David Bowie explains the concept of Ziggy Stardust to William S. Burroughs
Ziggy Stardust is one of the lasting images of the late, great musician and performer David Bowie. The persona was a defining moment in Bowie’s career and his miraculous conception of the flame-haired rock and roller from outer space was the toast of the music industry.
Bowie had already figuratively killed off the character when he spoke to the Beat writing legend William S. Burroughs for the Rolling Stone back in 1974. During an engrossing conversation, the counterparts—distanced only by medium and generation—discuss the birth of Ziggy Stardust.
The duo sits down over coffee and one of the most entertaining interviews you’re ever likely to read ensues. Bowie was an unreserved fan of Burroughs and took no shame in citing the writer as a direct inspiration for some of his most outlandish lyrical sequences on Ziggy’s classic record The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
During the conversation, they talk about Bowie’s unstoppable creativity energy, as the Starman confesses, “I get bored very quickly and that would give it some new energy. I’m rather kind of old school, thinking that when an artist does his work it’s no longer his… I just see what people make of it. That is why the TV production of Ziggy will have to exceed people’s expectations of what they thought Ziggy was.”
The talk of a TV production of Ziggy intensified, Burroughs is clearly intrigued and sets off the conversation by asking Bowie to “explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years”.
Likely thrilled to be asked such a question by his idol, Bowie’s reply isn’t only ice cold, but it’s also deeply connected and authentic. “The time is five years to go before the end of the earth,” begins Bowie relishing telling his story. “It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. [The album was released three years prior to the original interview.] Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything.
“Ziggy was in a rock & roll band and the kids no longer want rock and roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. ‘All the Young Dudes’ is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”
Burroughs interjects: “Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.”
It’s clearly something Bowie is aware of, “Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.” A cosmic entity which Burroughs later admits would be “incredibly expensive”.
Bowie continues to go into depth about the conception of the persona: “Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes ‘Starman,’ which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers.”
Bowie opens up the taps on the story and the intricacies with which he has constructed it, “They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe.”
The tale is as old as time it would seem as Bowie draws comparisons with false prophets and the destruction of a hero.”Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world.
“And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song ‘Rock and Roll Suicide.’ As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rogers and Hammerstein of the Seventies, Bill!”
The Burroughs book was a huge inspiration for Bowie, not only for the science-fiction flicker that emanated across his work from the very start but the use of the writer’s “cut-up method”, which Bowie used as efficiently as the book. It clearly inspired Bowie and the two speaking about both of their work is inspiring.
You can read the full interview here and listen to the “cut-up method” in action on David Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’.