David Bowie dies at 69;
mesmerizing performer and restless innovator
Rock musician David Bowie died Jan. 10, after a battle with cancer.
By Tara Bahrampour January 11 at 2:13 PM
David Bowie, the self-described “tasteful thief” who appropriated from and
influenced glam rock, soul, disco, new wave, punk rock and haute couture, and
whose edgy, androgynous alter egos invited fans to explore their own dark
places, died Jan. 10, two days after his 69th birthday.
The cause was cancer, his family said on official Bowie social media accounts.
Relatives also confirmed the news but did not disclose where he died. He had
recently been collaborating on an off-Broadway musical, “Lazarus,” a sequel to
his starring role in the 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” And days
earlier, he had released his latest studio album, “Blackstar,” backed by a small
jazz group. It was hailed as being as boldly experimental as anything else in
his long career.
With his sylphlike body, chalk-white skin, jagged teeth and eyes that appeared
to be two different colors, Mr. Bowie combined sexual energy with fluid dance
moves and a theatrical charisma that mesmerized male and female admirers alike.
Citing influences from Elvis Presley to Andy Warhol — not to mention the singer
Edith Piaf and writers William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet — Mr. Bowie was
trained in mime and fine arts and played saxophone, guitar, harmonica and piano.
A scavenger of musical and visual styles, he repackaged them in striking new
formats that were all his own, in turn lending his dramatic, gender-bending
aesthetic to later performers such as Prince and Lady Gaga.
With “a melodic sense that’s just well above anyone else in rock & roll,” the
singer Lou Reed once wrote, “David Bowie’s contribution to rock & roll has been
wit and sophistication.” His output between 1969 and 1983 made up “one of the
longest creative streaks in rock history,” according to Rolling Stone magazine.
By the height of his fame in the early 1980s, Mr. Bowie had enacted his own
death repeatedly, in the form of characters and ensembles he would create,
inhabit and then discard. “My policy has been that as soon as a system or
process works, it’s out of date,” he said in a 1977 interview. “I move on to
The practice, which extended to friendships and professional partnerships, could
be jarring. Members of the Spiders From Mars, his band during his glitter-rock
Ziggy Stardust years, learned that they were being fired when Mr. Bowie
announced it onstage at the end of a 1973 tour.
To fans as well, Mr. Bowie’s rapid transitions could feel like whiplash. In the
space of half a decade he was a curly-haired folk singer; a Lauren Bacall
look-alike in an evening gown; a vampiric creature with a red mullet, shaved
eyebrows and a skintight, multicolored bodysuit; and a coked-up dandy in a
tailored suit, suspenders, fedora and cane.
Some of those looks had alter egos associated with them, such as Ziggy Stardust,
a fictional rock star who is ultimately ripped to pieces by his fans, or the
Thin White Duke, a spectral, disaffected figure dressed impeccably in
cabaret-style evening wear who throws “darts in lovers’ eyes.”
In his iconic 1971 song “Changes,” he hinted at how he experienced the
transitions: “Every time I thought I’d got it made/It seemed the taste was not
so sweet/So I turned myself to face me/But I’ve never caught a glimpse/Of how
the others must see the faker/I’m much too fast to take that test/ Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
. . . ”
As much curator as inventor, Mr. Bowie lifted melodic motifs from blues, funk
and standards and presented them in such a way that many fans had no idea that
the catchy “Starman” was a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or that the
melancholy “Life on Mars” was “My Way” in disguise. Other musical borrowings
were more obvious, such as the opening bass line of “The Jean Genie,” taken from
“I’m a Man,” or the “On Broadway” reference at the end of the title track of the
album “Aladdin Sane.”
Stardom gave Mr. Bowie his pick of talent. He hand-selected virtuoso session
players to help define each musical phase: Mick Ronson’s guitar solos, Mike
Garson’s dissonant piano improv, Carlos Alomar’s funky rhythms, and the techno
sounds of guitarists Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp that permeated his work in
the late ’70s and set the stage for the European electronica of the 1980s.
Mr. Bowie’s voice was similarly labile — gliding between ragged cackle and
haunting croon as he sang about decaying cities and alienated rock stars. Fellow
musicians marveled at his ability to seduce a crowd with a look or a gesture.
“He’s the total artist,” said Nicolas Godin of the duo Air. “The look, the
voice, the talent to compose, the stage presence. The beauty. Nobody is like
that anymore. Everybody is reachable; he was unreachable.”
David Robert Jones was born on Jan. 8, 1947, in Brixton, a working-class south
London neighborhood scarred by World War II bomb blasts.
His father, a publicist for a children’s charity, was a failed music hall
impresario; his mother was a former waitress. An older half-brother, Terry, was
diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized when Mr. Bowie was a young
man. For many years the rock star worried about his own mental health, and the
theme of insanity runs through his early songs.
“I used to wonder about my eccentricities, my wanting to explore and put myself
in dangerous situations, psychically,” he told Esquire magazine in 1993. “I was
scared stiff that I was mad, that the reason I was getting away with it was that
I was an artist, so people never knew I was totally bonkers.”
His family moved to the middle-class suburb of Bromley, where young David
attended Bromley Technical High School and found a mentor in art teacher Owen
Frampton, father of the future pop star Peter. At 14, in a fight with a friend
over a girl, David was punched in the eye, resulting in a permanently dilated
left pupil that would add to the otherworldly appearance he would later
After a few lessons on a plastic saxophone purchased on a payment plan, he began
playing in local bands, finding that he liked singing and the female adulation
that came with it. To avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees, he renamed
himself after the 19th-century American frontiersman and the hunting knife
associated with him.
