David Bowie, the legendary British singer and boundary-breaking musician also known as Ziggy Stardust, died Sunday of cancer, according to The Associated Press. He had turned 69 on Friday.
Bowie’s musical career spanned six decades, with his first hit single charting in 1969 and his final album released just days before his death. In between, he tried on a myriad of musical styles, reinventing his look and creating personas to match as he delighted fans across the world.
Born David Robert Jones on 8 January 1947, in London, England, he demonstrated a musical talent early in his life, singing in the school choir and showing an aptitude for dance. He took up the saxophone as a young teen, and he would go on to become a multi-instrumentalist, proficient with guitar, keyboards and harmonica in addition to saxophone. Drums, strings, even unusual instruments including the stylophone – Bowie was able to pick them up and make beautiful music.
Once he had heard the rock ‘n’ roll of early superstars such as Elvis Presley
and Little Richard, Bowie was determined to become a rock star. He started and joined a number of bands in his youth, seeking the perfect combination of musicianship and seriousness that would lead to a career in rock. None panned out, and it was as a solo artist that he would finally find fame. Along the way to that fame, he adopted his stage name, necessary because of the mid-1960s fame of Davy Jones
and the Monkees. To avoid confusion the other musician, he chose the last name Bowie in homage to the Bowie knife and the Wild West figure who created it, Jim Bowie.
In 1969, he released the first of many hit songs that he would see in his lifetime. “Space Oddity” was released just a week before the Apollo 11 moon landing – though the BBC declined to play it until after the astronauts had returned safely to Earth. In the wake of the successful mission, “Space Oddity” vaulted to No. 5 on the British singles chart, capturing the public imagination as it told the story of ill-fated fictional astronaut Major Tom. The song’s sci-fi subject and spacey sound presaged a theme that would run throughout much of Bowie’s work.
Bowie carried on his success with the following year’s album, The Man Who Sold the World, featuring a title track that would later rise to fame via covers by Lulu in 1974 and Nirvana in 1993. Bowie reportedly enjoyed both versions of his song. While Bowie’s 1970 album saw moderate success both in the U.K. and in the U.S., and 1971’s Hunky Dory delighted critics, it was with the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars that Bowie would become a massive force in the rock world.
I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
- David Bowie
With Ziggy Stardust, Bowie presented not just a concept album, but a new persona that extended the concept to the real world. Bowie became Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous alien who came to a doomed Earth with a message of hope for humanity. Backed by his band, the Spiders from Mars, Bowie embodied the Ziggy Stardust character in wildly flamboyant stage shows and sang songs destined to become classics. The album includes enduring tracks such as “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” “Five Years" and “Starman.” In the years since, the album has found its way onto many lists of all-time greatest records. The mythos of Ziggy Stardust even made its way to another band: the Mott the Hoople single “All the Young Dudes” was written by Bowie specifically for the band, and it was intended as a companion to “Five Years.”
Ziggy Stardust resonated beyond its music – when he dressed as the wildly-costumed alien, Bowie became one of the first glam rockers, influencing a movement as he applied lipstick and stepped into platform shoes. And that first taste of successful self-reinvention would drive Bowie to develop new characters and new looks in the years that came. But he remained in his Starman persona for another album.
Building on the Ziggy Stardust mythos, Bowie released Aladdin Sane in 1973, an album he described as “Ziggy goes to America.” Amping up the rock in his space rock, Bowie took influence from U.S. music with tracks including “Jean Genie,” “Panic in Detroit” and “Drive-In Saturday.” The nod to rockers across the pond helped bring him new fame there, making Aladdin Sane his first album to crack the U.S. Top 40 – it peaked at No. 17.
(Getty Images / Ron Galella)
More iconic singles followed, including “Life on Mars?” – a 1971 track re-released to great U.K. success in 1973 with the success of Bowie’s space rock. 1974’s Diamond Dogs yielded a classic title track as well as the hit single “Rebel Rebel.” But it would be 1975 before Bowie truly made it to the top in America. To do so, he went to the source, recording his album Young Americans in Philadelphia and finding influence in an American soul sound. Bowie called his interpretation of the genre “plastic soul,” and while the new direction turned off some fans of his space rock, it electrified the U.S. audience, with top single “Fame” shooting to No. 1 on the Billboard chart.
