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Two Views of Bowie

In July, 1973, David Bowie announced from the stage of London's Hammersmith Odeon that he'd just played his last gig, and would now concentrate on other activities - reportedly outside the field of pop. Here Charles Shaar Murray and Ian McDonald look back on Bowie's achievements up to the time of the announcement.

THE STRANGEST STAR by Charles Shaar Murray (July 1973)

It's been a fairly bizarre 12 months for David Bowie. In the last year he made the extraordinary transition from being a critics' act, only just beginning to reach a mass public, to a people's act whom the critics detested.

He compounded this felony by scoring his greatest success with an album that received almost unanimous bad reviews. It just wasn't done.

But then if David Bowie had been into doing the done thing he wouldn't be David Bowie, and he certainly wouldn't have been Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie became an rockanroll star in the strangest possible way, a way peculiarly befitting his own particular method of operating.

After the release of "Hunky Dory", he became intrigued with the whole concept of rockanroll stardom. The song cycle that became a second side of the "Ziggy Stardust" album was Bowie's exploration of the various facets of the phenomenon: groupies, business hassles, intergroup jealousies, and eventual decline.

Remember, at this time Bowie was not a star, merely a highly touted songwriter with a small but vocal cult audience. So, when he went out on the road to promote "Hunky Dory" and to create some demand for what was to become "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars", he decided to play the part of a rockanroll star. After all, that was what the songs were about, so why not perform 'em that way? Not for nothing did Bowie refer to himself as "The Actor" on the sleeve of "Hunky Dory".

Well, what happened next has passed into legend. Bowie's assumption of the persona of Ziggy Stardust caught on so much that - you guessed it, Hildegarde - he actually became an rockanroll star. And so why not carry the role further? And so he did. Some observers perceived that a certain amount of role-playing was going on, and so, leaping aboard their high horses, they dubbed Bowie a "poseur" or labelled him "contrived".

So what? Whatcha see is whatcha get, and if it looks like a rock star, sounds like a rock star, sells records like a rock star and turns on teenage girls like a rock star, then by all criteria, it is a rock star. Much adulation, spiced with a dose of frenzied hatred. A potent brew, and one which most rock stars a forced to the dregs. David Bowie has had to swallow more than most. He was managed in a way that no-one has been managed since the heyday of Elvis A. Presley, and who's to say that manager Tony DeFries was wrong? He guided Bowie from a little-known song-writer to a position of superstardom, the most controversial man in British rock. Sure, he got the press righteously cheesed off, but they've survived, and so has Bowie, so what's the problem? As Bob Dylan put it, even the butler's got something to prove.

It must be strange to play a gig to hordes of ecstatic people who reach out their hands to you and scream for you, and then to read the papers the following morning and be told that you have no real charisma, and that you're a rip-off artist. It must be even stranger to have your one-time boosters telling you that you've sold-out and become a teeny-bopper idol, just because there are more people at your concerts there than there were before. It must be strange being an rockanroll star.

I'm writing this late in June of '73. Yesterday Bowie told me that he would never gig again, and would concentrate on "activities that have very little to do with pop." Just two months ago, Bowie had sat in a hotel room in Paris and told me that his advisors had planned out everything that he was supposed to be doing for the next two years. It seems at the time of writing as if the product has just got up and walked off the assembly line.

It's not uncharacteristic. After "Space Oddity", and the failure of the single and album which followed it, Bowie quit the business and retired to run an Arts Lab in Beckenham for 18 months, only emerging after his then record company pressured him heavily to come up with another album. It was then that he recorded "The Man Who Sold The World", the album which began his partnership with Mick Ronson.

Bowie has never been afraid to change direction if he thought he had to. So his decision to give up gigging was an exceptionally courageous move, because he could well have carried on in his present vein for some considerable period of time without losing his audience. Rule 1 of the rock business method: never, ever quit while you're ahead. But then Bowie was never into rules anyway.

By the time you read this, you'll know what (if anything) David Bowie has done since the summer. Somewhere along the line, there'll be a new album and a movie. But treasure the memories of the David Bowie live show, because from where I'm sitting it really doesn't look like there's gonna be any more…

This piece certainly isn't an obituary, personal or artistic. It's just a way of saying hail and farewell to Ziggy Stardust, a Clockwork Oddity who changed rock and roll.

SUPERSTAR BY CHOICE By Ian MacDonald

From July 5, 1972, to July 4, 1973 David Bowie was a practising superstar, possibly the best and certainly the most interesting we've yet seen. Because it was a plot from the word go - both conspiracy and fiction. David Bowie chose to become a superstar, dictated his own terms, played out the short season he'd signed on for, and then closed the box-office, all in precisely one year.

Where others came, grabbed what they could, and then faded from view, Bowie used every means at his versatile disposal to make his superstardom an allegory in itself. At a time when rock was, not to put too fine a point upon it, drowning in his own vomit, this guy became the first truly objective rock star, mixing myth with reality so complexly that a large proportion of British youth lived his imagination and saw the alternatives of his fiction as tangible. An incredible achievement.

The blueprint for his career-within-a-career exploit is contained in the album "The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars". Subtly borrowing a little reflected impact from Kubrick's socially-influential "A Clockwork Orange", Bowie outlined a vital, visionary youth's world-view and placed himself within it as a "leper messiah", Ziggy Stardust.

Simultaneously he was outside the concept, commenting on it to poignant and ironic effect - and inside it, functioning at a level of emotional commitment never before experienced in rock. In fact, I'd guess that a sizeable chunk of the public who reacted violently against Bowie's all-embracing onslaught were probably more embarrassed at the high emotional tone than at the bi-sexual posturings of his stage-act or his underlying sci-fi superman philosophy. Everything that Bowie took on after "Ziggy Stardust" was, until he did it, pure sci-fi fantasy. A man who decided to become the last star before the end of the world got him - and did it. A man who wanted to tour, not just in America, but that same world - and did it. A man who wanted to build things to nigh-on messianic proportions and then drop the lot - and did it.

With David Bowie rock was shaken awake and found itself in the musical Esperanto of the globe. And with David Bowie the tawdriness of rock and the cultural void beneath it became at first thrillingly and then horrifyingly actual.

David Bowie chose to become a superstar to show us that the day we wakeup on is the future. And that imagination, on his global level, is probably all that can save us from going under.

---This page last modified: 30 Jun 2002---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)