Leper Messiah: A Jesus Freak’s Search for the Meaning of Bowie—A Critical Novella

The following ran in eight installments, each of which can be accessed here. We present them as whole below for easy printing or reading. As you please. — ed.


As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” —Luke, 8:42-46

A teenage girl is crying, sobbing inconsolably, her face a tear-streaked mask of sweet anguish. She’s English, dressed in schoolboy drag: a white dress shirt and blazer, topped off with the regulation necktie. Pinned to her jacket is a photo button of David Bowie in character as Ziggy Stardust. She exhibits all the emotional stigmata of Ziggymania, a hormonally fueled religious hysteria that convulsed Anglo-American teen culture from 1972 until 1974, if not later.

We’re watching her in a 1973 report on the Bowie phenomenon by the BBC news program Nationwide, uploaded to YouTube. “They said ‘e was comin’ ‘round the back! I’ve been waiting for ages to see ‘im,” she wails, agonized at missing the star’s limousine arrive. “Why’re you so upset?” a bemused interviewer asks, across a generational chasm. She looks up, incredulous at the man’s inability to grasp the obvious: “He’s smashing!” Another girl crowds into the frame, as radiantly happy as her friend is distraught. “I kissed his hand!” she gasps, in the grip of some mystical eros. “I kissed his hand! I went (mimes kissing Bowie’s hand); Oh, he’s lovely!”

It pleased our Lord, one day that I was in prayer, to show me His Hands, and His Hands only. The beauty of them was so great, that no language can describe it. […] You will think…that it required no great courage to look upon Hands…so beautiful. But so beautiful are glorified bodies, that the glory which surrounds them renders those who see that which is so supernatural and beautiful beside themselves.

— Saint Teresa of Ávila, “Chapter XXVIII: Visions of the Sacred Humanity, and of the Glorified Bodies,” from The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, of the Order of Our Lady of Carmel

Ziggy Stardust, for anyone who wasn’t a teenager in the seventies, is the protagonist of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s 1972 concept album about a Martian prophet of “soul love” who touches down on a doomed Earth.

Proclaiming an astro-hippie gospel of transcendence through free love (“let all the children boogie,” unquote), Ziggy seizes on rock stardom as the most effective media pulpit for his message. Not content with mere celebrity, he imagines himself a “leper messiah.” But, like too many telegenic holy men, he ends up seduced by his own Cult of Personality: “making love with his ego / Ziggy sucked up into his mind” (“Ziggy Stardust”). In the Ziggy outtake “Sweet Head,” he sings, “Your faith in me can last / Besides, I’m known to lay you, one and all,” then tosses off a line calculated to outrage: “Till there was rock, you only had God.”

In the end, he’s murdered by his crazed fans, torn limb from limb onstage. His jealous backing band, The Spiders from Mars—who had “bitched about his fans” and toyed with Golgotha-friendly fantasies of “crush[ing] his sweet hands”—wash their hands, Pontius Pilate-like, of the whole sordid business: “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band.”

In concert, Bowie became Ziggy, introducing himself and his band as “Ziggy and the Spiders.” Forehead emblazoned with a gilded moon, hair dyed drop-dead red and spiked into a Kabuki frightwig, he was a vision of posthuman beauty, with a face like Garbo’s death mask and a leer on loan from Alex, the ultra-violent punk in A Clockwork Orange. And the costume changes—a whole clothes rack’s-worth of them, each more jaw-dropping than the last: sci-fi samurai in a tear-away kimono; camp Flash Gordon in a skin-tight jumpsuit; gay-pride sumo wrestler in a sequined jockstrap; Surrealist burlesque dancer shimmying in a man-bra made of glitter-skinned mannequin hands.

Freeze-framed in the eerie pulsations of a strobe, with the raunchy proto-punk of the Spiders squalling behind him, Bowie—Ziggy?—seemed truly Not of This World, especially to teenagers trapped in the have-a-nice-daymare of ’70s suburbia. He was a spiked cocktail of ladyboy vulnerability and George Grosz grotesque, the Frankensteinian spookiness of his shaved eyebrows and morgue-slab pallor clashing with his androgynous physique and feline grace. Even his weirdly mismatched eyes—the result of a boyhood fistfight that left one pupil permanently dilated and different-colored—marked him as a resident alien.

“It was quite scary to see someone on stage who did look like an alien,” recalled a Bowie fan named Bernard. “I remember I got really confused and at one point I really did think he was something alien…in all that Ziggy get-up, he was such an awe-inspiring figure.”

At the height of Ziggymania, Bowie ended each concert with Ziggy’s swansong, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” The song builds, cresting in a hymnlike refrain worthy of a Broadway curtain-closer: “Gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful / Gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful.” Peaking, the song crashes with Ziggy’s last words, caught at the moment his orgasmic cry turns into an agonized wail, as his fans rip him to shreds: “Oh gimme your hands!”

By all accounts, Bowie’s then-wife Angie dreamed up the gimmick of having Bowie extend a pleading hand toward the crowd as the song crescendoed. Soon enough, the gimme-your-hands shtick was as formalized as the laying-on of hands at a faith-healing revival—a spotlit rite of communion between a worshipful crowd, desperate to touch the “leper messiah” (“Ziggy Stardust”), and a star who flirted with delusions of messianic grandeur.

In truth, Bowie was haunted by the fear that he would be rock’s first martyr, a blood sacrifice to celebrity culture. He exorcized his fear (even as he indulged his Saint Sebastian complex) before a howling crowd, in Ziggy’s passion play.

Offstage, his calculated blurring of the boundary between media myth and private self brought him perilously close to living out the Ziggy-esque martyrdom of his paranoid fantasies.

Next Week: At 14, the author, stranded in 1974 suburbia, has his born-again Christian brain short-circuited by the gender-bent but heart-stoppingly beautiful Ziggy.  





And when he arrived they screamed and they cried, and they rushed, and gushed forth and beat their feverish feminine fists into the backs of the indeed brave coppers who shielded HIM. For he is indeed HIM.

One girl, her face bloated, and most ugly with tears and ruddy emotion, fell half-way twixt train and rail. A young copper dragged her to safety. Ten yards down the platform HE was pretty close to injury to HIM. Bowie, despite all the fierce bodyguarding, was being kissed, and pinched, and touched, and ripped at. His hair now untidy; his eyes wild; his mouth open. A picture of terror. But his open mouth also bore the shadow of a crazed smile. They pushed him against a carriage door. It took Spartan constabulary to lift this small squirrel-haired figure to safety; his face now very creased with every emotion a face could ever squeeze itself into. And they squeezed him into a car that was battered, and clawed at. And that car squeezed its way to safety. And Mr. Bowie was back in England. And on Platform One, in a dirty wet huddle, lay two plumpish girlies, crying, and holding each other, and just crying. Everyone had gone, except them. Their tights all ripped, their knickers showing. And they just lay there crying.
—Roy Hollingworth, “Cha…cha…cha…changes: A journey with Aladdin,” Melody Maker, May 12, 1973


Will you touch, will you mend me Christ?

Won’t you touch, will you heal me Christ? Will you kiss, you can cure me Christ?

Won’t you kiss, won’t you pay me Christ?


