David Bowie: Visionary singer and songwriter who for five decades exerted a huge influence on pop and rock

Major Tom was the first of a sequence of identities adopted by Bowie that could be seen as a long journey to discover his true self

Chris Salewicz
Monday 11 January 2016 19:10
On his 69th birthday, Blackstar, a resolutely experimental new album, appeared
On his 69th birthday, Blackstar, a resolutely experimental new album, appeared

Today it is hard to conceive of the colossal impact made in 1972 by David Bowie in his guise of Ziggy Stardust. The fan hysteria generated by this futuristic character with his prophecies of Armaggedon, and the tour that promoted the album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, was on a scale unseen since Beatlemania almost 10 years previously. By July 1973 Bowie had five albums in the British Top 40, three of them in the Top 15.

Bowie’s rise to a kind of immediate superstardom was so instant that it seemed as though this was precisely the kind of new rock’n’roll star, simultaneously androgynous and asexual, that unconsciously had been eagerly anticipated. “The man is a stone genius,” effused New York’s Village Voice, in the parlance of the times, “and for those who have been waiting for a new Dylan, Bowie fits the bill. He is a prophet, a poet – and a vaudevillian. Like Dylan, his breadth of vision and sheer talent could also exercise a profound effect on a generation’s attitudes.’

Always useful in capturing a previously unknown base audience, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona also spearheaded a new rock’n’roll movement, Glam Rock. Although he didn’t publicly admit to bisexuality until 1974, it hardly came as a surprise: he had promoted his 1971 album The Man Who Sold The World while wearing a dress; and despite the presence of his wife Angie was widely believed to have had affairs with both Marc Bolan and Mick Jagger – which turned out to be true. The trouble with David Bowie, however, was that it was hard to separate any of his activities from a scent of calculation that seeped into all he did: ultimately there was always something cold at the core of even his greatest work.

Yet who could possibly have anticipated the success that came with Ziggy Stardust and its follow-up Aladdin Sane (a conscious play on words, of course) four years previously when he enjoyed his first chart entry – which seemed to characterise him as a one-hit-wonder – with the enigmatic Space Oddity? Yet if you listened to the words of that first Bowie hit, it was revealed as an extraordinary piece of work, hardly a song at all: the saga of Major Tom floating out of control in his space capsule above earth.

The work revealed Bowie’s art school background, as well as a psyche born out of a family with a considerable history of mental health problems; after being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Terry, his half-brother, had been institutionalised (early in 1985 Terry committed suicide), and three aunts were similarly troubled: Bowie always feared that such sickness might emerge within him. Major Tom was merely the first of a sequence of identities adopted by Bowie that could be seen as a long journey to discover his true self.

Born in Stansfield Road, Brixton, in January 1947, to Haywood and Margaret Jones, David Jones had moved with his family by the time he was six to the tree-lined streets of Bromley; his father worked as public relations officer for the Dr Barnardo’s childrens’ homes. He left Bromley Technical College with only one O-level, in art. But he displayed an early interest in aliens, editing a UFO magazine. Later he claimed to have seen squadrons of alien craft: “They came over so regularly that we used to time them.” (In 1976 he starred in Nicholas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth, a role for which this other-wordly artist seemed to have been typecast; subsequent appearances, in films such as The Hunger and Just a Gigolo, and even including a well-received part in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, were less satisfactory: he never seemed to evade appearing a mere cipher.)

Bowie in 1976, in a publicity shot for his Station to Station tour

An archetypal mod with a keen dress sense, he formed a group, Davy Jones and the Lower Third (there was also Davie Jones and the King Bees, and a stint with the Manish Boys); but he changed his surname to Bowie – after the legendary American frontiersman Jim Bowie – following the success of the Monkees, and their singer Davy Jones, in 1966. The late ‘60s saw Bowie working his apprenticeship as a rock musician and displaying early signs that he was casting around for an identity: his “Laughing Gnome” single betrayed his fondness for Anthony Newley. He dabbled in multi-media, running an arts lab in Beckenham, and studied dance and mime with Lindsay Kemp; he also became a Buddhist, helping establish the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland.

