THE PHONE BOX rocked on its heels as I opened the door. There was no dial tone but the lightning bolts of graffiti made it clear I’d made contact.
It was the London winter of 1993. Twenty-one years since Brian Ward snapped Ziggy Stardust landing here in Heddon Street, a gloomy dogleg off Regent Street in Mayfair. I savoured the moment, wrapped my coat around me and headed off to find Apple Corps HQ in Savile Row.
I felt at home in London. I had from the first time I came, as a kid, in 1977. I’d bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars back then, from HMV in Piccadilly. Also Hunky Dory and Abbey Road and Revolver … plugging holes in my fledgling collection at UK prices.
Strange, that feeling of belonging. America, when we lived there in the ’60s, hadn’t felt like that at all. I’ve since accepted the preposterous notion of some kind of race memory, or at least an insidious cultural affinity with the homeland of my ancestors.
It might explain why British rock always spoke loudest to me. Like the Beatles, like David Jones, I’d come to rock’n’roll as a refugee. We couldn’t pretend to its heritage; soak it up through the Mississippi mud, jumping box cars or cruising Route 66. We could only peer from afar: fascinated, wanting in, but irredeemably foreign.
That gap is what makes English rock “art” by default. We can’t actually do it, we can only fashion something in its likeness. That’s how it mutates.
Ziggy Stardust — look at him in that royal red phone booth, a camp pisstake of Superman — was the guy who owned up to all this. He was the mutant who stood up and made a claim for the rest of us misfits. The one who made my neck hair electric when he bawled in the throes of Rock’n’Roll Suicide, “Gimme your hands. You’re not alone.”
The mystical dichotomy of distance and oneness was hardwired into this guy. He was simultaneously a sci-fi invention from planet Nowhere and a real-life alter ego of his maker. Magnetic attraction to this fantastic otherness was what drove young Mr Bowie out of stultifying suburbia and into his own destiny. “I could make it all worthwhile as a rock’n’roll star.” He judged the gap and he jumped it. Who, in the isolation of some godforsaken colonial backwater, couldn’t appreciate that?
For all the holes in Ziggy‘s plot, the objectification of the rock star as an alien visitor was conceptually inspired. Like Little Richard had for David Jones, the Starman beams in through thin air, on the radio and on TV. Like every rock star that ever touched any kid before or since, Ziggy was a living act of revelation. A cosmic link to some shared tribe we could only dream about in our lonely bedrooms.
Oh no love, you’re not alone.
Bowie ups the messianic implications, of course, with the imminent doom of Five Years. And he liberates our hero in previously unthinkable ways, mainly with the gender pronoun muddle of Lady Stardust, but also the space-Dylan doggerel of Moonage Daydream (did I mention Mick Ronson yet?) and the mythic aspirations and destinations of Soul Love and Suffragette City.
Yeah, we’ve all heard the jeers from the authenticity police, the kind of rock’n’roll authorities obsessed with “the real deal” who can only scoff at an imaginary omnisexual alien guitar god who wears his fake credentials like a badge. To kids like me and, oh, Johnny Rotten, say, the revelation of a cartoon rock archetype yelping about dislocation in his own posh-guttersnipe accent was far more real than another wannabe swamp dog wrapped in denim and the blues.
A few years after I visited that phone box in Heddon Street, Dave claimed to have a plan to resolve all of Ziggy’s vagaries and contradictions in a film or stage show or somesuch supposedly under construction. I was anxious. Wasn’t he, like Bowie himself, far more powerful as an enigma than as flesh and blood?
“Yeah, I know, I’m running like fuck from that one,” he told me when we met in 2002. “Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust?… As an idea, I think he works better.”
Always did for me.