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The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders from Mars 1972

8 Apr

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

Five Years

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.

Moonage Daydream

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.)

Lady Stardust

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:

Closing thoughts

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.

Full Album

  1. David Bowie: The Complete Works (Intro)
  2. David Bowie 1967
  3. Space Oddity 1969
  4. The Man Who Sold The World 1970
  5. Hunky Dory 1971

Bowie: Space Oddity 1969

22 Feb

“It’s So Hard For Us

To Really Be

Really You

And Really Me”

I was 17 when I decided to download Bowie’s discography. That means it was around 1999, Los Angeles. My family was a late adopter of the Internet. I had to haul them to a tech store to buy a modem and then install a free AOL CD for access to the internet. Having only 1 phone line meant that using the Internet caused all of our phone calls to be blocked.

So you can imagine my nightmare scenario: being a rampaging teenager attempting to download a torrent of all of Bowie’s albums in a house full of latina women who didn’t like missing calls. I remember it taking days to even set up the procedure for even starting the download, days for the download to fail, and days to regroup and start the download up again. It ran overnight like beef in a slow cooker.

All the albums wouldn’t fit into a CD so I had to trim. I decided to delete most of the tracks off of Space Oddity the album, but chose to keep Space Oddity the song.

I realized my mistake around five to six years later while living in Harlem. I purchased the Ziggy Stardust Movie on DVD from a Tower Records inside Trump Tower (a Trump Tower Records is a thing that is as weird as it sounds) and I listened and watched David Bowie sing Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

The performance is from 1973, but the first song is from the Space Oddity album. I completely fell in love with the song when I watched this while sitting on the floor of my Harlem bedroom. I didn’t have cable then. I had a television on a wobbly wooden nightstand, a dvd player, and this film.

I’m just now really appreciating the Space Oddity album as a whole. Many themes are present here that will continue to be present all the way to Blackstar:





The dread of living in the world, but also the momentary joy of revelation.

Space Oddity, the album and song, are a lot more menacing than they sound.


Tracks of Note

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

I want to focus on the method of storytelling in this song. The characters are the villagers, the wild eyed boy, the mountain, and their struggles. The story unfolds with some great lyrics, and then you hit the middle crescendo. The wild eyed boy, and maybe the narrator himself, sings to the villagers, and the listener, “It’s so hard for us to really be, really you, really me.”

This use of “us” and “you” will return in Ziggy Stardust (“I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour…don’t think you knew you were in this song”) Heroes (“We can be heroes”). A lot of singers address listeners directly, but only a few do it by building a world that is recognizably unfair, cruel, or dying. This gives many Bowie songs a touch of what you would call salvation, though religion itself is largely rejected. The salvation is never put as simply as it is in this song: To really be.

Bowie spins a little yarn, positions the Wild Eyed boy as a messiah, and has him fail. Whatever message of peace he brought with him (“to really be”) is lost with the town threatening to execute him and the mountain destroying the town. The messiah fails. The people aren’t saved. This happens a lot in Bowie music. The characters in the story may fail, or may be doomed, but we can at least experience a momentary joy or revelation through them.

Space Oddity


Check out the original version of Space Oddity and the revised version below which was actually shot in space.

Commander Chris Hadfield’s version is lovely, but I have to be a downer at the party and remind everyone that the original Space Oddity is a story of death, a metaphor for drug addiction, and most importantly a song that ponders the dangers and the allures of the infinite. I don’t blame Commander Chris for changing the lyrics because I would do the same if I was literally in orbit.

Space is a place that holds death, addiction, but potential salvation in the growing mythology of Bowie’s music. Ziggy Stardust comes from space. The girl experiencing an existential bore pins her hopes on whether there is life on mars in the song Life on Mars? And Major Tom’s flight into space in Space Oddity starts with hope and curiosity, but ends in loss.

We as mostly sane people know that we shouldn’t self-harm or self-destruct, but we also have a tendency to struggle against a life that is safe, boring, and oppressive. Without exploration we wouldn’t have gay people, trans people, artists, interracial relationships, and most of life would just be an internal struggle instead of a path to happiness and honesty.

But there is danger in exploration. There is AIDS, homelessness, drug addiction, abuse. If we travel far enough into the infinite then we are in danger of losing our individual “ground control.”

