David Bowie (1947 – 2016)

David Robert Jones, better known as David Bowie, was born on January 8, 1947, in Brixton, London. His half-brother Terry suffered from schizophrenia, spending many years in a mental hospital before tragically taking his own life in 1985.

David Bowie: Uno, Nessuno, Centomila

Terry played a crucial role in David Bowie’s upbringing, influencing his life and education. David’s first exposure to music came through Terry, who introduced him to writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Camus, as well as jazz and American rock music. Their bond was strong, so when David learned of Terry’s suicide due to schizophrenia, he struggled to cope, fearing he might succumb to madness himself. In 1993, almost as a means to exorcise the growing negativity and mourn Terry’s death, he composed the song “Jump (They Say).”

In 1957, David Bowie’s family moved to the suburbs of Bromley, where he attended Bromley Technical High School and later became a commercial art designer after graduating. In 1959, he acquired his first saxophone, sparking a deeper interest in music. One day, on his way home from school, he got into a fight with his friend George Underwood, who punched him in the left eye, causing a serious injury and earning him the nickname “Left Eye” due to the blood vessels visible in his eye. However, he would later embrace this as a unique characteristic, as the injury left one eye permanently dilated and blue, while the other remained its natural hazel-green.

The 1960s saw the emergence of Swinging London, a vibrant rock music scene featuring iconic bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, and The Animals. Young David Bowie was captivated, singing, playing saxophone, and attempting to make it with underground groups like the Manish Boys, The Konrads, King Bees, and Buzz. He dreamed of becoming the next Little Richard, his childhood idol.

The Birth of Singer David Bowie

Manager Kenneth Pitt suggested he adopt the surname Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees, and thus began a solo career. David was always indecisive in style, torn between British folk, the psychedelic allure of California’s Summer of Love, and the blues revival. His debut album in 1967, “David Bowie,” presented an image of an immature, amateurish singer-songwriter to the audience.

Feeling like a misfit among his generation, Bowie sought refuge in Buddhism. He and partner Hermione Farthingale secluded themselves in a Scottish monastery with four Tibetan lamas for three months.

In 1969, as humanity first set foot on the moon, David Bowie released his single “Space Oddity.” This song marked the first space ballad in rock history and became a precursor to the science fiction genre, a style that would soon become his trademark.

David Bowie
David Bowie, 1969

In 1967, Bowie met mime artist Lindsay Kemp, becoming not only a singer but also an actor. From Kemp, Bowie learned the art of body language, precise control of gestures, and the dramatic impact of every movement, thus embarking on his journey onto the stage.

On March 20, 1970, Bowie married American Angela Barnett, a union that lasted for ten years and resulted in the birth of their son, Zowie.

David Bowie attended a concert by the London quartet Hype at the Roundhouse. His attention was drawn to the effeminate singer on stage with curly hair and colorful silk dresses. It was within this style that Bowie found himself: he abandoned his shy folk singer image of earlier years, embarking on the path of emotive and ambiguous rock.

In 1970, he released the album “The Man Who Sold The World,” featuring Bowie in women’s clothing on the cover. The lyrics were surreal, hovering between futurism and horror, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and sexual deviance.

Bowie’s mature style was primarily based on an aesthetic of ambiguity and transformation. He was a proud “feminine” singer, unabashedly using his image, flamboyance, and desire for avant-garde artists to transform himself into the White Duke we know today.

David Bowie Glam Rock

Bowie openly embraced glam rock, a genre that exploded in Britain under the influence of Marc Bolan’s T. Rex, who later became Bowie’s close friend. “Hunky Dory” was a product of this musical subculture.

Escapism, cross-dressing, and sexual ambiguity flourished in a riot of sequins, feather boas, wigs, mascara, boots, and space suits. John Lennon referred to it as “lipstick rock.” Bowie had anticipated this trend on his previous album, realizing he had found his direction. On the cover of the new album, he struck a pose reminiscent of Greta Garbo’s fatal allure.

While rock celebrated itself at large peace rallies or in hippie communes, Bowie, in true Warholian fashion, was in the dressing room, looking in the mirror, searching for the right mask to confuse his audience. The answer would come from an incredible combination of extraterrestrial beings and Japanese Kabuki actors.

David Bowie: Between Superman and Alien

Perhaps no one would have bet on David Bowie, who presented to the public a man who was both feminine and masculine, wearing tight-fitting suits, carrot-colored hair, and makeup reminiscent of a low-grade drag queen. He was an unremarkable, grotesque figure, seemingly plucked from the pages of a trashy science fiction comic book. However, it was against this backdrop that Bowie first gained the long-sought, never-give-up world fame.

“The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” is a concept album that tells the story of a “plastic rock star” and his rise to self-destruction. He is the “fallen angel,” the messiah of the rock revolution, but his rise and fall only last for a period.

