Keiron Phelan takes a trip down Memory Lane to quiz artist-author Harland Miller about the iconic, Gatsby-esque hero of his novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty, and asks: “Will the real Ziggy Heroe please stand up?”
Say there were two versions of the year 1980. In one, DI Gene Hunt has just re-located to the Met and is looking forward to kicking in a southern nonce. The unpleasantly gothic plotlines of David Pierce’s Yorkshire Noir Red Riding books are moving towards their grim conclusions and, in that unfair county’s fair city of York, a David Bowie ‘interpreter’ (one Ziggy Low, né Heroe), the protagonist of Harland Miller’s excellent rite of passage novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick To Thirty, is preparing for a crucially important gig.
In the real 1980, at York University’s Goodricke College, Ziggy is elegantly dressed in Bowie’s Thin White Duke style (right down to the pack of French cigs tucked into his waistcoat pocket) and fronts an astonishingly anonymous looking band. He is ‘acting’ his way through a tastefully chosen and superbly executed set of predominantly, ‘guess who’s?’ songs. Other than height and slimness, his physical resemblance to DB is not profound and yet, by what must have been endless hours of study and practice, he has acquired the voice and the physical presence of the man to within an atom: mannerisms, gestures, the lot. So far, so tribute band, you would have been forgiven for thinking (had that concept not lain decades in the future). But this is no spotlit showbiz pose— the offstage Ziggy, so it proves, is but an extension of onstage Ziggy.
“I always wanted to be an entertainer. I never wanted security.” Ziggy Heroe
I loiter, post-gig. To good effect, as someone asks, “D’you wanna come backstage and chat t’Ziggy, then?” I am a first year student, disgruntled that most of my new friends’ taste in music seems stuck in hippiedom. Of course, I would bloody love to chat t’Ziggy. “Backstage” turns out to be a commandeered lecture hall, in which a miscellany of our Heroe’s acolytes lay sprawled. Ziggy has taken the lecture podium, sitting, posed in the chin-cradled-on-fingers posture of the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ single sleeve. Feeling some slight need to justify my presence, I make polite enquiry after his autograph. “Ahh, by jingo,” whispers Ziggy.
Having complimented him upon the pseudo-cabaret style of his performance, Ziggy, perhaps unsurprisingly, warms to me and we discuss (what else?) all things Bowie. He bemoans the difficulty of singing ‘Golden Years’ without backing vocals and confides, sotto voce, that physically “the band are rather unlovely.” His diction and mannerisms are entirely those of Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton character in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth — the softness, the slightly strained air of responsibility — with nary a Yorkshire vowel to be heard.
It should have seemed contrived, even silly, and Miller’s hook doesn’t stint on the inherent comedic aspects of someone, a fantasist, pretending to be David Bowie. But Ziggy’s sheer conviction, his ability to translate and sustain his assumed persona in any event and into any turn of conversation, seemed compelling, remarkable and extraordinarily graceful.Quite why anyone would want to ‘be’ David Bowie is, at this cultural remove, hard to explain. It’s not exactly that life was less interesting, but Bowie was definitely more so back then. In 1980, musical luminaries seemed far more out of reach than they do today, their relatively infrequent appearances contrived to increase a sense of Olympian distance. They were beings from a rarefied world. And, of course, no one played this aspect of things harder or more adroitly than Bowie himself.
Anyway, Ziggy was the nearest to Bowie York was likely to get in 1980. It’s a very small city and the sharply suited, fedora clad Heroe was a regularly spied fixture of the place. Then, quite suddenly, he disappeared. No more gigs, no more Zig and precious few people to question about him. All that was left was a lone single, a torn-off poster and an ancient fanzine interview. Until, that is, Slow Down Arthur.
Reading Miller’s novel caused me the biggest Proustian clang I have ever experienced. From out of nowhere, the book dovetailed with this small yet strangely well-remembered corner of my past. The streets, the venues, even the appalling winter weather came flooding back. It’s also got me into a fair deal of argument as other aficionados of the novel treated my claims to have “known the real Ziggy” as at best, a windup or, at worst, evidence of delusional tendencies.
Without giving too much of the plot away, it didn’t help that Miller, a young art and music obsessive, resident in the city at the turn of the ’80s, made the novelised Ziggy’s disappearance so enigmatic and dramatic. “Well, he did get hit by the car,” the author insists down the phone line from Long Island. “I just wrote that up a bit. The ‘I’ character in the novel goes searching for him. I didn’t do that; it was only later that I really began to wonder. He did become a croupier in real life, though, and he did at least seem to think he was a private investigator of some kind. But, I think he just liked the disappearance. It was a chance to become someone else.”
Ziggy’s actual vanishing may have had more prosaic causes. One of the girls who regularly sculpted my ludicrous New Romantic fringe at ‘Croppers’ (also a Ziggy haunt) contended that he’d done a runner to Leeds, as the DHSS were after him for benefit fraud. “I wonder if it was his sister who said that,” muses Miller. “I’m fairly sure she worked there.”
Part of the abiding sadness about his departure is the loss of Ziggy’s own, burgeoning, songwriting talent. Sprinkled in between the Bowie covers sparkled such original gems as the insinuatingly creepy (and lamentably unrecorded) ‘What Kaiser Did’ and the two songs that made up his only single release: the uber-romantic, almost Edith Piaf-esque ‘Neon Light’ and the gloriously oblique, punk tempo outsider’s call to arms, ‘The Apart Man’. I ask Miller about the idea of Ziggy forging a post-Bowie homage career. “I think that would have meant him losing too much of the persona; deconstructing the defining point of what he was doing, really,” he reasons.
Did Ziggy get to read the book, I wonder. “Yeah, he read it,” Miller confirms. “One of his old band members picked up on it. . .got in touch with him. Apparently Ziggy had to wait ages to get a copy because he was on board a ship at the time. I was worried he wouldn’t like it but he was completely cool about the whole thing. We met and he’s a very undamaged individual. Not affected by any disappointments of the past or that sort of thing. Looks good for his age, too! Of course, he isn’t ‘Ziggy’ now, he’s something else”, Harland laughs mysteriously. “He did say he realised that the book wasn’t actually about ‘him’, as such; it’s more generally about wanting to be another person. To be someone who isn’t locked into the mundane.”
I’d figured Harland to be on holiday in Long Island, but not a bit of it. He is, with fortuitous timing, working on the screenplay for a film of Slow Down, Arthur. . . “There’s some good funding and Marc Warren’s been mooted to play Ziggy,” Miller explains. “I’d thought the time for this ’80s stuff might have passed, but I’m constantly advised that now is the time. I do know how strong the whole ’80s vibe is in New York and, obviously, there’s recently been the Red Riding adaptation in the UK. I’m writing it out here because I didn’t want to go back to York to do it. If you try that there are too many temptations to re-write and overlay your old memories with slightly mutated ones. For example, David Pierce spent years living in Japan before he could mentally return to old Yorkshire to write those books. Anyway, it’s all changed so much!”
Has a certain Thin White gentleman got his ducal fingers on the book, I wonder? “I’ve no idea if Bowie has read the book,” says Miller. “I’m not sure if it would mean anything to him, really. I do know about a hundred people sent him copies of it, all for the best of reasons; so if it means anything to him at all it’s probably being sick of the sight of the things turning up.”
“I would love to get both Bowie and Ziggy at the premiere of the film,” Miller concludes. “That would be a lot of fun. I’m sure they’d both expect the other to make the first introduction! The only trouble is I’ve recently lost touch with Ziggy. He’s kind of disappeared again…”