#35: David Bowie, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" (1972)

35 Ziggy Stardust.jpg

These beings, these Infinites, they go on and on. They go on forever, traveling across the universe through black holes. They travel through the universe until they arrive at the blue and green and grey planet called Earth, and one of them says, “Why is this planet grey?” and another one says, “The grey is the planet’s cancer, she is sick.” The first Infinite says, “We are infinite, we know better than to say a planet has cancer or is sick.” The second infinite says, “It was intended as a metaphor.” A third infinite says, “How can we help these people? I mean, while helping ourselves?” The first infinite says, “It’s not our job to help these people.” The second infinite says, “Maybe if we just make them feel a little better before they die.”

*

Meanwhile, the people of Earth, they sigh. And they cry. It’s because they’ve exhausted their planet’s resources, sucked the life from the blue and green orb circling the sun. What’s left to do but sigh? And cry? When the news of Earth’s end was announced—“We have five years,” the experts said—news anchors cried. Their tears filled screens, matching the tears of their viewers; tears so plentiful they threatened to spill out the front of televisions and soak the floors of homes. The more skeptical pundits challenged the idea that the world was ending—“How solipsistic,” one commentator announced, “to believe the world is ending simply because we have run out of the resources we depend on to keep us comfortable.” Others questioned the idea of having five years left for the planet—for many, once services and utilities began drying up, one more hour alive seemed incomprehensible, while for others, a life time post-civilization seemed like paradise. It wasn’t long after the news broke that Earth’s electricity supply was exhausted. Conversations and speculation about the current predicament became confined to private residences or among groups of neighbors in the safety of their backyards. Who dared venture out to the streets? Because of course the streets were overrun by the young and able-bodied as they attempted to—what? Provide for themselves? Seek the thrills that they were too frightened to seek when their existence stretched out before them for decades instead of for just a few more years? Maybe those young people were simply venting their rage at the older generations and the greed that caused the end of the world? It’s not like any of them could do anything to fix it. What did any of it matter?

*

A rock and roll band without electricity isn’t much of a rock and roll band, but that’s what Ziggy is left with here at the end of the world. Ziggy’s band is called the Spiders From Mars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ziggy or his band are from Mars, though some think they might be due to their, especially Ziggy’s, willingness to shuck gender norms and fashion conventions. Still, despite the band’s radical image, there isn’t much demand for rock music at the end of the world. Ziggy’s manager tells him, “Maybe you should sing the news?” And Ziggy says, “What are you talking about?” The manager says, “Like, there’s no news anymore, nobody knows what is going on, so maybe go out into the streets and sing the news.” Ziggy, not knowing what else the fuck to do with his final years of existence decides this seems like an OK idea, because at least he’ll still be making music.

*

[From “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie” as published in Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

Burroughs: Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.

Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. [The album was released three years ago.] Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock & roll band and the kids no longer want rock & roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. “All the Young Dudes” is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.

Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.]

*

Ziggy plays guitar, and the Spiders From Mars back him up. Without electricity, they strum and tap. Maybe their performances exist like in musicals, reality slipping away to show us the ideal performance, plugged in and loud. This is fiction, after all, why not take license with reality? On the streets, Ziggy and the Spiders From Mars observe and report the news through their songs, but they soon learn that there is no good news left anywhere—all they have to report is violence, crime, suicide, the stuff of rock and roll romance, of youthful excess, but nobody wants to hear that.

*

Elsewhere, one Infinite says, “We will prepare the Earthlings for our visit.” Another Infinite says, “Why bother?” The first Infinite says, “Our arrival will be smoother if they are prepared.” A third Infinite says, “It’s not like we’re really going to do anything meaningful while we’re on their planet. Maybe most of them won’t even know we’re there.” The first Infinite says, “But maybe if we’ve prepared them, they will celebrate our arrival.” The third Infinite says, “Why bother?” The first Infinite says, “Why not?” The second Infinite says, “Eh.”

