“I pour out what has already been fed in. I merely reflect what is going on around me.” David Bowie, July 1973.
David Bowie was the most charismatic popular musician of his generation, a cultural polymath and style icon whose artistic breadth also took in theatre, film, video, fashion, mime, fine art criticism and prose writing. Though hugely admired by vast numbers of fans throughout the world, he often seemed uncomfortable with mainstream recognition and throughout his long career made a habit of stepping back to experiment with genres of music and cultural expression unlikely to find commercial acceptance. By refusing to rest on his laurels and – apart from a misstep in the eighties when he courted the mass market to excess – recording a series of peerless albums at various times in his life, he maintained a consistent level of critical acclaim enjoyed by very few of his contemporaries.
Born David Robert Jones in Brixton in 1947, Bowie paid his dues in a number of groups and guises until his breakthrough in 1969 with the hit single ‘Space Oddity’, perfectly timed to coincide with the American moon landing that same year. The song’s theme of alienation and impending doom would be, a recurrent motif of Bowie’s work, alongside a sense of otherworldliness on the part of its creator, as if David Bowie really was from another world, an alien being on a higher astral plane than mere mortals, someone who simply knew more than the rest of us.
The new decade brought a change in his business affairs with Bowie, perhaps frustrated by his lack of progress after two early albums, abandoning his dependable but old school manager Kenneth Pitt in favour of the more flamboyant but slightly Machiavellian Tony De Fries. Together they founded a company called Mainman and staffed it with colourful characters whose loyalty to David was never in doubt but whose spending habits would later come back to haunt him. De Fries encouraged his new client to act like a star before he actually was one, thus creating an illusion around Bowie that he was happy to go along with so long as it advanced his career. It turned out to be a Faustian pact but for the time being everyone was delighted with the new arrangement and, if nothing else, the Mainman crew certainly enlivened the London rock scene.
Nevertheless, Bowie’s rise to stardom was not immediate. Though acclaimed by critics, his 1971 albums The Man The Who Sold The World, the cover of which saw him in a ‘man’s dress’, and Hunky Dory sold respectably if not spectacularly. An instinctive rather than virtuoso musician, Bowie played saxophone, guitar and keyboards but his greatest skill was in composition and finding the right collaborators to help realise his vision. During the making of these records he recruited a key early ally in guitarist Mick Ronson who joined his stage group shortly before Bowie renamed them The Spiders From Mars, its leader now restyled as Ziggy Stardust, the ensemble designed to perform his 1972 album named after themselves. This saw lift-off with Bowie as Ziggy, presenting himself in concert as an androgynous being, his spikey hair carrot red, his clothes more and more colourful, outré and revealing, his whole demeanour screaming ‘star’ from the highest pinnacle.
Ushering in glam rock but always maintaining a rather aloof presence above the genre’s less cerebral acts like Slade, Sweet and his friend Marc Bolan’s T. Rex, Bowie’s elaborate costumes were all part of the same package, in hindsight a work of art in itself. Consciously or not, everything he did from that point onwards became part of his art and his life as an artist. Amongst his greatest achievements, therefore, was what he saw when he looked at himself in the mirror.
Crucially, he represented the outsider, positioning himself on the side of those ill-suited for conventional society. His lyrics, often elliptical, spoke to misfits and loners, the timid and the disconnected, enabling them to cast off inhibitions and paving the way for a less macho style of rock performer and performance. A skilled interviewee, he was quick to realise that absolute truth was of less significance that the effect his words might carry. When he did speak to the press he usually made headlines, not least in January 1972 when he announced, without foundation, that he was gay or, at the very least, bisexual. Similarly, on a musical level he positioned himself outside the tried and tested bluesrock formula typified by The Rolling Stones or more supercharged contemporaries like Led Zeppelin, his chief rival during the seventies. While songs such as ‘The Jean Genie’, ‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ certainly rocked with the best of glam’s full-tilt explosions, others, like ‘Changes’, ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Starman’, reflected a more ethereal quality, the latter borrowing Harold Arlen’s octave climb from ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ to startling effect. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ itself, of course, was assumed to be autobiographical.
By the end of 1972 Bowie was the biggest solo rock star in the UK, not to mention the most visually striking and controversial, and though America’s ingrained conservatism resisted him at first, the US fell the following year. He even found time to revive the careers of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople. Aladdin Sane (1973) attracted advance orders of 100,000 in the UK and was in many ways Ziggy Part II, another huge success, its striking cover of Bowie as Ziggy with a blue thunderbolt etched across his face solidifying his surreal image. Then, just as it seemed as if Bowie would eclipse all before him, he abandoned Ziggy completely, memorably making the announcement from the stage at Hammersmith Odeon, shocking fans and, so word had it, even his own group, and returned to the drawing board. It would not be the first time that Bowie would abruptly change tack, a career strategy that he maintained until the very end.
