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Classics: David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars


by Zane Ewton

Have you ever driven alone on a desert highway, listening to David Bowie's "Five Years" and tears start streaming down your face, as rare as the desert rain now pelting your windshield?

That image is geographically-distant from the metropolitan Britain imagined as the setting for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. But stick with me.

Sit with this melancholic reminder of imminent apocalyptic destruction. Sit and think about how Ziggy Stardust - a bisexual alien rock star in shimmering glory - was supposed to save earth.

Ziggy lasted about a year before he famously quit this saving the world gig at his last show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. The man behind Ziggy, David Bowie, got bored, hung Ziggy up in a state of suspended animation and moved on to the next thing.

There were still four years left for girls to drink milkshakes in ice-cream parlors.

Fifty years have passed and we're still talking about Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Like any good rock and roll story, there is a mythology around Ziggy Stardust, the record, the tour, the fashion and so forth. The brief shelf life of the character only adds to the mystery that we've spent 50 years discussing at length.

Somewhere on the internet, I'm sure there is a database collecting all the words written or spoken about pop music over the decades. I'd like to think it's called Bloviate: John Lennon in New York, The Rolling Stones in Exile and Did Nirvana Really Kill Hair Metal?

I imagine the search term for "David Bowie" ranks high in the stats, followed closely by "Ziggy Stardust" and further down the list, but with an amped up sense of pretentiousness, would be "David Bowie in Berlin."

Lesser artists would have created a Ziggy, got lucky with that shred of success and never let go of the formula. Lesser artists would still be touring state fairs dressed as Ziggy 30 years later. Pants let out around the middle and makeup creeping further up their receding hairline.

To properly appreciate the breadth of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and its rather half-baked story within the album, it's proper to listen while sitting alone in a bedroom and brooding. Or at least take yourself back to a time when you would sit alone in your bedroom and brood.

If that's not your scene, you can still appreciate the record for being a top to bottom masterclass in rock/pop dramatics on a foundation of stellar songwriting. Nothing lives on longer than an undeniable song.

The sense of danger, dread and ultimate failure is palpable while also wrapped in a sexy pop sheen of accessible, sing-along songs. One of Bowie's best creative qualities was in his attention to what was going on around him, nicking the best bits and bobs and then straining it all through himself. Or whatever version of himself was center stage at that moment.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was an example of that where every little detail mattered and endured well beyond its potential shelf life.

Here's where Ziggy hit deeper than what Bowie had done before or what was to come: Ziggy in full regalia, swinging an acoustic guitar was permission for generations of weirdos (in the best sense of the word) to feel seen and lifted up by an interplanetary being. That's all any of us weirdos can hope for when it feels like the world is anything but accepting.

Cultural influence is a fine thing. Connecting with a frustrated teenager who's trying to figure out who they are is nothing short of revolutionary. Timeless.

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