The rise of Ziggy Stardust:
David Bowie's version of camp rock
Henry Edwards • After Dark • October 1972
At one end of the Aylesbury Common, a group of young men play a vigorous version of 'Kick the Can'. Their enthusiasm struggles valiantly against the spiritless quality of this palest of London suburbs. Indeed, all of Aylesbury's young seem to be waging war against Aylesbury's drabness. Dressed in their most enthusiastic imitations of the latest King's Road gear, they flock towards the Borough Assembly Hall, a weather-beaten building that is the Saturday night hot spot. David Bowie is appearing at the Borough Assembly Hall and Bowie, twenty-five years old, a songwriter-singer-guitarist, a colourful but peripheral figure on the English pop scene for the last six years, has just become a star.
In pop land, a star is a performer who has a hit album and a hit single - and Bowie finally has both. His fifth LP, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, a collection of flowing melodies and ambiguous lyrics about a prototypical rock star who wears makeup, is called Lady Stardust, plays rock and roll so hard that he can drive his audience to commit murder, and becomes a spiritual suicide when time and age overcome him, has climbed to the number three spot on the English charts. Starman, a cut from the disc about a denizen from outer-space civilization who majestically proclaims: "Let the children boogie", is also among England's top ten.
On the Ziggy Stardust jacket Bowie looks as if he could pass for a peroxide-blond mannequin. He is dressed in a turquoise jump suit open almost to the navel. One hand rests inertly on his hip. There is a languorous and lascivious expression on his face. Bowie has been photographed in a phone booth and he looks as if he is waiting for an obscene proposition for anything from anyone who might wander by. It is a variation of the outrageous poly-sexual image that Bowie presents in the concert hall.
"A star is born" trumpeted Melody Maker's editor-in-chief, Ray Coleman, in Britain's most important music newspaper in a review of Bowie's most important concert to date, a performance at London's Royal Festival Hall. "He left the stage a true-1972 style pop giant," Coleman continued, "...obviously reveling in his stardom, strutting from mike to mike, slaying us all with a deadly intensity, the undisputed King of Camp Rock."
Before the undisputed King of Camp Rock takes the stage, the audience at the Assembly Hall is being warmed up by a local group, the JSD Band. There are no seats in the auditorium and, besides being crowded, the large dingy room is frighteningly hot. The heat, however, does not deter the JSD Band. They play a rollicking hilarious rock and roll version of White Christmas something most rock bands would not consider. They then deliver a dazzling tune consisting of reels, hoe-downs and highland flings. They encore with the Lennon-McCartney I Saw Her Standing There and then depart, leaving behind them a happy, sweaty crowd.
During the intermission, a fifteen-year Aylesbury lad announces: "This has got to be the biggest hype of all time."
It looks like hype. Periodically roadies appear on stage and toss David Bowie posters to the audience. Itís a bit of a business borrowed from Alice Cooper's recent London appearances and already a rock theatre cliché. The audience seems not to mind. They eagerly grab the souvenirs. Balloons float through the air and are helped along by the jolly crowd. The friendly mob, however, refuses to be worked up to the fever pitch that the poster throwers seem to demand.
The lights finally dim, and the Alla marcia from the Beethoven Ninth, played on the Moog as recorded on the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, is played over the Assembly Hall's sound system. The footlights, gelled a furious red, come up, and David Bowie and his band, The Spiders From Mars, hurl themselves onto the stage. David's hair is dyed a brutally bright orange. His soft-featured, childlike face is painted clown white. He is wearing an astonishingly multi-coloured jump suit and he looks as if he were an Ariel who had somehow flown to Hell and come back to tell all about it. The Spiders, resplendently dressed in gold costumes, began to play some palpitating rock 'n' roll. They wheel around the stage like demented tops. Occasionally David's hand rests on his hip while he's belting out his tunes. The lights playing on his innocent, unlined face colour him an unearthly green. More unearthly green. More unearthly than his face is his crotch, which seems unusually large, even inhuman.
Towards the middle of the set, he leads a sing-along to his first English hit, Space Oddity. Every significant word in the song is accompanied by an elementary gesture. When Bowie sings the word head, he touches his head. When he sings the word Ďheartí he touches his heart. It is not only somewhat silly, but it is also much too mechanical.
