By Geoff Olson
Last December, scientists announced the discovery of an Earth-like world out beyond our solar system. A Harvard university astronomer who helped find the planet is seeking a better name than GJ 1214b, its clunky scientific designation. For a short time, Wired magazine solicited readers for suggestions, but I think we’ve had the right name since Monday.
‘Ziggy.’ Or ‘Stardust.’ Or ‘Ziggy Stardust.’
I say the ocean-covered planet, 1.5 times larger than ours, should be graced with one of the trippy nom de plumes of the late singer/songwriter David Bowie, who first rocketed to fame with his 1969 hit, Space Oddity.
In the early 70s, young Bowie convinced a few working class British musicians to don platform boots and put on eyeliner for live performances (they were sold when they found out how women went crazy for the look). Led by a scrawny extraterrestrial named Ziggy Stardust, the Spiders From Mars thunderously annotated Bowie’s themes of oddness, otherness, and alienation.
Bowie didn’t invent glam rock — that credit goes to Mark Bolan from T. Rex — but his introduction of high fashion and performance art gave some gravitas to glitz. He dropped Ziggy for a succession of androgynous fleshsuits: Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, and the blonde dandy of his Let’s Dance phase. Trained in mime, Bowie was the first artist of the 20th century to actively play with the persona — Greek for “mask” — in a rock ‘n’ roll setting.
Even before his Ziggy period, the guy was doing some pretty outlandish things, like posing in a dress for the cover of his 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World. Skating across gender boundaries in public was about the most alien thing you could at the time, short of boarding an actual flying saucer. The transgressive singer-songwriter became something of a patron saint to successive generations of kids who felt different, misunderstood, or left out — LGBTQ or otherwise. He forged a new kind of cool from a kiln of high strangeness.
The razor-thin performer was cast as an alien in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 science fiction film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He wrote a sequel of sorts to Space Oddity with the 1980 single Ashes to Ashes, and continued to touch on spacey themes through the remainder of his career.
Of course, none of this showmanship would have worked — or been all that interesting — without great music to back it up. Bowie was as much a musical as theatrical chameleon, shifting gears from acoustic folk to hard rock to Philly soul to electrofunk.
The only time I saw him perform, at the Plaza of Nations site in 1997, he looked like he was having the time of his life: a man playing (and playing with) the role of art rock’s elder statesman, relaxed in between reinventions.
He was known for his sense of humour. In a documentary on guitarist David Gilmour’s 2006 performance at the Royal Albert Hall, the youthful-looking singer tells the camera he first saw Pink Floyd with his parents when he was six. “I think he’s exaggerating the age a little bit,” Gilmour tells the camera. “Alright, I was ten,” the backstage guest responds with a grin.
The man certainly had his share of musical missteps (and his mannered singing was easily lampooned, as in the affectionate sendup “Bowie’s in Space” by the comedy troupe Flight of the Conchords). But consider this: few of us will read any given book more than once. We might look at a painting or sculpture with appreciation a few times before it becomes familiar territory. But most of us will listen to a chosen piece of music from certain performers over and over, for decades.
How many times have I heard Bowie’s mid-seventies anthem to escape, Heroes? Certainly dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times. Yet it still gives me goosebumps. (Walter Pater was right: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”)
The 69-year-old David Jones exited this world way too soon, just two days after the release of his album Blackstar. He had come full circle with the video for the title track, back to his youthful themes of surrealism and space.
Name the planet after the guy, already. We’ll even accept ‘Major Tom.’
The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 14