In this allegory, Bowie’s art is fully presented: Warholian “15 minutes of fame,” Dorian Gray-esque decadence, imitation of the myth of stars and the ephemeral nature of consumer society, and, last but not least, Orwellian visions of a gloomy future. Ziggy Stardust is an “alien,” thus liberated from the sexual taboos that bind humans, he is the epitome of glamorous spirit. In him, the past and the future intertwine: he is a product of the decadent atmosphere of pre-war Central European cabarets, stretched into the futuristic momentum of Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971).

David Bowie
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

His mask fused all the clichés and vices of rock music, filtering them through glamorous absurdity. It was a comic of celebrities destined to be idolized by the public, crushed by the star system; this was a mutated genius. But the transformation was just the most magnificent art of this enigmatic dandy; all the allure and contradictions of rock music manifested in him, as did the allure and contradictions of Western society itself. No one could expose the clichés of stars, the pathological and hypocritical relationship between idols and fans, the sincere false myths of rock musicians, and the absurdity of the so-called differences between art and commerce like him.

Bowie was also one of the first musicians to see rock music as a global art form; he blended rock music with theater, concert halls, mime, dance, film, comics, and visual arts. It was through his performances that the rock stage began to resemble apocalyptic scenery, filled with both decadence and futurism. This legacy is not only that of literary and cinematic philosophy but also that of mime and street clown art. In the realm of music, his influence played a crucial role in the development of various genres such as glam rock, punk, new wave, synth-pop, dark gothic, neo-soul, and dance music.

“The Death of Bowie”

Restless, audacious, and constantly seeking new challenges and explorations, he made a symbolic gesture at the end of promoting his album: he shed the cumbersome persona of Ziggy Stardust, letting him “die” on stage. Soon after, this magnificent epic would dissolve into the stardust of its protagonist.

As a pragmatic artist, by shedding the role that had long brought him celebrity effects, he could grasp the dynamic essence that governs the behavior of rock music audiences, a dynamic that could quickly bury artists or catapult them to stardom. Bowie had no intention of being brought down by an image that would soon bore the public; he aimed to draw attention to the philosophy of his sudden changes, proving to be not just a happy intuition but a guide for him in the years to come, making him a savvy businessman.

For Bowie, this was the beginning of a transformational moment, as well as a crisis: the album “Diamond Dogs” released in 1974 is the best proof of this. On the cover of this album, Bowie is portrayed as a half-man, half-dog monster. The album was inspired by William Burroughs’ “Wild Boys” and George Orwell’s “1984,” foreshadowing the mood of the future new wave generation, with fear of future technology overshadowing everything. Bowie claimed the entire album was recorded under the influence of cocaine.

After “Ziggy,” the charismatic Bowie officially died. The newly reborn phoenix was a dandy who shed the glitter and excessive mascara along the way, yet retained an ambiguous and unsettling demeanor.

David Bowie, The White Duke in America

Settling in Los Angeles, David Bowie entered the darkest and most dramatic period of his life.

In Bel Air, North Doheny Drive, he descended into the chaos of drugs, becoming prey to dealers and loan sharks, tormented by his own demons. His marriage fell apart, his relationships with managers were tumultuous, and he became emaciated, resembling a vampire. He hid in his apartment, a prisoner of his phobias.

When friends visited him, they found Bowie surrounded by walls covered in giant pentagrams, with his urine in the refrigerator to ward off evil, convinced that two fans wanted to impregnate themselves with his sperm to continue Satan’s bloodline.

But in this state, David Bowie gave birth to the revolutionary album “Station to Station” under the glow of exorcising black candles. A new persona—the “White Duke”—was ready to embrace idol worship: black pleated trousers, a white waistcoat and shirt, red-gold hair swept back. This time, his persona was that of a debauched aristocrat, estranged by urban paranoia, isolated in his own world of robotic music. Bowie would indulge all his obsessions during this period, including an unhealthy fascination with Nazi mythology evoked in some of his rambling interviews.

The Berlin Trilogy

David Bowie, along with assistants Coco Schwab and Iggy Pop, arrived in Berlin, immediately drawn to the city’s Central European charm. The electronic music scene, the expressionist films of Lang, Murnau, and Pabst, Brechtian cabaret performances, and new German painting deeply appealed to his decadent soul. It was in this backdrop that he collaborated with Brian Eno to produce the famous “Low-Heroes-Lodger” trilogy.

However, after one album, several collaborative films, and a year of writing, composing, performing, and painting, Bowie left Berlin and returned to the United States within a year.

The Art of Repression

David Bowie
Greg Gorman

“Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” was recorded in New York, serving as a bridge between Bowie’s “avant-garde” phase and the subsequent pop dance era. Furthermore, with yet another image change, this album attracted new followers among musicians, who joined the emerging New Romantic movement.

A whole decade, exhilarating and irreplaceable. Indeed, they won’t happen again. From then on, Bowie’s career was often seen as downhill, marked by occasional sensational failures and sporadic displays of his genius.

