The Master of reinvention.
Got your mother in a whirl, cause she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl', these are just some of the lyrics that helped inspire a generation of outsiders, and let them know that it was ok to push boundaries, explore and be non-conformist. Their author David Bowie left the world in mourning last year with the tragic news that at a relatively young 69, he had succumbed to his 18 month battle with cancer. More than a year on he's still irreplaceable and very much missed. At the time, there was a collective cry of disbelief that such an icon could leave us, and in part, this was because we didn't know he was ill. His malady was a secret, and though many of us had never met him, to a significant number, he was an incredible artist, a star-man that would always be there.
Ask people to name their first image of him, and it will undoubtedly be Ziggy Stardust the alien rock star who fell to earth. It was 1972 when Ziggy landed, with short, flame red hair, he was androgynous and rebellious, the complete antithesis to the long-haired folk and rock idols that saturated music of the time. Television had been a barren black and white landscape up until that point. Ziggy exploded onto the screens just as the colour revolution aired and with it, his chroma-intense ensembles bought an other-worldly image, like nothing ever seen. England was still in recession, the future was bleak, and London was struggling from the repercussions of world war 2. It was as if Ziggy was an intergalactic creature sent to save them.
Ziggy, the bi-sexual interplanetary rock star, would not only emerge from and transform Bowie to stratospheric heights, but he would also take him to the depths of addiction and cause him to question everything for which he had ever strived. The alien and the star almost merged into one and pushed the man to his limits. While Ziggy's rise led the artist to examine his future, his fall led Bowie to emerge as the master of reinvention.
Rewind 20 years and you will find that our interplanetary Messiah developed from rather more humble beginnings. Born David Jones in London's Brixton, who could have foreseen the formidable talent that he was to become. Perhaps the tell-tale signs were already there, from a young age Bowie would demonstrate the steely determination that helped him bounce back though many initial music rejections. Early on, he was noted as much a gifted and determined pupil as he was a skilled fighter. As for that distinctive ocular trait, a defining altercation would result in a permanently dilated pupil, leaving his eyes to appear to have two different colours. Bowie would later look upon this as a beneficial affliction and stay great friends with the perpetrator.
With the introduction to the likes of Kerouac and Coltrane, his brother Terry opened Bowie's eyes to a journey of exploration far from his Brixtonian working class roots. Add to this the first taste of Presley and Berry by his father, and the passionate reaction to them by his musically apathetic cousin and his appetite was whetted. Bowie had witnessed the power that music could bestow upon its listeners and he wanted to harness it.
Inspired by the artistic versatility of people like Anthony Newly, Bowie was not one to be constricted by one genre. Instead, he chose to explore, theatre, art, choreography and music. It was during this time in the late 60's under the tutelage of dancer Lyndsay Kemp that Bowie's appetite for image and character were inspired. Together they toured the UK where Bowie was introduced to Kabuki theatre, mime and other inspirational characters, performers and aesthetics. Along the way, he changed his name from David Jones to Bowie, to disassociate himself from the artist that was ‘a believer', the Monkee's Davy Jones. He adopted the name Bowie (after the hunting knife) which even recently, he admitted in an interview; he didn't know how to pronounce.
The timely release of Space Oddity five days ahead of the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, garnered some recognition. Based around Kubrick's cinematic 2001 and a pivotal breakup, came the idea of Major Tom, a character that travelled to space and cut-off all communication with earth. The single placed in the top five of the UK charts. But it would be a few more years before Bowie's most famous space traveller would manifest and although the single gave Bowie his first glimpse of stratospheric heights, it would take a few more attempts to capture the media's full attention.
