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.