But the album The Man Who Sold The World, released in 1971, proved a portent. Bowie appeared on the sleeve resplendent in a dress, and several songs on the record dealt explicitly with the theme of madness. He signed a management deal with a New York music business lawyer Tony De Fries to give De Fries 50 per cent of his earnings for 10 years: in exchange, De Fries brought his overwhelming clout to the negotiation table, insisting that his client’s new label, RCA, market him as a star from the moment the contract was signed. In so doing De Fries cleverly inserted Bowie as a saviour figure in the picture of pop disarray presented by the vacuum created by the break-up of the Beatles at the beginning of the decade.

Indications of what was to come were clear from the moment Hunky Dory was released in December 1971. Not only did it include his first US hit, “Changes”, a song called “Oh You Pretty Things” that he had written as a hit song for Peter Noone, and a tribute to Andy Warhol, into whose circle Bowie had been swept, but it brought with it the visual look that Bowie would extend into his Ziggy Stardust character the following year.

By the time Aladdin Sane, the Ziggy Stardust follow-up, was released in April 1973, Bowie’s stardom was cemented internationally. Inspired by visions gained on an American tour, Aladdin Sane was a compulsive, almost neurotic record that included addictive songs like “Panic In Detroit”, “Cracked Actor”, “Drive-in Saturday” and “Jean Genie”. But Bowie told friends that the title track referred to his brother Terry as well as, it seemed, to fears for his own sanity. “Aladdin Sane was an extension of Ziggy on the one hand,” he said. “On the other, it was a more subjective thing: this kind of schizophrenia that I was going through.’

After frenetically touring the US, Japan and Britain, the Aladdin Sane tour concluded with two dates at Hammersmith Odeon on 2 and 3 July 1973. Bowie, driven to such a state of nervous exhaustion that he believed Mick Jagger intended to shoot him on the Odeon stage (for an alleged affair with Bianca Jagger), stunned his audience at the end of the second show when he declared: “This show will stay the longest in our memories, not just because it is the end of the tour, but because it is the last show we’ll ever do.”

Bowie’s next records, Pin Ups, an album of covers, and the gloomy Diamond Dogs, based on an idea he had had for a musical of George Orwell’s 1984, showed a man marking time, seemingly in a period of creative transition. Before he would emerge from this, however, Bowie would be forced to face his darkest side. Paradoxically, this coincided with a creative upsurge, the Young Americans LP, released in March 1975, whose title was a clear attempt at finally translating the legend he enjoyed in the US into record sales, a plan that succeeded.

The record, however, had been recorded in a blizzard of cocaine, which Bowie – always a control freak – used not for rock’n’roll fun but to focus his working hours. The epic US tour that promoted the album was similarly fuelled by the drug, and Cracked Actor, a BBC documentary filmed during that period – when he also starred in The Man Who Fell To Earth – depict a man firmly in the grip of cocaine psychosis: edgy, wide-eyed, paranoid, he appears close to the madness he had long feared would be his fate.

In May 1976, by which time Station To Station, his next album, was in the charts, Bowie returned to Britain. Arriving in London by train at Victoria station, he gave what appeared to be a fascist salute. It would have been easier to explain this away as an accident had he not previously given an interview to a Swedish newspaper in which he announced, “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. I mean, fascist in its true sense, not Nazi. After all, fascism is really nationalism. In a sense, it is a very pure form of communism.”

Unsurprisingly Bowie was widely castigated for these remarks, and following the Station To Station tour he disappeared to live in Berlin. Perhaps Bowie was trying to confront himself, for it was there that he weaned himself off drugs, and worked with Brian Eno (“He was in a very bad state indeed,” Eno told me.)

