It was sometime during my twelfth year that it occurred to me I was a Spider from Mars.
I had travelled light years from the boy who had single-handedly captured an entire German platoon with a rifle fashioned from an axe handle or when the moon followed me home as I watched it from the back seat of my parents’ car.
The posters of Johnny Unitas and Vida Blue hung in a bedroom in another galaxy were, in another time-space location, replaced with the old man drawing from Zep’s Zoso and the Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon triangle.
Prior to my realization of my alien status, I recall walking into a record store with a fist full of my first earned dollars, searching out something to buy. Marvin Gaye, John Lennon and Black Sabbath were a given; what was left in my pocket was given to something I hadn’t tasted before. Several rows were filled with an album featuring some weird dude holding a guitar, his boot defiantly pressed against old bricks. I knew Bowie from “Space Oddity” and I was not a fan. For a kid looking for something as hard and fast and insane as it got, Bowie hadn’t done it for me.
Yet, when I asked the record store worker what he thought of Bowie’s new album, he replied, “It’s OK, if you don’t want any friends.”
Of course, I bought it.
After countless hours of wearing the grooves out on Marvin, Lennon and Sabbath, satisfied with the revelations on each disk, I finally tore the shrink wrap off of Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and put a tentative stylus onto the vinyl.
On the back cover, the words, “To be played at maximum volume,” were taken literally (not as though I needed additional prompting, however) as I immersed myself in some of the most revolutionary music I’d ever heard. Although the first side was a little on the tame side (harkening back to his older, Bertolt Brecht-flavored theatrical overkill.
Hey, I was 12 ... the artsy stuff bored me at that stage of my life. Alice Cooper dismembering baby dolls and faking a guillotine was the absolute extent of theatre I’d endure.
However, with Bowie finishing the first side with “Starman” and “It Ain’t Easy,” things got kicked up a notch, somewhat preparing me for the sonic thrill presented on side two.
Only “Star” and “Hang on to Yourself” prevent the second side from being one of the greatest sides in Rock and Roll history. However, “Lady Stardust, “ “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” are more than sufficient to warrant calling the album a classic (really, who can’t help but shout, “Ahhhhhh ... wham, bam, thank you ma’am!”).
The genius of Bowie was that so much of what he did was talked about years after he did it, remains relevant today; what he made is remade, endlessly, like a Mandelbrot set, endless iterations of his vision. The genius of Ziggy Stardust was making a legion of teenagers aware that being different — an alien on Earth — was not only cool but righteous salvation in a society that was growing more and more bland, homogenous, and stultifying.
If Ziggy was prescient, it was because Bowie seemed to stand somewhere far in the future, messing with the time line, setting the stage for the biggest shake up in music since Elvis scored some time in Sun studios.
Yes, the return Thin White Duke arguably determined what would become Punk music: Disgust, hate, fear or of any sense that the future would bring anything other than totalitarian normalcy. The Ramones might have defined the Punk sound but the attitude, the rejection of social norms and the call to break free of convention , to destroy the stale in order to gather the pieces to create the new — ultimately, the punk credo — rested firmly in the manqué that Bowie consistently reinvented.
As a child who wasn’t fit for (nor inclined towards) sports, much less the society that so valued those skills, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” was exactly what I had waited for all my young life.
To hear that I wasn’t alone in thinking that I wasn’t fit for society (or that society wasn’t exactly ready for the likes of me) was just what I was waiting for. Ziggy told us all that we were the next generation, to hold out and hold on, that our time would come and I was only too prepared to hear that message.
At the beginning of “The Runaways,” Cherie Curie (played with disaffected perfection by Dakota Fanning) lip synchs “Lady Grinning Soul” wearing “Hunky Dory” era makeup and strutting with a sneering defiance. She gets booed off the stage but her smirk betrays an inner knowledge, gritting her teeth as she walks into the wings assured that what everything applauded will be forgotten by next year’s talent show but her own performance will be talked about for years to come.
As a Spider from Mars, an alien, a geek in the midst of shoulder-punching Neanderthals (I read too much, I thought too much, I felt too much), Bowie offered me succor in an otherwise dismal stage of development. Whereas people I knew said, “I won’t listen to that music,” their ignorant disregard for what they were missing was a badge of honor for me, my identity as a card-carrying alien.
Following Ziggy, Bowie continued to create music that kicked open the empty skull of popular music on the side of the gutter, spreading candy through the street. Extending the Rolling Stones groove on “Diamond Dogs” and “Young Americans,” Bowie shifted gears with his “Berlin Trilogy” (“Heroes,” “Low” and “Lodger”), working with Brian Eno to again time travel back from the future to reassess our past.
As with most non-fans, I lost interest after “Scary Monsters” (his last stab at noncommercial success), Bowie’s magic having moved me to another galaxy, another space-time plane.
What technology has done for music has probably rendered a modern-day Bowie irrelevant — there is no reason to step outside civilization when we all can do that virtually.
However, for those of us old enough to remember vinyl and the importance that came with each and every album but especially, the cultural currency that meant to define us, tight and restricting as a straightjacket, Ziggy Stardust was not only essential for discovering this space-time pocket but provided the air necessary to survive in the cold vacuum between the stars.