The original idea I had for what’s become the “Divine Symmetry” series came after I was listening to “Woodstock,” specifically the Crosby, Stills and Nash version, and thinking about the use of the term, “stardust,” in the refrain:
“We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden”
Out of the gates, I am not suggesting that there is any direct connection between this song and Ziggy Stardust, but the song kept appearing on YouTube mixes for me so I kept thinking about it. It occurred to me that there was another random coincidence in the band’s song, “Dark Star,” being similar to Bowie’s “Blackstar,” at least in the title. I also noticed that Crosby, Still and Nash (ok, from here out I’ll refer to them as CSN) added the line about billion-year-old carbon to Joanie Mitchell’s original version of the song. OK, but so what?
Well, the original idea of this series was to contemplate connections between coincidences. The use of “stardust” is closer to what I had in mind than what I wrote about in the first two entries for the series. In the first case, I noticed that Taylor Swift used some similar lines as appear in certain Bowie songs. While its possible that what I was observing was absolutely a coincidence, what I suspect is more likely is that she had some Bowie lines rolling around in the back of her mind, which would mean there’s some sort of connection. The connection was stronger in my second entry, which compared Gary Numan’s song, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric” with Bowie’s “Teenage Wildlife.” Human was obviously influenced by Bowie, and Bowie’s song appears in part to be a response to— and rebuke of— Numan.
“Woodstock” is not even an original CSN song. As I already mentioned, it’s originally a Joanie Mitchell song. Both versions predate Ziggy Stardust, yet there’s little if anything in the song “Ziggy Stardust” to suggest that Bowie was thinking of “Woodstock” while writing it. Actually, the word, “stardust,’ does not appear in the lyrics to the song, “Ziggy Stardust,” and only appears in the song, “Lady Stardust.”
The ur-stardust pop song, as far as I can tell, is the American standard written by Hoagy Carmichael all the way back in 1927. If that was the first, it started a trend. There are a great many songs called, “Stardust,” or with “stardust” in the name. Bowie claimed to have taken the term from the off-the-wall performer, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. While I have zero first-hand familiarity with his music, my understanding is that he performed a psychedelic version of country, and he devised his own name in part so that his initials would be, LSD.
There is a connection— in each of these cases, “stardust” is meant to evoke something etherial, dreamy and unearthly. If you listen to that Hoagy Carmichael song — that’s one dreamy song. And though I am too unfamiliar with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy to really comment on his music, he doubtlessly wanted to evoke a hazy, dreamy sensibility. Bowie makes the small hop from “dreamy” to “spaced-out,” but he might not have simply been tapping into the already-by-then traditional symbolism of “stardust” but also making a subtle drug reference. He would have known that Ziggy’s namesake associated himself with LSD. Bowie himself had performed the awful comic drug song, “Buzz the Fuzz,” which also made an LSD joke— it mentions an “Alice D.” But also, in the year before Ziggy, Bowie connected “dust” with drugs in “The Betwely Brothers,” in the line, “ And our talk was old and dust would flow thru our veins and Lo! it was midnight.”
Later, Bowie opens the 1974 song, “Big Brother,” with the lines, “Don’t talk of dust and roses Or should we powder our noses?” Considering his rapid descent into cocaine addiction, it’s hard not to see this too as a drug reference.
Oddly enough, I don’t think “stardust” is a drug reference in, “Woodstock.” That said, the whole picture painted by the song is dreamy, and considering the time and subject matter, drugs couldn’t be too deep within the subtext. By the more obvious meaning is that we are all one with the universe. CSN added the line about billion year old carbon, well, probably for musical reasons, but also to just make the point extra clear— we are one with the cosmos and as such are interconnected. And that’s not too far off from what Bowie was singing about on Ziggy. His target audience might feel alienated (or, alien), but as he concludes with, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” “you’re not alone.”
I think the larger point, at least in the CSN song, is not just that we are interconnected as a people but that we are interconnected with everything. It’s actually an atheist’s explanation of how we are part of something larger than ourselves. We are part of a continuum that stretches back to the beginning of time and stretches across all space, and, without need for resurrection or reincarnation, our component parts will keep on being recycled into eternity.
Bowie has said that fans assigned greater meaning to Ziggy than he originally intended, but it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the messianic interpretation of the character was there for the interpretation in part because of the word, “stardust.” At least it adds to the mystical, celestial stage-setting. The word’s association had already been established well before Bowie dreamt up Ziggy. It also helps establish the idea that the Ziggy Stardust album is a coherent piece. You don’t have to listen to it that way. There’s nothing within the song, “Starman,” identifying Ziggy Stardust as the Starman. But it helps that his name was Stardust rather than Smith. And from there comes the implications of universality, connectivity and grand sweep.
Then there’s Woodstock itself. In the CSN song, all the cosmic self-realization and dream of a magical, peaceful Eden-like world is set on the context of a music festival. To the extent Bowie, too is telling a story or making a point with Ziggy, it too is set amidst a musical context. The Ziggy album is as much about rock and roll as it is about space. Bowie is speaking to the alienated, who feel like the world is coming to an end and that they are restricted by a love they cannot obey. “Woodstock” actually isn’t that far off from making the same points— the audience is clearly frustrated by a war that they can do nothing to stop, other than dreaming about bombers turning into butterflies. The narrator in “Woodstock” meets someone that very well could be the protagonist in Bowie’s “Star,” who is “gonna join in a rock ‘n’ roll band…get back to the land” and set his soul free. Bowie’s protagonist plans to “make it all worthwhile as a rock and roll star.” Both contexts link salvation to music-making.
Still, I don’t think Bowie was thinking about “Woodstock” while making Ziggy. At best, as Taylor Swift might have had Bowie lyrics in the back of her heard while sitting down to write, Bowie might too have had this earlier song in the recesses of his mind. But he’s using similar language to evoke similar ideas. And he too was trying to get back to the Garden…