I’m the space invader/
I’ll be a rock ’n’ rolling bitch for you
I ran away from home at age 18, but it wasn’t formalized. There wasn’t a fight, and I wasn’t disowned. What I did was fade away, staying gone from night til morning, and mom didn’t ask me where I’d gone. Maybe she didn’t want to know.
I didn’t do anything overtly sinister. Most of the time I spent it in my friend’s living room in East Hollywood near the Scientology compound. The neighborhood there is full of wannabe actors with apartments that have simple gardens that turn to weeds because none of the tenants care to water their plants. Actors aren’t known for their green thumbs. One night I asked my friend to take a picture of me wearing a top hat and makeup while I posed in his bathroom tub–just another strange growing weed in East Hollywood.
I mention all of this because Ziggy Stardust was the door that opened to make that strangeness possible. Ziggy led to Aladdin Sane, which led to Diamond Dogs, and that led to Glam Rock like Marc Bolan, T-Rex, Sparks which led to Punk; the Sex Pistols, the Clash; and then I knew I liked Queen and that one album by the Police, and then later I heard Missy Elliott on the radio and I knew what she was getting at.
Ziggy Stardust was my gateway drug, and for many people it was the first proper introduction to Bowie’s androgyny. The album itself is in a kind of drag. What I mean by that is that–despite this album appearing in many Top Rock Albums of all Times list–the album harbors a dark genre secret.
The secret of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is that it’s a musical. Not just a rock musical, but one of those big gay Broadway musicals that normal people tend to hate. If you don’t believe me just check Bowie himself connecting Starman to Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
There are mountains of words written about Bowie’s sexuality, and all of them absolutely bore me. What I find fascinating is not the “truth” of Bowie’s sexuality, but the power that his work gave to gay and trans people. He knew our language. That’s a funny thing to say because, back then, it was Bowie that introduced me to that language. Ziggy Stardust is undoubtedly a Queer work of art; an homage to boys who wear lipstick. Same-sex desire wasn’t just something to be dealt with in an after-school special: in this album I felt same-sex desire was finally cool.
Years later and the gay subtext is just a taaaaad bit too on the nose for me. Kind of like a lumbering Pride Float–especially when compared to Aladdin Sane (which is like campy gay porn) and Diamond Dogs (which is sublime). It’s still a Top 5 album though, it has to be! I think it’s illegal for a Bowie fan not to claim that.
Tracks of Note
Have I mentioned how much Bowie loves the apocalypse and dystopia? Have I mentioned how much I love it? Do I love apocalypse and dystopia because Bowie did?
Probably. Five Years impressed me when I first heard it, and it impresses me every time I fire up this album. It’s a great show opener full of vivid scenes of panic, violence, and dark humor. Bowie places the listener of the song in the scene (“I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor…”) drawing you into the intro to his story. This is the first time that Bowie sounds supremely confident putting his passion for storytelling at the foreground of his work. It’s exhilarating.
The lyrics. I only ever heard “the church of MAN LOVE is such a holy place to be.” Straight people are convinced there is a comma there. They say that Bowie actually says “the church of man, love, is such a holy place to be.”
The church of man space space space space LOVE space space space…
No offense, but I think straight people are in denial here–I mean–what do you think “put your ray gun to my head” means exactly?
Regardless, 17 year old me was greatly impressed the lyrics to this song. They are as cryptic as Bowie was. He also completely knew what he was doing with the double entendre and grammatical tricks as they return in other songs.
As I mentioned before, Starman is a direct homage of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
This is a fascinating victory for Camp over Rock N Roll. There is a great body of work about what Camp means to the gay sensibility, but you don’t have to study all of it to listen to this song and feel in your gut that Bowie is getting away with something that most rock stars couldn’t get away with.
The themes of this song also further Bowie’s symbolism of space as both a place that represents danger and salvation. In this case, it’s both. The Starman will come down to save the Earth with his rock music only to be killed by his fans.