To promote his third album ‘The Man who sold the world' he experimented with androgyny. Reclining in a dress across the cover, an image no 70's rock fan would associate with, he caused Rolling Stone's John Mendelsohn to describe him as "ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall". Exploring themes around societal outcasts, the title track itself examined self-exploration and discovery and this he did with conviction during the U.S. tour for the album. In New York, he was introduced to a world that would open his eyes and forever change his outlook. Andy Warhol's Factory and the counter-culture that surrounded it, fascinated and inspired him. The transsexuals, the drag queens, the misfits and the exhibitionists were the antipode to the monotone rock scene of the day and its clones with their long hair and blue jeans. Two of Warhol's subjects, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were influential to Bowie's musical progression; their cutting-edge pre-punk rock sounds would filter into his subconscious, stimulus for the next metamorphosis.
Back in the UK, the years of theatre, musical experimentation and his New York influences would generate a misfit of Bowie's invention, Ziggy Stardust. Building an elaborate story around his character and announcing that he was gay before his emergence on stage, this was not just an album release, but a total immersion performance piece in which the audience was invited to believe.
Ziggy's appearance on Top of the Pops with Star-man and his Morse-code guitar, catapulted Bowie into the collective imagination. He appealed to a generation too young for the 60's, that was ready for exploitation, he pointed at the camera, and each of them thought he was talking to them. Despite the protestations of their parents at his outrageous, sexuality provocative looks, he made an impression and drew a line between the idealistic 60's and the new generation. He liberated the underdogs and those with differing sexual orientations. The UK in the early 70s was not a place to be overly demonstrative about one's preferences, but Ziggy arrived and paved the way.
Ultimately, he would kill off this extra-terrestrial creation for fear of total convergence with his psyche. He had the courage to turn his back on Ziggy Stardust, the persona that had made him famous, rejecting proven success and looking forward to an uncertain future. This assuredness was due to the suffocation he felt at the lack of distinction between real man and star-man. It was also a component of his personality, striving to move forward, shunning boredom, questioning and exploring. It was this talent for reinvention, along with his developing ability as a writer, performer and producer that would contribute to his longevity as an artist.
During the excesses of the US tour, Bowie proved his copious talent for songwriting. Penning tracks in limos and on buses, his party hard, work hard ethics produced iconic tracks like the Jean Genie and The Prettiest Star. The release of the album Aladdin Sane in Feb 1973, with a tougher rock sound than its predecessor, went straight to the top of UK charts, the title track was his first number one. The album explored, along with rock, styles of avant-garde jazz piano and showed Bowie's diversity and appetite for experimentation. This album, with its word-play appellation, was accompanied by another persona and while Aladdin Sane and Ziggy would look similar, a lightning flash would divide them. Painted down Aladdin's face the bolt represented a duality of mind. Bowie would later describe the album as "Ziggy goes to America", where he discovered the glamour, the excesses but also the horror that lay beneath. On tour he had an exhaustive program of costume changes, to reflect the different facets of Aladdin's personality.
But it is a cliche to focus solely on the groundbreaking, iconic characters that Bowie created. Not only was he a master chameleon he was also a prolific writer and producer; contributing to some of the most renowned albums for artists such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Transformer would be Lou's most successful solo album, and Iggy and the Stooges Raw Power is considered hugely influential to the punk rock movement. While Iggy and Lou inspired Bowie for the sounds and imagery that would contribute to Ziggy, he would ultimately return to them and help to catapult them to fame in the UK and beyond. The consummate, artist, gentleman and friend.
Another of his collaborations resulted in a song with arguably the most nonpareil and distinct bass-lines in rock history, Queen's 1981 hit, ‘Under Pressure'. The creator of that famous riff is disputed, but some band members recall that it was Bowie's alterations that made it so unique. Brian May said in an interview in Mojo magazine, 2008, "it's a significant song because of David and his lyrics". So significant, that it is one of Queen's top charting tracks.
A song of his own resulting from another collaboration was the discord-inflected, Fame. Starting as a cover, it developed further after a jam session in New York with John Lennon. The track found a place in the ‘plastic soul' genre of Bowie's invention on the album Young Americans. In a familiar theme, it takes a reflective look at the attainment of fame, and its darker more deplorable side. Though the subject matter may have been lamentable, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included it in its top 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.