Oh, there’s too many of you, don’t push me Oh, there’s too little of me, don’t crowd me Heal yourselves!
—“The Temple,” Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)

On July 3rd, 1973, Bowie ceremonially retired his Ziggy Stardust persona before a crowd of true believers, a melodramatic gesture immortalized in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

Actually, it was more ritual sacrifice than retirement: Bowie sentenced Ziggy to death, partly because the leper messiah’s shock value was losing its jolt, partly because the strain of playing the Jesus of Cool, onstage and off, was beginning to tell on him. “It was quite easy to become obsessed night and day with the character,” he later recalled. “Everybody was convincing me that I was a messiah…”

Returning for an encore, Bowie leans into the mic with a knowing, almost coy smile. “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest because not only is it the last show of the tour, but”—pause for dramatic effect—“it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” A collective gasp from the stunned crowd, intermingled with stricken cries of “No!” On cue, pianist Mike Garson pulses the opening chords of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “Time takes a cigarette/ puts it in your mouth…”

Ziggy was our savior. He rescued my only friend Lisa and [me] (two American kids with very British taste in music) from teenage boredom and launched us through outer space to his very own planet, somewhere beyond Pluto. The U.S. TV show [Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert] featured the final Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. It was the first and only time we would see Ziggy live in action (besides the hundreds of magazine photos and posters we had). The stage was dark, the focus was soft, and the camerawork shaky and evasive. Ziggy was shrouded in mystery. He was definitely from the cosmos; androgynous, surreal and seductive, perfect porcelain skin, unearthly mismatched eyes with a foreign, piercing stare. […] We saw this on a black & white TV, yet it was still utterly compelling. We had found our ultimate icon, and there he was announcing his final performance. Our devastation mounted.
—Madeline, a Bowie fan

Late on the night of October 25, 1974 in a San Diego suburb hard by the Mexican border, a 14-year-old me kneels close to the TV, flicker bathing my rapt face. It’s the only light in the house. I’m watching Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 film of Bowie’s farewell performance as Ziggy, on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert—the same broadcast that’s saving the bored teenage souls of Madeline and her friend Lisa, somewhere in New York.

Down the hall, my parents are asleep. It’s past midnight, and I know, somehow, that I’m the only kid in my chicken-coop suburb beholding this miraculous visitation, wondrous as the presentation of the hermaphrodite in Fellini’s Satyricon. To be sure, Bowie’s a freak—code for “fag” among the real-life Jeff Spicolis in my junior high class, righteous dudes whose idea of total radness is firing up a beer bong, dropping the needle on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and watching The Wizard of Oz with the sound turned off.

But he’s so heart-stoppingly beautiful, in such a confusingly feminine way, that he short-circuits my teenage brain, a brain whose congenital straightness I’ve never questioned…until now. Those Venus de Milo shoulders; that slim-hipped teenage-boy torso on top of those Rockette legs; that otherworldly face—moon-white, immaculate, like Dietrich in cryo-sleep. And the way he moves: biker-butch one minute, swivel-hipped the next, with a predatory grace true to Ziggy’s boast in “Hang on to Yourself” that he and the Spiders “move around like tigers on Vaseline.” “Come on, come on,” he pants, in time, syncopating the Spiders’ skidding, careening beat. I catch myself thinking how sexy he is. And I wonder what that means. And I realize I don’t care.

Riding the volume knob, I split the difference between waking my parents and coaxing all the ecstasy I can from the TV’s tin-can speaker.

I don’t know how to take this
I don’t see why he moves me
He’s a man
He’s just a man

Should I bring him down
Should I scream and shout
Should I speak of love
Let my feelings out?
I never thought I’d come to this
What’s it all about?

—Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” Jesus Christ Superstar

Earlier that night, I’d gone looking for another sort of ecstasy. Crowded into the House of Abba with the other Jesus Freaks, I prayed with eyes closed and palms uplifted, whispering sweet nothings in God’s ear, beseeching him to fill me with his holy spirit.


Abba, a youth outreach launched in 1971 by the Chula Vista First Baptist Church and run by the church’s teens and twentysomethings, took its name from Christ’s term of endearment for his Heavenly Father. (“Abba” is Aramaic for “Daddy”). The name was perfectly suited to the laid-back, Jesus-is-just-alright vibe, heavy on the group hugs, that prevailed at the weekend “coffeehouses,” as such services were called.

Friday nights at the House of Abba were stunningly unlike the soporific Sunday mornings at Saint Mark’s Lutheran Church, where I’d spent most of my church-going life, dozing fitfully while pretending to study the mimeographed liturgy handed out at the door.

Abba’s hang-loose cool stood in stark contrast to Saint Marks’ clip-on tie conservatism. At Saint Mark’s, we sat bolt upright, in unforgiving pews; at Abba, we sat cross-legged on a patchwork carpet hand-stitched by the youth in the church’s “art ministry” to give it a crash-pad ambiance. They’d also painted the sanctuary walls with cartoony, faux-naif pop-art murals (“imagine a hippy Sistine Chapel,” the pastor’s son, Tim Pagaard, recalls).

Abba’s radicalism went far deeper than interior decoration, scrapping the liturgy and smudging the historically sharp line between clergy and congregation. To be sure, Abba services had leaders, but they were laypeople and, more to the point, young people—a breezy flouting of elder power, from a Lutheran’s-eye view. Not a reversed collar in sight, but plenty of longhairs in Pendleton shirts (worn, as SoCal style dictated, over a long john top, flannel sleeves rolled up to flaunt the underwear—an inscrutable convergence of beach-bum cool and the Little House on the Prairie couture favored by the back-to-the-garden wing of the Woodstock Nation, Richard Brautigan Division.)

Abba leaders wore their authority lightly, deciding on the fly whether we should sing, ponder a passage of scripture, or simply praise the Lord, lifting our voices in a weirdly beautiful welter of whispered prayers, wordless song, murmured praise—“thank you, Jesus”; “bless you, lord”—and, inevitably, the ecstatic babble of people speaking in tongues.

The Chula Vista First Baptist Church was a flashpoint in the so-called Charismatic Renewal, an outbreak of neo-Pentecostalism that erupted, incongruously, in American Catholicism in 1967 and spread like holy fire through the mainline Protestant denominations.

The FBC’s charismatic orientation encouraged public displays of beatified passion and, more generally, a middle-class, white (read: toned-down) version of the exuberant call-and-response dynamic that has animated black Pentecostal churches and Southern white revival meetings for generations.

On October 25, 1974, as on most Friday nights, Abba’s house band Hebron churned out folk-rock worship music, original tunes that gene-spliced David Crosby and King Crimson—a progressive take on what would come to be known as Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). Someone spoke in tongues; someone else prayed for the gift of interpretation. A girl rocked as she sang, eyes closed, cheeks silvered by tears.

I knew how she felt. Sometimes, as I tried to wrap my mind around God’s fathomless love for me—me, an insignificant speck among earth’s billions, yet He numbered the very hairs on my head—a wrenching feeling welled up inside: God’s love engulfing me, then overspilling my soul, a flood of love for all humankind.

This was agape, the Greek word the early Christians used to refer to the unconditional love God felt for us, his children, and which we were supposed to feel for the world. Equal parts transport of sanctified rapture and endorphin rush, it was the next best thing to sex, for an alienated teenage loner. Once, the feeling came over me as I sat reading the bible on one of the few hills in town untouched by development, an island of wild grass lapped by sprawl on every side. Another time, it overwhelmed me in my bedroom, as I prayed with eyes fixed on a picture torn from a magazine and taped to my wall, a blown-up detail of Christ’s sorrowful face from some Renaissance fresco—nightly devotions not unlike those performed by numberless teenage fans, in bedrooms across America, before pin-ups ripped from rock magazines like Creem or Circus or Hit Parader, except in my case the object of my obsession was the Son of God. I caught myself thinking how passionately I loved him. And I wondered what that meant. And I realized I didn’t care.

Soul love – the priest that tastes the word and
Told of love – and how my God on high is
All love – though reaching up my loneliness evolves
By the blindness that surrounds him

Love is careless in its choosing – sweeping over cross a baby
Love descends on those defenseless
Idiot love will spark the fusion
Inspirations have I none – just to touch the flaming dove

— David Bowie, “Soul Love,” Ziggy Stardust

Abba’s Jesus owed a debt to the Christ of the Jesus movement of the times, with which Abba shared not only historical space but cultural and, to a lesser degree, theological DNA.