During the entire set, the audience has been murmuring a name, ďAndy Warhol, Andy Warhol!" and they finally shout out and David obliges by singing his mordant hymn to the career and lifestyle of the pop artist. He then solos on Jacques Brel's Amsterdam, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. He sings next the apocalyptic Five Years dramatically droning over and over again the last line of the song, "We've got five years, that's all we've got."
Mick Ronson, the Spiders from Mars lead guitarist, a silver-haired giant who glitters under the intense spotlights that are flashing on and off above him, then breaks into an intense electric guitar solo. David disappears in a blaze of throbbing strobe lights and re-appears in a white satin Elvis costume, complete with the long white scarves. A balloon floats across the stage and he crushes it between his thighs. He suddenly grabs Mick Ronson's buttocks. He slides between Ronson's legs. He performs fellatio on Ronson's extended guitar. The audience seems pleased but not overwhelmed. David concludes his performance with two Lou Reed rockers. Advertising leaflets for the star are then tossed over the heads of the audience and David disappears from the stage.
The King of Camp Rock has put on quite a show. Here is an authentic songwriting and singing talent. Here is an act that has been carefully staged and then polished to perfection. It is filled with ideas and moments borrowed freely from other rock acts like Alice Cooper, the Velvet Underground, MC-5, the Stooges, T.Rex, even the Beatles. As with all glossy novelties, it seems to have almost no substance. Bowie has always seemed to be manufacturing an act for the public.
The first public David Bowie sounded like Anthony Newley and wrote more complex versions of Anthony Newley's songs. That David Bowie was probably closest to the real thing. He was photographed in jackets and ties and was an extraordinarily handsome young man. The second David Bowie had a hit called Space Oddity, a haunting number that begins where 2001 ended. That David Bowie earned himself a cult reputation and some fans began calling him "the British Bob Dylan." Somehow that Bowie soon began to look more and more like America's Robert. When David's follow-up album to his Space Oddity album failed, he made another transformation. He grew his hair long; occasionally, he would wear a dress. He soon was being called the Lauren Bacall of Rock. Married three years, the father of a one-year old son named Zowie Bowie, David gave the following interview to Melody Maker's Mick Watts. He told Watts: "I'm gay and always have been..." Watts, who has covered Bowie throughout his many transformations could not take David seriously. Watts reported: "David's present image is to come on like a swishing queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He's as camp as a row of tents with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary". Now Bowie is an orange-haired Ziggy Stardust.
The next afternoon Bowie postpones his appointment from eleven until two. He is staying in a large but dignified suite in the Dorchester Hotel. In the sitting room there is a huge poster of him in Ziggy Stardust drag. It is the only colourful item in the room. By the time he makes his appearance, twenty minutes after the newly set time, the room has filled up with press agents, record company executives and his wife, Angela.
Angela Bowie is a remarkably plain looking young woman. Her hair is closely cropped. She has a booming voice and she projects a noise quality of forced gaiety. "Sweetie..." she bellows. "Dearie..." she roars. "Honey..." she thunders.
She quiets down only when David makes his breathtaking entrance. Swooping into the room, he is all smiles and apologies for his lateness. He sits down on the couch and focuses in on the person who is addressing him. He is wearing a white satin suit, open almost to the waist, decorated all over with huge ruby-coloured fake gems. His platform boots have red laces. His skin is whiter than white. His huge blue eyes look as if they have been treated with some mysterious chemical to make them double their normal size. His orange hair is even more startling in close quarters. He looks as if he were a hard-edged painting in acrylics that had come to life.
"My appearance changes from month to month" he remarks off-handedly. "I want to change it,Ē he continues. "I don't want to be stationary. I want to make myself a vehicle, a prop for my songs. I've always been aware of how the actor must clothe himself for the role he is portraying."
With that, David dismisses all other questions about the various David Bowie images the public have been presented with.
The mention of the "I'm gay" interview in Melody Maker makes him laugh loudly and heartily. "That was hilarious," he gasps. "I didn't have a reaction. It was quite a good article. We drew bigger audiences than we had ever drawn!" David laughs again and then turns serious. "I get flawed when people ask if I'm straight or gay or whatever. I don't want to recognize those categories. I refuse to. I will not be tied down by those kinds of things. I am drawn to those people with whom I have a sexual empathy even though I still do not think that everybody has to go out and say who exactly they're laying and why they're laying them if they did lay them and why they didn't enjoy it if they didn't".
