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The merry dance on which David Bowie has led us throughout his life as a performer has ended with a final surprise. His death on Sunday followed an unpublicised attack of cancer. It coincided with the release of his new album Blackstar, a record whose creative vigour betrayed none of its maker’s hidden illness. Death always has the last word, but Bowie, true to form, has shaped its final utterance.
Timing has always been crucial to his artistry. Born in 1947, 12 years to the day after Elvis Presley’s birth, he grew up in Brixton, a working-class neighbourhood in south London, before moving as a child to the suburb of Bromley. Named David Jones, he was the only child of parents who, unconventionally for the era, were unmarried when he was born.
Undistinguished academically, he took up the saxophone at high school, receiving lessons from a jazz musician who remembered him as an unexceptional pupil. On leaving school at 16, he played sax with mod bands and moved towards developing the outlandish visual style for which he would become renowned.
Aged 17, he appeared on a BBC television current affairs programme as the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. He changed his name to David Bowie in 1966 to avoid confusion with The Monkees’ Davy Jones and released a series of singles, all ignored. In 1967 he released his self-titled debut album on the same day as The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper came out.
Bowie would be to the 1970s what The Beatles had been to the 1960s, the decade’s abiding spirit. But first he had to find his feet, immersing himself in other art forms. He studied dance and mime with the choreographer Lindsay Kemp and formed an experimental art group in 1969, the Beckenham Arts Lab. In order to finance it he released an album Man of Words/Man of Music, which contained his first hit, “Space Oddity”, a song used by the BBC to soundtrack its coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing that summer.
“Space Oddity” introduced the first of Bowie’s great stage personae, the astronaut Major Tom floating “in a most peculiar way” in outer space gazing down at the world. Not only did the song’s success persuade him to concentrate on music, the character of Major Tom also gave him a conceptual framework for making it.
As though looking down from a height, Bowie learnt to synthesise different elements of culture, finding startling points of contact between them. The ingredients were wide-ranging, reflective of his voracious intellect, from Japanese kabuki theatre to William Burroughs’ “cut-up” writing technique — all filtered through an exhibitionist sensibility that could turn obscure materials into the best kind of pop music, the sort that inspires not just adulation but also experimentation.
Teaming up with the guitarist Mick Ronson and bass player and producer Tony Visconti, Bowie began the 1970s with The Man Who Sold the World, a hard-rock album. The style was not his favourite — “heavy music” in his opinion was a “fairly primitive form” — and subsequent releases found him bringing increasing layers of elaboration to his act.
The breakthrough came with his invention of the character Ziggy Stardust, an outrageously decadent rock star from another planet. His concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars came out in 1972 and was supported by highly theatrical live shows. They made him a star in the UK, while the album, which contains his signature song “Starman”, also charted in the US. The decade’s most inventive rock star had touched down.
Thin, androgynous, dressed in otherworldly clothes and make-up, Bowie looked extraordinary. One eye appeared to be a different colour from the other, a legacy of a school fight. His voice was striking, a quavering, uncanny instrument warbling as through the aether. He was unafraid, both in art and life, announcing in an interview while promoting Ziggy Stardust that he was gay.
He made a fetish of outpacing his public, releasing records rapidly and shedding personae. The persona of Ziggy Stardust was killed off at a London concert in 1973, to fans’ shock. “Changes” recorded in 1971, summed up the ethos. “I’m much too fast,” Bowie sang. The frequent changes in style and appearance were motivated less by novelty than restlessness, filtered through a consciousness that could see deep cultural connections and was bold enough to attempt to articulate them.
His 1974 album Diamond Dogs followed a failed effort to adapt George Orwell’s 1984 for the stage. His music shifted towards the sophisticated style of soul known as “Philly soul”, which he explored on his 1975 album Young Americans.
Life at an intense pitch carried risks. In the 1970s Bowie was infamous for his hedonistic lifestyle, advertising his drug use and bisexuality in the manner of the decadent Weimar artists he admired. He felt himself to be taken over by his characters, saying of Ziggy Stardust that: “My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” In 1975 Bowie moved to Los Angeles where he created another louche character, the Thin White Duke and recorded his 1976 Station to Station album.
Mistakes were inevitable. Bowie publicised Station to Station with unwise pronouncements about Hitler (“one of the first great rock stars”). Controversy ensued after he gave a gesture construed as a Nazi salute in London, prompting a move to Berlin where he weaned himself off drugs and underwent another shift in genre, towards electronic music in his so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of albums.
The 1980s saw his magnificent run of records come to an end. The hits continued, such as collaborations with Queen on “Under Pressure” and Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Street”. But in the latter half of the decade the quality of his music dropped. The nadir came with his band Tin Machine, a harshly panned attempt to move into alternative-rock.
One reason for the decline was the distraction of a burgeoning film career. Bowie was an accomplished actor whose filmography, in its range, resembles that of one of his idols, Frank Sinatra. But he struggled to regain his musical touch in the 1990s, chasing trends such as drum-and-bass and techno. He became a critical joke, until restoring some of the old lustre with 2002’s Heathen — a comeback after which, as ever wrongfooting his public, he retired from view.
Ill-health was understood as the reason. Bowie suffered a heart scare during a concert tour in 2004. He lived in New York with his second wife, the model Iman, with whom he had a daughter. His first wife was Angie, whom he married in 1970. They had a son, the film director Duncan Jones, and divorced in 1980.
Bowie’s reputation recovered during his years of reclusion. A surprise album The Next Day was released in 2013 on his 66th birthday: it was greeted rapturously. Later that year a touring exhibition opened at the V&A museum in London devoted to his work.
Blackstar came out on January 8, Bowie’s 69th birthday. Heavily influenced by jazz, the music in which he was schooled as a teenage saxophonist, its dark lyrics inspired much speculation, an echo of the excitement and puzzlement caused by his 1970s releases. But now Blackstar’s inspiration is revealed — the black cancerous cells multiplying secretly inside him. The timing carries a woeful extra dimension. Bowie has died at a time when his musical powers had returned.
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