by Josh Jones, Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/2012/09/ithe_story_of_ziggy_stardusti_how_david_bowie_created_the_character_that_made_him_famous.html
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham
University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A
Magazine of Arts and Politics.
In 1973, legendary director D.A. Pennebaker decided to film the London leg of David Bowie’s tour of Britain in support of Aladdin Sane.
Little did Pennebaker know that Bowie, in his most famous incarnation
as Ziggy Stardust, would announce his retirement after the final encore.
What Bowie retired, of course, was the Ziggy persona - fans of that
incarnation are indebted to Pennebaker for catching the final act in his
film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Pulling footage from Pennebaker’s concert film, and a great deal of rare footage, and narrated by Jarvis Cocker, the BBC documentary David Bowie: The Story of Ziggy Stardust (above)
does what Pennebaker’s film refused to; it tells a story, in typical TV
documentary fashion, of the rise of Ziggy.
And it’s not a story that
many fans know. The first part of the film addresses Cocker’s question: “What made this mysterious extra-terrestrial one of the most influential
cultural icons of the 20th century?”
It turns out, quite a
lot went into the making of Bowie’s 1973 breakthrough as Ziggy Stardust.
In fact, says Cocker, “at that time,” when Bowie emerged as this
seemingly fully-formed character, “we didn’t realize that he’d been
trying to be successful for 10 years.”
Bowie had fronted a number of derivative R&B groups in the early
sixties under his given name Davy (or Davie) Jones.
Since his name
invited confusion with the then-famous Monkee, he changed it in 1967 and
released his first single as David Bowie, a creepy novelty record
called The Laughing Gnome,
which was included on his first self-titled album.
The album, “a
strange mix of musical and pop,” was inspired by light comic entertainer
Anthony Newley - whose
“surreal comedy paved the way for Monty Python” - and it was a failure.
But, Cocker informs us, Bowie was learning from his mistakes: “Newley’s
quirky versatility would inform the theatrical DNA of Ziggy Stardust.”
Bowie was casting around, trying to find a persona to suit the latent
talent it seemed only he believed in. His longtime drummer Woody
Woodmansey says above, “he was going through a trial and error period,
and there was a lot of error.”
One breakthrough came when he met dancer Lindsay Kemp, who taught him
mime and with whom Bowie toured in a theater production and had an
During these years of seeming failure, Bowie learned all of the
skills that he would use to construct Ziggy: dance, mime, stage and
television acting, and sexual expression. As Kemp tells it, “he had an
enormous sexual appetite” - a central part of Ziggy, and Bowie’s, pull.
Another breakthrough came with 1970’s “Space Oddity, which hit #5 on the
UK charts. But the album of the same name did not fare well. Filled
with meandering psych-folk ballads more Donovan than Queen Bitch, Space Oddity
Bowie had not yet found his voice, nor his muse, and he
would not until he met his first wife Angie, who “made him brave” and
helped him put together his first glam-rock project The Hype, with
guitarist Mick Ronson. The hype went nowhere, but Ronson and Bowie collaborated on his next album, The Man Who Sold the World.
Finally, says Bowie, after those years of near-obscurity, “somebody
did come along and grab me by the empty wallet and said, I’m Tony
Defries and I’m going to make you a star.”
Defries introduced him to
Andy Warhol’s New York scene and he became something of a scenester
himself, but he was still too shy to fully inhabit Ziggy Stardust, so he
used a surrogate - a fashion designer named Freddie Burretti.
was to serve as the face, while Bowie wrote and sang the songs. He
called the project “Arnold Corns.”
Bowie produced the Arnold Corns
record with many of the songs that would eventually make it to the Ziggy
Stardust album - including “Moonage Daydream” - but they were rudimentary
and flat and the project was a failure, though the idea lived on while
Bowie wrote and recorded Hunky Dory with Ronson, Woody
Woodmansey, and Trevor Bolder, the lineup of Ziggy’s future Spiders From
Just two weeks after the 1972 wrap of Hunky Dory, the sessions for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars began.
Though Bowie seemed to come out of nowhere in the early 70s as an
androgynous young harbinger of rock and roll to come, those ten years he
spent working to find the perfect formula for fame had made him
A 2002 New York Times reviewer of Pennebaker’s film writes
that in 1973, Bowie’s, “lyrics often find Mr. Bowie wrestling with the
threats of time and aging, as if he were already, at age 26, staring
decrepitude in the face. Mr. Bowie is now 55 and, superficially at
least, seems none the worse for wear.”
Bowie never does seem to age. He’s made some minor missteps (Ahem … Tin Machine) and some very serious ones (that Nazi interview);
had some very dark times and some very frivolous, but he’s never seemed
to run out of ideas.
In 1997, the BBC documented Bowie’s 50th birthday, and the product, David Bowie - Changes at Fifty, pulls
together the threads of Bowie’s career, as the legend reflects on his
past influences and many changes.
Bowie revisits Ziggy and tells the
story again, from another angle, of how the strange composite creature