Sounds familiar, sounds like the basic storyline of David Bowie’s album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which was released 40 years ago this month.
But that is also the basic storyline of Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic, Stranger In A Strange Land.
Even in those particular differences, there are similarities, Ziggy sings about the ‘Church of Man’ while Smith’s religion, ‘Church of All Worlds’, preaches that each person is God, “thou art God”.
Despite all the differences, the main similarities are powerful. Did the Heinlein book serve as a major influence on Ziggy Stardust?
While David Bowie has mentioned some influences on the music, the name and the stage persona of Ziggy Stardust, he has only ever implied one person as a part-inspiration for the storyline of Ziggy Stardust, namely Vince Taylor. Vince was a British Elvis-imitator who was successful in France in the mid-Sixties and later became a minor cult. His hit, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ was recorded by The Clash and he was the subject of songs by Golden Earring (‘Just Like Vince Taylor’) and Van Morrison (‘Going Down Geneva’).
David Bowie’s interest in Vince Taylor arises out of the way in which Taylor’s career ended. It appears Vince was disorientated enough after a single acid trip to declare himself “Matthews (sic) the son of Jesus”.
Taylor met Bowie in London sometime after these events and enthralled Bowie with his paranoid and deranged stories.
At one stage, he laid out a world map on a sidewalk in rush-hour London to show David where aliens kept bases on Earth.
Very interesting, but that clearly doesn’t inspire the entire story of Ziggy Stardust. David didn’t describe Vince Taylor as the sole source of Ziggy Stardust, but rather as “one of the building blocks of the Ziggy character”.
Did Bowie source other building blocks from Stranger In A Strange Land and its charismatic but doomed alien Messiah?
Stranger In A Strange Land, a novel which preached brotherhood, free love and challenged conventional orthodoxies of society including established religion, became a favorite of the Sixties counter-culture. This profoundly hippie book has survived as a cult classic until the present day.
Its title has inspired rock songs of the same name by U2, 30 Seconds To Mars, Iron Maiden and Leon Russell, among others. David Crosby’s ‘Triad’, recorded by Jefferson Airplane, has a lyric inspired by the book.
The book also gave the English language the verb, ‘to grok’ meaning to understand and empathize. Although no longer in wide usage, the word passed from Heinlein into reputable dictionaries. Additionally, Stranger was the genesis of that weirdly sensual – and impractical – Seventies invention, the waterbed.
Some Bowie researchers believe that the title of the Bowie song ‘Man Who Sold The World’, covered in the Nineties by Nirvana, may have been based on Robert Heinlein’s short story, ‘The Man Who Sold The Moon’.
Bowie in his Dylan/hippie phase would certainly have encountered Stranger In A Strange Land and its concepts, as it was inescapable in the counter-culture. It was promoted as the ‘most famous science fiction novel ever written’.
Most importantly, in early 1973, he announced that he was to play Valentine Michael Smith in a film adaptation of Stranger In A Strange Land and would write the soundtrack. He even said that he had already written some music for it.
The movie was never made. In fact, the comment was probably a publicity stunt, which Bowie (or his manager) designed to attract more film offers.
In 1974, when Rolling Stone asked why the movie wasn’t made, Bowie said that he thought the book was “terrible” and” too flower-powery”. Five years later, he had toned down his antipathy, merely saying that he didn’t do the movie because he didn’t want to be stereotyped as “the eternal alien”.
It is possible that Bowie despite disliking the book, still drew on it. He may have done so even before reading it.
There is one grim contemporary analogy for the book having a strong influence on someone who had not even read it. Serial killer Charles Manson named his son Valentine Michael Manson, after the book’s lead character.
Ed Sanders, author of the definitive book on Charles Manson, The Family, wrote that Stranger In A Strange Land “helped provide a theoretical basis for Manson’s family”, i.e. the cult that Manson created from runaways and others on the margins of the hippie culture.
Sanders wrote that Manson used the language and terms of Stranger in his dealings with his followers. Manson was able to do all of this despite never having read the book, as the content of the book was in such wide circulation among hippies.
Did Bowie draw on Heinlein’s book, possibly without even realizing it? Stranger In A Strange Land even has the eerie near-similarity to Ziggy Stardust that, at the end of the book, the lead character (from the afterlife) successfully persuades one of his key followers not to commit suicide.
I’d like to leave you with one more coincidence:
We know that Ziggy Stardust’s big British hit single was ‘Starman’.
We know David Bowie’s real surname is Jones.
Did you know that Robert Heinlein in 1953 wrote a book called Starman Jones?