I was supposed to live in New York while working for XY Magazine. After my business trip to London, I went to New York, and the magazine started going under, and my job fell through. I made the decision to stay in New York. I think I was 21 years old. I crashed on the couch of a writer friend,  and survived on savings for a month while I looked for work and an apartment.

There were a lot of factors to my decision to live in New York, and I’ve forgotten most of them, but the most important ones are still with me: I didn’t want to live home anymore, I felt welcomed by the city because I was a weirdo and it was full of weirdos, I wanted to be gay here, and I wanted to be alone.

I think Space Oddity makes a literal connection between the impulses behind space exploration, drug addiction, and experimenting with your own life. It explains our hopes of finding salvation in exploration, but doesn’t lie about finding ourselves utterly lost.It is sweet and strange, and it may be one of the most mysterious songs I’ve ever listened to.

Memory Of A Free Festival

 Memory of a Free Festival is amazing and I just discovered that now. I always skipped this song until I listened to this album. I should know not to do that with any Bowie track. I heard it described as his “Hey Jude” and I can see that, but also note how it totally isn’t “Hey Jude.”

For one thing, the chorus sounds joyous at first, but goes on for so long that it starts to sound threatening. What is the sun machine exactly, when is it coming down, and what’s going to happen to us when it does?

It also sounds like gospel music, which is completely out of left field. It sounds like something from his Young Americans album. Bowie was never secretive about his love for black artists like Little Richard. On the day he died this story of him defending black artists to MTV went viral This track is the first time I can see him incorporating (or appropriating) some of that sound.

Finally, the track is a blazing closing track to the album. It’s a great ending. Endings are something we’ll continue to see Bowie nail to a T in almost every one of his albums. Remember, that his soul is a writer’s soul, and there’s nothing more important to a book than the first line and the ending. The last track of the album feels like an end of an era.

Full Album

There are a lot of great tracks in this album that start tying together to larger themes in Bowie’s works. Cygnet Committee is a good example of an early Bowie track dealing with mental illness, but I didn’t choose it as a track of note because–in my opinion–it doesn’t grab me as much as the songs about mental illness in his next album (Oooooh boy there are some good ones).

Still, a very solid album and worth a listen.


Here is the original music video for Space Oddity.


  1. David Bowie: The Complete Works (Intro)
  2. David Bowie 1967

David Bowie 1967

16 Feb

Around 2002 I traveled to London for the very first time in my life. I was 20 years old and traveling on business. I was the managing editor of XY magazine, an American magazine for young gay men that survived a fair amount of controversy during the 90’s.

So I was Out. I was fucking gay. I dressed like a punk and I bought my pair of tight purple jeans. I was in a foreign country–unsupervised– and I was of legal drinking age there whereas I was not in the States.


I had several personal missions to get into trouble  while I was there, but one of my easier  missions was to hunt down the elusive 1967 debut of David Bowie. It was such a vastly unpopular album that torrent users refused to seed it. I typed in the name over and over again and came back with nothing.

By this point I had every one of Bowie’s solo records on a small green iPod nano except for David Bowie 1967. It wasn’t even that I wanted to listen to it. I just wanted to own it. To have it meant that I could have a complete collection of his work.


I walked into a pink HMV store, looked through their expansive Bowie collection, and finally found it on CD. My very first independent foreign exchange of money and goods was David Bowie 1967. I traveled back to Hamstead a short train ride away from Piccadilly Circus, retrieved my CD player, and started listening to it.

It is an album that isn’t very good. This was David Bowie before he was cool. Released in 1967, it sees Bowie following along rather than setting the trends. 60’s Bowie is kind of a mod-rocker and a preening mess.

Nevertheless, my problem with the album is with the sound, not the content. The content including the lyrics and the stories in the tracks are all as classic bowie as you can get.

Tracks of Note

She’s Got Medals

This is prototypical of almost everything Bowie would come to embrace. Gender bending, sex bending, everything bending. The girl who has medals probably isn’t sure whether she’s a boy or a girl, but Bowie has a long way to go until he can tell her that she’s alright. We establish early on that Bowie is interested in the ways that queerdom is expressed. He and I will continue to obsess over this topic for a long while.