Emerging on the West Coast in the late ‘60s, the Jesus movement—call them Jesus Freaks, Jesus People, street Christians, hippie Christians—was a grassroots (forgive the pun) revival rooted in the counterculture. Disenchanted by the Summer of Love’s sordid crack-up in Altamont, the Manson murders, and the zombie-eyed casualties of one too many trips, burned-out seekers began to See the Light—not the mind-frying blotter acid cooked up by Captain Clearlight, the San Francisco LSD kingpin, but The Light of the World.

Fundamentally white and middle-class in nature, it percolated out of the storefront missions and street outreaches of the urban counterculture—Ted and Elizabeth Wise’s Living Room coffeehouse in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Arthur Blessitt’s His Place coffeehouse on the Sunset Strip, in Hollywood—into suburban America.

The Jesus movement entered the national consciousness in 1971, when Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell opened Broadway and off-Broadway, respectively, and a pink-skinned, purple-haired Jesus in the Sky with Diamonds stared soulfully from American newsstands—the Peter Max-style illustration for Time magazine’s cover story on “The Jesus Revolution.” Time dutifully informed Middle America that:

Jesus is alive and well and living in the radical spiritual fervor of a growing number of young Americans who have proclaimed an extraordinary religious revolution in his name. […] Christian coffeehouses have opened in many cities, signaling their faith even in their names: The Way Word in Greenwich Village, the Catacombs in Seattle, I Am in Spokane. […] ‘It’s like a glacier,’ says ‘Jesus-Rock’ Singer Larry Norman, 24. ‘It’s growing and there’s no stopping it.’

Explo ’72, a “Christian Woodstock” hosted by the conservative evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ, packed an estimated 80,000 young believers into Dallas’s Cotton Bowl. (Attendance swelled to 250,000 on the day Kris Kristofferson performed.)

The Jesus Freaks’ ad-hoc theology could be summed up in two words: solus Jesus (“Jesus alone”), a “radically Jesus-centric” Christianity (to borrow a phrase from the religious historian Stephen Prothero) that privileged a soul-joltingly emotional relationship with the Son of God. The Jesus movement took the tendency, in American Christianity, to conceive of Jesus in down-to-earth, warmly human terms to new extremes.

Unsurprisingly, the Jesus Freaks imagined Christ as one of their own—a hippie, like Ted Neeley’s sad-eyed Prince of Peaceniks in the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar, or a surfer dude like Richard Hook’s popular Head of Christ (1964), whose stoned gaze makes him look like the kind of party-on messiah who peppered his conversation with words like “gnarly” and “bogus.” The Jesus People moved the sandaled, longhaired Son of God center stage and banished his hard-assed, disciplinarian Dad—Yaweh, assistant principal of the Old Testament—to the wings. (Yet more proof of Feuerbach’s postulate that man creates God in his own image.)

To a rebellious overthinker adrift in the Sun Belt’s answer to Stepford, Abba’s Jesus was thrillingly radical.

It was only a matter of weeks after I left Saint Mark’s for Abba, with my parents’ grudging blessing, that I found myself rising, one Friday night in 1973, to answer the altar call—the exhortation, in every evangelical service, to heed Jesus’s knock at the door of your heart and come forward, with the other converts-to-be, to Accept Jesus as Your Lord and Personal Savior.

I’d met this Jesus before, in Jesus Christ Superstar (1970): a righteous messiah, opening a can of whupass on the moneylenders, giving the one-finger salute to the hypocritical religious establishment, and suffering political martyrdom at the hands of The Man. For me, as for many boomers, Superstar was a paradigm-warping experience. When my stepdad gave the just-released original cast album to my mom, I intercepted it and played it non-stop for the rest of the day, poring over the staplebound libretto as if it were some impossibly awesome version of God’s word—which, to a 10-year-old with a spotty knowledge of scripture, it was. In a single afternoon, Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan’s arena-rock Jesus, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hooky, guitar-driven tunes, and the Mod Squad grooviness of Tim Rice’s lyrics had re-branded Jesus, in my mind, as Pure Awesome.

Growing up, I’d come to see Christ as an Establishment Tool, ventriloquized by the same malevolent, oyster-eyed old guardians of the social order who bullied us into saying the Pledge of Allegiance, hands on hearts, before they force-marched us off to Vietnam. My Country, Right or Wrong; Support Your Local Sheriff; and God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It were all products of the same Pavlovian conditioning, I decided; religion was just another cog in the machinery of social control.

The House of Abba Jesus, like the Jesus of Superstar and the Jesus Freaks, was poles apart, an anti-establishment troublemaker who came to turn the gerontocratic world of power and privilege upside down. He was the perfect combination of supercool role model and intimate confidante—an Invisible BFF who, unlike your parents or pastor or even your friends, totally understood you but never judged you and was always ready to kick back and listen while you poured out your tormented teenage heart.

Sure, the historical Christ was over 30, but as re-imagined by Abba, Superstar, and the hippie Christians, he was One of Us, a historical revision so right for the zeitgeist that it trickled down to my local head shop, where an unwittingly hilarious poster depicted a Jesus who looked more than one toke over the line, asserting, “You guys can wear your hair any length you want; just tell them I said so.”

As Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, puts it, the Jesus of ‘70s pop Christianity,

grew his hair long, picked up the slang of the youth culture, and started strumming a guitar (first acoustic, then electric). Like other Jesus Freaks, Jesus became a hip rebel against the square culture of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. He dissed his parents, quit his job, and took to the road with his closest friends.

Caiaphas, the high priest in Superstar, spoke for a generation: “One thing I’ll say for him—Jesus is cool!”



But as I delved deeper into scripture with my bible-study group, I found myself nagged by the awful doubt that while Christ was cool, Christianity wasn’t. I’d always had issues with the Father of All Authority Figures, Yaweh, whose because-I-said-so! insistence on instant, unquestioning obedience to authority was matched only by his serious anger-management problems. When he wasn’t giving the Israelites carte blanche to bash out the Midianite babies’ brains and rape their virgins, he was hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he could justify punishing him for having a hard heart, which is what attorneys like to call a nice point of law. Yaweh seemed about as judicious and coolly rational as Idi Amin Dada, yet like every totalitarian Dear Leader he insisted his fear-sickened people love him…or else, booming, “I, the LORD your God”—always with the screaming CapsLock, like some online whack job—“am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Exodus 20:5).

Happily, Yaweh was safely chained in the basement of the pop-Christian unconscious, the Old Testament, which most Jesus kids I knew seemed to view as a dusty scroll of Sunday-school fables about ancient Israelites, periodically interrupted by a yawn-inducing list of begats or the heaven-sent Genocide of the Week.

But the New Testament had its problems, too. The more I read, the more troubled I was by the dissonance between the righteous Jesus of the social gospel—the Revolutionary of Love, defending the destitute and the despised and demanding social justice on their behalf—and Paul’s chauvinism, misogyny, and homophobia. Worse yet, Christ, who seemed to have inherited his dad’s megalomania, insisting ad nauseam that he was The Way and The Truth and The Life and threatening his believers with eternal banishment to the outer darkness unless they submitted to His Will.

Around that time, being a Jesus Freak was losing its outsider cool, in my mind—the kiss of death, for any teenager. Some religious historians date the co-optation of the Jesus movement from its high-water mark in the mass media: Explo ’72, Campus Crusade leader Bill Bright’s shrewd re-packaging of conservative Christianity in the hippie sounds and styles of the Jesus Freaks—a breakthrough move that showed evangelical America how to use pop culture to market its message to its prodigal sons and daughters.

