Starman who fell to Earth
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
David Bowie 8 January 1947 – January 10 2016
Bowie was born David Robert Jones in Brixton South London on January 8, 1947. His interest in music was clear from an early age and he began playing the saxophone when he was 13. After leaving college at 16 he started working as a commercial artist. He also continued his music, playing in several bands and even leading one himself, call Davy Jones and the Lower Third. Although he had some singles, nothing set the world alight and he then decided to change his name for fear of being confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees. The name Bowie was inspired by the knife developed by the 19th century pioneer Jim Bowie.
He did produce a solo album with little success and then dropped out of music. For a short time in 1967 he escaped to a Buddhist Monastery in Scotland and even started his own mime troupe, feathers. It was to be an indicator for his experimental and far flung interests throughout his life. During this period away from music he met his wife, American born singer Angela Barnett. They divorced in 1980, after ten years of marriage, they had a son together, Duncan Jones, who was better known by his nickname “Zowie”, and now better known as a film director.
In 1969, Bowie returned to the music world, (partly to fund his new arts venture in Beckenham) signed a full time deal and that summer released the single “Space Oddity”. Bowie said the idea came to him whilst stoned watching Kubirck’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The song was immediately popular and became firmly entrenched in the public imagination as the BBC used it repeatedly in their coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 1970 saw the release of the album “The Man who Sold The World” and 71 “Hunky Dory”. Monumentally successful albums that seared Bowie into the cultural consciousness. Then came Ziggy Stardust.
It is hard to understand the impact of the alter ego persona on music, culture and society. As Bowie felt he had to keep his fans and critics on their toes, he invented a concept that solidified him as a permanent superstar. With an absurd back story and wild costumes he put the 1960’s era to bed and pre-empted glam and then with little concern and to much shock, he announced the end of Ziggy Stardust mid concert in 1973, disbanding the band and continued on his path of reinvention and discovery.
He headed to Paris to record a covers album and even created a musical version of George Orwell’s 1984, although when the writer’s widow denied him the rights it became the album Diamond dogs (1974).
By the mid-seventies, with a couple more albums under his belt the reinvention was complete and with the album Young Americans in 75 he collaborated with John Lennon and had a young Luther Vandross doing backing vocals. Yet he also expanded his repertoire with critically acclaimed acting roles in film (the Man who fell to Earth in 1976) and on Broadway with the Elephant Man in 1980. By this time he was living in New York and also found time to release Scary Monsters which featured Ashes to Ashes. Between all of this he had taken Los Angeles by storm as the “Thin White Duke” with an American Soul sound, grown weary of the scene and then headed to Berlin to collaborate with Brian Eno, entering into the electro new wave scene. He even found time to narrate the Philadelphia Orchestra recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and starred along-side Marlene Dietrich in Just a Gigolo. His 1983 album Let’s Dance contained a slew of hits and it seemed that Bowie could do no wrong. He even returned to cinema in 1986 to star in the cult puppet feature classic The Labyrinth.
His cultural impact in German is not to be under estimated. His track Heroes was written during the period he lived in Berlin and was a song about two lovers meeting either side of the Berlin wall. In the Summer of 1987 he played a concert at the Brandenburg gate and Heroes featured on the set. Bowie recalled the emotive moment it became apparent that crowds had gathered on the other side of the wall and were singing along to the anthemic tune of separation. Many in Germany credit David Bowie and his music as one of the key factors in helping to build the confidence to overcome the oppressive state before the decade was out.
Over the next ten years Bowie drifted between acting and music with little commercial success. In 1993 he released the solo album Black Tie, White Noise as a wedding gift to his new Somalian supermodel wife but the public were not so enamoured. Curiously, the most successful project of the nineties was a financial bond issue in which he leveraged the rights to his back catalogue and raised $55 million. The rights to his music returned to him in 2007 after the bond issues had matured.
Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of Fame in 1996 and received a Lifetime achievement Grammy in 2006. He suffered a heart attack on stage ion Germany in 2004 but continued to work on collaborative projects.
His final album Blackstar was released on his birthday and just prior to his death. It was critically acclaimed as a dark and brooding piece, which given the deteriorating condition of his health was hardly a surprise. He had left a musical legacy of an astonishing 26 albums.
His death came as a shock to the music world and society at large. A man who had always been so enigmatic and other worldly had touched the hearts of millions with his work. A prodigious talent and a man who managed to span several eras and ages of popular music.