On the Varnish twitter, I had this exchange:
And, because I hate to disappoint a pretty girl…and because it seems a completely obvious topic…Here’s a post about David Bowie‘s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and its influence on my life. Of course, as I’ve contemplated this post the last month, new bits have wiggled into my brain, so I’m sure this isn’t going to be an exhaustive list. In fact, I can think of specific moments and interactions that aren’t covered here, but that aren’t for sharing, in which my early exposure to this album are factors.
First, I want to note that I am serious when I say that you need to listen to this album. If you like rock music at all, it deserves a chance. If you liked the film Velvet Goldmine, this is the Bowie that inspired that film (as much as Bowie reportedly hated the film because, in my opinion, it told the fairy tale of what glam was and not the truth of what his actual story was). In fact, if you want to go and listen now (or listen whilst you read–as I’m listening whilst I type), that would be great. This blog post will be here for you when you’re ready…
Those of you who are diligent readers and followers know that I’ve mentioned the album more than once. In addition to assorted tweets, I can find it in this Varnish vlog:
It’s also been mentioned in posts on this blog, here and here.
In case you don’t read those, I have to give credit where it’s due. This album, like much of the great rock from the ’70s and earlier, entered my ears thanks to my dad. He might not want to take the credit for all the things the album did to me and for me, but I’m going to call it one of his great contributions to my life.
(Side note: It’s really hard to write this whilst listening to the album cos I keep having to stop to sing along.)
Not to minimise the influence it had on me musically, but let’s sort of sweep through that bit. I never doubted this album rocked. This wasn’t soft rock or something to make soccer mums feel like they were edgy whilst actually being sanitised, stock tropes. It rocked. It was the reason that I understood that you could be a proper rockstar with electric guitars and keys. That you could be a proper rockstar with acoustic guitars. And there could be orchestral instruments, not just guitar/bass/drums and still be proper rock music. (Hey, I was young, so this was big to me…And since it was my touchstone, whilst he wasn’t the first to do it, this was the album that really drove it home and that came to mind as I formed my thoughts about what could be proper rock music.) You could even throw in some slower songs and still have an album that was serious rock music.
This album pretty much blew my mind in a way that cemented Bowie as my favourite musician. (As a girl who’s grown up to have few favourite anythings, that’s a big deal.) And, because of that, it meant that I was open to all Bowie. Which meant that, unlike many others I could have chosen as favourites, I was into someone who did a range of musical styles. If you listen through his catalog, if you look at those with whom he has toured and worked, you’re going to see range. Sure, I was going to get range just growing up with the influences of those in my family. But, let’s be honest, there are times in your life when the rockstars have more influence on your tastes than your parents or siblings…
And, if I’m being really honest, when I pictured myself as a rockstar, even from a young age, it was Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie that was my template for so long. When I need a go-to album, whether I’m trying to decide what to listen to or I need to be motivated in general or reminded of the big dream that hatched in me when I was wee, this is the one.
Huh…Okay, that was a bit longer than I’d thought…But, I’ll leave that as proof that there’s more to this than even I realised. Ha!
In addition to the musical influence, here are some other things (and I’m going to write little paragraphs and ignore transitional sentences cos we all know I get too verbose sometimes…) in the order they showed up in my brainstorm of things this album impacted, not necessarily in order of importance.
This album (and things it caused further down this list) were basically like a gateway drug to my other musical favourites, Manic Street Preachers and Placebo. This matters to me, because those two bands also have had a huge impact on my life. Some of this is due to the next cluster of things. (Oh, and I feel it bears noting that I found Bauhaus and all the music in genres connected to them because they covered Ziggy Stardust…) But, yes, the way that Richey James Edwards and Nicky Wire and Brian Molko looked helped turn my eyes and ears toward their bands…I was seriously relieved when the music was good. (Because a pretty face isn’t enough…I can’t enjoy looking at someone pretty if their music makes me want to puncture my eardrums.)
My love of boys in makeup surely must have been implanted by the look of Ziggy (and other incarnations of Bowie). I did get that it wasn’t the societal norm, but Ziggy Stardust made it clear to me that it was well cool and quite alright. Which may be why…
There is no doubt that this contributed to the alternate model of what an attractive man is that guides my taste in boys. Forget tanned, muscular, super masculine boys. There are a few I’ve thought were fit, but I’ll take my boys tall and thin and pretty. (So, yes, I’m sure it can also be blamed for some poor choices I made in boys, but those mainly led to songs so I’m going to call it good.)
And, of course, that leads to the topics of bisexuality and androgyny. For those of you who’ve looked at pictures of or paid attention to Bowie, you can see how a girl who fancied Bowie might see those things are not entirely abnormal. Thanks to this, I didn’t grow up with a negative attitude about people who weren’t straight (thank goodness…that likely saved me loads of personal pain…). And, yes, widened my ideas about what was appropriate for boys and girls. It wasn’t just looks. That was part of it, but I couldn’t see the androgyny and not also think about what society was telling me were appropriate ‘gender’ roles or activities for a girl or boy. Again, something for which I’m super grateful.
