Bowie, David [real name David Robert Jones]
- Richard Weight
Bowie, David [real name David Robert Jones] (1947–2016), singer and actor, was born on 8 January 1947 at 40, Stansfield Road, Brixton, south London, as David Robert Burns, the son of Hayward Stenton (John) Jones (1912–1969) and Margaret Mary Burns (1913–2001). His parents married later the same year, after which his birth was re-registered under the name Jones. He had three half-siblings, Terry Burns (b. 1937), Annette Jones (b. 1941), and Myra Ann Jones (b. 1943), from his parents’ previous relationships.
Brixton, Bromley, and Beckenham
David Jones came from an unusual working-class family. His mother was a cinema usherette and, allegedly, a supporter of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s. His father served in the Eighth Army in north Africa during the Second World War and later ran a piano bar that was crippled by his alcohol and gambling addictions. When the bar closed, he supported his family by taking a clerical job at Dr Barnardo’s children’s charity. An early sign of David’s difference occurred when he was three and his mother found him daubed in make-up after a rummage through her cosmetics bag. When she told him men don’t wear lipstick, a puzzled little boy simply said, ‘You do, mummy’ (Daily Telegraph, 5 April 2001).
The family moved to the south-east London suburb of Bromley in 1953. At junior school David Jones showed an aptitude for music, playing the recorder and singing. After failing his eleven-plus, he went to Bromley Technical High School where he studied art, design, and music. During that time his half-brother Terry introduced him to modern jazz, and John Coltrane became a greater influence on his work than Elvis Presley. David’s mother nurtured his love of jazz in 1961 when she bought him a toy saxophone, an instrument that became a staple of his musical output.
Having taught himself to play the ukulele, David Jones joined a skiffle group called George & the Dragons. The group was led by George Underwood, who remained a friend after punching David in the face in an argument over a girl. After operations to save his sight, the punch left him with a dilated pupil that made him appear to have different coloured eyes—a feature that later added to his spectral allure. By the time he left school in 1963, with just two O-level passes in art and woodwork, he had learned to play the guitar and piano as well as the saxophone.
At the age of fifteen, in 1962 Jones had formed his first band, the Kon-Rads (for whom he played the saxophone). Over the next five years he tried to hitch his star to the British rhythm and blues explosion out of which rock music evolved. He joined a series of bands, including the King Bees, the Mannish Boys, and the Lower Third. He changed his name from Davy Jones to David Bowie in 1966, taking the name from a knife invented by the nineteenth-century frontiersman Jim Bowie. His debut album, David Bowie (1967), a trend-following mélange of British music hall and psychedelic rock, was a flop. ‘I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley’, he recalled (Q, April 1990).
Like many songwriters of the post-war era, David Bowie was shaped by suburban life and the tension between the comforts it offered and the restrictions it imposed. In 1969 he started a club in the nearby suburb of Beckenham, Kent, which evolved into the Beckenham Arts Lab. The club nurtured a range of musical talents, including his lifelong collaborator, Tony Visconti, who produced thirteen of his albums. Bowie’s suburban imagination was also apparent in the score he composed for the 1993 BBC television adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel Buddha of Suburbia.
Bowie married his first wife, (Mary) Angela (Angie) Barnett (b. 1949) on 19 March 1970. The daughter of George Milton Barnett, mining engineer, she was a bisexual Cypriot-American model and journalist who had a brief but significant influence on his style in the early 1970s. They set up home together in Beckenham and in 1971 had a son, Duncan Zowie Jones. But their nine-year ‘open’ marriage was a disaster. Bowie once said that ‘living with her is like living with a blow-torch’ (Evening Standard, 17 March 2006). She claimed that listening to her ex-husband’s music made her literally nauseous.
David was also shaped by the mental illness that ran in the Jones family, which he feared would visit him. In 1970 his father died, and his brother, Terry, was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Terry escaped in 1985 only to lie on a railway track and be hit by an oncoming train. Bowie didn’t attend the funeral. ‘Most of my family have been to an analyst’, he observed; ‘they ended up in a much worse state. I thought I’d write my problems out’ (Times, 12 Jan 2016). Although often arcane, the psychological depth of his lyrics spoke to youth in an age of anxiety. ‘The trousers may change’, he said, ‘but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to work with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety—all the high points of one’s life’ (Independent, 12 Jan 2016). There were many lows to come.