More profoundly, Bright’s “Godstock” witnessed the first stirrings of the evangelical demographic that would emerge in the ‘80s as a political force to be reckoned with. Following market capitalism’s tried-and-true strategy of marketing subcultural transgression as defanged fad, conservative Christianity embraced the teen style, if not the theological substance, of the Jesus movement—and squeezed the life out of it. By no accident, evangelicals were fruitful and multiplied.

Meanwhile, at the FBC, Abba was a victim of its own success, outgrowing the smaller of the church’s two sanctuaries—a godsend to the Old Guard, since it enabled the church to resorb Abba into the established order. “By 1974, space became a problem, and Abba moved into the much larger main sanctuary of the church,” Tim Pagaard, son of former pastor Ken Pagaard, recalls. “The proceedings grew more formal. Worshipers now sat in neat rows of pews instead of cross-legged, shoulder-to-shoulder, helter-skelter on the patchwork carpets of earlier years.

“As Abba became increasingly formalized, though, the crowds eventually began to dwindle. What had once been a quasi-independent youth movement was entirely absorbed into the church schedule in 1975 as a ‘Friday evening service.’ Leadership was turned over to the church elders, and the Thursday and Saturday meetings were cancelled. ‘Abba’ as an entity was no more.”

The Revenge of the Dads.

By 1975, I was gone. Ultimately, I hadn’t been able to swallow Abba’s—or the bible’s—unconscionable defense of “governing authorities,” no matter how venal or violent, following the apostle Paul’s decree in Romans 13:1, that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”—a helpful reminder to be Good Germans, even in the days of Mayor Daly and My Lai, Kent State and Nixon’s Christmas bombing. Nor could I conscience Abba’s—or the bible’s—sanctioning of sexist inequities and homophobic drivel that, to my mind, should have been buried with the Hebrew patriarchs. Faith-based apologetics for bigotry and blind obedience simply didn’t square with my vision of Jesus as a sharp-tongued prophet of social justice, come to speak truth to power and right the wrongs of this world.

I drifted away from Abba and, over time, from Christianity altogether. In the made-for-TV version of my life, I’d lose my religion in one mind-cracking moment, like some film of Saul on the road to Damascus run backwards. Unfortunately, that version would be as autobiographically fraudulent as it would be dramatically satisfying. Truth to tell, I lost my belief by degrees, as the ‘70s waned.

But my earliest recollection of realizing I was losing the faith was melodramatic enough. It happened that night, hours after Abba, while I was kneeling before the glowing image of Ziggy Stardust, desperately wishing I could reach through the screen and touch what Teresa of Ávila would have called his glorified body, so “supernatural and beautiful” that it rendered me beside myself as I mouthed the words to “Moonage Daydream” as Ziggy sang them: “The Church of Man, love / is such a holy place to be…”



The distance between being a Jesus Freak and being a Ziggy devotee turned out to be vanishingly small. By accepting “Bowie’s star-crossed glam Christ” (David Fricke1) as My Personal Savior, I was simply substituting one leper messiah for another— the Jesus of Cool for Jesus; a demon lover for a Sweet Savior.

Of course, Bowie was the perfect choice for a surrogate Jesus. More than any other rock star, he invites (demands?) deification. This has partly to do with the messianic sense of destiny that propelled him to rock godhood—a precocious child’s sense of specialness, inflated to Übermenschen extremes by the Nietzsche his older brother Terry introduced him to at an impressionable age. (“I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human,” Bowie confesses in George Tremlett’s David Bowie: Living on the Brink. “I thought, ‘Fuck that, I want to be a Superman.’”2) Becoming Ziggy, onstage and off, from ’72 through ’74, completed his transfiguration into the doomed alien savior of his dreams (a volatile mix of Nietzschean will-to-power fantasies and a martyr complex). His Svengali-like manager’s strategy of limiting media access to the divinity fixed the image of Bowie as aloof and otherworldly in the public mind. By the New Wave era, says Ann Magnuson (a boldfaced name on New York’s downtown scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s), Bowie “had turned into something godlike to certain kids who loved the weird, the edgy, the arty, and the glam. By that point, he had become deified.”3

For those with eyes to see it, there had always been a nimbus of religiosity around Bowie, whose metaphoric language is shot through with spiritual symbolism and religious references. A Talmudic study of his lyrics, cross-referenced with a close psychoanalytic reading of his life, reveals an inveterate seeker, hungry for gnosis—the hermetic wisdom that will unriddle the metaphysical questions that nag him.

Bowie’s pilgrimage has taken him through Buddhism to the alien saviors of science fiction and flying-saucer theology and mystical traditions ranging from kabbalism to English magician-scholars such as Aleister Crowley and A.E. Waite to the dimestore occultism of Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense to the Maronite Christian mysticism of Kahlil Gibran, whose The Prophet, like Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, was a pick-up-line staple at ‘60s love-ins.

Bowie entered his Dharma Bum phase around 1965, after discovering Tibetan Buddhism through Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet, a title he lifted for a song on his 1997 album Earthling. (His passion for the Beats, more intellectual trickledown from Terry, had pointed the way to Buddhism, as well.) Immersing himself deeply in Buddhist practice, he studied with the exiled Tibetan lama Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche and seriously considered becoming a monk. Bowie memorialized this period in “Silly Boy Blue” (1966), a psychedelic travelogue starring a Tibetan Buddhist chela (disciple) who flouts the rules of his order. “It’s telling that Bowie’s lyric, while full of Tibetan Buddhist imagery (the references to chelas and overselves, etc.), still sympathizes with the young monk who can’t pay attention, who’s a bit at odds with his culture,” notes Chris O’Leary on his Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame: David Bowie, Song by Song. “Even in the midst of worship, Bowie has an eye for the heretics.”4

By 1971, Bowie was wading into darker waters. In his majestic hymn to spiritual exhaustion, “Quicksand” (Hunky Dory), he name-checks the notorious occultist and self-styled “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn, a hermetic order with which Crowley was associated, alongside references to Nietzsche, Nazi occultism, and, fleetingly, Tibetan Buddhism.

Later, in 1975-’76, when he was living in L.A. while working on Station to Station (1976), Bowie would burrow much deeper into the occult. Descending into a drug-warped Dark Night of the Soul, he spent days without sleep, sustained by cocaine as he tried to change the channels on his TV telekinetically, scrawled protective magical symbols on the walls, and buttonholed anyone within earshot about the Nazis’ quest for the Holy Grail and the witches who wanted to steal his semen. To create a baby. To sacrifice to Satan.5

In his essay, “Occult Rock,” Greg Taylor discerns traces of Bowie’s occult dabblings on the eponymous title track of Station to Station, where Bowie “references the Kabbalah…with the line ‘one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth,’ talks of ‘flashing no color’ (part of the Eastern occult Tattva system), and also makes a sly tip of the hat to Aleister Crowley’s book of pornographic poems White Stains in the very last line of the song. The album’s art (at least on the CD version) also includes a picture of Bowie sketching the Kabbalistic Tree of Life on the floor.”6

Fascinatingly, the record also includes an achingly beautiful prayer of a song, “Word on a Wing”:

Just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well
Don’t have to question everything in heaven or hell…
Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
It’s safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don’t stand in my own light
Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?

In 1999, Bowie told an audience the song was a product of “the darkest days of my life…I’m sure that it was a call for help.”7 Soaringly emotional, “Word on a Wing” is unabashedly hymn-like, inviting interpretation of Station to Station as a Manichaean struggle between occultism and Christianity.