A new character was in the works for Bowie, inspired by his first acting role in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie played an alien in the movie, but the character it spawned, the Thin White Duke, looked much more human than his 1972 predecessor. Impeccably outfitted in tailored menswear, the Thin White Duke was gauntly stylish, drawing inspiration from cabaret culture. The Thin White Duke was described as cold and detached, intense and amoral.
The album Station to Station accompanied the look, a critical and popular success that further advanced Bowie’s international fame. But even as his latest album achieved gold status and made it to the No. 3 spot on the U.S. charts, Bowie was struggling in his personal life. Addiction ravaged him, and he remembered almost nothing about the process of recording the album. He behaved oddly, gave incoherent interviews and appeared to have developed an interest in fascism and Nazi history. He later regretted this period, according to his biographer, explaining, “I was out of my mind, totally crazed.”
David’s friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is.
- Iggy Pop
After Station to Station
, Bowie sought a change of scenery, moving to Berlin and successfully fighting his addiction. But his popularity would begin to decline as the 1970s wore on. A trilogy of albums in collaboration with Brian Eno was critically acclaimed but didn’t yield much in the way of popular singles. But in 1980, he was back on top with the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
and its No. 1 hit single, “Ashes to Ashes.”
It was the beginning of yet another reinvention when Bowie became a mainstream New Wave superstar. He followed Scary Monsters with a collaborative single with Queen, “Under Pressure,” another hit. But the height of his 1980s success came with his 1983 album Let’s Dance. Reaching a new, young audience as well as his longtime fans, Bowie scored major hits with the title track, “Modern Love” and “China Girl.” Bowie was surprised and a little dismayed by the success of his new, poppy sound, telling Rolling Stone, “[It] was a good record, but it was only meant as a one-off project. I had every intention of continuing to do some unusual material after that. But the success of that record really forced me, in a way, to continue the beast. It was my own doing, of course, but I felt, after a few years, that I had gotten stuck.”
The pop that Bowie produced in his subsequent mid-1980s albums was an odd fit and didn’t fulfill him – he called 1987’s Never Let Me Down “an awful album.” So in 1989, he changed things up again, ditching his pop sound for straightforward rock and his solo career for a band: Tin Machine. They recorded two moderately successful studio albums and released a concert album, but it was only a few years before Bowie would reinvent himself again, going back to a solo career. Continuing to record throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, Bowie released nine more albums after leaving Tin Machine.
In addition to success as a recording artist, Bowie took on more acting roles over the years. Among the best known is his role as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth
(1986), a Muppet-inhabited fantasy that has become a cult classic in the years since its moderately successful release. He played an FBI agent in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
(1992) and a vampire in The Hunger
(1983). He inhabited biographical roles, too: Andy Warhol in Basquiat
(1996), Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ
(1988), Nikola Tesla
in The Prestige
Oh I’ll be free Just like that bluebird Oh I’ll be free Ain’t that just like me?
- David Bowie
Long considered an icon of gay culture, Bowie declared his bisexuality in a 1972 interview with Melody Maker. And while the singer was reported to have experimented with same-sex relationships, it was with women that he found his most lasting bonds. He was married to actress and model Angie Bowie from 1970 until their 1980 divorce and to supermodel Iman from 1992 until his death. His biographer quoted Bowie as saying of Iman, “I was naming the children the night we met ... it was absolutely immediate.”
Bowie had been quiet about the cancer he faced, though his diagnosis came 18 months before his death. But with his final album, Blackstar, Bowie offered some well-timed final words to his fans. Released on his 69th birthday, two days before his death, it included the lead single “Lazarus,” with its opening line: “Look up here, I’m in heaven.” The song’s video portrays Bowie singing from a sickbed, but its final lines offer a hopeful message: “Oh I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me?”