Dressing and identifying as a flamboyant ‘mod’, Bowie had little success until he became something more interesting: a modernist. Amid musical failure he signalled his broader intent in a BBC television discussion of 1964. Presenting himself as president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, he said ‘for the last two years we’ve had comments like “Darlin” and “Can I carry your handbag?” thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now’ (Tonight, BBC1, 24 Nov 1964). What Bowie called ‘gender-bending’ became his hallmark and legacy.
Reclining feyly on a chaise longue, Bowie wore a dress on the cover of his third album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), also appearing in it to conduct interviews. The dress was designed by Michael Fish, at the helm of the ‘peacock revolution’ in British menswear that formed a link between mod and glam style. Hunky Dory (1971) was not an initial success either; yet by combining musical themes of these third and fourth albums he made his belated breakthrough on 16 June 1972 with the release of his fifth: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Glam rock emerged as a mass movement five days after the first Gay Pride march took place in London when Bowie performed the song ‘Starman’ from the album on BBC’s Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972. Wearing a mane of spiky ginger-brown hair, a tightly fitting multicoloured jumpsuit, and platform boots, with a blue guitar slung nonchalantly over his shoulder, he looked coquettishly into the camera and invited the youth of Britain to ‘sparkle’ in the hope that ‘he may land tonight’.
Musically, glam was a mélange of mod’s holy trinity of black American forms: jazz, rhythm and blues, and soul. To these, Bowie added European cabaret of the 1920s and contemporary German electronica. Performance and personae were always at the heart of his art, and in that respect his relationship with Lindsay Kemp was pivotal. While studying avant-garde acting, dance, and mime under Kemp at the London Dance Centre from 1967 to 1968, his interest in image ‘really blossomed’. Kemp ‘lived on his emotions’, Bowie said; ‘he was the most wonderful influence. His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus’ (Buckley, 41-2).
Bowie’s most successful persona was that of a decadently futuristic, extraterrestrial messenger offering the hope of a freer world beyond the stars. Yet he was never a supine optimist about life on Mars—or on Earth, for that matter. He once said of his work that ‘it captured a sense of yearning for a future we all knew would never come to pass’ (Weight, 190).
Bowie’s first hit, ‘Space Oddity’, was released in 1969 to mark the first landing on the moon. It expressed the fragile, melancholic optimism that characterized his work—as its hero, Major Tom, sings ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’. Bowie became synonymous with space-age pop culture: in 2013 Commander Chris Hadfield of the International Space Station sang a version of ‘Space Oddity’ while floating in his own ‘tin can’. It was the first-ever music performed in space, and Bowie described it as ‘possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created’ (Facebook, 12 May 2013).
Incarnations like Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust benefited from the space race, so attuned were people then to the possibilities of cosmic travel and extraterrestrial life forms. Simultaneously, the brazen escapism of glam rock appealed to British youth during the bleak economic recession of the 1970s, with all the despair and social unrest it spawned. Glam was also amplified by the arrival of colour television, which made its androgynous revolt more vivid to pre-digital youth reliant on scheduled pop shows.
At the peak of Bowie’s fame in 1975, his friend John Lennon dismissively told him that glam was ‘great, but it’s just rock ‘n’ roll with lipstick on’ (Musician, May 1983). It was far more than that. Mods were no strangers to mascara, and the Rolling Stones appeared in drag to promote their 1966 single ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?’, long before Bowie’s 1979 video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ (which saw him dressed as three different female versions of himself). What Bowie did was to take this reformation of masculinity into the outer reaches of androgyny in the years following the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexual acts in England and Wales.