But it is “Quicksand,” more than any other song, that most eloquently articulates the tension in Bowie’s artistic psyche between belief and disbelief (of the scarifying, Nietzschean sort as well as the soul-sick existentialist variety). “I’m torn between the light and dark,” he sings. “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought.” Hedging his bets, he stacks some of his chips on atheism (or at least cynicism), sneering, “Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation/ of bullshit faith,” then makes an about-face, paying lip service to the Buddhism of his hippie days: “If I don’t explain what you ought to know/ You can tell me all about it/ On the next Bardo.” Finally, just to keep his bases covered, he makes an offering at the empty altar of existentialism: “Don’t believe in yourself/ Don’t deceive with belief/ Knowledge comes with death’s release…”

“Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing,” he told an interviewer in 2002. “Always. It’s because I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on: ‘Well, I’m almost an atheist. […] There’s just one niggling thing. Once I shave that off, we’ll be fine and dandy, and there won’t be any questions left.’ It’s either my saving grace or a major problem that I’m going to have to confront.” 8



1. Quoted in the booklet accompanying the Rykodisc expanded re-release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1990), unnumbered page.

2. George Tremlett, David Bowie: Living on the Brink, 20.

3. Marc Spitz, Bowie: A Biography (New York, NY: Crown, 2009), 301.

4. Chris O’Leary, “Silly Boy Blue,” Pushing Ahead of the Dame, September 19, 2009, .

5. Marc Spitz, Bowie: A Biography (New York, NY: Crown, 2009), 259-62.

6. Greg Taylor, “Occult Rock,” Daily Grail, December 7, 2009, . See, also, Peter R-Koenig, “The Laughing Gnostic: David Bowie and the Occult.”

7. Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie (London, UK: Reynolds and Hearn, 2000), 240-43.

8. “David Bowie: ‘That’s the Shock: All Clichés are True” in Anthony DeCurtis, In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work (New York, NY: Hal Leonard, 2005), 263.



A mash-up of tropes and themes familiar from the biblical passion and apocalyptic sci-fi, A Star is Born and The Bacchae of Euripides, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) is thick with Christological symbolism and biblical allusions. Ziggy re-stages the rise and fall of Jesus Christ as a Pop-art comic strip—an Exploding Plastic Parable (with apologies to Warhol!) about the celebrity as demigod in a fame-crazed culture, where millions worship their idols onscreen (“praying to the light machine,” as Ziggy puts it) but would sacrifice them in a heartbeat—burnt offerings on the altar of Mark David Chapman psychopathy—for a shot at tabloid immortality.

Ziggy’s name, borrowed from a legendarily eccentric pop singer called The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, says it all. Like Jesus, who is “manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16), Ziggy is a walking paradox, what scholars of myth and religion call the coincidentia oppositorum (the conjunction of opposites that resolves all difference into a cosmic unity). He is, on one hand, “star” (that is, a celestial being like Jesus, who says in Revelation 22:16, “I am the bright Morning Star”) and on the other “dust” (mortal clay, as in Genesis 3:19, “for dust you are and to dust you will return,” the source text for The Book of Common Prayer’s graveside homily about “ashes to ashes” and the title, incidentally, of a 1980 Bowie song).

By outfitting his Martian messiah in campy, retro-futurist gear borrowed from the prop room of 1950s’ rocket-operas (“Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe / Put your ray gun to my head,” Ziggy sings, in “Moonage Daydream”), Bowie provides enough ironic distance for us to see that all heavenly saviors are, by definition, space oddities: otherworldly beings who walk among us, passing as human; incorporeal body snatchers in mortal guise.

Ziggy arrives, as saviors always do, in humanity’s hour of need. “Earth is really dying,” a weeping newscaster reports, in “Five Years,” the album’s opening song; in just five years, the planetary ecosystem will experience an epic fail: “News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in.”

Like Christ, Ziggy spreads a radical gospel of love. But while Christ admonishes his followers to abandon the nasty, brutish logic of the Mosaic world view (“eye for eye, and tooth for tooth”)[1] and emulate his unconditional, turn-the-other-cheek love for all mankind (a message so revolutionary it convinces the apostle John that God, in a word, is love),[2] Ziggy preaches a gospel of transcendental eros. “Let all the children boogie,” he decrees, in “Starman,” using a mothballed hippie verb that, back in the day, was a euphemism for doing the nasty.[3]

In Ziggy’s erotic beatitude, the solitary self is consumed by an overmastering “idiot love”—a transport of sexual rapture that obliterates the boundaries of the conscious ego and “spark[s] the fusion,” in the song “Soul Love,” with…uh…the Cosmic Whatever. Is Ziggy’s space-hippie sermonizing about transcending adolescent alienation? Or hieing your astral ass off a dying planet through some orgasm-fueled transport of rapture? Bowie’s starman, a prophet who thinks with his crotch, isn’t big on specifics. All he knows is that “the church of man, love, is such a holy place to be,” a proverb that manages the neat trick of crossing eros with agape, reconciling them in the profane sacrament of soul love (“Moonage Daydream”).

Actually, Ziggy may be smarter than he knows. The art historian Partha Mitter reminds us that,

from a very early period in the history of Greek religious thought, earthly love was looked upon as a reflection of divine love…The mystic association between love and religion appeared early in Orphic rhapsodists, who saw no reason to differentiate between creation and procreation, for they were essentially two kinds of love, one cosmic and the other human.[4]

Mitter notes the influence of Orphic thought on Plato,

who often expressed profound spiritual ideas through sexual images [and who] saw a close relationship between erotic and religious impulses because for him love began in worship, but at the same time seeking a closer union with divinity. Plato, who believed that love regained the soul’s purity through the contemplation of beauty, uttered these remarkable lines in the Phaedrus: “Such as one, as soon as he beholds the beauty of this world, is reminded of true Beauty, and his wings begin to grow; then is he fain to lift his wings and fly upward.”[5]

Ziggy—a closet neo-Platonist?—reaches up through his loneliness to a “God on high” who, like Saint John’s, “is all love.” Ziggy, too, wants to lift his wings and fly upward, to “spark a fusion” with the divine—to “touch the flaming dove,” an image reminiscent of Plato’s but also lifted, intact, from Christian iconography, where the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, haloed by flames.

Ziggy is Christlike in other, equally roundabout ways. In “Moonage Daydream,” he boasts that he’s “a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch,” a “mama-papa coming for you”; in “Lady Stardust,” he slip-slides between genders, morphing into the ladyboy of the title. Ziggy’s twofold nature—gender-bending ladyboy, switch-hitting bisexual, “mama-papa” (an image recalling the freakshow hermaphrodite known as a half-and-half)—aligns him with the intersexed or androgynous deities of pre-Christian myth.

This archetype, which the historian of religion Mircea Eliade reads as a personification of the coincidentia oppositorum, wears a thousand mythic masks, most notably Phanes-Eros, the primeval creator-god of Orphic theology, who was both androgynous and bisexual;[6] Bacchus, identified in Orphic hymns as simultaneously male and female (and given the Lady Stardust-like epithet “Queen of Priapus” for good measure);[7] and Bacchus’s Greek alter ego Dionysus, a fertility god who tore fawns apart with his bare hands and whose emblem, paraded by his votaries, was the phallus but who was at the same time a beautiful, androgynous youth—“man-womanish” is the preferred adjective, in ancient sources—with effeminate curls, the proverbial wine-dark eyes, a fondness for crossdressing, and a weakness for swinging young shepherds.[8]

How does this underscore the leper messiah’s kinship with Jesus? Because Jesus, in the eyes of historians of religion such as Carl Kerenyi (Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life), shares cultural DNA with Dionysus. Some scholars believe the Dionysian mystery cult and early Christianity left a legible impress on each other’s traditions, and that the two religions fought for cultural dominance. Both Jesus and Dionysus embody the archetype of the god who dies and is reborn; both were begotten miraculously (Dionysus from his father Zeus’s thigh); both were honored with wine rituals consecrated to their resurrection; and both were ritually consumed by their worshippers, who believed that by symbolically ingesting their god they were communing with him. In Dionysus’s case, wine-maddened orgiasts tore a totemic animal such as a goat to pieces with their bare hands and devoured the bloody flesh raw; having drunk Dionysus’s blood and eaten his body (hello, Jesus), they surrendered themselves to frenzied ecstasies, possessed by the god (hello, spirit-filled Pentecostals.)

