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18 December 2017

Deborah Levy on Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie: “Britain needs this so much more than Brexit”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Deborah Levy

Bowie was ahead of everyone else (as usual) when he created a rock star alter ego who was a citizen of Mars with the bonus of free movement to Earth. Ziggy Stardust (hair the colour of a blood orange, no eyebrows) died a long time before Bowie’s final, sad farewell, but to be honest Ziggy is still wearing full make-up and is totally alive in my mind.

When I first got my hands on my very own copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, its effect was nothing less than throwing petrol at the naked flame of teenage longing and desire for another sort of life.

I closed the door of my bedroom in West Finchley, north London, lit six joss sticks and placed them inside the glass milk bottles that I had been told to leave on the doorstep. Then I slipped the vinyl out of its vaguely Blade Runner-ish cover, lifted the needle of the record player and waited for the first throbbing, ominous drumbeats that announce the flamboyant drama of this crazed album.

Bowie’s voice was as hysterical as I felt. He told me that I had five years left to cry in and that the earth was dying – which it still is. Despite the poetry and the despair, I was attracted to the glamorous line in “Five Years” about glimpsing someone in an ice-cream parlour. Where could I find one in Finchley? Preferably open at midnight with Bowie sitting inside it. No doubt about it, Ziggy was going to lift me away from the suburbs into a glamorous, freakish, bigger world.

 In the 1970s when girls were coerced into being the kind of girls that boys would apparently wish to marry, Ziggy Stardust messed gender all up. This was perfect because we were all messed up anyway. As for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, Bowie’s message was that I was not alone in my beautiful desolation, certainly not desperate enough to smoke my final cigarette and say goodbye to my older brother. He was listening to manly Bruce Springsteen in his bedroom while I sang along with Bowie’s ooh la la’s, moped to “Lady Stardust” and played “Suffragette City” at full volume. 

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Above all, the delirium of Bowie’s imaginative reach in his Ziggy Stardust era was an inspiration when I started to invent personas in my novels. In my view, Bowie was a great writer. He has influenced me more than Tolstoy ever will do. These days when I’m on a plane to Berlin, I put my headphones on and play Lotte Lenya singing “Alabama Song” because Bowie sang it every morning when he lived in Berlin. And then I play “Starman”. The cabin crew roll the trolley with its Pringles and mini bottles of gin down the aisle, and I think about how austerity Britain needs stardust and moonage daydreams so much more than it needs Brexit. 

Read the rest of the series here

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special