Exploring the revolutionary queerness of the most iconic David Bowie album
“Ziggy played guitar/Jamming good with Weird and Gilly/And the Spiders from Mars”
It was 50 years ago today that David Bowie unleashed his most iconic incarnation, Ziggy Stardust, on the world with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars.
Beneath the bright orange hair, the non-binary androgyny of the expert combination of makeup and fabulous costumes and the implicit queerness beat the heart of a rock-and-roll songwriter. He was ramping up a hugely influential and very successful period of creativity that would turn him into the rock star he dreamed of being and feared becoming.
Ziggy Stardust was a continuation of where he’d been on the preceding Hunky Dory, which certainly nodded more than a little towards queerness (“Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Queen Bitch”).
Indeed, much of the material had been written around the same time, thus no big leap from “Life on Mars” to “Starman”, even though the latter was a late, quickly written addition to the album because of label hand wringing over the album not having a single.
It wasn’t particularly arduous recording progress, broken up into sessions of around a week in November, 1971, followed by another month’s worth just after New Year’s.
The Ziggy character was a means to an end for Bowie. Writing for a character was a little mental trick to get around any writer’s block he had writing for himself. This way, they weren’t David’s songs, they were Ziggy’s, in his voice, regardless of whose name was on the label.
It wasn’t just freeing in the writing stage. Bowie said during the period, “Offstage I’m a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.”
The Ziggy character was a mix of theatrical influences (including Kabuki theater) and inspired by the decline of Vince Taylor, a leather-clad rocker whose potential in the late ’50s and early ’60s dissipated in a haze of instability and copious amounts of acid. The man who’d sung songs like “Brand New Cadillac” was insisting onstage, in a white robe, that he was the son of Jesus Christ.
Some songs were cut — the cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” (retitled “Round and Round”) and rocker “Sweet Head”, the latter because it was exactly what you think it was about and not because of its slur-dotted opening verse lyrics that would have aged quickly and poorly.
The most regrettable omission was the carnal “Velvet Goldmine”, which to this day stands crying to be put back into the running order.
What did make it to stores and thus into fans’ hands was an album that was both rock ‘n’ roll and a statement of, if not outright defiance, a sharp poke in the nose of rigid, straight conformity.
Bowie had worn a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, but Ziggy, this alter ego, was another matter entirely–a bisexual being, a person colorized from black and white on the cover to create a more alien feel.
One could make the case that Bowie’s personal exploration of sexuality informed Ziggy, or that the reverse was true.
He came out as gay in a Melody Maker interview in 1972 when, at the time, he was married with a young son. Four years later, he told Playboy, “It’s true—I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
By the ’90s, he told Rolling Stone he was “always a closet heterosexual,” adding that despite “making all the moves, down to the situation of actually trying it out” he “didn’t ever feel like a real bisexual.”
“I wanted to imbue Ziggy with real flesh and blood and muscle, and it was imperative that I find Ziggy and be him. The irony of it was that I was not gay. I was physical about it, but frankly it wasn’t enjoyable,” he said.
Regardless of where the journey of his own sexuality wound up, there’s no denying it had an impact on the section of the audience that couldn’t and wouldn’t live straight and/or cis lives. While Bowie was exploring, Ziggy was there as a North Star, a Pied Paper for those derided as freaks.
In a 2008 Out Magazine poll, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars topped the list of “greatest, gayest albums of all time.”
Boy George, one of those polled, told Out, “At a time when social and sexual taboos were just starting to break down, Bowie as Ziggy created a world where the possibilities were limitless. You could be whatever you wanted to be.”
Bear in mind, when the album was released, it was just shy of five years after the United Kingdom had decriminalized consenting gay relations (as long as both individuals were at least 21) with the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.
The first Gay Pride March in London took place a couple weeks after the album’s release.
It wouldn’t be until late 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association issued a resolution that homosexuality was neither a mental illness nor a sickness.There were still laws criminalizing being gay or being trans (so-called “crossdressing laws” that allowed for harassment and arrest of people who didn’t dress according to “norms”).
Still, as out there and transgressive as Ziggy was (think of the “guitar fellatio” moments with the definitely straight Mick Ronson onstage, the number of times it happened lost to time), there was a degree of ambiguity to the character. He was a personal Rohrschach.
Over 30 years after the album’s release, he told a television interviewer that there had been ideas for a Ziggy movie or theatrical production, but he decided against it. In fact, it was someone he met to talk about a possible script who nudged him out if it. “Why do want to do that? Why do you want to like tie up the loose ends?” Bowie quoted the person as saying. “‘Because people have such a personalized idea of who Ziggy Stardust was that you would disappoint a lot of people if you came up with a definitive personality and backstory and all that. And I think, ‘Oh, you’re right, you know.’ So, eventually I just walked away from it, doing that, and just let leave [Ziggy] be.”
But there was much for people to find in the album.
There was the boy (inspired by the bi Marc Bolan) of the piano-driven “Lady Stardust” with animal grace and long black hair, drawing the attention of the femme fatales and the boys standing on their chairs to express how they felt.
In “Moonage Daydream”, he says he’ll be that rock-and-rollin’ bitch for you, later singing, “Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me/The church of man, love/Is such a holy place to be” with the pause implied in the comma between man and love being completely absent in his delivery.
The uptempo gem “Hang On To Yourself” includes the lines, “We can’t dance, we don’t talk much, we just ball and play/Then we move like tigers on Vaseline.” Those lyrics would have been one thing from the slower version from the blink-and-you-miss it band Arnold Corns Bowie was part of in 1971. They landed differently with the full, energetic Ziggy and the Spiders treatment.
For all of its queer aspects, Ziggy Stardust had additional ideas. It was also about the passing of youth in the wake of the hippie years, written in the way that someone who was 24 going on 25 would ponder it.