Bowie was undoubtedly a formidable musical talent, a workaholic and a professional, who had high expectations. One producer noted that he was unique, in that he could get a full vocal in one take and would aim to have the tracks for the entire piece in less than three. If his fellow musicians did not keep the standard, he was less than pleased.
His catalogue of tracks and characters would continue to mystify, inspire and shock; from his "Berlin Trilogy", a series of electro-infused albums with Brian Eno, to the elegant Thin White Duke and the commercial 80's yuppy, his music and style never stagnated. He relished the idea of irritating people who could not pin him down both musically or personally, and while the commercial successes of the 80's divided his fans and his critics, it ultimately provided him with the financial freedom to do what he did the best, experimentation. He went onto collaborate with bands such as Tin Machine and NIN, giving him a new-found credibility and new band of followers.
Switching media, he had notable film roles, in 1976 he took the lead in the cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth and later portrayed Andy Warhol in Basquiat. Other projects included an editing role for Modern Painter and a venture called 21 that strived to make art more accessible. His music videos were often trailblazing, from the solarised Ashes to Ashes (the most expensive video of its day) to the Lynch-esque Stars are out Tonight.
In later years he would go on to live in plain sight in Manhattan with his wife Iman and their 15-year-old daughter Alexandria, slipping out of the back door to his apartment he would wander amongst the locals often unnoticed. During projects, he would embrace the life of a house husband and help to raise her, from the start he was a thoroughly modern man. As broadcaster Jon Snow said on channel four news, "he was revolutionary for being in the spotlight but also in being able to keep out of it". He didn't give that many interviews or talk a lot about himself. He once retorted while playing to an elated, thousand plus crowd, ‘quick we better get off while it's going good', perhaps revealing a side that was less star-man and more unassuming Brixtonian, always questioning his right to such stratospheric fame.
Throughout his time in the spotlight, repeatedly asked about his private life and sexual preferences he remained evasive, whatever they were was not the point, the real point was that he liberated a generation, who would otherwise have found the era suffocating to their expression. He introduced them to Kabuki, art and sexual politics, he opened the eyes of working class kids and made them feel ok about being different.
He was both liberator and appropriator, described by some as the ultimate magpie; he openly admitted that he borrowed ubiquitously. Claiming he had no integrity to any particular music genre, he said that he was never trying to be himself on stage. Blurring the distinction between on-stage performer and off-stage artist, he voiced that he wanted to be "a one-man arts revolution'" and that he undoubtedly achieved. Through 40 years of groundbreaking creativity, he was always a pioneer, beginning with the definitive Ziggy moment, the look and sound would influence numerous subgenera. The Punk, New Wave and New Romantics that would follow, in each one, its sounds and its performers, is a little piece of Ziggy. There is no doubt that he influenced the likes of Madonna and Gaga with his chameleon ways. And while other glam rock artists gather dust on the shelves of faded record collections, Ziggy the alien saviour remains current and iconic. And Bowie the man, in all his incarnations leaves us one of the most original and diverse back-catalogues of musical accomplishment.
In his later years, through illness, he continued to be a fighter, this time for life and the chance to continue his work, displaying that same dogged determination and composure. In his last 18 months, he gave us a musical, Lazarus, the sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth. In death he left us a gift, his parting masterpiece, Blackstar, the words of its title track so poignant, he gave so much of himself but ultimately he ‘could not give everything away'.
Ultimately, he showed us that it was ok to be human, that even heroes are fallible, he claimed not to be one but to so many of us he was. He told us it was ok to fail and to get back up, to question, to be strange, not to give a damn what others think, to keep pushing boundaries and to aim for the sky. The star man may have left us, but he will never really be far; he is just too much a part of the fabric of people's lives.
A year and a half and still, planet earth is blue.
Photo credit introduction artwork Alladin Sane Artwork