R.I.P. David Bowie: A Tribute to the Man Who Fell to Earth

Image Credit: Michael Putland / Ralph Gatti / Jo Hale / Getty Images.

David Bowie has passed away at the age of 69, the legendary singer’s family has confirmed.

His death was confirmed by his son, the film director Duncan Jones, revealing that the musician had been battling cancer for 18 months before his passing on January 10th, 2016, releasing a statement to the public which reads: “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer. While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”

David Bowie’s music career began in 1964 with the release of single ‘Liza Jane’, under the name of Davie Jones with the King Bees. The singer, real name David Robert Jones, later changed his name to David Bowie to avoid any confusion with The Monkees’ Davy Jones. 

Bowie was catapulted into the spotlight following the release of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969, his first hit in the UK and the beginning of his Major Tom saga, a fictional astronaut who later appeared in his singles ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and the Broadway play he co-wrote, titled ‘Lazarus’, which opened last December and told the tale of martian Major Tom Newton, with it being soundtracked by a host of Bowie songs. The Space Oddity album would also mark Bowie’s first collaboration with Tony Visconti, his long-time producer who he would work with all the way until his last release, 2016’s Blackstar.

After the release of the relatively commercially unsuccessful Hunky Dory in 1971, Bowie embarked upon the most significant transformation of his entire career, unveiling his unearthly Ziggy Stardust character alongside his band the Spiders from Mars. Bowie later explained how Ziggy had been influenced by two men: the first being Vince Taylor, the frontman of ’60s band The Playboys whose life span out of control due to substance abuse, and the second being a man he met in a pub who claimed to be Lou Reed. 

The Ziggy persona was famously kickstarted in Tolworth’s Toby Jug pub on February 10th, 1972. This intimate show, which featured Bowie and his band playing to a crowd of roughly 60, proved to be a pivotal moment for both Bowie and rock music in general. Stephen King, who was an audience member at the Toby Jug gig, later wrote: “I was just entranced by the entire performance. It was a heady combination of the best music I have ever heard, tremendous sound, very basic but so effective lighting.

 “Nothing would ever be the same again.”

But Bowie’s hard-earned success wasn’t a shock for the singer. Weeks prior to the Toby Jug gig, he held an interview with Melody Maker magazine in which he predicted his rise to fame, saying: “I’m going to be huge. And it’s quite frightening in a way, because I know that when I reach my peak and it’s time for me to be brought down it will be with a bump.” Three weeks later he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

The larger-than-life Ziggy Stardust persona Bowie had crafted led to him becoming a massive star, bolstered by an appearance on Top of the Pops where he sang ‘Starman’, a performance that would lead to both The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… and his back catalogue swiftly ascending the music charts.

Touring America following the release of the album, Bowie continued the Ziggy Stardust saga with Aladdin Sane, with his live shows leaning more and more towards theatricality as his tour progressed. However, in 1973 Bowie shocked the music world by announcing his “retirement” during a show in London’s Hammersmith Odeon, telling the crowd: “Not only is it the last show of the tour… but it’s the last show we’ll ever do,” before launching into a performance of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’.

After moving to the US in 1974, Bowie returned – this time sporting a fashionable eye-patch – with Diamond Dogs, with the tour of this LP having been recorded by Alan Yentob for his documentary Cracked Actor. This film showed Bowie’s descent into cocaine addiction, and revealed his post-fame personality to be a stark contrast to the young rock star who had spoken to Melody Magazine just two years prior.

“Do you know that feeling you get in a car when somebody’s accelerating very fast and you’re not driving? And you get that “Uhhh” thing in your chest when you’re being forced backwards and you think “Uhhh” and you’re not sure whether you like it or not? It’s that kind of feeling,” Bowie said in regards to his opinion of fame. “That’s what success was like. The first thrust of being totally unknown to being what seemed to be very quickly known. It was very frightening for me and coping with it was something that I tried to do. And that’s what happened. That was me coping. Some of those albums were me coping, taking it all very seriously I was.”

