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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

Lockdown Bookclub – Ziggyology

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

‘I never thought I’d need so many people’ - Five Years

I’m writing this during the third week of lockdown and the fourth week since we decided to self-isolate. I’ve been listening to Five Years a lot. I’ve been finding comfort in Bowie, as I have so many times before. I never knew I was in the song – but now I do and here we are.

Outside, there’s a strong sense of foreboding, like the one Bowie describes on Five Years. People are panic buying, queuing for groceries in surgical masks. Each day the death toll rises. In the midst of a global pandemic, there’s a palpable sense that the earth is really dying. My brain hurts a lot. And I know Im not the only one. If a news guy broke down and wept, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

I was 15 when I first listened to Ziggy Stardust, several years after it was first released. In 1972 I was far too young for pop music, though I do have a dim memory of the time. ‘It is difficult to find a bright moment in 1972,’ the historian Christopher Lee wrote in This Sceptred Isle. History tells us that it was a year of mass unemployment, strikes, blackouts and the declaration of a state of emergency. A bit like the year we’re living through now.

Still, Lee was wrong. There was a bright moment in 1972. It was the year David Bowie released his breakthrough album and a star was born. There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ glam rock film Velvet Goldmine where Christian Bale’s character is in his parents’ living room, pointing excitedly at the TV and saying, ‘That’s me, that is!’ The film takes its title from a Bowie song. The TV moment Haynes is alluding to is Bowie’s famous appearance on Top Of The Pops in July 1972, singing Starman.

Bowie had been performing as Ziggy for six months by then, at music venues up and down the country. But for many people, this was the ‘bright moment’ when his carrot-topped bisexual alien was first beamed into their lives. And what a moment it must have been. Dressed in a skin-tight jumpsuit, his face plastered with makeup, his arm draped suggestively around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder, Bowie’s performance is outrageous even by today’s standards.

Legend has it that he nearly didn’t appear at all, that a producer told his manager, ‘We don’t have perverts on Top of the Pops!’ Still the broadcast went ahead, catapulting him to stardom and encouraging a generation of gay men and other alienated outsiders to revel in their difference. In his Ziggy persona, Bowie didn’t just say that homosexuality was okay. He said that it was cool. Fifty years ago, that was a powerful message.

Bowie was part of the soundtrack to my life before I even knew who he was or could name a single one of his songs. My school friend Richard Green had an older brother who worshipped Bowie. After school, we’d go back to Richard’s house and sit on his brother’s bed while he played us songs about astronauts and aliens. I still recall the iconic lightning flash poster on the wall and the way Richard’s brother filled out his tight purple flares.

Then in 1980, when I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality, it was Bowie I turned to. Ashes to Ashes was number one and my local branch of WH Smith had all the classic 70s albums for £3.99 each. I became a devoted back fan, working my way from The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory and Diamond Dogs right through to Low, Heroes and Scary Monsters.

But one album made a greater impression on me than all the others, and that album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider From Mars. I played it once, ‘AT MAXIMUM VOLUME’ as instructed on the record sleeve, and that was it. Wham, bam, thank you, glam! I was a Ziggy freak. In 1980, a full seven years after Bowie famously killed off his creation, I was sporting a Ziggy-style orange mullet. I shaved off my eyebrows and wore makeup. I had my ears pierced and delighted in shocking my schoolmates – all the while denying the fact that I was gay.

At 15, I wasn’t ready to come out and embrace my ‘true identity’. But that didn’t matter because Bowie taught me that a person could have many identities, and that none of them needed to be authentic. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke – they were all just characters, but by playing them he was liberated from simply being himself. And despite having one foot firmly in the closet, I felt liberated too. I was liberated from feeling the need to fit in, liberated from being afraid of what other people thought of me. I was proud to be called a freak. I knew I was in good company.

Ziggyology explores the many influences that brought Ziggy Stardust to life, from Vince Taylor, Elvis and Iggy to Kabuki theatre and Stanley Kubrick. It’s an in-depth study of a phenomenon that lasted for a little over 18 months but which left a lasting impression on rock music. It’s a must-read for any Bowie fan – especially one who, like me, was inspired to become a little Ziggy of my own.

Many years later, during the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre, I finally met the man who meant so much to me as a teenager and whose music I still listen to today. I was high on adrenaline, drunk on champagne and nervous as hell. The first thing I said to him was, ‘When I was 15 you saved my life!’ He must have heard that a lot, because he smiled playfully, raised a quizzical eyebrow and said, ‘Really?’ 

Yes, really. David Bowie saved my life. And Ziggy Stardust is helping me live through this, his words a timely reminder – ‘Oh no, love, you’re not alone.’

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