*

One night in his sleep, Ziggy receives a message in the form of a dream: a Starman will visit the Earth and deliver the Earth’s people from evil, will become their salvation. Inspired by his vision, Ziggy decides that he will spread the Good News of the Starman to Earth’s people, will give them hope in the darkness. Of course the People of Earth are inclined to believe in this idea of a Starman who will come save them—the idea isn’t that far removed from Christianity, after all. For his part, Ziggy comes to believe that he is a profit of the Starman and preaches Judeo-Christian principles of love and acceptance, all while challenging the culture he lives in’s beliefs about gender identity. Now, as frequently happens in these types of rock and roll stories, as Ziggy embraces what he believes to be his new role as a prophet for the Starman, and as his popularity grows, the Spiders From Mars become jealous as they are being forgotten. Maybe the band breaks up? Maybe the whole Starman thing and Ziggy’s belief in it falls apart? Who knows, really.

*

[From “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie” as published in Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

Bowie: Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes “Starman,” which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.]

*

The Infinites slide out of a black hole like meat from a grinder and alight in Greenwich Village. They are labeled as a Black New Yorker, Resembles Brando, and Queenie the Fox. Nobody can see them, though, because they’re non-corporeal black hole jumping beings. When they get to Greenwich Village, they go for a drink. They can’t really drink because they’re non-corporeal. Nothing else happens. Nobody even really knows they’re there. Queenie the Fox says, “What’s the point?” The Black New Yorker says, “Because we are anti-matter, these people don’t even know we’re here.” Resembles Brando says, “Why do they need to know we’re here? We’re here, isn’t that what matters?” Then he adds, “Wait, why are we even here?” The Black New Yorker says, “Exactly.” Queenie the Fox says, “If only there were a way we could become corporeal.” Resembles Brando says, “What would we do then?” Queenie the Fox says, “I don’t know—touch stuff?”

*

For their part, Ziggy and his followers wait for the Starman. As their fervor increases, Ziggy’s disciples protect him, feed him, and bathe him. They do whatever it takes to keep him alive, even giving him increasingly rare food. They look at Ziggy and see hope for a time that they truly know is gone, but perhaps, too, they see in him forgiveness for the nihilism and hedonistic embrace of their pleasure drives from the time when they’d initially learned they only had five years left to live. Sure, Jesus came to Earth and forgave everyone’s sins, but then he was co-opted by those who would wield the power of his teachings to attempt to enforce “traditional values.” For Ziggy’s followers, here was an omni-sexual rock and roll star with his tongue on the pulse of the violence and lust of their young souls, offering still some kind of absolution, some kind of acceptance.

*

And maybe this is the part of the story where we acknowledge that the story doesn’t make any sense. Nobody even really knows what the story is. Some people say Ziggy Stardust was from Mars, that he was the Spaceman come to preach love to the people of Earth. But that’s not what Bowie said, though who knows if Bowie even knew what Bowie was saying through most of the ‘70s. I mean, who are the Infinites? Why do they tell Ziggy to preach of a Starman? Why doesn’t anything happen when they reach Earth? Why do they want to become corporeal? What the fuck does any of this mean?

*

[From “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman: William Burroughs Interviews David Bowie” as published in Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

Bowie: Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide.” As soon as Ziggy dies onstage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today…]

*

And so the Infinites track down Ziggy, who is onstage singing “Rock and Roll Suicide” to his disciples, and the Infinites break off pieces of Ziggy, and they probably say something like, “Ziggy said, 'Take it and eat it, for this is my body,'” and they consume the pieces and they become corporeal, and Ziggy’s disciples look on in wonder, quietly murmuring, wondering if these are the Starmen who were sent to save them. The infinites look out at the crowd of disciples. The disciples look back, expectant—

*

The Infinites shrug. Or the Infinites raise their arms and stuff the Earth full of Infinite resources. Or the Infinites lift the people of Earth up into space to a new planet. Or the Infinites reach out and say, “You are not alone.” They say “Gimme your hands,” and the people comply, and they all die together, at least understanding they are all beautiful, all wonderful.

*

[Bowie: “I wasn’t at all surprised ‘Ziggy Stardust’ made my career. I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star.”]

*

And so what then? Did civilization end? Did the Infinites deliver Ziggy’s disciples and anyone else alive on Earth from their grim demise? Did Ziggy rise again three days later? On Ziggy’s future Earth, is there a church of Ziggy where attendees eat acid tabs and say, “This is his body”? We don’t know, will never know. There was no, will never be, a story.

—James Brubaker