There Is A Happy Land

This sounds almost like Five Years from Ziggy Stardust. It’s a light narrative consisting of setting and characters. I think it’s a truism that most writers wish they could make music. I took band in High School playing the clarinet with a bunch of other kids, and I was good at it. Learned enough to read sheet music on a basic level and get to play a few notes of Ode to Joy. It’s something about the passion that music brings that books cannot. The written word doesn’t ever make my heart sing like a good melody can.

I think Bowie was the rare person that came at it from reverse. He was a musician who wanted to be a writer. I believe this is what makes him so unique. His music isn’t a message, or a statement of fact, it’s a little snapshot of a narrative that evokes the intellectual feeling of reading a story that speaks to you and makes you feel less alone in the universe with your thoughts. David Bowie absolutely loved books and writers and it shows in his work.

There Is A Happy Land has that quality of the beginning of a great Bowie-like story, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere. Bowie wouldn’t make the connection between song and story until Space Oddity.

Please Mr. Gravedigger 


[There’s a neat fan-made animated version of the above track here]

I don’t think all of the tracks fail. I think Please Mr. Gravedigger is a fantastic piece of work that taps into what Bowie really prized about performance. Here is a production and a song unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Well maybe not true. I haven’t heard something like this in rock but it does remind me of those skits employed in old hip hop records. There’s a lot of the theater of the mind stuff going on. There’s setting, characters, a story with a beginning and end. Bowie is so committed to his act that he pantomimes sneezing on the track (if one can say that a sneeze can be pantomimed). Bowie studied to be a mime and it starts to show here. I think a lesser artist would have nixed the track, but Bowie being Bowie, committed to it.

A thing about Bowie being a mime. This is not an unimportant fact. Bowie’s career as a mime didn’t end with his training. He mimed his way through acting, mimed his way through a rock career, mimed on stage, mimed every change in his musical style. Bowie isn’t a chameleon. He’s a mimic. There’s an element of what we call “Passing,” in that. Passing was used in connection to people of one minority race passing themselves off as a majority race. That concept trickled down to sex and gender studies. Gay people can pass as straight through a type of mimicry.

The importance of being a mime and of passing wasn’t lost on Bowie who listed Nella Larson’s novel Passing as one of his top 100 books.

Mimicry and Passing were also concepts not lost on me as I sat in my Bed and Breakfast room in London–being a brown gay misfit from the West Coast–doing the job of a person twice my age and listening to David Bowie 1967.

David Bowie 1967 – Full Album

  1. David Bowie – The Complete Works (Intro)

David Bowie: The Complete Works

11 Feb


I was moved by people, particularly LGBT people, who shared that David Bowie had saved their lives. I know it sounds cheesy, but I feel the exact same way. David Bowie, the artist, saved my life through his art.

Growing up gay means you are effectively shut out of any myth that makes sense of your place in the world. In Christianity the big myth is Adam & Eve, a story that explains heterosexuality. You can take this literally–and use it to bully others–but if you’re a healthy individual, myths don’t have to carry you to that extreme, and can prove comforting. If you’re hetero and are faced with the infinite terrors of the world then I can imagine believing in that creation myth can ease your anxieties a little, even if you eventually grow out of that belief.

David Bowie–moreso than any other artist–built an origin myth for gayness, and for transness, and bi-ness. He built a myth for LGBT and the queer, and anyone that felt left out or strange. It was not a story with a meaning carried by any one album or a turn of phrase, but something that was thematically consistent throughout most of his art.

And in that way–he saved my life by giving it a myth and a soundtrack.

One of the things that drew me into his music was his embrace of the strange. If gay was strange then why not embrace it? The other thing was how honest he was about how shit the Earth could be. Bowie deals a lot with dystopias; both from the future and from the present. He didn’t say “it gets better,” he said “you can be heroes, just for one day.” There wasn’t any sort of whitewashing over the terrible situations many of us found ourselves in, which meant a lot to me being a kid from a violent part of Los Angeles.

 I have a lot of strange love for the Bowie Discography, having proudly filled an iPod nano with most of his albums back when I was around 17 years old.

The discography follows wherever I go, and since I’m here I think I’d like to bring it with me.

 My goal over the next several months is to devote an entry to every one of Bowie’s albums. The entries will be both about the music, Bowie, and my experiences listening to the albums. There are around 27 studio albums, but I might include some of his live stuff. I’ll skip Tin Machine because….yeah why wouldn’t I?

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