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The musical character from the creative mind of the master of change, David Bowie.
We all know him. We’ve all seen him. That face with the orange lightning bolt.
Combined with Bowie’s voice and celestial songwriting, the character was an indelible hit that we all love and continue to talk about today.
But where did he come from? What does the imagery mean? The lyrics? That’s what we’ll dive into here today.
Ziggy Stardust is the name of the fictional character created by the English-born Bowie and was the stage persona he took on during live shows in the early-1970s, largely from 1972 to 1973 when Bowie played shows in the U.K., Japan, and North America.
Bowie based the song “Ziggy Stardust” on the character and used it for the name of his 1972 album (his fifth), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie retired the character on July 3, 1973.
Origin And Meaning
Ziggy Stardust is an androgynous alien. He is also a rock star. Ziggy Stardust came to earth—which is lacking in natural resources—ahead of a forthcoming apocalyptic disaster to offer a message of hope. But trouble on earth occurs. Ziggy is worshiped by a legion of fans and he eventually dies as a victim of his own fame and excess. The character was created, as one might imagine, as a commentary on celebrity worship.
The look and feel of the character, ironically, propelled Bowie into even bigger stardom. The aesthetics of the character are iconic, even today, living past Bowie. And the Ziggy Stardust album became Bowie’s second-biggest in terms of sales.
In Bowie’s personal writings, there is a great deal about a never-realized theatrical performance of the Ziggy Stardust story. And the Ziggy Stardust album includes references to many different characters. In the narrative, Ziggy is torn apart during the song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”
Bowie revisited the character of Ziggy Stardust on his next LP, Aladdin Sane, which he released in 1973. That album, which topped the U.K. chart and was Bowie’s first No. 1 record, was also described by Bowie as “Ziggy goes to America.” And it contains songs written by Bowie during his North American tour the previous year.
Bowie based the character, in part, on English rock singer Vince Taylor. Bowie had met Taylor after the latter had endured a mental breakdown and believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien. Ziggy Stardust was also based, in part, on Gene Vincent.
Bowie had seen Vincent perform with a cast on his leg after Vincent had gotten into a car accident. Said Bowie of that occasion, “It meant that to crouch at the mic, as was his habit, [Vincent] had to shove his injured leg out behind him to, what I thought, great theatrical effect. This rock stance became position number one for the embryonic Ziggy.”
Others have said Bowie developed Ziggy as a combination of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. A past girlfriend recalled the anecdote of Bowie “scrawling notes on a cocktail napkin about a crazy rock star named Iggy or Ziggy.” Bowie himself proclaimed he was going to create a character “who looks like he’s landed from Mars.”
Bowie has also said that with the character, he’d “wanted to define the archetype messiah rockstar. That’s all I wanted to do. I used the trappings of kabuki theatre, mime technique, fringe New York music,” adding that it was “very much [based] on a Japanese concept.” Japan, at the time, he’d said, still felt like a very foreign place to his U.K. upbringing.
In addition, Bowie has talked about a desire to move away from the hippie aesthetic that permeated the 1960s and early 1970s. In this way, Ziggy helped to bring about the reality of glam and glam rock.
Origin Of The Name
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bowie said that the name Ziggy was “one of the few Christian names [he] could find beginning with the letter ‘Z’.” In 1990, he told Q magazine that the name was from a tailor’s shop called Ziggy’s, which he passed on a train.
He said he liked it because it had “that Iggy [Pop] connotation but it was a tailor’s shop, and I thought, Well, this whole thing is gonna be about clothes, so it was my own little joke calling him Ziggy. So Ziggy Stardust was a real compilation of things.”
Further, he added, the name Stardust came from the “Legendary Stardust Cowboy,” which was the stage name of the singer Normal Carl Odam, whom Bowie liked and followed.
Ziggy Stardust’s hair—i.e. a bright red mullet—was inspired by a model for Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, which Bowie had seen in a magazine. Bowie dressed Ziggy in long, glamorous clothes with flares and an open chest. And by 1972, Bowie was showcasing Yamamoto’s designs as stage wear for his character.
For the character, Bowie kept pale skin, which he called a “snow-white tan.” He also shaved off his eyebrows, adding to the alien appearance. On his forehead, Bowie wore a gold “astral sphere” that had been suggested by make-up artist Pierre La Roche. By the end of the Ziggy period, Bowie was spending upwards of two hours on his makeup before shows.
Bowie retired the character at a live concert on July 3, 1973, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon before 3,500 fans. Announced Bowie, “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images