As by now you’ll have surely heard, this week we lost David Bowie, one of music’s ultimate legends. The singer-songwriter and gifted showman died on Sunday after secretly battling cancer for 18-months, plunging the world into widespread mourning.
Passing away only two days after his 69th birthday, Bowie’s death was announced in the way of most momentous events in the 21st century – via his official Facebook page – and was later confirmed by his son Duncan Jones. Since the news broke, crowds of fans have gathered outside the British rock icon’s New York home, and his lightning bolt adorned face currently dominates the web as well as the front page of every newspaper. Still, although Ziggy Stardust may have re-joined the heavens, his legend will live on, as generations of inspired youths remember the misfit megastar.
It is fair to say that the public never saw his end coming. Even the doorman to Bowie’s apartment building had little inkling of his condition. Although rumors swirled that the star was sick, fans never for a second believed it could be true: “We thought he’d go on forever,” said Michelle Lynn, a long-time follower and one of the many desolate Bowie-enthusiasts who left tributes outside the singer’s home.
Tash Kouri, a 28-year-old fan, dubbed Bowie her “patron saint,” and turned up to the makeshift memorial dressed in drag to honor her fallen hero. “Just last night I was on a road trip with my friends, listening to “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” and telling them how much strength it gave me.”
Unlike the passing of many of his cohorts, who creativity-wise sailed into the sunset long before their deaths, Bowie still seemed to have ‘it’. The positive reaction to his final album Blackstar, released shortly before his death, proved he still had much left to say, and perfectly demonstrated how he managed to embody his famed sense of individuality right up until the end.
The fact that Blackstar turned out to be a well thought out parting gift to his fans will only serve to increase his mythological status as time goes by. The video for the album’s second single “Lazarus” – named for the biblical figure whom Jesus resurrected – shows Bowie lying in a hospital bed approaching death, and includes the lyrics “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” This indicates that Bowie knew the end was near even if the rest of the world were none the wiser, and ensured he created one hell of a goodbye message.
“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way” says a statement on Blackstar producer Tony Visconti’s Facebook page: “His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us.”
The master of reinvention, Bowie went by many names throughout his 40-year career – Pierrot, the Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane – but he was christened David Robert Jones. He grew up in Brixton, South London, where on Monday night an impromptu street party and a mass sing-along exploded outside the place of his birth.
The son of a waitress and a promotions officer, Bowie’s interest in music and theatricality began at a young age. His obsession with sound was stimulated by his father’s collection of 45s, which included Elvis Presley and Little Richard, and his older brother Terry introduced him to jazz and the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Bowie attended Bromley Technical School, an establishment known for producing commercial artists and engineers, which turned out to be a perfect match for a young Bowie’s growing creative potential.
During a fight over a girl, his pal George Underwood punched Bowie in his right eye, leaving him partially blind and with a permanently dilated pupil, adding to his mysterious appearance. However, the pair remained long-time friends, and Underwood even designed the cover art for Bowie’s early albums.
From learning to play a plastic saxophone gifted by his mother, to forming his first band at 15, teenaged Bowie informed his parents of his intention to become a popstar shortly after leaving school. However, the 1960s proved to be a difficult time for the fledging musician, but his persistence in the face of adversity would prove, in part, to be the making of the rock n’ roll chameleon.
Bowie played in several short-lived bands before attempting to make it as a solo artist, with his first manager being Dick James’s partner Leslie Conn. Tired of being confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees, he changed his stage name to Bowie after the legendary frontiersman Jim Bowie, but his first attempts to break into the music scene were a failure. Rather than give up, he immersed himself in the Beckenham Arts Lab and learned mime under eccentric choreographer Lindsay Kemp. It was not until 1969 and the release of Space Oddity that he began to gain recognition for his work. Released five days before Apollo 11 and the moon landing, it reached top five in the UK charts and finally established Bowie as a solo artist.
Coming of age during a time of political upheaval, where horizons for the common man were broadening but British class politics were still rampant, Bowie and his contemporaries began to use art to ask difficult questions. Individuality was rapidly replacing the concept of desperately fitting in with the masses, and Bowie represented the spirit of this better than anybody else did (and perhaps ever has). If the Rolling Stones stood for civil disobedience, then Bowie signified what came next –experimentation and rejection of confined sexuality and typical gender ideals. The androgynous appearance he crafted for his best-known persona Ziggy Stardust was incredibly forward thinking for 1972, and to this day remains a symbol for gender fluidity.