As a non-standard girlie, it won’t be a surprise to you that there was a point where I wanted to cast off girl things and just be boyish. But, due to my love of glam (by which I mean the pretty picture this album painted in my head of what it was to be glam), even boyish Amber fancied makeup and sparkly things. To be honest, part of that period of my life was set off by some unhealthiness, and I truly credit not losing track of myself entirely to the fact that I could play boy in my head and still put on the makeup and glitter I loved (but might otherwise have considered too girlie). And, on a completely shallow level, I’d have to say that my life has been prettier, shinier, sparklier for the influence of this album. For the dream of glam.
As a girl who doesn’t like to have to choose between good things, I also have a fondness for things that combine multiple tastes. If you’re not familiar with this album, the Ziggy Stardust persona was an alien. And a number of the songs on the album are about aliens and such. Those who’ve paid attention know that, in addition to being a rockstar, I’m a scifi girl. A geek. And, look, an album that was scifi and rock! I know I wasn’t born yet, but since I believe time isn’t linear, I’m going to just claim that Bowie wrote this for me. Ha! (If you want to check out another thing I love that’s scifi and rock, please watch the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Seriously. And, yes, I do like the pretty boy in there…yum!)
Ah. Okay. This one is on the verge of too private, but I’m going to say this anyway. There have been some dark moments in my life where the song Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide helped pull me through. Yep. That’s all I want to say about that. But, in case you’re somewhere ugly, ‘you’re not alone’.
Not quite as heavy, and keeping it brief again cos I don’t feel a need to list his troubles…This album and the things I read about Bowie as I got interested taught me that rockstars can be imperfect humans. I didn’t have some delusion that I was worshipping a perfect being. In fact, the imperfections and struggles I saw both let me like him more and kept me from worship. (I don’t judge people who have some kind of rockstar worship thing; I just think that it has the potential to lead to some negative situations and a girl like me was better off without.) When I talk about how seeing that people with similar demons had made it to musical fame helped me, Bowie was the first. I could be flawed and have my dreams. My flaws and troubles could lead to art.
Back to less heavy stuff. This album and Bowie in general taught me that, yes, the music is important, but there’s more to rock than that. I learned watching clips of Bowie that some performance, some theatre, can add to the experience for the fans. What that involves can (and should) vary, as appropriate. But the reality is that music isn’t just music. It can be, but shows where someone is really performing the songs, not just standing there and aiming for technical perfection? Way more engaging for me. When you see me perform, it’s all coming from a genuine place. But the reason I decided to just let that happen instead of holding it in and standing nicely at the mic was first set off by the vision Bowie planted in my head of what it would look like to be a rockstar. If I perform the songs, that is more genuine to the emotions of the songs and to what goes on in me when I write as well. So, it’s a win for us all!
Related to that, Bowie was how I first clearly understood that rock isn’t just music. That rockstars are also their images. I don’t want to have a fight with those of you who will argue the ideal that music ought to be purely loved for being music. And, yes, I’ve seen people who were great musicians but crummy at performance and image and it hurt them. And, no, I’m not sure that’s fair. But it’s the reality of our world. I feel fortunate that I ended up someone with (I think) some kind of good taste in appearance, so that I don’t feel like I’m not being me whether I’m wearing frocks or jeans. So, if rock music is part image (and more than one source has assured me that this is true, whether or not people want to admit it), I’m lucky that I have a bit of an eye for looks. I’m also grateful that, because Bowie helped me see how the looks and the music can be so effectively intertwined, it wasn’t a shock or a betrayal as I started to make music and watch music being made by others and saw that image mattered. (Again, I’m being genuine me and thanking my lucky stars that my preferred aesthetics match my music and seem to work well in general for the rockstar part of my life goals. I’m not suggesting people should be fake. Ehm…yeah…this could be a whole other post…maybe when I’m in the mood for arguments or controversy…For what it’s worth, there are people I love who so hate that image impacts musical success that I avoid the topic with them. I get it. I do.) Onward!
This may seem small to you, but is huge to me. It turns out that my beloved Varnish guitarist Jason also loves Bowie and this album. And the glam thing and songs from this album directly led to our forming a band. Not with intent to recreate Ziggy Stardust…In more roundabout ways. But they are certainly part of why, one night, I told Jason I was writing songs and he said we ought to have a band…And then there was Varnish and my dreams were finally getting a chance. And striving for those dreams in the more concrete way only possible once I went from dreaming to doing has massively, massively impacted my life. Really, it deserves to be said again: MASSIVELY. And, so, if you like the music I make or you’ve discovered me through the music or in the last few years and that’s been at all a good thing–I really hope it has–The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has also impacted your life. Hurrah!
Finally, a few years ago, as I was pulling together this simple Halloween costume, I realised that it was a partial step toward being a Moonage Daydream. (Or a scifi lullaby, if you’re more in a Placebo mode.)
I’d love, someday, to know that my music was a massive positive influence on someone. I’d love to have one of my albums mean enough to merit a blog post that’s long (too long?) and explicates ways in which it impacted someone’s whole outlook and dreams. And, if that happens and you find your way here, make sure you’ve given this album a chance and you’ve paused a moment to thank Bowie. He might not be the only influence, but he was one of the first and biggest.
Thanks, Lady Stardust, for coming down from space with your rock ‘n’ roll message.