The chameleon of pop who reinvented himself endlessly
A genius of many talents and characters, Bowie changed music with a rare intelligence
Published 12/01/2016 | 07:00
David Bowie was a rock musician of rare originality and talent; he was also, variously, a producer, painter, film actor, art critic, the progenitor of bisexual chic, a family man and an astute multi-millionaire.
Endlessly manipulating his public identity, Bowie was once rumoured to be an alien from outer space. "I am an actor," he said. "My whole professional life is an act."
Although he drew heavily on other artists for his inspiration, he had a wealth of new ideas of his own and wrote some of the most quirky and poignant songs of the 1970s and 1980s: 'Space Oddity', 'Changes', 'Fame', 'Diamond Dogs', 'Young Americans' and 'Aladdin Sane'.
Jangling and melancholy, his music matched imagistic lyrics with his rich, British-accented singing style and tunes that owed as much to white opera as to black soul, and to the simple pop of the Beatles as to the drugged edginess of the Velvet Underground. He was frank about the synthetic quality of much of his work. "I'm really knocked out that people actually dance to my records," he said. "Let's be honest; my rhythm and blues are thoroughly plastic."
He had a protean personality to match. A supermodel before the era of supermodels, Bowie was eel-thin with the face of a starved child and the teeth of a pike. He certainly looked like a changeling or alien, and had an extraordinary left eye, green with a dilated pupil; and rumours, which he did not discourage, spread that it was a sign of his extraterrestrial origins. It was in fact an injury sustained in a playground scuffle in the days when he was plain David Jones from Bromley, south London.
In the early 1970s he played on the science fiction theme, creating the persona of Ziggy Stardust, a rock star from outer space whose music drove audiences to kill and himself to suicide. The character was a loose tribute to Vince Taylor, an early rock 'n' roll singer and friend of Bowie's who had gone mad. The album 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars' (1972) was accompanied by a stage show for which Bowie dyed his hair orange, painted his face white and donned a multicoloured jumpsuit while his backing group, The Spiders, dressed in gold lamé.
This was no more than glam rock, perhaps; but the weird aura around Bowie was boosted by his role as a marooned alien in Nicolas Roeg's film, 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' (1976). Even after he ditched science-fiction, his subsequent pronouncements continued to smack of other-worldliness.
In the mid-1970s, when he had metamorphosed into the Thin White Duke, a combination of Nietzschean superman and degenerate European aristocrat, Bowie offered his services to the nation. "There is no politician like me," he observed. "As I see it, I am the only alternative for premier in England. Britain would benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism."
Many of his lyrics, and thoughts, owed their composition to the "cut-up" techniques of the junkie poet William Burroughs. Another object of admiration was Andy Warhol, the doyen of the New York avant-garde, for whom he wrote a song:
Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol silver screen
Can't tell them apart at all.
Bowie had for many years a passionate interest in Warhol. He secured an introduction to him in 1971, when he visited the Factory, and played Warhol his tribute. Warhol was upset by the lines: "He'll think about paint and he'll think about glue/What a jolly boring thing to do" - and left the room, returning only to kneel and take a photograph of Bowie's yellow shoes. Bowie never again penetrated the inner circle.
Drugs made a significant contribution to his creative output. "I did nearly kill myself a number of times," recalled Bowie. "Once I blew my nose and half my brain fell out." In the late 1970s his cocaine habit was so bad that he took himself off to hide in Berlin. There he could be found in cafés, banging his head on the table and saying: "Please help me." The Thin White Duke was very lonely indeed.
Latterly, when he was, in the words of Noel Gallagher, "an old git", Bowie mellowed into an affable, discursive teetotaller. His consumption of cigarettes was vast, but his only other excess took the form of intellectual name-dropping and a liking for bewildering obfuscation. Talking about his work (from 1988) with his own rock group Tin Machine - a lurch into heavy guitar and pounding drums that coincided with the growth of "grunge" - he said: "That hard-lined Apollonian thing around me had broken down and I was cosmically disorganised."
Although he was latterly a happy man, the best of Bowie's music always had a cold, alienated quality with which the young identified. Despite his posing and horseplay, there was a great deal of genuine fear in his music, reflecting the strain of madness in his family and his shock at the suicide of his half-brother, Terry, who had schizophrenia and for whom he wrote the song 'Five Years'.
Bowie himself suggested that it was through invoking a multiplicity of personalities that he could stay one step ahead of madness; by being madder than mad, he would escape being himself, who was insane.
David Robert Jones was born at Brixton on January 8, 1947. In early interviews he played up the brutality of his upbringing - the rough streets "like Harlem", brawls, his drunken, gambling father and his "nutty" family who, he claimed, were "all illegitimate".
It was not as bad as that. When he was a child the family moved to suburban Bromley, and his upbringing was dull rather than dangerous. He studied commercial drawing at Bromley Technical College, but was taken with the lifestyle evoked in Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road' and resolved to drop out to "become a superman".
After toying with the idea of becoming a Buddhist monk - as a teenager he studied under Chime Rinpoche, one of the first Tibetan lamas to come to Britain - he set his heart on rock music, learnt the saxophone and put his first bands together: David (or Davie) Jones and the Lower Third, David Bowie and the Buzz. He also trained in mime under Lindsay Kemp, establishing a troupe called Feathers.
At the time he was living with his parents but he soon moved as a lodger into a flat owned by Mary Finnigan, a journalist, in Foxgrove Road, Beckenham. She introduced herself with: "I'm Mary. Would you like a cup of tea and some tincture of cannabis?" The two became lovers and set up an "arts lab" at the Three Tuns pub. According to her book 'Psychedelic Suburbia' (2016), their relationship ended after he began seeing (among others) Angela "Angie" Barnett, an American model whom he would later marry.