Whether Jesus is a lineal descendant of the Greek god or not, he is associated, like Dionysus, with a troublingly ambiguous relationship to gender (troubling, that is, for fundamentalists). In Mephistopheles and the Androgyne, Eliade traces a theological tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages, in which the prelapsarian Adam, born without sin, exists in a state of primordial perfection, reconciling both genders (the coincidentia oppositorum strikes again!). Medieval, and later Renaissance, theologians made much of Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”), which mysteriously precedes Eve’s creation in Genesis 2:21. Likewise, Eliade points out, “several midrashim [early Jewish commentaries on biblical texts] represent Adam as having been androgynous,” contending that the first man “was a man on the left side, a woman on the right; but God split him in two halves.”[9]

Androgyne or hermaphrodite, Adam mirrored his creator: “In God there is no more division, for God is All and One,” writes Eliade.[10] Christ must necessarily reconcile the opposing genders, since he, as Yaweh, created Adam in his perfect image.[11] According to the fifth century theologian Maximus the Confessor, Eliade tells us,

Christ unified the sexes in his own nature, for in the Resurrection he was ‘neither man nor woman, though he was born and died a man.’[12]

He refers us to the eighth century theologian Johannes Scotus Erigena’s belief that the,

division into sexes was the result of sin, but it will come to an end in the reunification of man, which will be followed by the eschatological reunion of the circle of earth with Paradise. Christ has anticipated this final reintegration.[13]

German Romantics took this line of argument and ran with it, Eliade asserts—to Ziggy extremes. “For the German Romantics the androgyne was the type of the perfect man of the future. Ritter, a friend of Novalis, had sketched…a whole philosophy of the androgyne. For Ritter the man of the future would be, like Christ, an androgyne” (and, as a fringe benefit, immortal).[14]

Premonitions of Ziggy? Bowie’s song “Oh! You Pretty Things” (Hunky Dory) augurs the coming of a Nietzschean Overman, a glam-rock angel with Jesus genes who sounds a lot like Ritter’s man of the future:

Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
The earth is a bitch
We’ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay…
Oh! You Pretty Things
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior



1. Matthew 5: 38-9.

2. 1 John 4:8.

3. The third definition given for “boogie,” in The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, ed. Tom Dalzell, Terry Victor (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), is “to have sex, U.S., 1960.”

4. Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 97.

5. Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art, ibid.

6. Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters, p. 98.

7. See Mitter, ibid., p. 99.

8. “Man-womanish”: Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 85. “Occasional shepherd”: When the shepherd Prosymnus died before Dionysus could make good his promise to bed him, the god satisfied his ghost by fashioning a dildo from an olive branch and pleasured himself by sitting on it—rather like those cane seats used by hunters, I like to imagine—astraddle Prosymnus’ tomb. We should all have such devoted mourners. Regrettably, some sources reject this tale as mere Christian libel, meant to discredit pagan beliefs.

9. Mircea Eliade, Mephistopheles and the Androgyne (New York, NY: Sheed and Ward, 1965), p. 104.

10. Mircea Eliade, Mephistopheles and the Androgyne, ibid.

11. Eliade, ibid.

12. Eliade, ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Eliade, ibid., p. 101.



There was a psychological logic, as well, to my transition from born-again Christian to Bowie votary. Rock fandom, taken to its obsessive extreme, is indistinguishable from the hallucinating, levitating ardor of an enraptured believer like, say, Saint Teresa of Ávila. The etymological origins of the word are helpful: “fan” is short, of course, for “fanatic,” from the Latin fanaticus, “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” deriving from fanum (“temple”) and related to festus (“feast”).1

Some sources smell a whiff of orgiastic rites still clinging to the word, which would explain the tale told by a fan named Julie, in Fred and Judy Vermorel’s 1985 study of fan culture, Starlust—a bizarre (and, be it said, thoroughly unsubstantiated) account of a spontaneous outbreak of Dionysian frenzy at Ziggy’s 1973 farewell concert, in which:

a lot of men were throwing off their underwear and showing their cocks all over the place…I thought it was so extraordinary because nobody had any inhibitions. I remember that around me nobody gave a shit really about doing these things because it was rumored that maybe this was the last time Bowie would perform. Maybe this was the last time Ziggy would be here. And everyone’s got to get in on this because otherwise you’re just a square. […] Then I suddenly realized that all the things I’d been doing were perfectly O.K. Because here were people doing it with each other and sharing it. How wonderful, you know. So get off on that. And I thought I’d never seen so many cocks in my life.2

Holy communion in The Church of Man.

By the way, I’m not using the term “Dionysian” lightly. In The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, the religious historian Karen Armstrong describes the carnival atmosphere that prevailed at celebrations of the Dionysian mystery cult: “Everybody drank wine, and there was music and dancing” and “sometimes, the whole group fell into a trance, a heightened state of consciousness, which spread from one celebrant to another. […] They called this experience of divine possession entheos: ‘within is a God.’”3; Oh, and “men wore women’s clothes, like the young Dionysus when he was hiding from Hera.”(Emphasis mine.)

A devout fan strives in every way to imitate his idol—to become him, in fact, in the same way that the Dionysian celebrants whipped themselves into a delirious state of divine possession; in the same way that the 16th-century Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross strove, through the Imitation of Christ, to attain an ecstatic oneness with God; in the same way that charismatics fervently desire the “indwelling” or “infilling” of the Holy Spirit, so that they may live “spirit-filled” lives, guided by God’s will (entheos); in the same way, perversely, that the deranged Beatles fan Mark David Chapman was convinced that killing John Lennon would transform him into a household deity like his idol, a “guardian angel” maybe, or even a “quasi-savior.”4

A fan is a consumer whose all-consuming idolatry is just the well-behaved face of a sublimated desire to actually consume the love object. What more intimate and irrevocable way to have that faraway figure on the Jumbotron screen, the unattainable figment of a million fans’ fever dreams, all to oneself? The gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs winks at the inherent depravity of “psychofandom” in his gore-nographic fantasy of gobbling up a “giant rotten glob” of Elvis’s carcass in order to ingest the King’s magical powers: “I don’t need to go get The Golden Bough just to prove to everybody else what I already know because it’s simple horse sense, which is if I eat a little bit of Elvis (the host, as it were, or is that mixing mythologic metaphors?), then I take on certain qualities possessed by Elvis when he was alive…”5

As Bangs’s invocation of Frazier’s Golden Bough and the sacrament of holy communion suggests, fans’ appropriation of their idols’ hairstyles, fashion statements, signature poses, and, in some extreme cases, distinguishing features is only the latest stop on the elevator ride up from the basement of the religious unconscious—the postmodern return of one of the most primitive manifestations of the fan mind, namely, ritual cannibalism, in which participants absorb an enemy’s magical powers by eating his flesh.

Following Freud’s analysis, in Totem and Taboo, of the Christian Eucharist as a revival of that ancient totemic practice, unbelievers have gotten endless mileage out of the obvious correspondences between ritualized anthropophagy and the rite of communion, arguing that the Last Supper is just a sublimated blood feast. (The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that the consecrated wafer metamorphoses miraculously into Christ’s flesh, has been god’s gift to irreverent wags.)6

Yet little, if anything, has been written about the conceptual hyperlinks between Christ’s solemn promise to his disciples, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56), and the quintessential fan practice of incorporating iconic aspects of the star’s appearance and attitude into his psyche—what Freud would call introjection—in order to be born again, into a more liberatory identity.