Cracked Actor later turned out to be the decisive factor in director Nicolas Roeg’s casting of Bowie in the 1976 cult favourite The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which he played the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien sent to Earth from his home planet in order to retrieve water. Thomas Jerome Newton would in turn serve as the inspiration for Bowie’s next character, The Thin White Duke, who would make his debut on the album Station to Station.

The Thin White Duke was a drastic departure stylistically for Bowie, seeing the singer don a white suit and slicked-back hair for the majority of the run. It was later claimed that the production of Station to Station was wrapped up across a 10-day period, with Bowie’s addiction to cocaine leading to him losing his grip on reality; Bowie would later say that his level of commitment to the characters he played also had a negative impact upon him, with him often questioning his own sanity as he began to mimic their behaviour offstage.

The Thin White Duke was symbolic of a more soulful Bowie, first hinted at in 1975’s Young Americans, an LP which brought with it two of Bowie’s most enduring hits in the form of the title track and ‘Fame’, a single which resonated tremendously with the singer’s US audience. However, Bowie’s subsequent tour of Europe and the US brought with it the biggest controversy of his career, when he was photographed allegedly giving a “Nazi salute” to his fans in Victoria Station, London.

Though Bowie has denied making the gesture, it followed a string of high-profile incidents including the singer being arrested at the Russian/Polish border for carrying Nazi paraphernalia, and for making the following comment in an interview with Playboy magazine: “Britain is ready for a fascist leader… I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism”. He also branded Adolf Hitler a “rock star”.

Bowie’s comments were made at the height of his drug addiction, with him suffering from increased paranoia and a disassociation with reality that saw him, in his own words, becoming mentally inseparable from his Thin White Duke character. “I was out of my mind, totally crazed,” he later said. “The main thing I was functioning on was mythology”.

After concluding the controversial Station to Station tour, Bowie moved away from Los Angeles in order to escape the drugs littering its music scene, eventually settling in Berlin with his then-wife Mary Angela Barnett, also known as Angie Bowie, and their son Zowie Bowie, who would later go on to change his name to Duncan Jones. From here Bowie began his so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’, a collection of three albums including Low, Heroes and Lodger, which were produced by Brian Eno.

Angie later described how Bowie isolated himself during this time period in order to rehabilitate himself, saying: “Berlin called to him in other ways. He chose to live in a section of the city as bleak, anonymous, and culturally lost as possible: Schoneberg, populated largely by Turkish immigrants. He took an apartment above an auto parts store and ate at the local workingmen’s cafe. Talk about alienation.” Bowie also described the appeal of Berlin at that point in his life: “I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times, and it was essential to take some kind of positive action,” he told Uncut. “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He later described the city as “the centre of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years.”

This period of Bowie’s career would see the release of two of his most beloved songs, ‘Sound and Vision’ and ‘Heroes’, which served as a triumphant soundtrack to the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Berlin Era concluded with concept album Lodger, with Eno believing it to be a weak point in the series of albums, leaving Bowie to yet again shape-shift as the ’80s reared its head, beginning with his divorce from Angie in 1980.

Bowie launched into the New Romantic scene with ‘Ashes to Ashes’, only his second number one hit single since ‘Space Oddity’, before quickly following it up with his third number one alongside Queen in their duet ‘Under Pressure’, marking another high-profile musical collaboration from the singer following his previous partnerships with Iggy Pop (Bowie helped him recorded The Idiot and Lust for Life) and Lou Reed (Bowie produced Transformer).

Though Bowie’s ’80s career is perhaps not as well-regarded in retrospect as his work during his Berlin or Ziggy Stardust era, it did provide him with his most commercially successful run of music. Though ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Under Pressure’ were hits, in 1983 Bowie reached new heights with Let’s Dance, his fifteenth studio album, that spawned the hits China Girl, Modern Love and its title track. It would go on to become Bowie’s best-selling album, shifting 7 million copies. Co-producer Nile Rodgers later said that Bowie was looking to make a popular LP after the experimental Berlin Trilogy, saying: “Let’s Dance did exactly what David wanted it to do. The fact that it’s the biggest record of his career is not an accident; it’s what he wanted.”