Fascinated by musical theater, Mr. Bowie joined a mime troupe led by the dancer
(and, briefly, his lover) Lindsay Kemp, who taught him the extravagant, stylized
movements he would later bring into his own stage performances.
Although his first two albums received little notice, in 1969 Mr. Bowie had his
first hit single with “Space Oddity,” a song about a disaffected astronaut,
Major Tom, who decides to remain “sitting in a tin can, far above the world,”
rather than return to life on Earth. Released five days before the Apollo 11
launch, it reached No. 5 in Britain.
That year he also met Angela Barnett, with whom he would enter into a 10-year
marriage and have a son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, born in 1971. A shrewd
manager of her husband’s early career, Barnett tolerated his blatant
philandering and gave him the spiky-on-top, long-in-the-back haircut that would
become his signature look through the early 1970s.
The hairdo — and the accompanying glittery bodysuits, platform boots and face
paint — was intended as a statement against the peace-and-love, denim-clad
hippie imagery dominating rock culture at the time. Mr. Bowie instead presented
fans with cut-and-paste lyrics about the end of the world, and shocked them by
dropping to his knees to perform mock fellatio on Ronson’s electric guitar or
telling an interviewer he was bisexual (though he would later say that was just
an experimental phase).
“We wanted to manufacture a new kind of vocabulary,” Mr. Bowie told NPR's Terry
Gross in 2003. “And so the so-called gender-bending, the picking up of maybe
aspects of the avant garde and aspects of, for me personally, of things like the
Kabuki theater in Japan and German expressionist movies, and poetry by
Baudelaire . . . it was a pudding of new ideas, and we were terribly excited,
and I think we took it on our shoulders the idea that we were creating the 21st
century in 1971.”
His ever-changing, outrageous personae also served to mask the painful shyness
and insecurity of his younger years.
“I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage,” he told Musician
magazine in 1983. Referring to the various personae, he said: “I decided to do
them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of
going onstage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own
complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me!
Rather than be me — which must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy
in, or Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do.”
Actor and innovator
Along with his own music, he promoted the careers of lesser-known musicians such
as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Mott the Hoople, whose signature hit, “All the Young
Dudes,” was written by Mr. Bowie. In 1974, he moved to Los Angeles, where the
hyped-up, drugged-out music scene — the “Fame” and “Fascination” immortalized on
his album “Young Americans” — took a toll. Extensive cocaine use made him
jittery and paranoid, even as it enabled him to be creatively prolific.
Seeking calm and anonymity, Mr. Bowie spent much of the late 1970s in West
Berlin, where in collaboration with Brian Eno he produced three albums that
experimented with ambient sound and presaged the synthesizer-heavy music of the
Returning to live in New York City, he began expanding his range as an actor.
Having starred in the Nicolas Roeg film “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in 1980 he
played the lead in a stage production of “The Elephant Man,” for which Variety
praised his “charismatic personality . . . suggesting springs of passion beneath
the severe physical handicaps of the character.”
In both roles he played sensitive freaks misunderstood by the society around
them, a theme that had also permeated much of his music. He also starred in
“Just a Gigolo” with Marlene Dietrich (1978), in the Tony Scott vampire film
“The Hunger” with Catherine Deneuve (1983) and as a rebellious prisoner of war
in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (also 1983).
Mr. Bowie’s commercial musical pinnacle also came in 1983, with the blockbuster
album “Let’s Dance.” It blasted him into international superstardom, though
critics complained that it lacked the depth of his earlier work. Its unexpected
success threw Mr. Bowie into a creative tailspin. Having planned to follow it
with more esoteric material, he instead tried to duplicate the “Let’s Dance”
success with albums that were critical flops.
“I suddenly felt very apart from my audience,” he told Live magazine in 1997.
“And it was depressing, because I didn’t know what they wanted.”
Mr. Bowie regularly released albums through the 1980s and 1990s, although none
approached the success of his previous output. But he continued to innovate, in
1996 becoming the first musician of his stature to release a song, “Telling
Lies,” exclusively via the Internet. He caused a sensation when he was the first
to sell asset-backed bonds, known in his case as “Bowie bonds” and acquired by
Prudential, tied to the royalties on his back catalogue.
By the eve of the century he had once aspired to create, Mr. Bowie seemed to be
finally settling down. He fell in love — a condition his younger self had
pooh-poohed — with the model Iman Abdulmajid, whom he married in 1992 and with
whom he had a daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, in 2000.
A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed immediately.
After suffering a heart attack backstage during a tour in 2004, he stopped
producing albums or touring for nearly a decade, devoting himself to family
life. He even got his vulpine teeth capped, to the disappointment of some fans.
But in 2013, the same year an elaborate retrospective of his visual legacy began
touring the world, the 66-year-old Mr. Bowie released a new album, recorded in
secret, called “The Next Day.” His first album in a decade, it was praised by
critics, who called it innovative even as it harked back to his early music.
That Mr. Bowie was still reinventing himself in his seventh decade could not
have surprised those who knew him. “David’s a real living Renaissance figure,”
Roeg told Time magazine in 1983. “That’s what makes him spectacular. He goes
away and re-emerges bigger than before. He doesn’t have a fashion, he’s just
constantly expanding. It’s the world that has to stop occasionally and say, ‘My
God, he’s still going on.’ ”