I’ve made much mention of the Ziggy Stardust storyline, but I haven’t taken the time to fully explain it yet. This is a general outline as far as I see it, containing elements of my own interpretation.
It starts with Earth in crisis, five years from its natural resources running out and it wasting away to nothing. An alien named Ziggy Stardust comes to Earth with the quest of saving it from destruction. Ziggy is flamboyant, hedonistic, sexually promiscuous and prone to decadence. He sends out a transmission that’s heard by the young people of the world on their radios, which leads them to organize and mobilize, rallying around Ziggy as a leader. As is only natural for him, he becomes a rock and roll star along with his band, the Spiders From Mars. They take over the world with their high-octane rock and sexually liberal attitude. As Ziggy becomes bigger and more popular, he becomes more egocentric as well, which leads to distance from and friction with his band mates. It also leads to paranoia. His fear is that he will die on stage, which comes true. He is consumed by his own glory and fame – possibly assassinated by one of his own band mates – but ascends to a higher level of consciousness, joining the spirits of rock and roll in a kind of heaven. With his exit, he leaves the Earth to its doom.
In what passes for a title track of an album with a prohibitively long name, “Ziggy Stardust” is one of the few moments in the album where Ziggy is looked at from the outside. The song’s narrator is a member of the Spiders From Mars who reverentially describes Ziggy with a poetic flare, but also details his growing pomposity and decadence. Make no mistake; Ziggy is an extravagant figure, and his band mate’s description of him is accurate. He’s a true rock star, larger than life and louder than bombs. And just as his rock stardom is legendary, so are his indulgences and excesses. The song eventually ends with the Spiders deciding to break up, but not before one last show.
David Bowie (the real person divorced from the Ziggy persona) was actually afraid he would die on stage, more specifically that he would be assassinated. I say “afraid,” but I think Bowie was more than just scared. He was excited and hesitant, but he mostly just thought that this was his destiny. With each passing concert, he felt more certain that it would end this way.
As a coping mechanism, he incorporated it into his stage show. In an intensely interesting and weirdly ingenious turn, he takes his actual paranoia about himself and funnels it into the story of Ziggy. Ziggy not only dies at the end of the album, but every show Ziggy gave was his farewell. On the 1972 tour, right before Bowie and his band performed “Rock and Roll Suicide” as the closer, Bowie in the guise of Ziggy would say, “this is the last show we’ll ever do.” In doing that, Bowie wasn’t going to die anymore; Ziggy was.
The song’s called “Rock and Roll Suicide” because Ziggy had a premonition and other-worldly certainty that he would die. He knew he would be killed at that show, but he went on with it anyway, marching knowingly towards death. You may be sick of hearing this by now, but this is yet another parallel to Jesus Christ. It part of the admitted story of the album that Ziggy is some sort of Messiah, so comparisons between him and Christ are only natural. Jesus, at some point, knew that he was put onto this earth to save its people from their sins, and that he would do that by being the eternal blood payment for those sins; by dying. He was certain of it being unavoidable, just as Ziggy did.
Bowie said himself that he got lost in the Ziggy persona, blurring the line between where David ended and Ziggy began. On that tour, so many people were telling him and acting like he was a real Messiah. He was eventually able to put Ziggy in a pen, but not before he mined him for all he was worth. In the same way that “Suffragette City” was a single by Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, his next album, 1973’s Aladdin Sane, was as close as he ever came to making an entire album by Ziggy’s band. Pin-Ups followed that same year, which was a Ziggy album of cover songs. And finally, 1974 saw Diamond Dogs, morphing the Ziggy character into a post-apocalyptic wanderer.
After that, he left Ziggy behind and went into his “plastic soul” era, the Thin White Duke, his techno dalliances and his forays into dance music during the 80s. Now, 45 years after his musical career began, Bowie is rock and roll royalty. And the crown jewel of his glittering crown will always be Ziggy Stardust.
Next: director Todd Haynes takes the story of the glam rock era and does… something. I’m not really sure what.