David Bowie

What is the Ziggy Story?

Artwork Brian ward

There has been an interesting debate recently about “The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust” album. Is there a story? If there is what is it? Could it provide the basis for a stage musical?

Like  for many Bowie fans it is one of my favourites, but I have always struggled to identify a narrative thread. It overflows with great songs, many with tantalising  vignettes, but I have never felt they joined together much beyond being either side of a slab of vinyl. Several commentators, notably Marc Spitz and Peter Doggett have attempted to lay the story bare. But I have found their commentaries unconvincing and unsatisfactory.

So, after fifty years I thought I would give it a go, I would try and pick out what is actually happening in the songs. Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey were separately, and individually, quoted as saying that they had no idea what the album is about, but even if there is no big novel, there are some glorious novelettes.

The first challenge is one of chronology. The album has a running order, but there is no evidence that running order fitted a storyline. Instead it satisfies the practical demands two sides of vinyl, around 20 minutes maximum each side, composed and edited accordingly.

“Five Years” opens portentously as our protagonist declares that  five years is all we’ve got. Why is unclear. His reaction, and of those around him, is what is memorable.

“Soul love” an unknown figure mourns the loss of an unknown son, for an unknown slogan, is it Ziggy? Could be. Great love song though.

“Moonage Daydream” Three songs in,  we are introduced to the protagonist” I’m an alligator. I’m a momma poppa coming for you, I’m a space invader, I’ll be a rock n roll bitch for you” Make of that what you will. Great Ronno guitar solo though.

“Starman” is the first straightforward  narrative song, and the last original song, on the first side, we are almost half way through. It amounts to a  children’s fairy tale of a Starman waiting in the sky who would like to come and meet us, but doesn’t. he sounds a bit more benevolent than “The alligator” though. The song itself is sublime, but it is the chorus and melody which grab the attention.

“it Ain’t easy” closes side one and is a cover, the verses are quite long but have no connection with the songs that bookend it. Maybe  simply “it ain’t easy to find a song to complete the album with original material? The intriguing bit is the one line refrain “It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down” which anticipates  “Rock n Roll Suicide” at the end of side two. Bowie only played it live once, in Paris 3rd June 1971. I think that it is safe to assume that this is no hidden key to the album

“Lady Stardust” is a beautiful narrative song about a male singer, is it about Ziggy? Or is Ziggy the observer. Or is it, as most believe, a song about Marc Bolan and nothing to do with Ziggy Stardust at all? I think the latter.

The closing quartet of songs do at least hang together:

“Star” is Bowie’s own dream of rock n roll stardom

“Hang on to yourself” is Bowie living out that dream on stage ( and what an opener live  it was in the early days).

“Ziggy Stardust” is to my mind the story, in its entity, and magnificence containing  the  killer line, “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”. And that is it…

“Suffragette City” is one of the great rock n roll songs, but it is not a physical place, it is a place where Ziggy and his fans inhabit  in his stardom and prevents the album closing on the downbeat “ Rock n Roll suicide.

“Rock n Roll suicide” when you listen  carefully, with its chev breaks snarling, is almost a reprise to “Five Years” and its cadillac in the same way that “Sweet thing” bleeds into “Candidate” on “Diamond Dogs” But because they are separated, on opposite sides of the album, first and last, are never listened to together.

Pic Newcastle Chronicle archive

The narrative and lyrics are terrific, but don’t link up with anything else other than offering a doom laden crescendo for an unknown person. Is it Ziggy, or is it Ziggy observing, or someone else observing? The Starman perhaps? Bowie would close the Ziggy shows withn the song and maybe it was simply a good dramatic way to get Ziggy, and David offstage and into the dressing room at the end of the show ( gimme your hands, your’e wonderful), neat eh?

Despite this being one of my favourite albums, and it being the one I have listened to longest, I had never before attempted to join up the songs. My conclusions?

The lyrics” of “It Aint easy” ( a song and recording I dislike), are far more resonant with the mood of Ziggy the character than I had realised.  “Five Years” and “Rock n roll suicide” are a sequence I had not previously spotted. The reason why David tried and failed to create a musical is that Ziggy is a character without a story. At a push you could try to shoehorn a few Hunky Dory songs (life on Mars) and Aladdin Sane songs ( “watch that man” and “lady grinning soul”) into the mix as they do not sound too discordant with the core album, but it wouldn’t help a story and complicates things rather than makes it easier.

Is Bowie Ziggy, or is Ziggy Bowie? Who knows?

Maybe the joy of the Ziggy creation is that it means different things to different people, its ambiguity being its strength? But it’s been fun revisiting it. What do you think?

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