During the 70s, Bowie’s sexuality was always in question. Although married to Angela Barnett – better known as Angie Bowie – a Cypriot-American cover girl turned journalist, he allegedly had a long-term affair with close friend Mick Jagger, and in 1976 told Playboy magazine that he was bisexual: “It’s true—I am a bisexual,” he announced. “But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
For young gay people during this era, Bowie’s attitude to orientation was a watershed moment. Dylan Jones, author of When Ziggy Played Guitar, was one of many who identified with the rocker: “He was a dangerous figure on British TV at a point when television didn’t do danger. 41 years ago, it was an extraordinary experience. It didn’t immediately fill me with gay longings – though with some people it did. But nothing was quite the same afterwards.”
However, Bowie didn’t only challenge sexual stereotypes; he also questioned issues of race. Who can forget the infamous 1983 interview with MTV presenter Mark Goodman, where he criticizes the channel for not playing videos by black musicians. Since his death, this excerpt has been shared by thousands:
David Bowie: Why are there practically no blacks on the network?
Mark Goodman: We seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play on MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrow casting.
David Bowie: There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV.
Mark Goodman: We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Pick some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by… a string of other black faces, or black music. We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we’re a rock and roll station.
David Bowie: Don’t you think it’s a frightening predicament to be in?
Mark Goodman: Yeah, but no less so here than in radio.
David Bowie: Don’t say, ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s them.’ Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair… to make the media more integrated?
He would also later go on to call MTV racist during an interview with Rolling Stone.
Throughout his life his innate creativity would guide him through his many transformations and take him to international success. However, he was always recognisably David Bowie. Whatever genre of music he was into at the time, whether it was the folk-rock sound of Space Oddity or the innovative electronic beats of his Berlin period, his voice was instantly recognisable, as were his leitmotifs. Recurring themes included the idea of the outsider, of being alien, whether figuratively (such as Kooks) or literally (Starman), as well as surrealism and his own dark, philosophical fascinations.
Another constant in Bowie’s career was his ability to shock and remain one-step ahead of the crowd. He went through a variety of phases, the most prominent being glam rock before moving into what he dubbed “plastic soul,” and then innovative electronic music in the 80s. Although over the decades his influence had become less pervasive, he still used music to make dramatic and disturbing statements, fueled by genuine intellectual curiosity rivaled by few in pop history.
Music wasn’t the only art form Bowie mastered, and he’ll be remembered for his iconic fashion sense as much as his unique sound. Fashion was a huge part of his many personas, and solidified his image as a pioneer of outcasts and those who wish to deny convention. Bowie had a variety of style personalities including mod (1962-1968), hippie (1969-1972), glam rock (1972-1974), soul (1974-1976), ‘Berlin Bowie’ (referring to his escape from Los Angeles, signified by atypically relaxed,‘artless’ clothing and a moustache), new romantic (1980-1989), electric (1992-1999) and neo-classicist (1999 onwards) with his outfits changing alongside his music. His impact has been seen everywhere from the runway to the pages of magazines, with a few replicas becoming almost as iconic as their origin. Take, for instance, the Vogue cover featuring Kate Moss as Ziggy Stardust, memorable in its own right, or the paint stained face on the front of Lady Gaga’s album Applause.
The question is now, what will become of his remarkable legacy? As with the few others who’ve changed the cultural landscape, Bowie’s memory will live on through those he influenced. In an interview with Rookie magazine, quirky New Zealand pop sensation Lorde described meeting her hero, who had previously dubbed her music “like listening to tomorrow.”
Lorde was almost 17 and performing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when Bowie requested a meeting with her backstage. The pair held hands, chatted and stared into one another’s eyes, and says she remembers thinking: “This is David Bowie’s hand, what am I doing?” and described the meeting as “insane” and a “beautiful moment.”
“I never tell anyone about that experience because it meant so much to me, and I feel like it would be dulled or something if I always talked about it in magazines or whatever. It’s my special thing.”
The young pop star said that “something changed” in her that evening, and that she decided to embrace her uniqueness like Bowie embraced his.
“I realized everything I’d ever done, or would do from then on, would be done like maybe he was watching. I realized I was proud of my spiky strangeness because he had been proud of his. And I know I’m never going to stop learning dances, brand new dances.”
David Bowie, rock n’ roll angel, we’ll miss you.
Article by Sophie Lloyd for The Untitled Magazine