Did that interview create any problems?
"I have a lot of friends in Gay Lib," replies a self-composed David. "I have no intention of waving a banner for them. People who join together when they're a minority are picked off much more quickly than individuals."
David stops speaking suddenly. He is the kind of person who says exactly what he wants to say and then will stop and not volunteer anymore. The subject of his wife and son elicits this comment. "I don't see my son as often as I'd like to. Nothing is going to be easy and being a parent certainly isn't. But I do intend to have a lot of children. The biggest dream I ever had was to have twenty or thirty children running around." David smiles infectiously. "I know nothing about being a parent," he continues, "I'm just playing it as best as I can. When I do see my son, we seem to get on very well. I do know that my marriage will also survive the strains of my career. Angela is my best friend."
"Everything in his pants is real," Angela Bowie booms to a guest in another part of the room. David glares straight ahead when told that some people have criticized his performance negatively. His look can only be described as defiant. "It certainly hasn't reached any full development," he comments. "I just have to go with the time. Itís like a newspaper - a visual newspaper. It must portray what is happening at the moment. It is open ended."
The subject is change quickly in order to avoid an argument about why something so "open-ended" looked so staged. David seems relieved too.
"I was born in Brixton, a very rough area that is south of London," he replies to a question about his background. "It coloured my background and so I'm well into cities. I was an inoffensive child. I went to many schools and liked school until I was twelve. I have an older brother and he was always a reader, more than I was. He made me read On The Road by Jack Kerouac. From then on, I didn't go to school very much."
David, however, did become a musician. He then became a songwriter. He joined a mime company, learned some practical facts about working in the theatre, and then started his own multimedia mime troupe Feathers.
"A lot of my thing is that I'm continually aware that I'm an actor portraying stories and that's the way I wish to take my performance," he remarks.
Most young mimes do not become superstars. Bowie blanches when he hears the word superstar. He considers it too old-fashioned a concept. He is, after all, in his own terms, a visionary. Slowly and carefully, he begins to spell out his ideas.
"There is this awful idea that there's going to be some sort of eruption in the next few years and we'll all be kaput," he announces. "What frightens me even more is that people are holding onto a century that is fast dying. That includes a lot of young people as well, those, for example, who are into the idea of communal living. I think that things are going to change so incredibly and so drastically that we should really start developing our ideas along a different tangent. I don't know which way we should go but what with the Pill and sperm banks and with all those trimmings, things have got to change very dramatically. Its going to be a brave new world and we either join it or we become living relics."
David pauses. He looks around the room. He smiles at Angela. There is a look of encouragement on her face. "There are people who are aware of this and there are people who are spearheading the future on one level or another, Alice Cooper, Marc Bolan, myself, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed - we all anticipated it almost a few years too early. Now we're all starting to emerge at the same time, which is interesting. There is a wave of the future and the kids have begun to discover that wave. They have begun to discover us. They may not know what to make of us but they are eager to reach out anyway."
While one mulls over the notion that Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper may be the next leaders of the world, David is confronted with the belief that his creation, Ziggy Stardust, is a symbol of this wave of the future.
The rock star scowls, "I don't know," he barks. "I can't tell you. I wouldn't tell you. Ziggy is a conglomerate, a conglomerate rock star. He just doesn't exist for the moment." It is obvious that Ziggy is terribly real for David, not only because it is the hit that seems to have changed his entire life. "Please don't ask me to theorise on Ziggy", he pleads. "Having written it down, there are some things in it that are so personal that I find the whole thing has become a monster on me and there are some things I never dreamed that I would have put in it."
David's irritation passes. "I definitely like being a star," he says happily. "Its the only thing that I can do that doesn't bore me. When I'm on stage I give more than any other time of my life and that makes me feel good."
What can one say? David is thanked for his time and patience.
"Thank you for coming, Sweetie," bellows Angela.
"Goodbye, David," is the last remark to the futuristic pop phenomenon named David Bowie.
"Call me Ziggy! Call me Ziggy Stardust!" are Bowie's last words.
In the lobby of the Dorchester, swarms of people scurry about. Not one of them seems aware that two floors above them, in a very expensive suite, is David-Ziggy, a young man who is sure that he is part of the wave of the future.