(Alternatively: The human, Ziggy, attempts to personify the space beings, who rip him apart. Listen, the plot of this musical is very thinly sketched. Bowie’s still a better rock artist than he is a Broadway lyricist.)
A song about love between a guy and another guy who is a femme rock star. We leave the realm of gay subtext here–it’s text, gurl. It’s a fiction that is also a reflection of what Bowie was attempting to achieve.This is a bit of Hunky Dory sneaking into Ziggy with the beautiful piano work. I think this may also mark the start of Bowie referencing gay author Jean Genet in his work (Jean tends to mix pronouns and nouns like how this song references a “boy” as a “lady”).
I remember how this song shocked me as a kid. I felt like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovering a smooth black monolith. What was this? Why was this song so old, and yet, why does it feel like it’s beyond my reach? Did we used to sing about gay love and then forget?
Hollywood ended up making up an entire movie based on the premise of this song that is also a sly biography of Bowie’s Ziggy era. It’s called Velvet Goldmine and it’s pretty alright (though they couldn’t get any rights to Bowie’s music):
Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide
Bowie sings about the destruction of a famous person, which is potent foreshadowing for Bowie’s own life. A few years after the Ziggy album Bowie would start surviving on cocaine, chili peppers, and milk. I’ve said before that Bowie isn’t a real rock star, he’s an artist that plays one. By that I mean that he was never nihilistic enough to believe in his own destruction. Rock stars tend to sing about their misery, and be miserable, or they tend to sing about how they want to die, and then they die.
Bowie’s different though. His art drew the line bordering destruction and salvation, and then as an artist he would cross the line, and then come back. Writers tend to do this a lot better than musicians do. This is why this song–about death–is ultimately uplifting. Bowie writes about his destiny as a rockstar, and because it’s written–it’s like he breaks the spell.
I was living in New York by 2004, I was 22, and my running away was now formalized. I did so much cocaine one year that my hair started to fall out in the shower. I remember one night lying awake in a fit of terror, with tears in my eyes, thinking about how I was wasting my life. I was aimless, and coke didn’t make me high anymore.
And I think the only thing that saved me was myself. That hand in the dark saying “gimme your hands, cuz you’re wonderful.” I stopped doing coke. Stopped seeing my friend who did coke. Slowly–I got back on track. Back to being counted as part of the population.
In other words: Time takes a cigarette, and puts in in your mouth.
Notes On A Few Tracks
Soul Love is such a Bowie love song, in that it’s only sort of gushy about love, but mostly vaguely threatening. Bowie is the only musician who has never lied about love as far as I’m concerned. Hang On To Yourself and Suffragette City are bangers, and they drive a hole in my logic that Bowie was not a real rock star, so I won’t mention them again :). Ziggy Stardust has the greatest dirty lyric of all time. “Well hung, with a snow white tan.” Jesus Christ this whole album is super gay. It’s no wonder why people were terrified of Bowie. I’ve tried so hard for so many years to get into It Ain’t Easy and I can’t. I would have preferred the single John I’m Only Dancing to replace it:
This is the first of Bowie’s albums that I didn’t really have to listen to more than once in order to write out my thoughts. I know this album so well. In my mind I see a lightly staged Broadway stage and all of the characters in Ziggy Stardust walking about, singing their ballads, a forlorn spotlight falling on them that makes the glitter on their faces sparkle. I think I see that vision so clearly because of all the film musicals that are like Ziggy or that have been inspired by Ziggy: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Velvet Goldmine, Rocky Horror, Jesus Christ Superstar…
I never told my mom about my East Hollywood adventures, but I remember her once telling me that she found the photograph of me wearing makeup. I didn’t care that she did.
She came to my wedding last year. When she calls she asks about my husband. When Bowie died she sent me a warm text. She didn’t know what he meant to me, but she knew I would be hurting.
- David Bowie: The Complete Works (Intro)
- David Bowie 1967
- Space Oddity 1969
- The Man Who Sold The World 1970
- Hunky Dory 1971