However, Bowie would be less favourable of the musical direction he embarked upon following the release of Let’s Dance, branding his mid-80s career his “Phil Collins era”. His duet with Mick Jagger, ‘Dancing in the Street’, would garner him his fourth UK number one, with all benefits going to the Live Aid charity, though his music during this period was of inconsistent quality in comparison with his earlier years. It did, however, lead to him taking his most famous movie role of his career, assuming the role of Jareth the Goblin King in the 1986 movie Labyrinth.

After chasing commercial success throughout the ’80s with limited results, Bowie reverted back to relative obscurity by fronting the band Tin Machine alongside Reeves Gabrel, Tony Fox Sales and Hunt Sales. With his credibility having taken a considerable hit thanks to his output during the previous decade, Bowie’s work with Tin Machine in the late ’80s/early ’90s didn’t find a particularly receptive audience, with many wishing that Bowie would return to the previous heights of his pre-Let’s Dance career.

However, during this time period there was a major development in his personal life, as he married the Somali-born model model Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid. Bowie said of Iman: “You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is.” He would later have his first daughter with Aman, with her being named Alexandria Zahra Jones.

Bowie released his first solo album since 1987 in 1993, with Black Tie White Noise marking a radical departure in terms of the singer’s approach to his music. The album’s video for the LP’s first single ‘Jump They Say’ showed Bowie minus any discernible character, which would represent the singer’s relative introversion over the course of the next two-and-a-half decades. Mainly ducking out of the public spotlight aside from a few interviews and his tours, Bowie had came out of the other side of his hard drug abuse and myriad controversies as an elder statesman of the music industry, leading to his induction in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. This time period would also see him reuniting with Brian Eno on 1995’s Outside.

Heading into the 2000’s, Bowie’s musical output was drastically reduced as a result of health issues. In 2004 Bowie was taken ill with chest pain whilst performing in Germany, with him later discovering that he was suffering from an acutely blocked artery. He underwent surgery as a result, but following his death his biographer Wendy Leigh claimed that his heart problems did not end in the mid-00s, saying that he had suffered “half-a-dozen” heart attacks in recent years alongside his struggle with cancer.

Though Bowie would later continue making music, he brought a premature end to his live performances, only appearing onstage one last time in 2006 alongside Alicia Keys for a performance of ‘Changes’. Bowie would collaborate with a few select contemporary musicians during this time period, including an incredible performance with Arcade Fire in 2005, and joining actress Scarlett Johannson for her cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Fannin Street’ on her debut LP Anywhere I Lay My Head.

Bowie’s triumphant return came in 2013 with the release of The Next Day, bringing an end to rumours that he had retired, and granting the singer his first number one album in the UK since Black Tie White Noise. The album attracted universal acclaim, though speculation that Bowie would embark upon another tour never came to fruition, with it also being reported that he was withdrawing entirely from making public interviews.

Following the success of The Next Day, Bowie once again shocked fans by announcing Blackstar in 2015, which would eventually release on January 8th, 2016 – his 69th birthday. Just days later, on January 11th, it was announced that Bowie had passed away following a lengthy battle with cancer.

It’s a testament to the genius of Bowie that, even while on his deathbed, he could create something as defiant and as vital as Blackstar. It’s an album that we now know was created as he faced the end of his life, and as such it’s destined to be picked apart, deconstructed and analysed by fans for years to come. While over the course of five decades Bowie had almost convinced us that time was not applicable to him, now we’re forced to contend with the reality that he was a human after all. But while David Bowie might not have been immortal, his music is, and the legacy he has left behind is one that will excel beyond the lifetime of the man himself.

Rest in peace, David Bowie. Music won’t be the same without you.


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