Like Richard O’Brien’s cult transgender musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Bowie was at the forefront of a new popular culture that transgressed binary sexual identities and lifestyles. Bowie’s own sexuality was contentiously ambiguous. He declared himself gay in an interview with Melody Maker in 1972 and bisexual in another with Playboy magazine in 1976. But he refused active involvement in what became known as the LGBTQ movement, later remarking, ‘I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners nor be a representative of any group of people’ (Blender, Aug 2002). Although his confession heightened his influence in Europe, he did regret that in ‘puritanical America’ it had ‘stood in the way of so much I wanted to do’ (ibid.).
While Bowie’s fans accepted his invitation to ‘turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes’, puritans all over the world weren’t ready for his pop-mediated, metaphysical message of space age androgyny. At a time when Gay Pride was not a corporately sponsored street party for tens of thousands but a political protest by a few hundred courageous activists, a clear generation gap existed over sexual politics in Britain. Bowie was criticized for toying with the issue simply to gain notoriety. But more than any other cultural figurehead of the post-war era, he spoke to and legitimized millions of people wrestling with different, and fluid, sexual identities in a hostile environment. The singer Tom Robinson said, ‘For gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later’ (Buckley, 106), a sentiment reiterated by many gay people on social media after his death.
The fact that Bowie wasn’t a conventional activist enabled him to be challenging without threatening. The sequinned arm that Bowie placed around young shoulders said not ‘come and protest’ but ‘come and play’. That so many of his fans were heterosexual testified to the fact that Bowie was offering everyone more choice about how to be and how to live. He helped to create a ‘new man’: one who didn’t think that sharing domestic duties or showing emotions was effeminate; a man who accepted feminist demands for equal opportunity from the bedroom to the boardroom. Bowie could, therefore, be credited with improving male–female relationships, his legacy visible in moisturised fathers pushing prams in supermarket aisles.
In that context, Bowie was especially proud of his influence on working-class men, in an era when industrial decline was undermining blue-collar certainties and raising anxiety about what it meant to be a man. ‘One mischievous satisfaction that I derive immense pleasure from’, he said, ‘is remembering how many hod-carrying brickies were encouraged to put on lurex tights and mince up and down the high street, having been assured by know-it-alls like me, that a smidgen of blusher really attracted the birds’, adding, with his customary grasp of history, that this had been true ‘since woad’ (Guardian, 2 April 2001).
Aladdin Sane to Station to Station
Bowie shocked fans when he abandoned Ziggy Stardust in 1973. The cover of Aladdin Sane, released that year (a pun on ‘a lad insane’), pictured him with a blue and red lightning bolt painted across his alabaster face. This became the most iconic image of the star, and in 2016 it was transposed into an emoji named ‘Man Singer’, an honour not even accorded the Beatles. As a fan of George Orwell, his next project was to set 1984 to music. The author’s estate denied him the rights, but the material he wrote ended up on the critically acclaimed Diamond Dogs (1974) and shaped its post-apocalyptic theme.
Bowie moved to America in 1974, spending most of the next two years in Los Angeles, which he came to hate. This period produced the ‘plastic soul’ work of Young Americans (1975). Soul had more influence on British pop than any black American music until hip-hop, and this was one of its greatest homages. Bowie was candid about his artistic debt, describing it as ‘the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey’ (Playboy, Sept 1976).
Bowie’s next album, Station to Station (1976), was a creative bridge between the soul and funk of Young Americans and the electronic ‘Krautrock’ that fostered his so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’. It also introduced a new persona, the ‘Thin White Duke’, which visibly reflected the fact that his recreational drug habits had descended into addiction. Existing on a diet of milk, cocaine, and four packs of Gitanes a day, he overdosed several times and grew paranoid. His physically ravaged and emotionally fragile state scared his friends and endangered his reputation when he became fascinated by fascism.
Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘Superman’ had shaped Bowie’s creation of the ‘Starman’. He now added Arthurian legend, the occult, and fascism to his reading and collected Nazi memorabilia. This phase came to a head in an interview in Sweden on 26 April 1976 in which he hailed Adolf Hitler as ‘the first rock star’ and said that ‘Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader’ (Pegg, 516). Together with Eric Clapton’s overtly racist rant at a concert on 5 August the same year about ejecting ‘wogs and coons’ to ‘Keep Britain white’, Bowie’s comments led to the formation of Rock Against Racism in 1976. He was forgiven because, unlike Clapton, he made a complete apology and regularly condemned racism in the years that followed. ‘I was out of my mind, totally crazed’, he later explained; ‘the main thing I was functioning on was mythology’ (Sandford, 158).
The Berlin trilogy
The punk rock revolution which began in 1976 curtailed the careers of many pop and rock stars. Bowie was one of the few whom punks openly revered. The feminist songwriter Susan Ballion (also shaped by suburban south-east London and dysfunctional parents) was one of his champions. In song and style, through her band Siouxsie and the Banshees, Ballion developed his challenge to gender norms, offering girls a new kind of spiky, assertive femininity that augmented the softer, more rounded masculinity he offered boys.
Bowie also survived because he reinvented himself again. Although glam was more escapist and less confrontational than punk, he archly noted his influence on the spiky orange hair of the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon: ‘Ziggy Stardust had a mutant bastard offspring and his name was Johnny Rotten’. As his mutant bastards scourged the nation, Bowie did something extraordinary for a Briton: he moved first to Switzerland and then to Germany. A country where the Beatles had begun their career became the location for the revival of Bowie’s.
What better way to rehabilitate yourself after a flirtation with fascism than exile in Cold War Berlin? Britain had joined the European Economic Community in 1973, and for most people this meant discounted supermarket wine and package holidays on the beaches of Greece and Spain. For Bowie it meant art, literature, music, and the bracing cosmopolitanism of the continent’s cities.
With his fellow singer Iggy Pop, Bowie took a modest flat close to where Christopher Isherwood had stayed in the 1930s and then plunged himself into the bohemian life of West Berlin, cycling around the city, eating Turkish food, and dating the transsexual owner of a cross-dressing revue. He reduced his drug intake and took up painting, working skilfully in the German expressionist style. He re-entered the studio a rejuvenated man and produced a trilogy of albums that some critics regard as the pinnacle of his career: Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979).
Inspired by contemporary German composers such as Stockhausen, Neu!, and Kraftwerk, the albums were made with Visconti and Brian Eno, then the leading English composer of minimalist ‘ambient’ music. Low was perhaps the greatest of what he called his ‘triptych’. The album was hailed by America’s Philip Glass as ‘a work of genius’ and inspired Glass’s Symphony No.1 ‘Low’ (1992). Bowie’s engagement with the German musical revolution of the 1970s helped to popularize it, first in the 1980s with the advent of ‘electro-pop’ and then in the 1990s when it swept the world as ‘electronic dance music’, or ‘Rave’ music.
This period of Bowie’s work was praised by the German Foreign Office, which marked his death by posting a link to his Cold War anthem ‘Heroes’ and thanked him for ‘helping to bring down the Wall’. At the time, however, Bowie’s record company, RCA, was alarmed by his experimental exile. They were not reassured when ‘Be My Wife’, one of the more conventional rock tracks on Low, became the first Bowie song not to chart in the UK since ‘Changes’ had initially flopped when released off Hunky Dory in January 1972. ‘Be My Wife’ was issued as a single in June 1977 at the height of moral panic about the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’. Its romantic yearning for emotional security reflected the fact that his marriage to Angie had been disintegrating for several years amid bisexual promiscuity, drug abuse, and relentless touring. Towards the end of 1979, as his Berlin sojourn drew to a close, they began divorce proceedings. It was an acrimonious split that ended with Angie being given a relatively modest financial settlement and losing custody of their son Duncan, who became estranged from her and devoted to his father.
Scary Monsters to Tin Machine
‘It’s impossible to pick the shrapnel of [Bowie’s] Big Bang out of popular culture without tearing it to bits’, wrote the feminist critic Caitlin Moran (Times, 12 Jan 2016). Bowie’s artistic legacy certainly mirrors the eclectic tastes that created it, reaching beyond glam rock into almost every subsequent youth culture of the late twentieth century. He was cited as an inspiration by a galaxy of musicians and fashion designers, from Lady Gaga to Alexander McQueen. McQueen designed the costumes for Bowie’s ‘Earthling’ world tour, notably the torn Union Jack coat that he also wore on the cover of Earthling (1997), his twentieth studio album, which showed the influence of British ‘drum ’n bass’ music.