“Five Years” kicks off the album by singing about the pending end of the world by ecological disaster (See, kids. The idea of climate change isn’t new).
Rather than detail the cause, Bowie/Ziggy details what’s around him– the abusive woman stopped from hitting children by a Black man, the injured soldier admiring a car he possibly can’t afford, the lover in an ice cream parlor, looking happy. It all plays to a grand sweep that kicks the album off in grand style.
“Rock and Roll Suicide” ends the album with its air of desperation and faded dreams, as Ziggy is exhausted, unable to find joy or even eat. And, yet, even without final resolution, there is catharsis as he sings “Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone/Gimme your hands ’cause you’re wonderful.”
VIDEO: David Bowie “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (Live 1973)
Ziggy, as everyone else, wasn’t going to win his battle against time, whether he could find a way out of his darker mind space would forever be one of those loose ends.
It’s a testament to Bowie’s writing that an album that starts with the looming destruction of Earth and ends with the depressed Ziggy’s fate left unresolved sounds so damned joyously enjoyable.
It certainly didn’t hurt that he had the Spiders themselves—stellar guitarist Ronson (who also supplied piano, backing vocals and did the string arrangements), bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey—who were able to deal with whatever Bowie threw at them, oftentimes with little rehearsal.
Bowie’s singing was also crucial and he was on a roll by this point. Producer Ken Scott said in his memoir “From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust” that 95 percent of his vocals were done in one take.
All of the elements in play resulted in songs that appealed across boundaries of sexuality and gender.
Ziggy Stardust is chock full of Bowie classics– the utterly epic “Moonage Daydream” taken into the stratosphere by Ronson’s solo, the genius buildup and payoff of “Ziggy Stardust”, the glorious hit leadoff single “Starman” and the raucous decadence of “Suffragette City”,complete with one of rock’s best false endings (“Oh, wham, bam, thank you ma’am!”).
But even the songs that didn’t get the same airplay stand out. The cover of Ron Davies’ ‘It Ain’t Easy” deftly melds its supper club show tune verses with an emphatic rock chorus. “Star” tips its hat to the ’50s rockabilly that influenced so much of glam, imbuing it with a desire to escape and be one’s true self. “Soul Love” may not explode like “Moonage Daydream,” but is one of Ronson’s better showcases nonetheless (even if Bowie himself wasn’t going to get mistaken for Junior Walker on the saxophone).
The album was an intoxicating blend of straight-ahead classic rock and roll and grand theatricality and camp, a high-wire act that Bowie handled as brilliantly as Philippe Petit.
Having been a one-hit wonder (1969’s “Space Oddity”) at the time of its release, Bowie would move from clubs to arenas as the album exploded. He’d remain that big of a draw over his next three decades of touring.
Explorations by others were happening or soon followed, to varying degrees of success—Mott the Hoople adopted the glam trappings and had a hit with the Bowie-penned “All the Young Dudes” released a little over a month after Ziggy Stardust. Despite flaming out a few years later, they’d put out enough quality and beloved material to eventually get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
VIDEO: David Bowie “Starman”
Bolan, who’d gotten the jump on Bowie, may not have achieved the crossover success he deserved in the States, but remains a beloved influence decades after his untimely death at 29 in an auto accident.
Jobriath, meanwhile, was both flamboyant in a way that made more assimilationist gay folks shudder and openly gay in a way that made Bowie seem coyly quaint. Simulated fellatio is one thing. Plans to open up a three-night stand (and live debut, no less) at the Paris Opera by coming on stage dressed as King King on a mini-Empire State Building only to have that building prop change into a giant ejaculating penis while transforming yourself into Marene Detrich is another.
Jobriath’s self-titled album in 1973 that could have been called Ziggy Jr. (or Hunky Ziggy Dory), given the clear and undeniable influence. While he was talented, the combination of management overhype, hubris and a label and audience hostile to such open self-acceptance led to a quick end to his rock career. Less than a decade later, he wound up playing American Songbook standards as Cole Berlin in an NYC piano bar and had to supplement his income with sex work. He passed away in 1983, one of the city’s early AIDS casualties.
As open as audiences were overall to Ziggy, there was still a penalty for being too gay or the “wrong kind” of gay.
As for Bowie, he felt that he’d taken Ziggy as far as he could. By continuing the persona, he felt he’d further be writing and performing himself into a corner. And, so he retired the Ziggy character with a July 3, 1973 show at Hammersmith Odeon.
He’d go one to reinvent himself through the rest of the decade — the Cracked Actor, the slick would-be blue-eyed soul man of Young Americans, the cocaine-fueled Thin White Duke (and his wrongheaded flirtations with fascist nationalism) and the more (if not completely) sober, open creator of the Berlin Trilogy.
He’d continue to follow his muse into different musical directions, but the last gasp of his more theatrical side would be 1987’s Glass Spider Tour. Its financial success was overshadowed by its Spinal Tapish level of self-parody, magnified by the fact that it was supporting one of Bowie’s weakest albums (Never Let Me Down).
While one could make a legitimate case for any one of his albums from 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World through 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) as his best, there’s no denying that the ripples of Ziggy continue to reverberate. They do so through fluidity of genre and gender.
Bowie’s journey of who he was ended in a different place than the LGBTQ fans he inpsired, but thanks to the revolutionary Ziggy Stardust, the door he blew open remains open for others, full of a desire to be who they are and find themselves, their own home, their own chosen family.
And if you’re one of those people, if you look close enough, you might still see that being, in perfectly-coiffed henna hair, giving impeccable face, standing tall in uncomfortably high-heeled platform shoes. They’re off to the side, giving that welcoming nod that you’re home with all the other beautiful, wonderful outcasts.