David Bowie taught us how to dress, how to dance, how to be alone, how to escape the bounds of a place that doesn’t always understand us, how to look to the stars for the answers, how to be cool, how to not care about being cool, how to retreat into the dark recesses of our minds.
But mostly, the legendary rock icon, who died on Sunday at age 69 after a long battle with cancer, taught us how to be. How to be our unabashed, true, loud and proud selves.
And he did it by mutating into nearly a dozen different Bowies: shaggy-hair folk-rocker David Jones; numb astronaut Major Tom; flamboyant, wigged-out, tragic glam-rock star Ziggy Stardust; conflicted post-Ziggy wanderer Alladin Sane; Diamond Dogs-era Halloween Jack; wraith-like soul skeleton the Thin White Duke; the cold, electronic crooner of the Berlin/Low era; ’80s New Wave dandy; suited-and-booted Tin Machine rocker; 1990s drum-and-bass/techno survivor and, in his latter years, reclusive, sober icon singing about the ravages of time.
For proof of the breadth of Bowie’s incredible, never-ending artistic journey look no further than the album he released just this past Friday, Blackstar, a dense, jazz-influenced coda full of images of the moon-age daydreamer coming to peace with mortality and the freedom of cutting loose the bonds of earthly existence.
Bowie was the whole package — singer, songwriter, accomplished musician, actor, playwright, fashion icon, music video pioneer — as well as a hit-making artist who sold 130 million albums on which he never compromised, never ceased to push the envelope and never stopped exploring inner and outer space.
Without him we surely wouldn’t have Madonna, Lady Gaga, My Chemical Romance, the Killers, Smashing Pumpkins, Bjork, Janelle Monae, Walk the Moon, Muse, Marilyn Manson, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, or any other act over the past 40-plus years who refused to draw inside the conventional lines of sexuality, music, art and image.
His influence was immense and resonates still, 50 years after his journey began, with ripples that have touched everyone from Kanye West to collaborator, punk pioneer and friend Iggy Pop, the Weeknd, Madonna, Louis Tomlinson, J.K. Rowling and Ruby Rose, who were among the dozens of stars who mourned his passing on Monday (Jan. 11).
David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) January 11, 2016
From Davy Jones To Ziggy Stardust
Born David Robert Jones in Brixton, London, on Jan. 8, 1947, Bowie showed an early aptitude for singing and dancing, spurred by his father’s purchase of some early American rock n’ roll 45s by Elvis and Little Richard. Those records inspired him to take up several instruments, including the saxophone, which he would joyfully play onstage over the course of his career.
Bowie’s music education began in earnest at 15, when he joined a local group called the Konrads, after which he shuffled through a succession of bands in the mid-1960s before making two crucial decisions: changing his surname to Bowie (to avoid confusion with Monkees singer Davy Jones) and transitioning from blues and folk-influenced music to a more expansive, psychedelic sound.
He released what would become both his breakthrough single and one of his most iconic songs, “Space Oddity,” in July 1969, just a week before the Apollo 11 moon mission. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” inspired Bowie’s tale of astronaut Major Tom, a space explorer who gets stranded above Earth:
“Here am I floating/ Round my tin can/ Far above the Moon/ Planet Earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do,” Bowie sang in a resigned voice.
He followed with 1971’s Hunky Dory, an album featuring some of his most enduring takes on alienation and rebellion, “Oh You Pretty Things,” “Changes” and “Life on Mars.”
From the doomed space explorer, Bowie quickly shifted gears into another interstellar character: bisexual glam god Ziggy Stardust, a gender-bending flash pot of fire-engine hair, glittery jumpsuits, high-heeled boots and DayGlo makeup that allowed Bowie to play between the lines of sexuality while becoming an androgynous sex symbol to his audience.
The then-married Bowie also played with his sexuality in the press, telling a British music magazine in 1972 that he was gay, then later claiming in Playboy that he was bisexual (and walking back both comments in later years), all the while giving his straight and LGBT fans the courage to express themselves openly and proudly at his shows.
Not only did the Ziggy character explore the idea of fluid sexuality during an era when LGBT rights were still a burgeoning battleground, but Bowie’s stage show and music also smashed the conventions of rock, which had grown up through the 1950s and ’60s to embody an emphasis on macho posturing and lad culture.
Through a combination of outrageous costuming and stagecraft and the early use of music video to tell twisted narratives about a spaced-out rock star living on the edge of bliss and death in songs like “Five Years,” “Starman,” “Hang on to Yourself” and “Rock ’n Roll Suicide,” Bowie flipped the script on what constituted a superstar male rocker.
Bowie’s restless shape-shifting unfolded at a relentless pace over the next few years, from the hard-edge 1973 album, Aladdin Sane (with urgent songs like “Watch That Man,” “Panic in Detroit” and the haunting title track); to the eclectic, pioneering covers album, Pin-Ups,; to the post-apocalyptic 1974 concept album, Diamond Dogs, which was inspired by George Orwell’s novel “1984.”
Diamond Dogs also served as the first batch of new music after Bowie retired the Ziggy character, foreshadowing his move into more soul-inspired music on songs like the title track and the swinging “Rebel Rebel.” Bowie’s next album, 1975’s Young Americans, found him fully embracing American soul and scoring one of his most indelible hits with the proto-dance-punk anthem “Fame.”
A Musical Retreat, An ’80s Music Video Resurgence And Movie Magic
As his acting career took off with his first starring role in the enigmatic 1976 science-fiction drama “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” Bowie entered a four-year phase of making chilly, electronic-influenced albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger), which were less commercial. At the dawn of the video music/MTV era, Bowie bounced back in 1980 with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), highlighted by the Major Tom revisit “Ashes to Ashes” and one of his most enduring pop hits, the flashy, trashy “Fashion.”
Bowie’s true commercial peak, though, would take place three years later on his best-selling album, Let’s Dance, which featured some of his biggest pop hits, including “Modern Love,” “China Girl” and the smash title track. Bowie’s mainstream train kept rolling for a few years with songs like “Blue Jean,” which were accompanied by popular music videos, before he shrunk back into yet another experiment on a pair of tepidly received rock albums with the band Tin Machine.
The singer would spend the 1990s experimenting with a variety of modern dance music genres, from drum and bass to Nine Inch Nails-inspired dance beats before going on a decade-long hiatus (allegedly due to heart problems) that he broke with the contemplative surprise 2013 album, The Next Day.
Throughout his fertile 1980s period, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bowie launched a second career as actor, choosing his roles carefully in films like the war drama “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”; the vampire thriller “The Hunger”; “Labyrinth,” in which he starred as Jareth the Goblin King, one of his most beloved turns; and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” playing Pontius Pilate.
David Bowie transcended genre, but he also transcended time. He splashed his blank canvas with layer upon layer of anxieties, hopes, daydreams, nightmares, dark secrets and bold strokes, building a complex, enigmatic masterpiece the likes of which we won’t see again. Plus, he was the ultimate rock star in every sense of the word, playing out his technicolor fantasies on the stage for our enjoyment, showing the way by never following and always happily sending us to the door with more questions than easy answers.