Bowie’s influence was most visible in the soulful electro-pop and flamboyant postmodern clothing styles of the ‘new romantic’ movement. Emerging from London’s Blitz Club in the late 1970s, new romantic figureheads such as Boy George and Steve Strange revered him and organized ‘Bowie nights’ that soon spread to clubs around Britain. Their hero returned the compliment, asking Strange to appear in the video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a single taken from Bowie’s 1980 album Scary Monsters … and Super Creeps. This compellingly inscrutable video (then the most expensive ever produced) set the benchmark for an art form that flourished over the subsequent twenty years after the launch of MTV in 1981.
Bowie followed Scary Monsters two years later with Let’s Dance (1983), his most commercially successful work ever. Produced by Nile Rodgers, co-founder of the American disco legends Chic, it was EMI’s fastest-selling album since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. The eponymous brassy, soul-drenched rock song ‘Let’s Dance’ topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and, with the ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour that followed it, made Bowie a more globally recognized pop star than he was at the height of glam rock.
But this form of success came at a price. Even Bowie’s most ardent supporters thought the album lacked his usual edge; as one wrote, ‘he plays it safe in every department, projecting a sun-tanned, hair-bleached revision of himself for the MTV generation’ (Pegg, 365). Although he worked with Rogers again on Black Tie, White Noise (1993), he distanced himself from Let’s Dance, saying ‘It was Nile’s version of what my music should sound like,’ and later adding, ‘All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience’ (The Word, Nov 2003). The critical consensus is that Scary Monsters was Bowie’s last great album. Over the next twenty years he produced work in a variety of media that astutely reflected trends but no longer set them in motion.
Bowie had always been a collaborator, producing Lou Reed’s influential album Transformer in 1972 and ‘Under Pressure’, a number one single in partnership with Queen in 1981. He also teamed up successfully with Mick Jagger (a former lover of his, according to Angie Bowie); the pair released a fundraising cover version of Martha Reeve’s ‘Dancing in the Streets’ after performing at the 1985 Live Aid famine relief concert at Wembley. But from the late 1980s collaboration became more a way of staying in the game than effecting change. After a poorly received solo work, Never Let Me Down (1987), which he himself described as ‘an awful album’ (Interview, Sept 1995), Bowie formed Tin Machine, a heavy rock band, which from 1988 to 1992 produced two albums and some outrage from fans, despite its strong anti-racist/anti-fascist message.
Acting, art, and belief
Bowie once declared that he’d been an actor ‘my whole professional life’ in various art forms (People, 6 Sept 1976). His literal acting career was underrated. It began in the late 1960s with small stage and screen roles while training under Kemp; his first major role was in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), about a humanoid alien in search of water to save his drought-stricken home planet. Although contractual disputes prevented Bowie from scoring the film, critics praised his performance, and Roeg’s film came to be regarded as an influential work of science fiction.
Bowie had a cameo appearance in Uli Edel’s Christiane F. (1981), about the heroin scene in West Berlin, the soundtrack for which contained much of his Berlin trilogy music. Less successful was a cameo in, and the title track for, Absolute Beginners (1986), Julien Temple’s messy musical adaptation of Colin MacInnes’s cult 1959 novel about cosmopolitan London teens. Yet Bowie proved that he could command the stage in a substantial role when, to critical acclaim, he played Joseph Merrick in the Broadway production of The Elephant Man (1980–1). Other notable roles included a British officer in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), about a Japanese POW camp in the Second World War.
Bowie played himself in Zoolander, Ben Stiller’s 2001 spoof of the fashion industry; but his comedic sense reached a sublime pinnacle with his final television appearance in a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais’s sitcom Extras. When Gervais’s character tries to ingratiate himself with Bowie as ‘a fellow entertainer’ at a party, Bowie turns to a piano and ‘spontaneously’ composes the song ‘Chubby Little Loser’, inviting everyone to join in ridiculing Gervais’s artistic pretensions.
