Ziggy in the UK and US: What Americans Missed

At times I’ve found the emphasis on the Ziggy years to be puzzling. Pick up any of the biographies or most of the obituaries, and you’ll see what I mean: the 1970s are covered at much greater length than the whole of 1980 to 2016 (36 years!), and even within these pages, Ziggy gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

There are good reasons for this: the theatricality and myth-making are two. And the risk Bowie took. Had he not been able to pull it off, a silly Ziggy Stardust would’ve been hard to overcome.

I don’t know how to substantiate my next claim, but I’d guess that the strongest feelings for Ziggy (not to be confused with Bowie) are held by English fans born in 1955 or earlier, and that this is largely a matter of geography.

The first concerts for Ziggy and the Spiders were in small venues, taverns and pubs. Then they graduated to university halls, and finally to civic centers and theaters.

From January 29 to September 7, 1972, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars performed 55 times in England and once in Wales. I imagine it would have taken at least two concerts for fans to take in what they were seeing, and then if you were in these early, small audiences, you’d be back as often as you could manage, and you would start to notice those that were doing the same.

From an audience, a congregation would emerge.

Membership in the church of man, love. You didn’t need faith you weren’t alone in your weirdness; you had evidence, and no matter how miserable your work or school week was, there would be another chance to be back with your people.

Or so it could have been in England.

But not in America.

Why? The whole of England is roughly 400 miles at its longest and 300 at its widest, and it has a functional rail system.

Whether by car or rail, it would have been possible to attend dozens of performances. The longest legs, like  Manchester  to Plymouth (300 miles) or Sunderland to Torquay (380) could be done in a day (and a night) round trip. Most distances were less than 250 miles. Even Aberystwyth, Wales is only 210 miles from London.

Ziggy Stardust played half as many shows — 26 — in the US in 1972. And in so doing, the entourage covered over 15,000 miles by bus, car, or train. (Bowie refused to fly for a few years).* Whoever planned this itinerary had never opened an atlas, had no experience of a road trip from hell, and wasn’t footing the bill.

One stretch of the tour was 1632 miles (Kansas City to Santa Monica); another, Seattle to Phoenix, was 1440, not counting the 800 it took to get from San Francisco to Seattle to play for an audience of 400.**

I’m guessing that other than journalists, very, very few people in the US saw Ziggy Stardust more than once in 1972***. Only those who had a lot of time and a fair amount of money could do what wouldn’t have been a big deal for those in the UK.

No church of man, love in the US, in other words.

Ultimately I suppose it mattered little. The congregants who formed the hard-core fan base in the UK probably numbered only in the thousands.

But wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been one of these?

What Bowie’s manager Tony Defries did right in the US was to get the journalists and celebs on the East and West Coasts excited about Bowie. Those shows, and perhaps for good will, Cleveland’s would have sufficed. The fan experience wouldn’t have been so different that it would justify the strain on Bowie.****

Whenever I hear people knock down Bowie for his 1980s money-making shows, I think about those 15,000 miles. Supporting an entourage of 42 or so people didn’t fall on the folks who engineered this zigzagging mess, but on Bowie, who ended up having made very little money for the physical and psychological investment demanded by the Defries machine. Once out of this servitude to Defries, he decided to take care of his (and his son’s) financial security.

And then he was able to do what he enjoyed.

——–

*Look at some of these distances: Cleveland to Memphis: 730 miles; back up to NYC 1100; down to Boston: 216; west to Chicago 990; up to Detroit 280; down to St. Louis, 530; then to Kansas City, 280; out to Santa Monica: 1632; up to San Francisco, 380, and then to Seattle, 800*; down to Phoenix, 1414; east to New Orleans: 1550; south to Ft. Lauderdale (Dania), Florida 875, and so on.
**Another site not worth the effort it took to get there: Pirate’s World in Dania, FL. Dania is a small Southern town, when you get right down to it, north of Ft. Lauderdale, or about an hour and a half from Miami.  Pirate’s World was an amusement park, so bands were competing with screams from roller coasters, etc. I looked for audience size for this concert, and on two sites, Bowie’s appearance isn’t even listed. These folks came out for Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly, Alice Cooper. And for this, Bowie traveled 1775 miles from New Orleans to Dania (875 miles) and then back up to Nashville (900 miles).
And why go to Nashville in the first place? It’s the epicenter for country music. And it is in the Bible Belt of the Deep South.
***The few who did, if there were any, probably lived in or near Cleveland, Ohio (3 shows), Santa Monica, San Francisco, or Philadelphia (2 each). Only the Cleveland shows weren’t all on consecutive nights (one at the start of the tour, two toward the end).
****Cleveland, Ohio, had disc jockeys who in 1972 took a break from “Horse with No Name” and “Song Sung Blue” to play a bit of Bowie; they were ready for Ziggy’s landing. And Cleveland is on the way from NYC to California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Ziggy in the UK and US: What Americans Missed

  1. I came across your site because I thought there was some potentially interesting links between Bowie’s use of nature imagery (particularly animals) and William Blake’s use of the same. Lo and behold, you’ve offered a marvellously intelligent and thoroughly enlightening interpretation of this. I can’t compliment you enough on the great work you’ve done here on this site. It goes without saying, although I’ll say it, that your love and, importantly, your understanding of Bowie’s work shines through everything I’ve read here (I’m not finished reading yet). I won’t go into the “how long I’ve been a Bowie fan” bit and I’m certainly not going into how his loss has impacted upon my life. I’ll just say that coming across your writing has meant a lot to me – especially now. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful insights, Laurie, and so beautifully researched and written. I resonate deeply with your connection to Bowie and the ideas he was exploring and manifesting throughout his life. I’ve been trying to articulate why I came back and immersed myself in all this after Where Are We Now? came out in 2013. I too had decades away from him, but he reemerged at just the right moment for me. I am so grateful now to have the chance to go back through everything available – so much of it; it’s almost a fulltime occupation! – and appreciate the many layers he was working in. I hope you are feeling well now, and look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    1. Thank you. I hope to get on with writing about DB again soon. It hit me hard to hear he had died of liver cancer and worse still to hear people who should know better (or say nothing) claim it was cirrhosis related, a life style choice, in other words. Wrong and wrong and wrong again. I’m torn between discussing what I know of this condition in general and being invasive about things I know noting about. It sounds now as if it was pancreatic primarily but liver effectively. Cirrhosis does not cause liver cancer. It is possible to have liver cancer and not cirrhosis, and it is possible to have cirrhosis and not cancer. Co-incidence is higher, but coincidence is not causality. And the liver is one of few organs that can regenerate new cells. If someone had alcoholic-induced cirrhosis and dries out, after 15 years, his liver could well be perfectly fine. The prejudice against people with cirrhosis is so prevalent even among health providers that my auto-immune condition, primary biliary cirrhosis, has been re-named primary biliary cholangiolitis. Sounds ridiculous, but just watch some EMTs and ER folk cross their eyes when they hear the word “cirrhosis” — you made this mess of yourself and now you expect us to clean it up? Ah well, another sermon for another day.

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