"Angela and I knew each other because we were both going out with the same man," he recalled. It was through Angie that he secured his first record deal. She cajoled another boyfriend who worked for Mercury records into signing up Bowie.
One of his early singles, released in 1967, was a humorous Anthony Newley pastiche called 'The Laughing Gnome', which was later a source of mild embarrassment to Bowie. His first No 1 was Space Oddity in 1969, a melancholy poem about an astronaut who decides to stay in orbit. It was popular with teenagers, many of whom were to remain fans of Bowie for life.
"On stage he is quite devastatingly beautiful," wrote an American critic at an early concert. "With his loofah hair and blue eyes, he pads around like every schoolgirl's wonder movie star. He smiles; you melt. He winks; you disintegrate."
His first album, 'David Bowie' (1967), was uncharacteristic and in the Anthony Newley vein of music-hall whimsy; it was the 1969 release, also called 'David Bowie' and soon retitled 'Space Oddity', which many enthusiasts considered the first "proper" Bowie album.
His next record, 'The Man Who Sold The World' (1971 in Britain), had a sleeve for its British version on which Bowie posed in woman's clothing in a parody of a Rossetti portrait. The reference was lost on the critics, who fixed on Bowie's ambiguous sexuality. "I said, 'fine'," he recalled. "I'll do anything to break me through."
Bowie's relatively few hit singles were tasters for his albums, which were in themselves only a part of whatever persona he was investigating at the time. This was quickly understood by a core of devoted fans, who collected each album and adopted each persona as they might have bought the clothes of a favourite designer.
After 'The Man Who Sold the World', Bowie produced the more tuneful 'Hunky Dory' (1971), which contained 'Changes', an enduring, catchy reflection on time and ageing, consistent themes in his work and appropriate for a decade as clapped-out as the 1970s. This was followed by 'Ziggy Stardust' in 1972, then, the next year, 'Aladdin Sane' (a pun on the madness he feared) and 'Pin Ups'.
On the cover of 'Diamond Dogs' (1974) Bowie appeared as half-man, half-whippet. The album was a vision of urban apocalypse and was promoted with an extravagant stage show with $200,000 of lighting effects.
For the stage show to accompany 'Station to Station' (1976), Bowie included a showing of Luis Bunuel's surrealist film 'Un Chien Andalou' and a taped performance of the German robot-rock band Kraftwerk.
In the latter half of the 1970s Bowie was all but destroyed by cocaine, but he found time for a peculiar appearance on Bing Crosby's 1977 Christmas show to perform a duet ('Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy') which became a huge hit.
He settled in Berlin towards the end of 1976, and from that period emerged three sombre, paranoid albums: 'Heroes', 'Low' (both 1977) and 'Lodger' (1979). 'Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps') the following year produced a British No 1 single (and groundbreaking pop video) in Ashes to Ashes. After that he pulled himself back from the brink and moved to Switzerland in 1981. There he learnt to ski and masterminded a comeback with 'Let's Dance' (1983), posing as a grim-faced yuppie-bopper.
The album sold six million copies. This depressed him, as did the success of the Serious Moonlight tour; he was expected to end his days as a disco diva. There were more No 1 singles, upbeat and poppy, during that decade: 'Under Pressure', with Queen, 'Let's Dance', and 'Dancing in the Streets' with Mick Jagger. With his financial future assured, he finally broke with his adolescent desire to be a rock-suicide and instead set off in new, perverse directions, "moving into areas I feel uncomfortable in", collaborating with the musician Brian Eno, employing new computer technology to "randomise" his writing, and spending more time painting and acting.
He had an exhibition of his Gauguin-esque paintings in London in 1995, and earned praise for his performances in such films as 'The Hunger', 'Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence' (both 1983) and 'Basquiat' (1996), in which he revenged himself on Andy Warhol, giving a squeaky, mincing performance as the artist.
In later years, although the gaps between albums and tours became longer, the appetite for musical experimentation was re-invigorated; adventurous albums such as 'Heathen' (2002), delightfully offbeat and with a characteristic smattering of baffling lyrics, showed that he was uninterested in the conservative late-career reputation-consolidation favoured by other rock grandees.
He released several accomplished singles during this period: 'Everyone Says Hi', from 'Heathen', ruefully contemplated his son's growing up, and (10 years later) 'Where Are We Now?' from the album 'The Next Day' (2013) - elegiac, witty and with an amusing accompanying video. Always curious about what other musicians were doing, in 2013 Bowie recorded guest vocals on the song 'Reflektor' by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, and for his final, genre-mixing album, 'Blackstar' (2016), he was accompanied by a New York jazz group he had discovered.
A major development in David Bowie's life was the priority he gave to his friendships. "I remember to phone them up," he said. With age he also stopped worrying about his identity and was satisfied that his interests were challenging and his appetites "sane ones".
A major factor in his happiness was his separation from Angie Bowie, whom he had married in 1970. Their wedding was immediately preceded by a "three-in-a-bed-romp"; and in her kiss-and-tell memoirs, 'Backstage Passes' (1993), Angie Bowie alleged that both of them had enjoyed a string of lovers of both sexes and that she had once discovered her husband in bed with Mick Jagger. They had an acrimonious divorce and it was said that they never spoke again.
After a bitter custody battle, Bowie won custody of his son, Zowie, whom he sent to Gordonstoun - where the boy changed his name to Joe; he is now the acclaimed film director Duncan Jones.
Bowie married secondly, in 1992, Iman Abdulmajid, a Somalian-born former model. In a telling acknowledgement of changed priorities, the wedding was celebrated with a few friends, and photographers from 'Hello!' magazine.
He is survived by his wife, their daughter Alexandria, and his son Duncan Jones.
David Bowie, born January 8 1947, died January 10 2016
(© Daily Telegraph, London)