Throughout his life Bowie was a voracious reader whose interests in art, music, literature, and philosophy spanned numerous cultures from Africa to Asia, all of which found their way into his work and, via that, into the lives of inquisitive fans. One example was the song ‘Jean Genie’ (1972), a raucous rhythm and blues number that was also a tribute to Jean Genet, the gay French Existentialist author, vagabond, and criminal. Bowie failed to complete an autobiography that he began in the late 1970s, and he later said that his one regret was that he never wrote a book.
As well as exhibiting his painting at a solo show in London in 1995, Bowie became an avid and discerning collector of modern art. His collection, most of which was sold for over £30 million after his death, included works by Frank Auerbach, Damien Hirst, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Art, he said ‘was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own’ (New York Times, 14 June 1998).
Artists do not always possess a sense of humour. But the intellectual seriousness of Bowie’s work was leavened with parody and satire, usually expressed more with an arched eyebrow and a knowing smile than with a sneer. The 1975 song ‘Fame’ (a collaboration with John Lennon) jabbed at celebrity. He later said, ‘I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants’ (Q, April 1990). Another, ‘Fashion’ (1980), conveyed the emotional insecurity behind the artifice of style, ‘an unsuredness about why one’s doing it’, said Bowie (NME, 13 Sept 1980).
Having befriended and studied under a Buddhist lama called Chime Rinpoche at Tibet House London in 1967, Bowie engaged with Buddhism throughout his life, supporting the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland. Rinpoche told him, ‘You should follow music’, and that journey was periodically guided by what he called ‘a kind of Gnosticism’ (Q, Feb 1997). In 2003 he told an interviewer, ‘Searching for music is like searching for God. They’re very similar. There’s an effort to reclaim the unmentionable, the unsayable, the unseeable, the unspeakable, all those things come into being a composer’ (60 Minutes, CBS, 24 Jan 2016). He never wholly rejected Christianity, kneeling on stage to recite the Lord’s Prayer at Freddie Mercury’s televised tribute concert on Easter Monday 1992; and he and his second wife had a Christian wedding ceremony because, he said, they wanted ‘a real marriage, sanctified by God’, which ‘had to happen in a church in Florence’ (Hello!, 13 June 1992).
‘Station to Station’, the title track of Bowie’s 1976 album, ‘is very much concerned with the Stations of the Cross’, he said. ‘Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing,’ he added. ‘It’s because I’m not an atheist and it worries me. There’s that little bit that holds on’ (A. DeCurtis, In Other Words, 1995, 262-3). Cancer later concentrated his mind: in the weeks before his death he reportedly told friends, ‘there are no atheists on the battlefield’. His second wife marked his passing with a post entitled ‘The struggle is real, but so is God’, a comment that pointed to something more in the couple’s life than a belief in modernity.
In an age when so many musicians and fashion designers, from Mick Jagger to Vivienne Westwood, aped the establishment they once mocked by accepting royal honours, Bowie stood firm. He refused the offer of a CBE in 2000, and a knighthood in 2003, saying ‘I seriously don’t know what it’s for’ (The Sun, 12 Sept 2003). This was part rebellion and part humility.
Bowie’s second marriage, on 24 April 1992, was to the Somali-American model Zara Mohamed (Iman) Abdulmajid (b. 1955), after which he settled in New York again. Their daughter, Alexandria Zahra (Lexi) Jones, was born in 2000. His son Duncan (who was best man at their wedding) had been brought up in the 1970s by nannies when his parents’ marriage disintegrated. Duncan was sent to Gordonstoun, the elite boarding school in Scotland known for its physical hardship, which the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, and her son, Prince Charles, had both attended. ‘I really missed those years, and I know he did too’, Bowie admitted (Observer, 9 June 2002).
