, was hardly a regular in the UK charts, or any charts for that matter. He did, however, reach the Billboard Top 200 with his remarkable single, 'Paralyzed', one of those almost surreal pieces of rock history. Essentially a bloody racket with whoops, hollers, incomprehensible screamed lyrics and various massively assaulted percussion instruments, 'Paralyzed' was included in Kenny Everett's hysterical 1978 compilation, The Worst Records Of All Time. The single has a certain perverse charm - so bad it's good - and is to pop what Ed Wood's Plan Nine From Outer Space is to film: intoxicatingly awful. As a totally madcap, fringe figure, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy was perfect Bowie fodder: an outsider, a pioneer, extremely funny and slightly deranged.
It's hard to know just how deep Bowie's knowledge of the work of The Ledge was, but 'My Life', a press release in the form of a short biography to accompany the Cowboy's second single, 'I Took A Trip (In A Gemini Spacecraft)', more than hinted at some of the themes which would become Ziggy trademarks:
At this age [six] I used to look at the moon and told myself that some day man will go to the moon. I would like to go to Mars instead of the moon. When I was seven years old I was walking down the street after school and told myself that some day I was going to be famous . .. I was sitting in my backyard thinking about cowboys and stardust in outer space. I put them together and came up with Stardust Cowboy. After that I added 'legendary', which means that I am a legend in my own time ... I figured that by singing I was able to attract all the girls but I attracted all the boys instead ... I kept up with the space programme and studied it while writing songs about space and rockets. I got tired of working in a warehouse so I wrote Tiny Tim a letter with a picture of myself and musical instruments. I wanted him to help me record a record. By the way, my dad died when I was seventeen and he never heard me sing. Then my mother remarried. I wanted to be on the Johnny Carson show like Tiny Tim.
So The Ledge was given to delusions of a cosmic nature, was something of a hit with the boys, and was obsessed with the idea of becoming a star (all of which he had in common with young Mr Bowie). Both men admired the Australian music-hall pop of Tiny Tim, with Bowie even going as far as recording one of Tim's B-sides, 'Fill Your Heart', by the equally dotty fringe figure, Biff Rose.
Bowie the rock 'n' roll historian was also drawn to the story of Vince Taylor (real name Brian Holden, born in west London in 1939), the leather-clad 'French Presley', so called because he took that country by storm in the 1960s with his hit, 'Brand New Cadillac', later covered by The Clash. Taylor was thus a piece of exotica and a cult artist, again perfect Bowie material. He was given to week-long drink and drugs binges that reputedly make Keith Richards' broken-toothed 70s excesses look almost genteel. Bowie actually met Taylor in the late 1960s while the latter was in London, his career in a tailspin. 'I met him a few times in the mid-60s and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all.' Bowie remembers him stopping outside Charing Cross tube station, unfolding a map of the metropolis on the pavement, crouching on his hands and knees, peering through a magnifying glass and pointing out sites where UFOs were going to land.
Taylor's nutty credentials were bolstered when, at what turned out to be his last public performance, he appeared for his encore dressed in a white sheet and sandals and proclaimed to the audience that he was the new Messiah. Unlike Michael Jackson, whose 1996 Brit Awards performance for 'Earth Song' could only be thought of as a piece of perverse Messianism, Taylor never performed again and spent the rest of his life in a succession of psychiatric institutions and prisons before dying in Lausanne, where he had been employed as a factory hand, in 1991 at the age of just 52. Taylor was a cult figure possessed with a mad genius, his story a rock 'n' roll tragedy and a perfect example of rock martyrdom.
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---This page last modified: 12 Dec 2018---