Read the rest of David Bowie Tribute Week here.
B. Michael Payne knows Mick precedes Mark.
This is going to sound ridiculous, but I’ve never really thought about David Bowie as one of those people who eludes being pinned by a static definition. I get that, ironically, his essence was a fluid spirit capable of embodying a host of personas. It’s just that there’s one Bowie that supersedes them all for me.
When you watch the legendary “Starman” performance on Top of the Pops, it’s clear that Bowie is Ziggy and Ziggy is Bowie, a fluid character that has temporarily become fixed. As Bowie had been David Robert Jones and would later become the Thin White Duke. But with forty-plus years removed, the semiotic subject seems far more permanent. There are about a hundred different facets you can marvel at in Bowie’s jewel of a career. My favorite is that one time he and Mick Ronson et al. created the perfect rock album.
While he’d go on to write arguably catchier songs (“Let’s Dance”) and greater albums (Low), Bowie’s music begins and ends for me with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy Stardust is a single name that solves three hitherto unsolvable problems: how do you create the perfect rock and roll star, the perfect rock and roll album, the perfect rock and roll song?
It obviously all starts with the amazing Mick Ronson guitar riff. The whole album benefits from Ronson’s musical arrangements, but the riffs are insane. They provide the, er, meaty counterpoint to Bowie’s fey and theatrical presentation. (Bowie would infamously fellate Ronson’s guitar during performances.) The song creates a continuum upon which the rockstar lives, even today. There’s the technical wizardry of Ziggy jamming good with Spiders from Mars. The irreducible charisma, he could lick em by smiling. And the tragic ending, a rock leper messiah done in by substances and ego.
For a long time, I thought of Ziggy Stardust as a great concept album. Now more than ever, it’s clear to me that all great albums are concept albums. With Soundcloud, YouTube, and the entire streaming internet memory hole making music harder to capture but superabundant, it’s hard to bother listening to a single song let alone an entire album. After reading the news about Bowie’s death (via a 4am NYT Now app notification on my phone, of course) I listened to Ziggy Stardust as I walked my dogs through a cold Brooklyn morning. I found myself singing along quietly to the album and extending the walk for longer than I should have, because I didn’t want to come in. Even though it was bitter cold and hard to focus on any one thing, I was swept along by a great feeling of love and I didn’t want it to stop. It’s analogous to when you’re sitting in the car waiting for a good song to end, but on the album scale. And it feels weird to quit at any point before the string section takes “Rock and Roll Suicide” out with a tasteful slow fade. So me and my dogs walked.
The story of the album, the “concept” part, is about how Earth is going to run out of resources within five years and everyone will perish, but then the titular Ziggy makes contact with some aliens, which gives everyone incredible hope for their salvation, and the aliens actually show up, but they don’t care one way or the other for humanity and they destroy Ziggy to take his energy. This is a very strange story that’s clearly more about process than result, since it results in the annihilation of the protagonist and presumably humanity. We spend a lot of time focusing on results over process. Pushing papers, writing things, making objects, serving other people all to get some money or fake internet points. It’s a grind. What Ziggy Stardust suggests is maybe the grind itself can become a romantic ideal, a creation of magical/celestial/
Through his life David Bowie created a whole Bowie multiverse. Plus, any person’s relationship with a public figure is apt to be speculative and dynamic. There’s a whole lot of Bowie to go around, and I can’t recall another public figure passing with such general exaltation. Even if Ziggy Stardust isn’t your favorite Bowie, I have to consider him the most successful. He jammed for much longer than five years, but the result was just as powerful. Even and especially after his death, Bowie’s music puts a gleam on life that I can’t imagine it lacking. A hazy cosmic jive that will resonate through the universe forever.