Rock and Roll Book Club: Woody Woodmansey's 'Spider from Mars'

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Woody Woodmansey's 'Spider from Mars'
Woody Woodmansey's 'Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"As an American new to England," Tony Visconti writes in a foreword, "I thought the name Woody Woodmansey might have been a Tolkien invention, like Tom Bombadil."

Woody Woodmansey isn't in Lord of the Rings, but he did become part of one of rock's great fantasies as the drummer in the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie's backing band in his Ziggy Stardust phase. It was a crucial phase — in fact, the crucial phase — in Bowie's career, when he found his voice as a rock musician and began the journey through styles and characters that would come to define his career.

"It might be difficult to imagine now," writes Woodmansey in his new memoir, "but in early 1970 Bowie seemed like a one-hit wonder. His single 'Space Oddity,' which got to number five in the charts, had come and gone, and the follow-up, 'The Prettiest Star,' had flopped."

With Mick Ronson on guitar and Trevor Bolder on bass, the Spiders from Mars would play a critical role in Bowie's evolution from a whimsical folk artist to a hard-hitting rock and pop force. Woodmansey doesn't bring a strong agenda to his book, but he does politely argue that the Spiders contributed significantly to Bowie's evolution during this period.

Still, Bowie was always Bowie — and there was never any doubt that he was the visionary leading the band, though for the first few years there was more of a sense of the four musicians as a collective than there would be by the time Bowie was ready to give Ziggy a rest.

In Woodmansey's straightforward, generous retelling, the first few years with Bowie were just exactly as raucous as they needed to be, and no more. The same seems to have been true of Woodmansey's early life, which included some modest conflicts with his father and a respectable amount of rabble-rousing, but certainly nothing like the rampant debauchery you might find in other musician memoirs.

A native of Yorkshire, Woodmansey was hired on the recommendation of Ronson, who'd joined Bowie's band after a stint with Woodmansey in a band called the Rats. Tony Visconti was just starting to take an active role as Bowie's producer, and would go on to be Bowie's longest-serving collaborator. The four recorded The Man Who Sold the World (1970) together (with Visconti on bass), all living together at Bowie's South London house.

With Visconti off producing T. Rex, the remaining three band members recruited Bolder to step in on bass, forming the core group that would record and tour Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), and Aladdin Sane (1973).

Maybe the best thing about Woodmansey's book is his step-by-step account of how the group were gradually transformed into Ziggy and the Spiders. It became a project for Bowie, who envisioned not just a rock tour but a fully-fledged stage show. He collaborated with lighting and costume designers, first convincing his bandmates to wear multicolored matching outfits and then to take their image a step further.

The first time they wore makeup, Woodmansey remembers, was when they played a TV show in 1972. "Aren't you putting makeup on?" Bowie asked the Spiders as he applied his own. When they replied with answers that "varied from 'F--- no' to 'No f---ing way,'" the man who was becoming Ziggy just shook his head. "It's a shame," he said. "You're going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people and your faces are going to be green under these TV lights." From then on, they all wore makeup.

Later that year they played "Starman" on Top of the Pops, and the rest is history. Woodmansey reminisces about the band's two U.S. tours, which became increasingly elaborate — and over the course of which a stoned Bowie became more and more distant from the band members.

Finally, with no warning to his bandmates, Bowie concluded a 1973 London show by saying, "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, it's the last show we'll ever do. Thank you."

So it proved to be, for the Spiders from Mars. Ronson and Bolder played on Pin Ups (1973) before being dismissed, and for Woodmansey it was on to an itinerant career as a collaborator with various artists ranging from his own band U-Boat to Art Garfunkel. Now, Woodmansey plays with Visconti in Holy Holy, an all-star Bowie tribute band.

Any rock memoir is going to have its share of great stories, and Woodmansey doesn't disappoint. He remembers, for example, meeting Bowie and being introduced to his wife Angie, who declared "I'm a lesbian" before proceeding to make out with Bowie. (She'd go on to be the mother of their son Zowie, a.k.a. Duncan Jones.)

It was a different time — and not necessarily in a good way. Woodmansey remembers how much courage it took to play behind a man who'd openly declared himself to be gay ("You could have thought of your wife and at least said you were bisexual!" said Angie after that interview), all the band members often assumed to be gay themselves, just a few years after homosexuality had been officially decriminalized in the U.K.

Still, Woodmansey doesn't dwell on the social implications of the Spiders. He spends more time writing about how the music came together, which may be the part of this book that has the most interest for music fans. Woodmansey describes Bowie's anti-perfectionist attitude in the studio: his band members were good, and they had to be, because Bowie liked to capture new songs in just a couple of takes before they got stale.

There was a bit of bad blood between Bowie and his best-known drummer — Bowie not only skipped Woodmansey's wedding, he called the drummer and fired him on the very same day — but now, Woodmansey is proud to acknowledge his indelible role in rock history and to celebrate the Spiders' legacy.

Under a photo of himself playing with Holy Holy, Woodmansey modestly writes, "All I ever wanted was to be a drummer."


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