The Story of Ziggy Stardust: How David Bowie Created the Character that Made Him Famous

In 1973, leg­endary direc­tor D.A. Pen­nebak­er decid­ed to film the Lon­don leg of David Bowie’s tour of Britain in sup­port of Aladdin Sane. Lit­tle did Pen­nebak­er know that Bowie, in his most famous incar­na­tion as Zig­gy Star­dust, would announce his retire­ment after the final encore. What Bowie retired, of course, was the Zig­gy persona—fans of that incar­na­tion are indebt­ed to Pen­nebak­er for catch­ing the final act in his film Zig­gy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars.

Pulling footage from Pennebaker’s con­cert film, and a great deal of rare footage, and nar­rat­ed by Jarvis Cock­er, the BBC doc­u­men­tary David Bowie: The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust (above) does what Pennebaker’s film refused to; it tells a sto­ry, in typ­i­cal TV doc­u­men­tary fash­ion, of the rise of Zig­gy. And it’s not a sto­ry that many fans know. The first part of the film address­es Cocker’s ques­tion: “What made this mys­te­ri­ous extra-ter­res­tri­al one of the most influ­en­tial cul­tur­al icons of the 20th cen­tu­ry?” It turns out, quite a lot went into the mak­ing of Bowie’s 1973 break­through as Zig­gy Star­dust. In fact, says Cock­er, “at that time,” when Bowie emerged as this seem­ing­ly ful­ly-formed char­ac­ter, “we didn’t real­ize that he’d been try­ing to be suc­cess­ful for 10 years.”

Bowie had front­ed a num­ber of deriv­a­tive R&B groups in the ear­ly six­ties under his giv­en name Davy (or Davie) Jones. Since his name invit­ed con­fu­sion with the then-famous Mon­kee, he changed it in 1967 and released his first sin­gle as David Bowie, a creepy nov­el­ty record called The Laugh­ing Gnome, which was includ­ed on his first self-titled album. The album, “a strange mix of musi­cal and pop,” was inspired by light com­ic enter­tain­er Antho­ny New­ley–whose “sur­re­al com­e­dy paved the way for Mon­ty Python”–and it was a fail­ure. But, Cock­er informs us, Bowie was learn­ing from his mis­takes: “Newley’s quirky ver­sa­til­i­ty would inform the the­atri­cal DNA of Zig­gy Star­dust.” Bowie was cast­ing around, try­ing to find a per­sona to suit the latent tal­ent it seemed only he believed in. His long­time drum­mer Woody Wood­mansey says above, “he was going through a tri­al and error peri­od, and there was a lot of error.”

One break­through came when he met dancer Lind­say Kemp, who taught him mime and with whom Bowie toured in a the­ater pro­duc­tion and had an affair. Dur­ing these years of seem­ing fail­ure, Bowie learned all of the skills that he would use to con­struct Zig­gy: dance, mime, stage and tele­vi­sion act­ing, and sex­u­al expres­sion. As Kemp tells it, “he had an enor­mous sex­u­al appetite”—a cen­tral part of Zig­gy, and Bowie’s, pull. Anoth­er break­through came with 1970’s “Space Odd­i­ty, which hit #5 on the UK charts. But the album of the same name did not fare well. Filled with mean­der­ing psych-folk bal­lads more Dono­van than Queen Bitch, Space Odd­i­ty dis­ap­point­ed. Bowie had not yet found his voice, nor his muse, and he would not until he met his first wife Ang­ie, who “made him brave” and helped him put togeth­er his first glam-rock project The Hype, with gui­tarist Mick Ron­son. The hype went nowhere, but Ron­son and Bowie col­lab­o­rat­ed on his next album, The Man Who Sold the World.

Final­ly, says Bowie, after those years of near-obscu­ri­ty, “some­body did come along and grab me by the emp­ty wal­let and said, I’m Tony Defries and I’m going to make you a star.” Defries intro­duced him to Andy Warhol’s New York scene and he became some­thing of a scen­ester him­self, but he was still too shy to ful­ly inhab­it Zig­gy Star­dust, so he used a surrogate—a fash­ion design­er named Fred­die Bur­ret­ti. Bur­ret­ti was to serve as the face, while Bowie wrote and sang the songs. He called the project “Arnold Corns.” Bowie pro­duced the Arnold Corns record with many of the songs that would even­tu­al­ly make it to the Zig­gy Star­dust album—including “Moon­age Daydream”—but they were rudi­men­ta­ry and flat and the project was a fail­ure, though the idea lived on while Bowie wrote and record­ed Hunky Dory with Ron­son, Woody Wood­mansey, and Trevor Bold­er, the line­up of Zig­gy’s future Spi­ders From Mars. Just two weeks after the 1972 wrap of Hunky Dory, the ses­sions for Zig­gy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars began.

Though Bowie seemed to come out of nowhere in the ear­ly 70s as an androg­y­nous young har­bin­ger of rock and roll to come, those ten years he spent work­ing to find the per­fect for­mu­la for fame had made him reflec­tive. A 2002 New York Times review­er of Pen­nebak­er’s film writes that in 1973, Bowie’s, “lyrics often find Mr. Bowie wrestling with the threats of time and aging, as if he were already, at age 26, star­ing decrepi­tude in the face. Mr. Bowie is now 55 and, super­fi­cial­ly at least, seems none the worse for wear.”

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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