It was one of those events that virtually nobody witnessed, but many wish they had: the concert at London’s Toby Jug pub on February 10, 1972, when the relatively minor rocker named David Bowie became the spaceman Ziggy Stardust. While it might be said of many such historic moments—like John Lennon meeting Paul McCarthy, or Elvis ad-libbing “That’s All Right (Mama)” between takes at Sun Studios—that their significance became clear only in hindsight, there was at least one man who knew exactly where Ziggy’s earthly debut would lead: David Bowie himself.
“I’m going to be huge,” is what David Bowie told Melody Maker less than three weeks earlier and still six months prior to the release of the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “And it’s quite frightening in a way, because I know that when I reach my peak and it’s time for me to be brought down it will be with a bump.” That last bit may have been a case of Bowie confusing his Ziggy persona with real life, but that was what put the act over in the first place. Any rock musician can put on a costume, but how many could have inhabited the identity of an androgynous Martian rock star come to Earth in its dying days so convincingly, so effortlessly?
Bowie has credited two men with serving as his inspiration for creating Ziggy Stardust. One was the man he met and spoke with after his first Velvet Underground concert and took to be Lou Reed, but who was, in fact, Reed’s replacement in the Velvets. “He sat there and talked as though he was Lou and he was talking about how he wrote ‘Waiting For The Man’ and all these things!” recalled Bowie years later. “And it was at that point that I realised that, at the time, it didn’t matter to me if this was the real one or a fake one.” The other inspiration was Vince Taylor, an obscure figure to Americans, but a figure well-known in late-’60s London as a former pop star very publicly losing his mind. “He fired his band and went on-stage one night in a white sheet. He told the audience to rejoice, that he was Jesus. They put him away.”
From this mix, Bowie created the persona and groundbreaking album that offered “a finger up the nose of pop sincerity…a boot in the collective sagging denim behind of hippie singer-songwhiners” and made his career. As one of the roughly sixty young Londoners in the audience that night at the Toby Jug now recalls, “Bowie had brought theatre to a humble pub gig….I couldn’t blink for fear of missing something—nothing would ever be the same again.”