The patchy covers album Pin Ups (1973) was a holding manoeuvre but with Diamond Dogs (1974), and perhaps more importantly its concurrent stage show, Bowie invented rock theatre, a style of presentation that paid no lip service whatsoever to conventional rock concerts and instead relied purely on dramatic effect and elaborate stage props. The following year he discovered blue-eyed soul with Young Americans, its funked-up US No. 1 hit single ‘Fame’ collaboration with John Lennon that savaged his relationship with manager Tony De Fries. He then stepped back from music to appear in Nicolas Roeg’s sci-fi film The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was astute casting, Bowie’s starring role as an extra-terrestrial sent to earth to save his own planet serving only to ramp up the impression of Bowie as a creature from beyond the stratosphere.
Bowie was on a roll though by his own volition it wasn’t to last. Station To Station (1976), which merged black funk with the emerging European electronic school, is widely regarded as his best album ever, as timeless as it is flawless; yet, after a thrillingly successful world arena tour, it would presage Bowie’s second retreat from the commercial sphere. Destabilized by a financially calamitous fall out with De Fries – henceforth he would largely manage his own business affairs in tandem with lawyers and personal assistant Corinne ‘Coco’ Schwab – and an enervating cocaine habit, he wisely relocated to Berlin to work with producer/auteur Brian Eno on a trilogy of introverted experimental albums, thus not only avoiding the need to compete with punk rock but setting himself up as a genuine innovator. Although many tracks on these now highly acclaimed records were instrumental in character and perversely un-commercial, the Berlin period produced the stirring majesty of ‘Heroes’, a meditation on the futility of the Berlin Wall that is arguably the finest song he ever wrote and certainly the most popular.
After emerging from his German retreat for another arena tour, Scary Monsters (1980) saw Bowie move to more conventional ground, its most affecting track ‘Ashes To Ashes’ a revision of the Major Tom saga from ‘Space Oddity’. By this time videos – short films to promote singles – had arrived and few benefited more from this development than Bowie whose acting experience gave him the jump on less imaginative fellow travellers. The video for ‘Ashes To Ashes’, with Bowie in Pierrot costume, not only lit the touch paper beneath the New Romantic movement but ushered in an era when he consistently led the field in this new art form. As if to prove the point, his next move, again unexpected, was to appear on stage – bravely and with distinction – in Chicago and on Broadway in New York as the severely deformed John Merrick in The Elephant Man, a role that required him to contort his frame throughout the play’s duration.
A switch of record labels then saw Bowie pocket a reputed $17 million advance and move back into the musical mainstream, this time on his own terms. With EMI’s promotional muscle behind him, Let’s Dance (1983), produced by Nile Rodgers, became his best-selling album ever, its funk-driven title track a big hit with an even bigger hook. He was looking different now too, more mature and smartly turned out in stylish pastel suits, business-like yet as attractive as ever, his neatly coiffured blonde hair and easy smile as appealing as the sheen of Let’s Dance tracks like ‘Modern Love’ and ‘China Girl’. The Serious Moonlight tour that followed saw Bowie ever more accomplished on stage, his gift for presentation now executed with effortless panache, a crowd-pleasing spectacle of light, sound, movement and mime, all to accompany a catalogue of wonderful songs played by top class musicians led by guitarist Carlos Alomar. It was this vision of Bowie that in 1985 seduced a worldwide audience of millions at Live Aid, his four-song set during Bob Geldof’s all-star charity extravaganza a highlight of the event and a triumph of mass communication.
The momentum, however, was not to last. Tonight (1984) failed to match the sparkle of Let’s Dance, presaging an artistic decline that lasted for almost a decade, exacerbated by the disappointing Never Let Me Down (1987), which in the fullness of time Bowie himself would resoundingly disparage. The global success of the new ‘normal’ Bowie, and the less-than-radical musical soundtrack that accompanied this new model, proved to be his undoing. In distancing himself from the cutting edge, he fell between two stools, alienating both the new and less critical post-Let’s Dance audience that recoiled at his theatricality while at the same time disaffecting the more discerning long-term fans who were drawn to his visionary zeal. Matters weren’t helped by contractual obligations to a hungry new record label.
Bowie’s solution to this dilemma was to form a group, Tin Machine, in which he would claim to be ‘just another member’, an optimistic prospect to say the least. If nothing else the two heavy-handed Tin Machine albums in 1989 and 1991 and subsequent live recording a year later moved Bowie away from the spotlight to lick his wounds. His commercial stock was now at its lowest point since before the Ziggy era but he surprised the world again, not with music but by marrying the Somalian model Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid. Iman clearly inspired the romanticism of Black Tie White Noise (1993) and seemed to finally settle Bowie’s restless spirit and curb his occasional lapses into hedonism.
