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Music

David Bowie on writing for characters and how he knew the end was nigh for Ziggy Stardust

@TomTaylorFO

Of all the skills that David Bowie possessed as an artist, the one area where he truly excelled beyond any of his peers, and probably future imitators too, was his daring approach to his work. Imagine, if you will, struggling to make any creative impact at all for roughly half a decade then finally finding an acclaimed outlet in Ziggy Stardust, only to kill off your grand creation and head back to the drawing board just as your garden was beginning to flower?

While fools who don’t care for ‘The Starman’ might call his chameleonic approach facile or insincere, I would argue that his kaleidoscopic rotation implies the very opposite. He loved art too dearly to ever be cajoled into a single lane by success or veneration—he was always determined to explore the far reaches of pop culture and see what he could dredge up. 

For instance, even Ziggy Stardust himself is a paradigm of the vast swathe of art that Bowie concocted into his singular artistry. “He was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of Japanese theatre,” Bowie once explained. “The clothes were, at that time, simply outrageous and nobody had seen anything like them before.” And this dazzling attack on mundanity proved world-changing. 

Despite that, Bowie still had his stiff-upper-lipped detractors, and when asked about whether there came a point that his music wasn’t taken seriously, he responded: “I think I moved out of Ziggy fast enough so as not to be caught by that one, because most rock characters that one can create only have a short lifespan. They are one shots, they are cartoony, and the Ziggy thing was worth about one or two albums before I couldn’t really write anything else around him or the world that was sort of put together for him.”

A timeline of the ever-changing life of David Bowie

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While many would’ve been tempted to cling to that hard work, nevertheless, Bowie scrapped the shocking hero of the 1970s at his peak.  “I’m very happy with Ziggy. I think he was a very successful character, and I think I played him very well,” Bowie may have said retrospectively, however, despite the growing success and one of the greatest tours in history, Bowie announces to the crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon: “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest… Because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.”

This move is key to understanding the way that Bowie approached his work. “I was never unaware of my strength as an interpretive performer,” he once opined, “but writing a song for me, it never rang true. I had no problem writing something for, or working with Lou Reed, or writing for Mott the Hoople. I can get into their mood and what they want to do, but I find it extremely hard to write for me.”

Adding: “So, I found it quite easy to write for the artists that I would create. I did find it much easier having created this Ziggy to then write for him. Even though it’s me doing it! I was able to distance myself from the whole thing, but I can become very complicated, fucking fabric with time there. It did bring a sort of sack full of its own inherent problems.” And those problems would later come to the fore when The Thin White Duke plagued the man beneath the facade with a wild drug problem and fascination with fascism. It was, as John Updike once wrote, a case of a “mask that eats into the face.”

Thus, parting from his magnificent creations was never easy, but Bowie always moved on so quickly that it was never with regret either. “I think the only time I ever get sort of kind of nostalgic about any of that stuff at all is if I see the odd video or I see a bit of the Ziggy Stardust concerts or whatever,” he once said. “But no, I don’t think I’m cold about them but I think it’s work done. I think you have to or you get into a danger of getting into the rut and maybe try to perpetuate something that has gone before.” Whereas, Bowie continually perpetuated the sort of thing that nobody had ever seen.