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Although Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album was released when I was only about a year old, I would discover it later, at about 15. In my small basement bedroom in our duplex home deep, deep in the painfully straight, white, and conservative suburbs of Calgary, this album was on repeat. Turned up loud enough, unless shouted at by my parents, to block out the ever-present distant sound of a lawnmower and someone’s barking dog. That, and deafening silence – broken only occasionally by a passing pick-up with the sounds of Reba McEntire emanating from it. As if Reba herself were mocking me, standing there in my army jacket with the Dead Kennedys pin fastened upon it. A stranger in an bland land.
Although Let’s Dance, which I also owned and was out around this time, was a record I also enjoyed, it didn’t appease my sexually-deep-in-denial and highly neurotic 15-year-old psyche the way Ziggy did.
In my mind (which is really the only place it counts), Ziggy became my friend along with a handful of other famous freaks, weirdos, artists, and eccentrics, none of whom I ever actually met. These special records gave me something – someone to relate to. Other than the music I discovered, created by artists like Bowie, who seemed to celebrate their being different, there wasn’t much I related to in my world.
It is worth mentioning here that to me, the overt-for-the-times gay themes within “The Rise and Fall…” were incredibly punk. This was a different time. Husker Du was not a known gay band yet, because they were all still in the closet. No one knew that Chi Pig from SNFU was gay. Queercore was not something that had registered in Cowtown. Hell, even KD Lang was still in the closet. There were virtually no gay people on TV, and if they were, they were either losers or the butt of jokes. For Bowie to sing “The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be”, whether the wink was intended or not, was a secret signal to kids like me.
In particular, “Rock N Roll Suicide” had a major impact on me. While the song’s title doesn’t sound particularly uplifting at first glance, it was the final refrain to which I sung aloud with the greatest enthusiasm:
“Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only
make you care
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone…
Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone (wonderful)
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful (wonderful)
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful (wonderful)
Oh gimme your hands.”
Ten years later, in the mid-nineties, after having escaped to and then been chewed up and spat out by New York City after four and half years of living a lifestyle not unlike one would imagine Ziggy’s to have been, I washed up in Toronto. Chosen for it’s proximity to New York, it being English-speaking, and not much else, I stayed with two very gentle and patient ancient relatives while I looked for a place to live and chose the second place I saw, close to Kensington Market, which on a micro-scale reminded me a bit of home.
I knew a grand total of two people upon my arrival, and, as a result of the aforementioned lifestyle, let’s just say they might not have been my biggest fans. But they were kind and took pity on me and let me hang out with them occasionally while I got my bearings.
I worked at a variety of temp jobs to pay the rent. I helped unload trailers full of hockey sticks with a group of pot-smoking Rastafarians, who were impressed with my ability to sing along with Peter Tosh. I worked at an insurance company that targeted old people (“no physical and no questions asked”) where I was told by my boss, after being spotted reading a book on my lunch hour, that I “read too much for my own good”. And then I got a job working for an elevator and escalator repair company.
I remember the phone call going something like this:
Temp Agency Guy: “Can you drive a forklift?”
Me: “No. I don’t even have a regular driver’s license.”
Temp Agency Guy: “But if you needed to, do you think you could drive a forklift?”
Temp Agency Guy: “Well, I doubt they are actually going to ask you to drive a forklift, but it’s a requirement to be considered for the job, so I’m just going to put yes here, OK?”
Me: “OK, but I can’t drive a forklift”
Temp Agency Guy: (to himself, typing): “Forklift…yes.”
I wrote down the address in my notebook and found it on a map (made of paper – no internetz yet) and realized it was about 20 blocks away, so decide I will just walk there. On my first day, I threw on a plaid shirt (hey, it was 1995) and some running shoes and made my way over to the hideous-looking factory-building in which the elevator and escalator parts were stored. It was a bit of a hike, and pretty boring, but I made it there, and I was happy to save money I would have spent on transit.
I arrive and approach the first person I see, a brassy middle-aged woman in a too-tight T-shirt who looks to be, like me at the time, someone who really likes beer, and, also like me, who is not wearing a bra. Her nipples are at full attention. I will never see her again after this first day.
“Hi” I say. “I’m the temp.”
“You are, eh?” she says, and yells “JOHN! THE TEMP IS HERE!”
John emerges from the background somewhere, cigarette in hand, and walks up to me in a very macho way.
“Got any workboots?” he says.
“Sorry?” I say.
“Do you have steel-toed workboots?”
“uh, no, no I don’t…”
“This kid is a fuckin’ lawsuit waiting to happen!” he exclaims, sort of to Nipples, but sort of to an imaginary studio audience, also. “Get the fuck outta here and get some steel toed workboots!” he yells waving his cigarette around.
He and Nipples walk off, leaving me standing there. I stood there for a few minutes, then realized that’s it. I’m done. and head out and walk the 20 blocks back home to call the Temp Agency Guy (no cell phones back in olden times).
Temp Agency Guy: “Oh jeez did I forget to mention the workboots?”
Temp Agency Guy: “yeah you need those. It’s a good investment though because you might need them on lots of other jobs, and we will reimburse you for half the cost”.
The guy gives me the name and address where I can get the workboots, and after a quick call to my Grandmother to secure a “loan” for the boots, I go and get them, and I am ready for the next day at my new job.
Although I am well into the “new technology” of CD’s by this point, I don’t yet have a portable CD player, so instead grab my old cassette player and throw a handful of old cassettes into a knapsack, so I will have a random assortment of old music to listen to on the way to and from work.
I arrive and there is John. He sees the workboots and points at them and nods approvingly.
“OK, ” he says, “The forklift is right over here”.
So, I learned to drive a forklift that summer. It was kind of fun. Other than operating the forklift, my other job was to sit in a big room filled with weird-looking metal parts that, I assumed, made escalators and elevators work. The person I’d replaced for a month was in charge of fetching whatever parts the service guys requested, writing it down on a special chart, and making sure stuff wasn’t getting stolen. Within the first day or two, it became evident that I had no fucking clue what I was doing. So I just put up a sign that said “HELP YOURSELF” and read books and magazines all day, with brief interruptions for lunch and to occasionally drive the forklift. Not a bad gig, actually. Although John and the service guys were not the type of people I would pal around with or eat lunch with or anything, they tolerated me and were civil enough, so that was just fine.
On the way home one day in my first week on the job, I looked through the cassettes and there was “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. I was new to the city. I was pretty much broke. I was steering clear of the types of recreational activities that had caused me trouble in New York. I had no real friends, no band, no love interest. But I had Ziggy. I listened to the album every day on the way to and from work. Within a month I met the guy who would become by best friend, band-mate, and business partner, and then went on to meet many, many more amazing friends. But in that lonely, unsure pocket of time, it was reassuring to hear Ziggy reminding me that I was “not alone.”
By Chris Stevenson. Copyright 2012.