EXCERPT: Ziggy Played Guitar



VIA ROLLING STONE: A small crowd of sixty or so music fans stood in the dance hall of the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth, a suburban neighborhood in southwest London, on the night of February 10, 1972. The backs of their hands had been freshly stamped by the doorman. A DJ played records to warm up the crowd for the main act. The hall was nothing fancy, little more than “an ordinary function room.” The two-story brick building that housed it – “a gaunt fortress of a pub on the edge of an underpass” – had played host to numerous rock acts over the past few years, including Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and Fleetwood Mac. Sci-fi music had even graced the otherwise earthy Toby Jug, thanks to recent headliners King Crimson and Hawkwind, and exactly one week earlier, on February 3, the band Stray performed, quite likely playing their sci-fi song “Time Machine.” The concertgoers on the tenth, however, had no idea that they would soon witness the most crucial event in the history of sci-fi music.

Most of them already knew who David Bowie was – the singer who, three years earlier, had sung “Space Oddity,” and who had appeared very seldom in public since, focusing instead on making records that barely dented the charts. His relatively low profile in recent years hadn’t helped his latest single, “Changes,” which had come out in January. Despite its soaring, anthemic sound, it failed to find immediate success in England. But the lyrics of the song seemed to signal an impending metamorphosis, hinted at again in late January when Bowie declared in a Melody Maker interview, “I’m gay and always have been” and unabashedly predicted, “I’m going to be huge, and it’s quite frightening in a way.” Bowie clearly had a big plan up his immaculately tailored sleeve. But what could it be?

Before Bowie took the stage of the Toby Jug, an orchestral crescendo announced him. It was a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, drawn from the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. To anyone who’d seen the film, the music carried a sinister feeling, superimposed as it was over Kubrick’s visions of grim dystopia and ultraviolence. Grandiloquence mixed with foreboding, shot through with sci-fi: it couldn’t have been a better backdrop for what the pint-clutching attendees of the Toby Jug were about to behold.

At around 9:00 p.m., the houselights were extinguished. A spotlight sliced the darkness. Bowie took the stage. But was it really him? In a strictly physical sense, it must have been. But this was Bowie as no one had seen him before. His hair – which appeared blond and flowing on the cover of Hunky Dory, released just three months earlier – was now chopped at severe angles and dyed bright orange, the color of a B-movie laser beam. His face was lavishly slathered with cosmetics. He wore a jumpsuit with a plunging neckline, revealing his delicate, bone-pale chest, and his knee-high wrestling boots were fire-engine red. Bowie had never been conservative in dress, but even for him, this was a quantum leap into the unknown. MORE