In 1968, Dan Rowan, one of the hosts of the variety series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, introduced a guest by describing him as “an act you’re just not gonna believe.” “This guy plays the bugle, plays the guitar, and sings — all at the same time. … This is a unique act, he’s the only one of his kind, and we’re lucky.” His co-host, Dick Martin, retorted, “I guess we are lucky … There could have been two.” Rowan brought Martin over to the guest, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who dressed in yellow pants, a brown leather coat, and a white 10-gallon hat, while brandishing a Dobro guitar.
“The Ledge,” as he’s known to fans, started hollering, while his drummer (producer T-Bone Burnett) picked up a beat, as Martin looked on curiously. It was busy and discordant and the cowpoke getup made it look like a put-on. When it was done, the Ledge told them that he had just played a song he called “Paralyzed.” When Rowan and Martin brought the show’s cast out in costume to dance around during the next song, “Who’s Knocking on My Door,” the Ledge walked offstage, irritated that they had turned it into a joke. The rejection continued a few years later, in 1973, when NASA mission control used “Paralyzed” to wake up astronauts, and the crew performed so poorly that day that the government banned the song.
But while the novelty wore thin for many, the Ledge’s outsider racket won over a scattered yet dedicated fanbase. His most famous follower was David Bowie, who partially named his Ziggy Stardust character after the Cowboy and covered the Ledge’s “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” for his Heathen album.
Now the life story of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, whose real name is Norman Odam, will be the subject of a new documentary. Director Jeff Feuerzeig and producer Henry S. Rosenthal, who collaborated on the award-winning 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, commenced production on the film before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. They tracked down Odam and interviewed him, and after the shutdowns went into effect, continued interviewing subjects with the intent of animating their stories later. The picture is still in production and the filmmakers, who also collaborated on the doc Author: The JT LeRoy Story, have not yet announced a projected release date.
Feuerzeig and Rosenthal have been batting around the idea of a Legendary Stardust Cowboy film for at least a decade. “His Don Quixote–like adventures across the Southwest and the wake he leaves behind through his travails in the independent and major-label music world are the stuff of legend,” Feuerzeig tells Rolling Stone of his interest in the film. “But conversely, his life saga is an enigma. I mean, what would possess a man to step in front of a microphone and unleash ‘Paralyzed,’ arguably the single greatest novelty song ever recorded? After his incendiary debut on NBC’s Laugh-In, the counter-culture’s comedy smash, the Ledge’s 15 minutes of fame was up, and he vanished. So he looms large in my mind as a great mystery to solve.”
The director first encountered the Ledge on a 1984 compilation LP, Rockabilly Psychosis and the Garage Disease, which featured “Paralyzed” on a track list alongside songs by the Sonics, Cramps, and Trashmen. “It’s not easy to stand out next to such exalted company but the Ledge’s sonic assault in fact did,” Feuerzeig says. “There was a cryptic very serious-looking, black-and-white photo of Norman sporting be-bop glasses, which evoked images in my mind of serial killer Charlie Starkweather. There was no biographical information, so this lit the fuse of inquiry.”
“Today, Norman’s sworn off MoonPies and is fitter than he’s been in years, and he’s saddling up for the Ledge’s big screen sensation,” Rosenthal says of tracking down the Ledge. “Ironically, after earning the distinction of having created the only song ever banned by NASA from outer space, he is currently employed with top security clearance by a private NASA partner. You just can’t keep that guy off the launchpad.”
“Norman has very quietly, for the last 30 years, been adopted and looked after by the Bay Area underground punk and garage music scene,” Feuerzeig says. “Klaus Fluoride of the Dead Kennedys plays bass in Ledge’s band. This is a scene that Henry and I are well-connected to, so a few phone calls, and presto! The Ledge appeared in full regalia, cowboy hat, chaps, and, of course, his ubiquitous ‘NASA Presents the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’ denim Levi’s jacket.”
The filmmakers report that since they have begun work on the doc, they were surprised to learn that “Paralyzed” had actual lyrics. “Without giving too much away, let’s just say it’s always about a girl,” Feuerzeig says. “Believe it or not, it’s actually a very moving love song, albeit unrequited. But that’s how these things go. And we’ve found the beautiful cheerleader from Lubbock, Texas who in 1964 inspired the song. ‘When I look into her eyes, she makes me paralyzed!'” They also were surprised to find that Odam had ties to record labels, a music publishing company, an animation house, an apparel company, and a “sound stage, mixing, and full-service post production facility on the outskirts of the Las Vegas desert,” according to Rosenthal, who referred to the many companies as “Stardust Enterprises Inc., his one-man entertainment empire.”
Odam was all but oblivious to his impact on Bowie and the history of glam rock. “David Bowie and the Ledge were Mercury Records labelmates in 1972 when Bowie created his Ziggy Stardust persona,” Feuerzeig says. “The thematic link was Bowie’s fascination with space travel, already transposed onto his hit song ‘Space Oddity,’ and with the Ledge’s song, ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,” which captivated Bowie, who would cover it 30 years later on his Heathen album. But it wasn’t until 1985 that Norman learned that he, in fact, inspired Bowie.”
The filmmakers hope that the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s unusual story and wild music will fascinate the same people who latched onto Daniel Johnston’s story. “Norman and Daniel Johnston are both singular artists,” Feuerzeig says. “What they both have and had going for them is that they lived lives and went on journeys that most mere mortals can never imagine. Actual sagas with uncommon twists and turns and poignant emotional blows that a Hollywood narrative film could never have scripted. Daniel ran away from home on a moped and joined a carnival. Norman hopped freight trains and rode the rails as a hobo looking to recapture his fame. These guys are movies.”