Thereafter Bowie’s muse would fluctuate across a series of thoughtful, occasionally acclaimed albums that were never quite as illustrious as those that preceded them but at the same time restored his reputation and sustained it for two further decades. There were tours in which he was never less than immaculately turned out, with favourite songs from the past judiciously blended with newer material and, like many of his peers, he made announcements to the effect that he would no longer play the hits, only to renege on the pledge a year or two later. How could he not perform songs that had become touchstones in so many lives? Some of these later records, Earthling (1997) in particular, were on the experimental side while others, notably Hours (1999) and the enjoyable Heathen (2002), were designed for mass consumption, as was the less successful Reality (2003).
To promote Reality Bowie undertook a huge world tour that stretched from 2003 into 2004 but in June of ’04 was abruptly cancelled when he suffered heart problems at Scheeßel in Germany. It is understood that he underwent a heart bypass operation. After surgery, Bowie returned to New York, his home for the past decade and where he would continue to live in relative seclusion for the remainder of his life.
From that point on the public was told very little about what was happening in the world of David Bowie. He stopped giving interviews around 2006 and his official website remained silent for extended periods. It was reported that he had declined a knighthood. Although he made occasional guest appearances, notably with Arcade Fire, he was entering a long period of privacy during which rumours about his failing health – he’d been a heavy smoker for most of his life – proliferated. In the words of the noted music critic Charles Shaar Murray, we no longer knew who David Bowie was any more, even if we ever did.
Since presentation was so crucial to Bowie’s craft it is safe to assume that the reason the world henceforth saw so little of him was because he could no longer present himself on stage or elsewhere in the manner he would prefer. Bowie would no sooner appear as a shadow of his former self than reassume the character of Ziggy Stardust so, rather than appear as someone who no longer resembled the David Bowie that was universally adored, he chose not to appear at all. Age, it seemed, was the great leveller, even for David Bowie. Nevertheless, his absence created a vacuum in which his star continued to shine brightly: the exhibition of his stage outfits and other memorabilia at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2013 attracted record crowds and would tour the world.
That same year Bowie’s silence was broken dramatically with the unexpected release of The Next Day, which took fans and everyone else completely by surprise. In what in hindsight can be seen as another superb piece of media manipulation, as impressive as any in his entire career, its unheralded arrival was a front-page news story in itself, Bowie deriving more publicity by doing absolutely nothing than top flight acts receive from the massive advance promotion that is the norm in the 21st Century. A reflective, carefully crafted work, The Next Day won Bowie the Best British Male Solo Artist at the 2014 Brit Awards. The model Kate Moss, wearing one of Bowie’s original Ziggy costumes, picked up the award on his behalf while an enlarged 1973 photo of the real thing, in the identical costume, looked on beautifically.
Two years later, on January 8, his 69th birthday, came the elegiac, brooding Blackstar, a recording, which in hindsight seems to have been deliberately designed as a requiem. With lyrics that vaguely referenced his rapidly approaching demise, it will remain a moving, emotional epitaph, intentional in design, a unique and strangely appropriate climax to an extraordinary life.
David Bowie passed away from cancer of the liver two days later. He’d evidently been diagnosed 18 months earlier and only a tight circle of family and friends knew the extent of his illness. Remarkably, it remained a close secret, so the announcement came as a profound shock to the world and inspired tributes from the high and mighty, fellow musicians and – most notably – multitudes of fans for whom David Bowie represented much more than simply a great rock star but an ideal, a way of life, an incentive to live as you choose and not be cowed by convention. Within hours of the news, these fans, many of them with thunderbolts painted on their faces, gathered in their thousands to sing his songs at locations associated with Bowie’s life and career where hastily erected shrines spoke far more about his impact on this world than any of the clichés uttered by the great and the good.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, when performers from rock and roll’s pioneering era seem to pass away with the inevitability of the changing seasons, the loss of David Bowie can be compared only to the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon. “I am not a rock star,” he would repeatedly tell journalists. He was right. He was much more than that; untouchable, perhaps comparable to stars in the old Hollywood sense of the term, perhaps in his daring and ambition beyond compare, shining as brightly as any star on a cloudless night, truly one of the brightest we shall ever see. He’s up there now, looking down on us, and maybe, if you glance skywards and catch a comet flashing across the heavens, you might see David Bowie riding its fiery slipstream, laughing, singing and waving bye-bye, the prettiest pop star of them all. “If we sparkle he might land tonight…”
Chris Charlesworth 2017. More from Chris at his music blog Just Backdated
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