Sub-Cult

Why Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars Deserves Cult Status

In a special entry for Sub-Cult, Nathan Rabin remembers the career of David Bowie and looks back at an underseen concert film made in 1973 but released a decade later.

by | January 19, 2016 | Comments

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When David Bowie died recently following a secret 18-month battle with cancer, it was devastating because he was an artist whose brilliance, importance, and influence were almost impossible to overstate but also because it was so horribly unexpected. It was such an awful shock, a terrible blow to the psyches of fans and friends and acolytes throughout the world.

Bowie’s family knew that he had been fighting a valiant but ultimately unwinnable war with terminal illness for the last year-and-a-half of his life, but the rest of us were left with the impression that not only was Bowie not on death’s door, he was actually doing spectacularly well.

I remember reading that he was turning 69 and releasing a new album (Blackstar) and being incredibly encouraged that someone who had accomplished so much, who had such a massive influence on the world, and was still so relatively young (he wasn’t even in his 70s yet), remained so vital, so productive, and so handsome, charming and well-preserved.

Over a matter of days, the world went from marveling at Bowie’s inspiring resilience to facing a future where Bowie would never write another song or perform another concert or joke with his wife or breathe another breath. Seemingly in a heartbeat, he went from the present tense to the past tense. He would never recreate himself again. His story and his amazing, improbable life was over.

Like a true rock star and pop icon, Bowie maintained an air of mystery no matter how famous he became or how endlessly chronicled and celebrated his life and career were. And this terrible illness, this godforsaken curse that took him — and so many others — from us was among his last secrets.

Bowie was the patron saint of freaks and weirdos and outsiders. He made anything seem possible. He taught us that we could be whoever we wanted to be, that we could take the shabby rags of heredity and geography and biology and, with enough imagination and hard work and determination, transform them into the velvet and lace finery of our wildest imagination. We could be our own heroes. We could create ourselves, and when we tired of our creation, we could reinvent ourselves and become somebody else entirely, as he had done so often and so brilliantly.

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“Bowie was the patron saint of freaks and weirdos and outsiders. He made anything seem possible.”

We couldn’t be Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, of course. Those identities belonged exclusively to Bowie. But we could be our own creations, and Bowie could help us find our voices, help us locate our beautiful inner freaks. So when we mourn Bowie, we’re also mourning the role he played in our lives. When I woke up to the despairing news that he had died, I was instantly catapulted back to the angst-ridden teenager I used to be, the outcast who spent pretty much his entire adolescence in a group home and would ride his bike to used CD stores and scour them for Bowie’s voluminous back catalog, because listening to Bowie made me feel less alone. It made me feel like being a freak and a weirdo and an outsider was a wonderful thing to be, like not fitting in was a state of grace and not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by.

Bowie had the power to liberate, empower, entertain, and delight, but he also had the power to stun, shock, and devastate, as his death illustrated. The shock and devastation Bowie’s cult (which I like to think includes everyone on earth) experienced upon learning of his death echoed the seismic shock that went through the audience when, on July 3rd, 1973, at the end of a tour promoting Aladdin Sane, Bowie took to the microphone and told the crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon, “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”

The crowd could be forgiven for assuming that their hero was retiring permanently, that he was ending one of the most important careers of the 20th century in its relative infancy. It was a moment of almost inconceivable drama and intensity, captured by the cameras of D.A. Pennebaker, the unassuming genius who earlier had made one of the greatest rock and roll movies ever in Don’t Look Back, about a strange young man named Dylan with a voice like sand and glue.

Don’t Look Back captured an enigmatic icon in the midst of a creative transformation whose aftershocks are still being felt. The same is true of the film that would eventually be named Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture. However, where Don’t Look Back’s impact was instant, Ziggy Stardust went largely unseen for a decade after production ended, only seeing release on home video in 1983, at which point Bowie had reinvented himself countless times and was now a sleek mainstream pop star whose videos were played on MTV and whose catchy ditties were repurposed for Pepsi commercials. It was Bowie’s most commercial period, literally (in that, you know, he made a commercial for soda pop) and a far cry from the androgynous theatricality of his glam rock days.

Business kept this essential document of one of the great turning points in pop music history out of public view for an entire momentous decade: Bowie had split acrimoniously from his management, Tony DeFries and his Mainman company, and was not eager to hand over a big chunk of the film’s proceeds to people he now despised. But art played a role as well; Bowie had shed his skin, creatively speaking, turning Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture into an instant nostalgia piece from an artist who was always pushing forward instead of looking back.

Ziggy Stardust certainly did not sit on a shelf for a decade for reasons having to do with quality, because the movie isn’t just good — it’s damn near transcendent. It’s not the same as being there, obviously, but it’s the next best thing, and because it is a film, it is permanent, whereas part of the wonder and majesty and melancholy of a truly great rock and roll show (and this sure qualifies) is that it’s ephemeral — experienced in the moment, then lost to the ages.

Watching Ziggy Stardust, it’s easy to see why Bowie might feel ambivalence towards it despite its brilliance and importance. After a bitter break-up with DeFries, he couldn’t have been happy to see the film (which boasts a 1982 copyright despite being filmed nearly a decade earlier) posited as a Mainman production Executive-Produced by DeFries, or that DeFries himself is mentioned within the first few minutes of the film.

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“Bowie is the white-hot epicenter around which everything revolves, a master showman bathed in red light as he glides across the stage like a tiger on vaseline.”

