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Chameleons, Comedians, and Caricatures

June 6, 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

A landmark album in the history of pop music, Ziggy Stardust is arguably among the best of early seventies glam rock, but its lasting appeal has always been rooted in the iconic character of Ziggy himself — one the earlier and more outlandish alter egos that Rock’s master chameleon has assumed over the years.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The human form of an extraterrestrial sent to earth in its final five years to deliver a message of hope, Ziggy ascends to great heights of stardom only to crash and burn in what becomes both a celebration and condemnation of  rock n’ roll excess and the elevation of pop idols to godlike stature.

The nature of the character has been well documented by Bowie in interviews given over the years (most notably, in conversation with William S. Burroughs as moderated by writer Craig Copetas in an article in the February 28th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone). Likewise, Bowie has been very forthcoming as to the real-life models that inspired the character.

Part Iggy Pop, part Marc Bolan, a bit of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (if in name only) with shades of Syd Barrett, Ziggy’s musical and cultural influences can oddly, forty years on in the context of pop music history, seem somewhat obvious. Yet among the many inspirations for Bowie’s rock star alien prophet is a little known British born Elvis Presley wannabe named Vince Taylor.

Vince Taylor

Superstar to some (Joe Strummer of the Clash, who covered one of Taylor’s few original compositions Brand New Cadillac, once called him “the beginning of British rock’n’roll,” adding that “before him, there was nothing”), Vince Taylor was an odd European mutation of the American rockers he emulated. From the late nineteen-fifties through to the British Invasion of 1964 ushered in by the Beatles, Taylor’s eccentric but earnest imitations of Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and others earned him notoriety in the UK and on the continent, especially in France. But his reputation for unpredictable mood swings and overindulgence in drugs and alcohol — coupled with an almost fetishistic ever-present uniform of head-to-toe black leather complimented by a large Joan of Arc medallion — made Taylor an outsider. Almost alien.

By the mid sixties, Taylor was regularly dropping acid, and the LSD was affecting his mind. On one occasion, he told an audience he was the Apostle Matthew. At another show, he claimed to be the son of God. Bowie met Taylor in 1966, at Vince’s lowest point.

“Just the weirdest kind of creature… in his own mind he did become the Messiah… He used to hang out on Tottenham Court Road and I got to know him then. And he had these strange plans, showing where there was money buried, that he was going to get together… he was going to create this new Atlantis at one time… and he always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock n roll. I’m not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both probably. There was something very tempting about him going completely off the edge. Especially at my age, then, it seemed very appealing… Oh, I’d love to end up like that, totally nuts. Ha ha! And so he re-emerged in this Ziggy Stardust character.” — Bowie on Taylor sometime in 1990 (quotes widely circulated but source unknown)

It is generally now believed by critics, biographers and fans alike that this fascination with, yet fear of mental illness is at the core of Bowie’s eventual discomfort with the character of Ziggy. A little over a year after the album’s release, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would play their final concert at the Hammersmith Odeon (captured in Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture) and Bowie abandoned his alter ego, never to become him again.

After a couple of attempts at comebacks in Europe through the late nineteen seventies, Vince Taylor lived in Switzerland and worked as an airplane mechanic. He died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 52.


On recent tours, Morrissey uses footage of Taylor performing “Whole Lot of Twistin’ Going On” as part of his pre-show audience warm up.

The title of my post is taken from a lyric in David Bowie’s “The Bewlay Brothers” from Hunky Dory (1971), the album preceding Ziggy Stardust (the entire line is “Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature”). It was written, in part, for his brother Terry who suffered from and ultimately succumbed to schizophrenia. Mental illness ran in David’s family, and he forever wondered if he, too, would one day go mad.

For more on David Bowie’s fear of mental illness and relationship with his schizophrenic brother, read Mikal Gilmore’s excellent article “How David Bowie Changed the World” in the January 18, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone (click here for an excerpt).

In Tongues

“…I felt language rise up in me that was unhooked from english, and I began to speak.. like this, ‘Ehh yo ca dem wa, etc.. .. or words to that effect. And I wondered then what it all meant and why it felt so good if it didn’t mean anything. And I thought about it, a few years actually, and I decided that meaning and language are two different things. And that what the alien voice in the psychedelic experience wants to reveal is the syntactical nature of reality.”Terence McKenna, describing one of the effects of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) on his consciousness in Space Time Continuum: Alien Dreamtime, a multimedia event recorded on Feb 27th, 1993

Image of Pentecost from the Rabula Gospels, 6th Century

The celebration of Pentecost in the Christian tradition commemorates the gifts of the Holy Spirit as visited upon the Apostles of Jesus after his death in the form of what are often referred to as tongues of fire; chief among these gifts was glossolalia, or the ability to speak in tongues.