It’s widely believed that Bowie’s first step into the abyss of the second decade coincided with the turning point of “Let’s Dance” (1983), which was seen as Bowie’s last attempt to say something among the thousand inspirations floating in his mind, yet failing to grasp any of them.

However, this creative crisis was cleverly masked by the glamorous and serious “Serious Moonlight Tour” that began at the time, celebrating Bowie’s myth with stunning choreography, powerful musical ensemble, and enchanting setlists.

By 1984, Bowie found himself drawn to numerous interests outside of music and satisfied with his global success, losing his direction and plummeting into a cliff due to “Tonight Show”. Bowie’s film career also turned towards films of questionable taste. Perhaps it was a miraculous intention to drive his legend forward by creating bad music. He didn’t know what he was doing, nor did he understand his true self; he was just intoxicated by the success he had achieved… He lost his passion. He was at a loss for words to express anything; he just wanted to make money, and he could see the end of life at a glance.

However, a meeting with Reeves Gabrels brought a turning point to his artistic depression. A new project awaited him. Tin Machine was a band formed by guitarist Reeves, with whom Bowie had collaborated, and achieved some success.

David Bowie’s Return

After six years, David Bowie returned as a solo artist with a desire for performance and experimentation. The album “Black Tie White Noise,” released in 1993, was influenced by Bowie’s joy following his wedding to Somali supermodel Iman Abdulmajid in Florence a year earlier.

Now, the dandy from Brixton shed his anxiety about chart-topping hits and threw himself into various activities: he collaborated with Modern Painters magazine as a columnist; he co-founded the “War Child” charity campaign with Brian Eno; he organized a fundraising event “War Child: Small Works by Big Stars” at London’s East End Gallery, with rock giants like Paul McCartney, Bono, Pete Townshend, and Charlie Watts participating; he held his first-ever art exhibition at the Cork Street Gallery in London, showcasing paintings, sculptures, and two wallpapers designed for Laura Ashley; he portrayed Andy Warhol in the movie “Basquiat.” Bowie’s next studio album confirmed this awakening of creativity.

The album “Outside,” released in 1995, revisited his Berlin era with an electronic experimental vibe. As a musician and singer, the former “White Duke” seemed to be resurrected, with his performances worthy of his golden years.

In 1997, Bowie threw a massive party at Madison Square Garden in New York to celebrate his 50th birthday, where friends like Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Robert Smith, Billy Corgan, Foo Fighters, and Frank Black gathered to perform on stage. Even his appearance kept up with the times: a hedgehog haircut, earrings, and a Mephistophelean goat beard concealed the wrinkles of time. Bowie miraculously maintained his youthful legend in his twenty-year music career, winning the praise of a new generation of fans and music enthusiasts.

Animal Music in the Jungle

Bowie didn’t ride the wave of nostalgia but went against the tide, delving into a new sound world, that of the underground club scene, marked by frenetic rhythms of jungle and drum and bass.

The creation and production of the new album “Earthling” took only two weeks and achieved considerable success. Even after overcoming the crisis, Bowie still had to continue battling with time: the Dorian Gray of rock’n’roll didn’t accept the passage of time. This charming boy, who went to Mars when humans had just landed on the moon, stayed awake every night, seeking new challenges, faithful to Oscar Wilde’s motto that “life is a work of art.”

Released in 1999, “Hours” marked a change in direction: we went back to the past, to classic yet somewhat nostalgic folk tunes. However, overall, the album’s success was limited, leaving the impression that the flame extinguished again after the Ziggy era.

In 2002, he released “Heathen,” a rather monotonous album, with some rare emotional peaks, primarily attributable to Bowie’s unforgettable interpretations. At the same time, Bowie also became the father of Alexandria Zahra Jones. Even the 2003 album “Reality” failed to reverse this trend.

Rock Star Soaring into Space

Ten years since his last studio album, “The Next Day” was released, proving that Bowie’s talent was far from depleted, and he remained a surprising and exciting artist. To cap off this activity, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosted the largest retrospective exhibition of his career to date (until July 18), featuring 300 items directly from his private archive in New York. Thus, you could revisit the fifty-year career of this rock idol through personal letters from Herb Ritts and Helmut Lang, paintings, artworks, lenses, and exclusive photos – of course, along with his quirky outfits.

Perhaps Bowie could never be understood and could only express his sincere affectation along his winding path, for the characters he portrayed were indeed a testimony to the barrier he continuously placed between himself and the world, as well as the most reliable witnesses of his personality.

The album “Blackstar,” released in early 2016, confirmed his newly discovered creativity. However, on January 10, 2016, David Robert Jones Bowie passed away after an 18-month battle with cancer, which quickly dampened the excitement for the new album. His death was no different from his life; it was a work of art. His creation “Blackstar” was presented as the final gift to his fans and friends.

Conclusion: David Bowie: One in a million.

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