A trio of experimental albums followed – Low, Heroes and Lodger. Although they sold well in Britain, in the US they often baffled his fans. By the end of the 1970s it seemed that Bowie’s period of commercial dominance was over. In 1980 he divorced Angie, gaining custody of their son Zowie, who sensibly renamed himself Joey (as Duncan Jones he would become an award-winning film director). By now he was living in Switzerland, enjoying both the clean air and the country’s tax benefits.

Ever the chameleon, however, David Bowie reinvented himself once more for the American market in July 1980, playing the part of John Merrick, a victim of neurofibromatosis who became more widely known as The Elephant Man. The play was a Broadway sensation. But the murder of his friend John Lennon in New York at the end of the year traumatised Bowie, and he fled back to Switzerland.

In 1983, working with Nile Rodgers, the guitarist with Chic David Bowie released Let’s Dance, an avowedly commercial record, his first new album in four years. The title track was a worldwide No 1, and Bowie toured the globe. Again, his star was in the ascendant. But his subsequent work during the 1980s was patchy, reaching its nadir with Tin Machine, in which he tried unconvincingly to integrate himself into a raucous metal group.

If he had seemed adrift in the 1980s, he seemed even more so during the ‘90s. He did, however, achieve a measure of inner peace with his marriage in 1992 to the model Iman Abdulmajid, with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria Zahra, in 2000.

Most of his activities seemed peripheral, as though he was catching up on those parts of life that the drive for superstardom had left unfulfilled. Much of this revolved around the world of painting, with Bowie exhibiting his own work to mixed, but not dismissive, reviews. In Julian Schnabel’s biopic of the late New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, he played Andy Warhol with uncanny accuracy. And he was invited to become part of the British board of Modern Painters. Bowie certainly could have been accused of taking himself rather too seriously: but as though to disprove this, he participated with the writer Paul Auster in an art world hoax, the celebration of a “painter” the pair of them had scammed up.

Bowie seemed to become obsessed with the internet, as though he was inspired by its possibilities of internationalism. He moved again to live in New York for much of the time, most of his interests in this era seeming to become fiscal. Finally acquiring the rights to his back catalogue of recordings, he sold them online; and – no doubt relying on the loyalty of his fans – he shrewdly turned himself into a public company, by allowing them to invest against future royalties from his extensive back catalogue. This went a long way to assisting him in amassing an estimated fortune of $500m.

Inevitably, however, this led to questions about his remaining relevance. Once again, however, Bowie confronted his critics by returning to the field of his best endeavours. After a stunning performance at the 2002 Meltdown series at London’s Royal Festival Hall, he released the aptly titled Reality, his best album for years, in September 2003.

On a world tour to promote it, however, he suffered in July 2004 from what at first he believed to be a trapped nerve in his shoulder while onstage at a concert in Scheesel, northern Germany. He immediately underwent emergency heart surgery to clear a blocked artery.

Then he effectively disappeared from sight. By now he was living in New York and Paris, where there were whispers of his impending death. Bowie had been suffering from heart problems, it transpired.

As though he had in fact passed away, a respectful silence descended around him. Confounding this, on 8 March 2013 a new Bowie album suddenly appeared, to massive acclaim. Sessions for The Next Day had been taking place over a two-year period, Bowie working with producer Tony Visconti, who had helmed much of his greatest work. Visconti characterised The Next Day as “essentially a rock album”.

Bowie had always been astute at multi-media self-promotion: two weeks after the record’s release came David Bowie Is at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, an assiduously detailed mounting of his archive as a biographical piece. The event, which ran until August 2013, was an art-world triumph. Seen by 314,000 visitors in London then transformed into an international touring exhibition, David Bowie Is has now had more than a million attendees.

Bowie died of cancer. Two days earlier, on his 69th birthday, Blackstar, a resolutely experimental new album, appeared. There were seven songs: one of them, “Lazarus”, contained the poignant line, “Look up here: I’m in heaven”.

David Robert Jones (David Bowie), musician, singer, songwriter, actor and artist: born Brixton, London 8 January 1947; married 1970 Angie Barnett (divorced 1980; one son), 1992 Iman (one daughter); died 10 January 2016.

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