Determined that Lexi would be properly parented, Bowie (like his friend John Lennon) became a recluse in New York as he took to fatherhood for a second time, giving few interviews. Failing health then curtailed his live performances. When Lexi was born, he gave up his sixty-a-day cigarette habit. But the damage to his body had already been done. During his 2003–4 ‘Reality’ tour, the Starman’s mortality hit him when he was stricken with chest pains during a performance in Germany. He underwent surgery for a blocked coronary artery, cancelled the remaining fourteen concerts, and never toured again. His retirement from the stage was a sacrifice for someone whose art was so defined by performance.
Bowie’s final significant public appearance was in 2006 at the Black Ball, a charity event in New York, where he sang alongside Alica Keys; although technically his last performance came a year later when he sang ‘Chubby Little Loser’ to introduce Ricky Gervais onto the stage at Madison Square Garden, as part of the 2007 High Line Festival in New York, which he curated.
Bowie continued to embrace contemporary music, notably the Canadian group Arcade Fire and the ‘Britpop’ group Suede who performed at the 2002 Meltdown Festival, which Bowie curated and headlined at London’s South Bank. His intellectual range was physically displayed as never before at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition ‘David Bowie Is’, in 2013. He loaned his personal collection of artefacts, ranging from costumes to original song lyrics and paintings, all placed in their wider cultural context. With 314,000 visiting in London and over 1.3 million on its subsequent world tour, ‘David Bowie Is’ became the museum’s best-attended exhibition. It cemented his reputation as a rare kind of pop star who had transcended the limitations of the youth culture that originally made him famous.
Though Bowie’s creative star faded in the second half of his life, his work ethic and his search for new horizons did not. Bowie was one of the first musical artists to see that the digital revolution would change forever the way that culture is experienced and understood. In a BBC interview in 1999 he told a sceptical Jeremy Paxman that the internet had replaced rock music as the flag-bearer of ‘being subversive, rebellious, chaotic and nihilistic’ (Newsnight, BBC2, 3 Dec 1999) and (citing ‘Rave’ dance culture) that it had fragmented the tribal youth cultures of his era. He concluded: ‘the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad … is exhilarating and terrifying … Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here!’ (ibid.). BowieNet, his internet service provider with exclusive content for subscribers, was active between 1998 and 2006.
Bowie also found a new way to earn money. Long before the internet destroyed the music industry’s business model, record companies had stolen songwriters’ earnings with bad contracts. Bowie had sacked managers and been embroiled in costly litigation as a result. After dancing with bankruptcy and a lengthy legal battle to regain his creative assets, in 1997 he became the first musical artist to launch shares in his back catalogue. The ‘Bowie Bond’ generated £37.5 million, and by the time of his death Bowie was estimated to be worth over £120 million. Combining his enthusiasm for the internet and new business ventures, in 2000 he launched BowieBanc, an international online banking service that provided debit cards with his image on them.
Just when it seemed that Bowie might be content to curate and monetize historic achievements came the album Out of the Blue (2013). His first major work in a decade, it was critically acclaimed and became his first number one album since Black Tie, White Noise (1993), despite the fact that he was unable to tour, leaving the promotion to his ‘voice on Earth’ and long-time producer, Visconti.
Bowie was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in 2014, a fact he kept secret from all but his closest family and friends while throwing himself into an extraordinary death rattle of creativity that matched the achievements of his prime. He released his final (twenty-fifth) album, Blackstar, two days before his death at his home in Lafayette Street, Manhattan, New York, on 10 January 2016. Made with a team of jazz musicians and overshadowed by illness, it explored themes of mortality and faith, notably in the song ‘Lazarus’, which opened with the line ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’.
After a private cremation in New York, Bowie’s ashes were scattered ‘in accordance with Buddhist rituals’ on the island of Bali, Indonesia, a place of pilgrimage for disaffected Westerners since the 1960s. The midwife at his birth in Brixton had been a clairvoyant who declared: ‘This child has been on Earth before’ (Buckley, 11). Whether or not that was true, Bowie’s achievements ensured that his reputation lived on.
