Press Your Space Face Close To Mine, Love: The Influences Behind Ziggy Stardust

From cowboys to Kabuki, the inspirations that changed David Robert Jones into an intergalactic messenger who changed rock and roll.

Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual extraterrestrial who took the form of a man to bring hope to humanity in our last five years, does not feel like a creation. He feels like a man dropped from the stars, a celestial being made corporeal just to blow our minds. 

That's a credit both to David Bowie's total submersion in the persona and wholly convincing portrayal of it, but it also diminishes, somewhat, the work that went into this creation. Bowie took care to craft a perfect rock and roll entity, one that spoke to oddballs, misfits, dissidents, losers and lovers, absorbing the most outrageous corners of creativity to which he had been exposed. Ziggy Stardust may have been a creation, but he was no artifice. He was a movement, as real and immense as the cosmos themselves. But he was one made up of many other movements, every face and act and piece of art that inspired David Bowie in the years that he was a struggling artist named David Robert Jones. 

In 1969, Bowie had been trying his hand at stardom for years with no success. He'd released a single called "The Laughing Gnome" and a self-titled album, neither of which charted.

He'd been in multiple failed rock bands, a folk trio and an ice cream commercial, but in July of that year, that would change with the release of his single Space Oddity, in which he hit upon a formula that paved the way for Ziggy, singing the story of a man up in the sky. 

And it was around this time that Bowie began constructing Ziggy Stardust, the glam, androgynous messenger from the stars that frontlined a band called the Spiders From Mars. Bowie drew upon his experiences and interests for Ziggy, conceiving of a rocker that was Bowie and more than Bowie. One of his greatest influences was teacher Lindsay Kemp, a dancer, choreographer and mime artist. Bowie and Kemp entered into an affair, and Kemp introduced Bowie to the gay community in London, empowering Bowie to come out as bisexual, something rock and rollers simply did not do. Kemp's influence on Bowie went far beyond sexuality: he instructed him in mime, Kabuki, dramatic lighting, the Theatre of the Absurd, all of which colored Ziggy Stardust's album and theatrical performances. 

Bowie was influenced by another important relationship of the time, his wife Angela Barnett Bowie. She was a model, fierce and glam, and Bowie took style cues from her. In the BBC documentary David Bowie And The Story Of Ziggy Stardust, Suzi Ronson  - Bowie's hairstylist and wife to Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson - said of Angie, "She made him brave." Along with Suzi Ronson, Angie influenced his choices in makeup and hair, together convincing Bowie to chop off his beautiful long locks to differentiate himself, because everyone in glam rock had long, flowing hair. Bowie didn't become Ziggy until Ronson cut his hair and dyed it bright red, creating an instant extraterrestrial amid all the earthly glam rockers of the time. 

Of course, Angie's influence didn't stop Bowie from telling her, in D.A. Pennebaker's iconic concert doc Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,"Well, you're just a girl. What do you know about makeup?"

The final part of Ziggy's galactic glam belonged to his elaborate, androgynous costumes, influenced by Kabuki and outer space and designed by Japanese fashion icon Kansai Yamamoto and 19-year-old designer Frederick "Freddie Burretti" Burrett, who also fronted Bowie's unsuccessful dry run for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the concept band Arnold Corns that debuted several tracks later perfected on Ziggy Stardust

The first three costumes here are Burretti; the rest are Yamamoto.

David Bowie was not the first glam rocker, and though he transformed, transcended and in many ways defined the era, artists like Marc Bolan and Roxy Music joined him on the path. Two musicians who later became two of his closest friends were also responsible for inspiring Bowie to create Ziggy Stardust: Lou Reed, of The Velvet Underground, and Iggy Pop, both of whom turned performance into something greater. Meanwhile Reed's patron Andy Warhol stood on the outside, "a Svengali figure" overseeing it all. 

These artists, designers, lovers and performers influenced Ziggy's look and act, but two men inspired the very creation of the persona itself. British rock and roll singer Vince Taylor gained attention as frontman for The Playboys, but after heavy experimentation with LSD, he lost his mind and became convinced he was Jesus Christ himself. Bowie was obsessed with the "C-list rock star," saying of Taylor,

I met him a few times in the mid-Sixties, and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all. He used to carry maps of Europe around with him, and I remember him opening a map outside Charing Cross tube station, putting it on the pavement and kneeling down with a magnifying glass. He pointed out all the sites where UFOs were going to land.

The other man was space-obsessed, Texan outsider performer Norman Carl Odam, who performed on the same label as Bowie under the name Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Bowie described Odam's songs as "unbelievably atrocious, but in that wonderful way where you couldn't stop listening to them."

With Ziggy Stardust now perfectly formed and outfitted, Bowie turned his attention to the Spiders from Mars. Their sartorial influence was simple and direct - said bassist Trevor Bolder in David Bowie And The Story Of Ziggy Stardust, "He took us to see A Clockwork Orange." Stanley Kubrick's film and Anthony Burgess' novel were heavy influences, not just on the Spiders' onstage costumes, but on the album itself, along with William S. Burroughs' The Wild Boys. Said Bowie in a Rolling Stone article from 1993:

We did the photographs outside on a rainy night. And then upstairs in the studio we did the Clock Orange look-alikes that became the inner sleeve. The idea was to hit a look somewhere between the Malcolm McDowell thing with the on mascaraed eyelash and insects. It was the era of Wild Boys, By William S. Burroughs. That was a really heavy book that had come out in about 1970, and it was a cross between that and Clockwork Orange that really started to put together the shape and the look of what Ziggy and the Spiders were going to become. They were both powerful pieces of work, especially the marauding boy gangs of Burrough's Wild Boys with their bowie knives. I got straight on to that. I read everything into everything. Everything had to be infinitely symbolic.

It's remarkable that, with all of the care and nuance, all of the genius that went into the creation of this persona, Ziggy Stardust was only one of dozens of reinventions in David Bowie's career. Bowie said it himself, "I'm just by nature a flighty person. I get turned on and off things." This whim, that brought him his first fame, liberated thousands of sexually ambiguous outsiders and moved a generation toward a new face of rock and roll, lasted only one year of Bowie's near-seven decades. As much as Ziggy Stardust means to rock and roll, as much as he means to thousands and to me personally, in the end David Bowie just wanted to go back to being David Bowie - not a persona but a person, and a person who is worth more even than "the special man" with "screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo." 

After all, Ziggy was just the messenger. David Bowie was the real Starman.