Fans remake themselves in their idol’s image by metaphorically tearing him to pieces, like Ziggy in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”—obsessively collecting and fetishizing photos, videos, concert memories, celebrity sightings, memorabilia, and other hallowed fragments of the divinity, from which they assemble new, recombinant selves. In an unguarded moment, Bowie traced his own metamorphosis from devotee to deity:

I took a look at my thoughts, my appearance, my expressions, my mannerisms and idiosyncrasies and didn’t like them. So I stripped myself down, chucked things out and replaced them with a completely new personality. When I saw a quality in someone that I liked, I took it. I still do that. It’s just like a car, replacing parts.7

This is what the music critic Simon Reynolds means when he talks about the “circularity” of rock fandom, “where fans grow up to be idols, having learned the art of posing from their idols.”8

Hence the importance, in fan culture as in Roman Catholicism, of miraculous relics: objects the star has touched, like the Concert Used Handkerchiefs—Lot 106 in the auction catalogue for the Gary Pepper Collection of Elvis Memorabilia, “owned by audience members who gave them to Elvis Presley to wipe his face during a concert, after which they were returned. Unwashed.”—or, better yet, consecrated remnants of the star himself, like Lot 66,9 the Large Quantity of Elvis Presley’s Hair, sure to be “treasured by fans who wish to own a piece of the king himself.”

Talismanic objects such as ticket stubs and tour T-shirts are more common; most common of all are venerated images displayed on bedroom walls: on the Bowie fansite Ziggy Stardust Companion, an ardent fan named Madeline proudly displays a blurry snapshot of her “Ziggy wall.”10 (image, upper right).

Wall-mounted photo collages are devotional aids—focal points for inner dialogues with the deity, daydreams, wet dreams, wish-fulfillment fantasies involving fan and star or fan as star. Intimately situated in a teenager’s Fortress of Solitude (her bedroom), they’re domestic shrines, depicting the tutelary god at his most iconic, styled and posed and lit (if clothes make the man, lighting makes the god in celebrity portraiture and Christian iconography alike), then retouched into an unattainably idealized version of Himself—a Photoshop apotheosis.

Icons have played a key role in the contemplative lives of Christians for centuries, putting an approachably human face on the deity while concentrating the mind on otherworldly things. Saint Teresa had her first mystical catharsis when she entered a chapel and stumbled on an image someone had left behind, a picture of the wounded Christ that stirred her soul as no picture ever had, literally bowling her over, leaving her on the floor in “a great flood of tears,” overmastered by the feeling that “He was within me, or that I was totally engulfed in Him.”11

In American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, the historian of religion Stephen Prothero traces the history of chromos, wallet-sized prints, posters, and other mass-produced images as zeitgeist weathervanes, spun this way and that by changing attitudes toward Jesus. Shaped by the cultural politics of a given historical moment (think of the longhaired, drop-out Jesus of the Jesus Freaks or the fan-mobbed, fame-sick messiah of Superstar), such images also shaped popular conceptions of the Son of God—one of the tight feedback loops typical of a highly networked, mass-media age. “Advances in printmaking made lithographs affordable in the first half of the century and halftone engravings inexpensive in the last,” he writes. “As images of Jesus proliferated in illustrated books and prints suitable for display in the home, Americans increasingly approached God through images as well as texts, and those images reinforced their devotion.”12

In the dream life of American culture, mass-marketed depictions of Jesus, from Warner Sallman’s pensive, doe-eyed Head of Christ (1941), distributed by the millions to servicemen during World War II, to the Fabio-haired prizefighter messiah of Stephen S. Sawyer’s Undefeated (1999), have left an indelible stamp on the inner lives of believers. “When devout viewers see what they imagine to be the actual appearance of the divinity that cares for them,” the art historian David Morgan contends, the picture in question “becomes an icon”—an image with a life of its own, charged with the divine presence.13

“When I look at [Sallman’s Head of Christi] in prayer, and when I am the most in need,” says a believer quoted by Prothero, “I see not only a painted portrait, but the face of the real, the living Christ.”14

Spoken like a fervent Bowie fan, one of those worshippers who are “most in need,” desperate to be healed by the Master’s touch as he passes by, frantic to kiss his hand—or to “crush his sweet hands” if he turns out to be a false idol, “making love with his ego” (“Ziggy Stardust”) instead of us, his frenzied votaries, Maenads of a secular mystery cult.



1Fanatic. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fanatic.

2Quoted in Fred and Judy Vermorel, Starlust (London: Comet Books, 1985), pps. 182-183, archived on the “Retirement Gig” page of The Ziggy Stardust Companion, http://www.5years.com/Retire.htm.

3Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), pps. 221-2.

4See “Motivation and Mental Health” section of the Wikipedia entry on Mark David Chapman, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_David_Chapman#Motivation_and_mental_health.

5Lester Bangs, “Notes for Review of Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway; 1980,” quoted in Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 172.

6Catholics would argue that, while the essence of the host is transformed, those aspects of the sacrament that are apprehensible to the senses (“the accidents”) remain unchanged, thus ensuring that celebrants are not, in fact, cannibalizing the Divine—-an awkward bit of theological footwork that, to my mind, is nothing more than an attempt to dodge the bullet of atheist mockery, not to mention skeptical inquiry, however unconvincingly.

7Quoted in George Tremlett, David Bowie: Living on the Brink (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1997), pps. 20-1.

8Marc Spitz, Bowie: A Biography (New York, NY: Crown, 2009), p. 316.

9Auction catalogue for The Gary Pepper Collection of Elvis Presley Memorabilia, http://issuu.com/lesliehindman/docs/sale120_elvis.

10 See http://www.5years.com/madx.htm.

11Cathleen Medwick, Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), pps. 38-39.

12Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, ibid., p. 144.

13Quoted in Prothero, ibid., p. 118.

14 Quoted in Prothero, ibid.



“Nobody has ever been able to put their finger on me because I’m not really here, at least not in the way they think I am. It’s all in their heads. What I’m into is mindlessness. I just empty myself out, so what people see is just a projection of their own needs. I don’t do or say anything.”
— Lou Reed, 1975[1]

Thirty-six years after the fact, looking back on my teenage-fanboy crushes on Jesus, then Ziggy, I can’t help wondering: What was that about? Was it all in my head, as Reed suggests? Were both icons just apotheosized projections of my awkward, alienated self—perfected personalities I dreamed of becoming through fastidious imitation (imitatio Dei). Ironically, isn’t that what both leper messiahs had done—passed as gods?

“Don’t dream it, be it” is the first commandment of celebrity culture, sung by Dr. Frank N. Further, the “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” in the glam-camp musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which debuted, on the stage, in the Ziggy-mad year of 1973, and which, according to Bowie: A Biography by Marc Spitz, “David, Angie, and their entourage took in…multiple times…clearly taking notes in the margins of their programs”).[2] Weren’t Ziggy and Jesus really just transfigured fanboys, figments of their own worshipful imaginations who had wished their stardom into existence by “chucking out” the aspects of themselves they didn’t like and replacing them with “a completely new personality,” as Bowie put it?

Didn’t Bowie admit as much when he said, in 1972, “The artist doesn’t exist. He’s strictly a figment of the public’s imagination. None of us exist. We’re in the twilight zone. We’ll all go to hell, ‘cause we set ourselves up as gods”?[3] Doesn’t Jesus echo that same anguished sentiment when Pilate asks him, “Art thou the King of the Jews?,” in Mark 15:2, and he retorts, “Thou sayest it”? Across the centuries, we can still hear the world-weariness of the superstar who’s tired of serving as a movie screen for the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the multitude. “Watch me turn into Lou Reed before your very eyes,” Reed deadpans, on Take No Prisoners, the infamous live record on which he ritually trashes his greatest hits, mau-mauing hecklers and ranting about whatever crosses his drug-addled mind, like some gonzo Henny Youngman. “I do Lou Reed better than anybody, so I thought I’d get in on it.”