As understood by the early Church and recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, speaking in tongues has traditionally meant that those given the gifts of the Holy Spirit were able to preach the Gospel in such a way as to be understood by all men in each their own native language.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.” — Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, verses 4-6, King James Version

Modern Christians, particularly those in the Pentecostal movement but even among some Catholics who identify themselves as charismatics, believe that speaking in tongues can not only mean real, unlearned languages (i.e., xenoglossia) but also — even more so —  divinely inspired utterances not necessarily understood by anyone at all but nonetheless heavenly.

This language of the spirit tends to sound like gibberish, but to believers, it is a heavenly gift of praise and a sign that the Holy Spirit continues to bestow extraordinary grace (or charism) upon Christians. In this respect, speaking in tongues shares less with the experience of the Apostles on Pentecost Sunday than it does with the ecstatic speech of the ancients.

Linguists who have studied this latter practice — often called the language of the spirit — believe that it’s not a true language but rather simply sounds that are formed like speech but have no intelligibility of their own. To skeptics, speaking in tongues is not a miraculous occurrence at all.

Still, one wonders if the person speaking in tongues truly believes he or she is channeling some heavenly language.

Are these people just faking? Is speaking in tongues nothing more than what it seems: meaningless, fabricated speech?

Newberg shows glossolalia (b) associated with a decrease in frontal lobe activity

Publishing his findings in Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging (November, 2006), Andrew Newberg, MD, Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies, and Director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, took SPECT scans of subjects while they simply sang and separately, as they spoke in tongues (section b in the image at left). Brain scans recorded during moments of speaking in tongues primarily showed a decrease of activity in the frontal lobes, the area of the brain where we feel that we’re in control of our thoughts and actions. Additionally, there was a decrease in activity in the left basal ganglia, an area responsible for mental focus and emotional response.

Newberg’s conclusion? Subjects speaking in tongues were not consciously faking anything. To the contrary, they appeared to not be in control of their utterances at all. Unlike his studies of Tibetan monks during meditation whose frontal lobes showed increased activity due to intense concentration, the subjects who spoke in tongues seemed to have somehow given up control of the parts of their brains associated with language and speech.

Newberg shows meditation associated with an increase in frontal lobe activity

Does this mean all Christians who claim to speak in tongues show these same brain patterns? Certainly not. Newberg’s study only looked at five test subjects. But science may partially explain, then, why a phenomenon certainly not specifically defined as unintelligible heavenly speech in the Old or New Testament has a hold on so many Christians today. With more than one in four Christians identifying themselves as Pentecostal or Charismatic, something beyond Christianity — perhaps in human nature itself — may be hard wired to use patterns of syllabic utterances disconnected from known language to alter consciousness. If not to touch God, then perhaps to find something divine within.

From African animists to the Oracle at Delphi, ecstatic language predates Christianity. Both Plato and Virgil make reference to it. Some scholars believe the earliest example may be references to “frenzied youth” in the the story of Wenamon, an Egyptian who traveled through Palestine in 1100 BC. In light of such numerous examples from cross-cultural belief systems, the experience of the Apostles then is the odd case of speaking in tongues where words were not spoken but instead heard by audiences in their native language.

How ironic, considering the fervor of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements of today, to think that the early Church may have intentionally cast speaking in tongues as xenoglossy to counter the more frenzied ecstatic language of the ancients!

For many cultures, including our own, there may be a need among some of us to turn down the noise of the frontal lobe and turn on some other part of the brain less in control of our tongues yet still assigned great meaning. Not the proto language of our earliest cousins, but perhaps a meta language understood only by areas of the mind open to the suggestion (auto or other) that there may be extraterrestrial (in its broadest sense of the term) influence upon the human operating system.

Ending his rumination on speaking in tongues as the result of a DMT trip, future theorist, psychonaut and philosopher Terence McKenna said “the real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of you can make of it whatever you wish.”

Sounds. Sounds making syllables. Syllables making words.  In many cultures, words are magic. Words shape reality.

But to the brain, the organ that allows us to perceive or even alter reality (be it actualization or delusion), words ultimately might not matter. Patterns in unintelligible sounds made by the tongue may be just as potent, electrochemically.

No drug trips or divine gifts necessary.