Bowie sold over 140 million records in a musical career that spanned half a century. By the time of his death, he had reshaped not only popular culture but also the very fabric of British society: the first entertainer to volunteer that he was bisexual, he became the figurehead of a reformation of masculinity that gradually changed relationships between people of all sexualities.
Some regarded Bowie’s painful, premature death as one of his greatest performances, as if he were a saviour of sorts. One commentator wrote: ‘he was an almost religious figure to so many of us’ (Times, 11 Jan 2016). The deification of pop stars was a symptom of a secular age. That point was made by John Lennon in his widely misunderstood, ironic declaration of 1966 that ‘We’re bigger than Jesus now’. The deification of David Bowie obscured the fact that he spent most of his career searching for a spiritual dimension to life.
When told that his perpetual metamorphosis was the mark of a genius, Bowie liked to reply that it was ‘more a case of attention deficit disorder’ (Times, 11 Jan 2016) and his inability to focus on anything for very long. One of his strengths was that he combined a relentlessly inventive spirit with a modest self-awareness that was absent in some of his followers. It is possible to exaggerate his influence, and Anglocentric music journalists usually did. There were many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where he acquired fans but where his music, style, and ideas gained little traction even with the advent of the internet. Few even noticed his passing in some parts of the world. However, it is true to say that Bowie had more influence on Britain, continental Europe, and North America than all but a handful of other musical artists of the twentieth century. Transcending the intellectual and social limitations of a lower-class English upbringing (without ever mocking it), he spent his whole life creatively transgressing boundaries of class, gender, race, and nationality. In doing so, he helped to reconstitute the way that British life and culture were seen, experienced, and understood by millions of people. For that reason alone, he deserved the epithet ‘the Picasso of Pop’.
- A. Bowie, Backstage passes: life on the wild side with David Bowie (1993)
- E. Thomson, The Bowie companion (1993)
- C. Sandford, Bowie: loving the alien (1997)
- D. Buckley, Strange fascination: David Bowie, the definitive story (1999)
- N. Pegg, The complete David Bowie (2000)
- D. Buckley, David Bowie: the complete guide to his music (2004)
- J. E. Perone, The words and music of David Bowie (2007)
- M. Spitz, Bowie: a biography (2009)
- P. Trynka, Starman: David Bowie (2011)
- D. Cann, Any day now: David Bowie, the London years, 1947–74 (2011)
- P. Doggett, The man who sold the world: David Bowie and the 1970s (2011)
- R. Weight, MOD! A very British style (2013)
- S. Egan, Bowie on Bowie (2015)
- M. Finnigan, Psychedelic suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab (2016)
- The Times (12 Jan 2016); (18 Jan 2016)
- Daily Telegraph (12 Jan 2016); (19 Jan 2016)
- The Guardian (12 Jan 2016); (14 Jan 2016)
- The Independent (12 Jan 2016)
- New York Times (12 Jan 2016)
- WW (2016)
- m. cert. (1970)
- J. Cochran, mural, 2013, Tunstall Road, Brixton, London
- M. Ochs, photograph, 1976, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images [see illus.]
- M. Rock, colour print, 1972, NPG
- Lord Snowdon, gelatin silver print, 1978, NPG
- S. Finer, oils, 1994, NPG
- S. Klein, colour print, 2003, NPG
- D. Wedgbury, resin print, 1966, NPG
- D. Bebbington, three lambda prints, 1969, NPG
- D. Bebbington, colour print, 1969, NPG
- B. Duffy, Ultrachrome print, 1973, NPG
- T. O’Neill, two bromide prints, 1974, NPG
- T. ONeill, bromide print, with Elizabeth Taylor, 1975, NPG
- T. McGee, colour print, 1990, NPG
- D. Moore, colour print, 1992, NPG
- F. Greer, bromide print, 2001, NPG
- M. Heath, pen and ink cartoon, ‘National Portrait Gallery Extension’, 2000, NPG
- Essex Music Ltd, halftone reproduction, 1975, NPG
- R. Mayne, photograph, 1986, Roger Mayne Archive/Mary Evans Picture Library
- obituary photographs