Lou Reed is the least likely Christian mystic ever: Jewish, bisexual, and in 1975 the twitchy-eyed, sallow-skinned larval form of some species of glam-rock stick insect. Yet his description of his fill-in-the-blanks persona—“I’m not really here…what people see is just a projection of their needs”—is weirdly consonant with the mystical Christian notion of kenosis, the emptying out of the self to make room for the indwelling spirit of God.

To the devout, the blurry apparitions of the messiah on Veronica’s Veil and the Shroud of Turin are palpable evidence of Christ’s historical reality and of his divinity. But they can also be read backwards, as visual metaphors for the shadow of a doubt that haunts all fandom: He’s not really here, at least not in the way you think he is. It’s all in your heads. Bowie is a palimpsest, his “authentic” self buried under centuries of evasion, dissembling, and self-mythologization. And the new-and-improved Bowie of recent years—frighteningly effervescent and teeth-lifted, last seen in a hoodie and sneakers, horsing around with the irrepressibly normal Ellen Degeneres—is no less a Warholian fabrication than Ziggy, the “totally credible plastic rock star—much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication” he became in order to ascend to pop godhood.[4] Who is Bowie? Is he just a constellation in the mass mind, the connected dots of all the data points we’ve gleaned from the media, most of them pure fakery, planted by the man who would be god (or at least a plastic god); who told an early interviewer, “I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human…I thought, ‘Fuck that, I want to be a Superman’”?[5]

Speaking of supermen, who, for what matter, was Jesus? Bowie, who was probably thinking of something else at the time, once quipped that Hitler was “one of the first rock stars.” Maybe. Or maybe Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were right, in Jesus Christ Superstar: Maybe Jesus was the first rock star, masterfully managing his public image, working the crowds like a show-biz pro, delivering every gnomic one-liner, every cryptic parable, every portentous aside with one eye on the only audience that really matters—the fans beyond number who will one day venerate him, a radical apocalyptic prophet born sometime around 4 BCE, as a god.

“I know that one day a big artist is going to get killed onstage, and I know that we’re going to go very big,” Bowie told an interviewer, in 1974. “And I keep thinking: it’s bound to be me. Go out on me first tour, get done in at me first gig, an’ nobody will ever see me. That would be wild.”[6] What better way to ensure celebrity immortality than to die young and glamorous, like glam-rocker Marc Bolan of T. Rex, your purple Mini wrapped around a Sycamore tree? Or, better yet, nailed to a tree, an iconic image made to order for the world tour that never ends? (As Judas asks, in the title song from Superstar, “Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake, or/did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”)

Then again, the biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman has argued persuasively that Jesus himself didn’t believe he was the messiah. Ehrman attributes Jesus’s deification to later sources with a vested interest in his mythologization—the Gary Peppers in Christ’s fan base.[7] “If we want to know about the historical Jesus, we are more or less restricted to using the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” Ehrman writes, in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them).

These are not disinterested accounts by eyewitnesses, however. They are books written decades after the fact by authors who had heard stories about Jesus from the oral tradition, stories that had been altered and even made up over time. There were lots of discrepancies in these stories, and the Gospel writers themselves changed them as they saw fit.[8]

It gets worse: we don’t even have the original fanzines in which these heavily embroidered tributes to a long-dead idol originally appeared. “Not only do we not have the originals” of the gospels, says Ehrman, “we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places.”[9]

Look at any messiah from the right angle, and you can still see yourself, the fan within, in a sort of inverted entheos. Bowie may be coolness incarnate, but shift your perspective slightly and he reveals another face, like the Christ of those lenticular postcards: the painfully lame Anthony Newley impersonator who warbled novelty ditties like “The Laughing Gnome,” whose chipmunk-voiced vocals and groaningly cornball puns make even the staunchest fans blanche in horror.

In Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, the promotional mini-movie for the song “Blue Jean” from his 1984 album Tonight, Bowie makes light of—and casts a psychoanalytic light on—the gap between his rock-god persona and his inner fanboy. Literalizing the Divided Self hinted at in his lyrics (specifically, in Man Who Sold the World’s recurrent references to his brother Terry’s schizophrenia) and on the iconic cover of Aladdin Sane, where a painted lightning bolt bisects his face, Bowie plays a painfully dorky fan named Vic and a swooningly cool popstar named Screamin’ Lord Byron. In his painted face and harem pants, Byron looks to the adoring camera eye like a glam-rock gloss on Yellow Book decadence: Aladdin Sane meets Valentino’s Sheik, as imagined by Aubrey Beardsley. But when he steals Vic’s girl in the final scene, Vic’s idol-worship curdles into Mark David Chapman-esque resentment: Byron, he sneers, is nothing but a “conniving, randy, bogus, Oriental old queen.”[10]

Similarly, Christians may believe Jesus is God incarnate, but through the magnifying glass of historicity he looks like a hairy-eyed, lapel-grabbing zealot, staple-gunning his Xeroxed screeds about the End of Days to every telephone pole in town.

Who raptured these guys out of mass anonymity, into the beatitude of celebrity? Wasn’t it us, the true believers who knew every line of every song by heart, singing along as Ziggy implored, on the razor’s edge between yearning and taunting,

Gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful
Gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful

In his marvelous exercise in amateur hermeneutics, Ziggy ’72: A Catalogue of Lost Objects, Bowie fan Harvey Molloy offers a poignant meditation on the fan-idol dynamic. Pondering fans’ role in apotheosizing one of their own, Molloy arrives at a realization of the entheos at the heart of all fan cultures, secular and religious: if what fans—believers, by any other name—are idolizing is really “just a projection of their own needs” (Reed), “a figment of the public’s imagination” (Bowie), then the object of their adoration, in a very real sense, lies within. “When [Ziggy] sings the finale,” writes Molloy,

I feel like I’m watching Jesus. He leans over the crowd at the end of the stage, his outstretched hands taunting the front row audience who would give anything to touch him.

Sublime, unobtainable, out of reach. I know that I will never speak to him…

Who is he, in the end, without his costumes, his make-up, the identity and signature he has invented for himself? Perhaps no one. Yet he’s also indispensable; larger than life, the one teaching us that by watching a performance you make it happen. For one moment, the gap between us closes and I know that the audience too is wonderful; we’re the wonderful ones who make it happen.[11]

Another fan, in another time, had the same thought:

Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or, lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
— Luke 17:21


[1] Quoted in Mick Rock, Blood and Glitter (London, UK: Vision On Publishing, 2001), unnumbered page.

[2] Marc Spitz, Bowie: A Biography (New York: Crown, 2009), p. 214.

[3] Quoted in Mick Rock, Blood and Glitter (London, UK: Vision On Publishing, 2001), unnumbered page.

[4] Ellen Degeneres: Search YouTube. As of this writing, an excerpt from the episode in question could be found here. “Totally credible plastic rock star”: Quoted in the booklet accompanying the Rykodisc expanded re-release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1990), unnumbered page.

[5] Quoted in George Tremlett, David Bowie: Living on the Brink, ibid., p. 20.

[6] Quoted in Mick Rock, Blood and Glitter (London, UK: Vision On Publishing, 2001), unnumbered page. The quote in question is from 1974, but he expressed similar sentiments when Ziggymania was peaking, in ’73.

[7] See Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), passim.

[8] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 151.

[9] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 10.

[10] Quoted in “Jazzin’ For Blue Jean” entry, Wikipedia.

[11] Harvey Molloy, “Ziggy ’72: A Catalogue of Lost Objects,” archived on the fansite The Ziggy Stardust Companion.