Ziggy Stardust Inspiration?

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album PhotosAn androgynously beautiful man from Mars comes to Earth and wins a fervent following, being acclaimed as a Messiah, but ultimately is killed by a mob.

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.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album PhotosOf course, there are many differences, Ziggy starts a rock band while Stranger’s protagonist Valentine Michael Smith starts a religion.

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?

Stranger In A Strange LandThis article is the first to raise the possibility of a connection between Ziggy Stardust and Heinlein’s best-loved book, which won a Hugo Award in 1962.

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’).

Vince Taylor

Vince Taylor

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 LandStranger 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.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album PhotosThe 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.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album PhotosSome 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’.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album PhotosMost 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.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album Cover FrontIn 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.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album PhotosThere 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.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album PhotosSanders 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.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust Album Back CoverOr is all it mere coincidence?

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?

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9 Responses to Ziggy Stardust Inspiration?

  1. Boring pup quiz fact: the jumpsuit Bowie wears on the Ziggy cover wasn’t turquoise. What you see is a watercolour wash-in image similar to the 19th century early 20th century efforts at creating a ‘colour’ photo (still a great effect and I can see why it appealed for the purposes of creating a striking visual image). Anyway, here’s a clip with Bowie wearing said jumpsuit (a greyish-green colour) while playing with the Spiders on the OGWT back in 72 – just on the cusp of Ziggy mania.

  2. Tony says:

    I happen to be reading that book right now and a similar thread of thought crossed my mine. I actually picked it up because the title and jacket description made me think of Bowie and his Man Who Fell to Earth role. Here’s to coincidence.

  3. deadrose says:

    That occurred to many of us back when the album was first released. It’s far from a novel idea.

    • Thanks for commenting.

      The suggestion that Stranger In A Strange Land may have inspired the storyline of Ziggy Stardust is not analyzed in an article anywhere else on the Web or in print.

      There are Web references that link David Bowie and Stranger by discussing the movie that Bowie announced or suggesting that Man Who Fell To Earth was based on Stranger. But no article that explores what I’ve suggested.

      As for print, I own more than twenty books on David Bowie and own or have read an uncounted number of articles, certainly over a thousand and I have not seen any such analysis.

      If any article has ever been published that explores a link between the storylines of Stranger and Ziggy, I would be grateful if you could share it with me.

  4. I was a big SF fan in the early ’70s, so I was reading Robert Heinlein as well as Frank Herbert, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. It was the SF elements that first attracted me to David Bowie’s music. While I was aware of overlaps and similarities, it didn’t really occur that Stranger in a Strange Land may have directly inspired Ziggy Stardust. The Man Who Sold the World / Moon I put down to coincidence, the stories being (as far as I can tell) totally different. At least a couple of Bowie’s songs (The Supermen and Width of a Circle) end with the closing drums (tympani?) from Also Sprach Zarathustra. This music is used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. From which Bowie created the title Space Oddity. The ‘gnomic voices’ in Day After Day still remind me of Frank Herbert’s stories The Godmakers and The Heaven Makers. Bowie used words in his lyrics that up until then had only been seen and heard in A Clockwork Orange: nazz, droogie etc. Homo superior, Life on Mars, extraterrestrial visitors such as Starman, all great science fiction ideas, though not original: who’s to say where his inspiration came from?

    Interestingly, I can (and do) play The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust every few weeks. It’s still magical. But I re-read Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of years ago and thought it was the most boring, turgid piece of drivel I’d ever come across: so obviously a vehicle for the author’s own wierd and ‘wacky’ philosophy and ideas. For me, it’s Bowie 1 Heinlein 0.


    • Your perspective is very interesting.

      My understanding is that in the late Sixties and early Seventies. there was a reverence for science fiction in the counter-culture. I suppose it gave people the opportunity to imagine a better future as a model for what society could be.

      As you’ve said, Bowie drew on a great number of influences, especially in science fiction.

      In 1973, Bowie asked British rockwriter and heavy science fiction fan Charles Shaar Murray what he thought of Stranger In A Strange Land. In reply, Murray called it “the worst-written great book I’ve ever read”.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. That album is so great. I listen to it the first time today and had to listen to it three times in a row.

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