Bowie begins the film having his make-up put on as he smokes a cigarette and drinks from a cup. It’s an oddly life-sized, modest introduction to a man who is as larger-than-life as King Kong the moment he steps onstage, sporting an eccentric succession of clothes that would look more at home in the wardrobes of Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj than on another male rock star: skimpy kimonos that barely cover his ass, skin-tight onesies, giant boots and a catsuit that clings to Bowie’s gaunt frame and, like his famously tight pants in Labyrinth, aggressively highlights his package.

It’s the calm before the storm, as Bowie jokes and flirts with his wife Angela and reflects on the palpable excitement of the crowd, an endless expanse of beautiful kids for whom being at a Bowie show is the best kind of altered state, the most exquisite kind of natural high, although, to be fair, it’s safe to assume much of the audience is zonked out of their minds on less natural highs as well.

Bowie sports a mullet in a shade of orange not seen in nature and black-ringed raccoon eyes, but as soon as he steps onstage, his strange/regrettable fashion choices stop mattering, and the oddly calm man preparing to go to work becomes a towering, brash, and confident rock god, a titan whose fiercely tight band the Spiders From Mars roars their way through an exhilarating early assault of glam-rock anthems: “Hang On To Yourself,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Watch That Man.”

Just about every song comments, obliquely or not, on the essence of performance and this particular show, where Bowie will dramatically end one of the greatest creative periods of his or anybody else’s career. Bowie is the white-hot epicenter around which everything revolves; he’s both a master showman bathed in red light as he glides across the stage like a tiger on vaseline, and an outsider commenting on the action from a cerebral distance.

Ziggy Stardust would be worth seeing if only for the rare opportunity to witness the electric chemistry between Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson, a bleached blonde stud wielding his guitar like a glistening metal phallus. Though it’s Bowie’s show, Ronson makes an indelible impression both with his magnetic stage presence and his slashing, virtuoso guitar playing. That’s part of what makes the film so simultaneously magical and melancholy: this incredible band is calling it quits, but giving fans one last masterclass in musicianship and theatricality on its way out.

Bowie’s covers are never random or arbitrary: they always say something meaningful about Bowie as an artist and a man, about the forces that molded and shaped him and the heroes on behalf of whom he never stopped evangelizing. Given the finality of the show, it’s easy to read his cover of Jaques Brel’s “My Death” as a requiem for the alter ego he’s about to unexpectedly bury.

The finality of the concert gives songs like “Changes,” “Cracked Actor” and “Time” an additional resonance. The audience didn’t know it yet — hell, outside of Ronson, Bowie’s own band didn’t know it yet — but Bowie was choosing songs that were designed as a goodbye, as an elegy to the astonishingly fertile period that gave the world Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane in quick succession.

But because this is Bowie, it’s full of glorious weirdness, like an epic, almost 10-minute long jam of “The Width Of A Circle” in which Bowie, perpetually the oddball theater kid, indulges in some miming that almost (but not quite) makes being a mime seem cool. Bowie doesn’t say much during the concert, instead letting his music and showmanship speak for him, which makes the gut-punch of his final announcement all the more potent and astonishing.

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“Ronson makes an indelible impression both with his magnetic stage presence and his slashing, virtuoso guitar playing.”

To soften the blow, Bowie and the Spiders from Mars launch into the film- and concert-ending “Rock and Roll Suicide,” yet another anthem rich with meaning and dramatic irony that comments poignantly and powerfully on a night and a show unlike any other. Prowling the stage, Bowie shouts the words “You’re not alone” with equal parts empathy and raw urgency. It’s the essence of his timeless appeal, his message boiled down to its heartbreaking, life-affirming core. It’s the perfect way to end not just a night but an era.

Watching Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Movie in the endless shadow of Bowie’s death and the massive worldwide outpouring of grief and appreciation is inspiring and heartbreaking because it allows Bowie to live again, to be young again, even if he never seemed to have gotten old. It seems strange to say this about a 69-year-old man, but it still feels like Bowie died young, that he was taken from us much too soon.

But the film is also inspiring because the concert that shockingly killed off his most dazzling, brilliant creation (aside, of course, from David Bowie, the pansexual rock god born, improbably but amusingly enough, as David Jones, a moniker that already belonged to a rock star of a slightly cornier variety) marked an ending, but also a new beginning.

Bowie would rise from the ashes of his Ziggy Stardust persona to recreate himself time and time again as everything from a blue-eyed soul man to a cocaine-ravaged art rocker to a shiny MTV-approved mainstream pop star. When Bowie made his bold pronouncement at the end of the concert, it must have felt, to fans who worshipped him and lusted after him and dressed like him and wanted to be him, not just like the end of a concert and a tour and a persona, but like the end of the world.

If Bowie had ended everything after that concert, if his recording career was essentially “Space Oddity,” The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Aladdin Sane, his legacy would still be immense. He’d still be one of the greatest rock stars of the 1970s. He’d be one of those people, like Gram Parsons, Kurt Cobain (who breathed so much soul and tenderness and beauty into his cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World”), J-Dilla, 2Pac, or Nick Drake, whose influence belies their short lives and abbreviated careers.

Just as that final concert as Ziggy Stardust wasn’t the end, I’d like to think that Bowie’s death is not the end either. Bowie had a way of making people believers, if not in the concept of a higher power, then in the transformative, life-affirming powers of art and music. I believe that while Bowie’s body has breathed its last breath, his spirit has found its rightful home in the heavens, in the stars that he sung about with such grace and eloquence. We may need to leave our own earthly bodies to reconnect with Bowie, to see his next transformation and reinvention, and while that might seem a little scary, I have no doubt that with Bowie, the show would be more than worth the price of admission.


Original Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 71 percent
Re-Certification: Fresh


Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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