David Bowie has gone by many names—Davy Jones, Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke. This so-called chameleon of music mastered the art of onstage personas, and has an astounding photo album, with a legacy to match.
David Robert Jones
January 8 1947, marked the birth of David Robert Jones, the man who would change the image of music forever.
As a student David would become increasingly outgoing, as these school reports show:
1st year: “Reliable and capable”
2nd year: “A good steady worker who should do well”
4th year: “A pleasant, friendly idler but perhaps capable of better work with maturity”
5th Year: “A complete exhibitionist”
It was during these years that David gained his most recognisable feature. At the age of 14 his friend George Underwood punched him, George’s fingernail caught in his eye.
After two eye operations, David was left with one permanently enlarged pupil, sometimes giving the impression that his eyes are different colours. That's right, David Bowie does not have two different coloured eyes, they are both blue.
The two are friends to this day.
From the age of 15, the teenage Davy Jones (first stage name) would join many bands including The Konrads, The King Bees, and blues outfit, The Manish Boys.
“I used to dream of being their Mick Jagger”
A young, mod-ish Bowie was cutting his teeth as a performer. With the arrival of The Monkees in the mid-60s, Davy Jones (Bowie) began getting confused with Davy Jones (Monkee) and with one final name change David Bowie arrived. But his singing career was to be put on hold, as disillusion with the industry led him to pursue a career in mime, studying under the direction of Lindsay Kemp.
This departure would be the crucial final piece in creating the legendary Bowie.
Spacemen and sexuality
July 16 1969, the BBC begins coverage of the moon landing. Audiences watch this amazing feat of humankind unfold before them. The nation is space-crazed as they tune in to watch one of the most iconic television moments of all time.
A single released five days previous by a 22-year-old Bowie was included in the coverage. 'Space Oddity' was played after Apollo 11 safely returned home, and aided the success of the single, charting at number five.
'Space Oddity' would see the appearance of his first persona, Major Tom. Thanks to his time studying the avant-garde, Bowie began to create personas that people responded to.
When he released his third album The Man Who Sold The World in 1970, Bowie once again took advantage of theatrics, presenting himself as an androgyne; long haired, slight figured, and sporting a dress.
Rolling Stone's John Mendelsohn described him as "ravishing, almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall". To some he was outrageous, others a laughing stock—whatever the response, it was a reaction.
But it was to be Hunky Dory that really caught his audience’s attention. This seminal album saw Bowie refine his songwriting abilities. But it wasn’t until he unleashed his next character, Ziggy Stardust, that it became successful.
With Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was no longer creating one-off characters for songs or album covers: Ziggy was a total immersion.
"Offstage I'm a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It's probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David."
His shows were shocking for the time, anything could happen. One time he stripped down to nothing but a sumo loin, and he would frequently simulate oral sex with Mick Ronson’s guitar.
Bowie declared to Melody Maker that he was gay (although speaking later to Playboy he confirmed that he is, in fact, bisexual). Whatever his sexual preference, it became clear that David Bowie was a taboo breaker, and wasn’t afraid to use that to his advantage.
This total immersion was to be detrimental to his personal life. As he played the same role over and over, David couldn’t tell his real self apart anymore.
"[Ziggy] wouldn't leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour... My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity."
It became clear, Ziggy had to die. But he was to be replaced three years later.
The missing album
1976 saw a radical change in Bowie, not only musically but physically. Bowie’s latest persona was the Thin White Duke, introduced by the opening line of tenth studio album Station to Station. “The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lover’s eyes.”
The Thin White Duke was an extension of Thomas Jerome Newton, the character he played in Nicolas Roeg’s, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Stills from the movie make up the album covers of Station to Station and its predecessor, Low.
Station to Station was a dark turn for Bowie. The contrast between its stark Krautrock-inspired melodies and over-the-top vocals jar; brinking on an uncomfortable territory. It’s perfectly crafted and makes for superb listening.
It's only irritating that the man himself doesn’t remember recording it, due to the staggering amount of cocaine he was doing at the time. In fact, during this period, Bowie’s diet consisted purely of red peppers, milk and cocaine.
This diet was no doubt responsible for Bowie's austere appearance—impeccably dressed but hollowed out and pale—and personality, which romanticised and agonised so intensely, yet felt absolutely nothing.
Fortunately, Bowie left the Thin White Duke behind, moving to West Berlin where he cleaned up and produced three incredibly fine albums—Low, Heroes and Lodger, known as the Berlin Trilogy—all of which he remembers making.
August 8 1980, 'Ashes to Ashes' is released and makes it to number one in the UK charts. In it, David Bowie brings back his first persona, Major Tom.
The song feels very much like a cleansing, with three voices running throughout: David Bowie the narrator, “Do you remember a guy that’s been/In such an early song”; Major Tom, confessing his demons “Time and again I tell myself/I’ll stay clean tonight”; and a group of persecutors giving Major Tom his last rights, “Ashes to Ashes, funk to funky/We know Major Tom’s a Junky”.
It’s a clear message, as Major Tom is buried; overcoming his former issues, the chameleon of music had shed his skin, left art-rock behind and was about to embrace the mainstream.
Throughout the 80s, Bowie reached a new level of commercial success. He produced hit after hit: Ashes to Ashes, Modern Love, Let’s Dance, Under Pressure and enjoyed a successful acting career.
The 90s, however, saw Bowie return to his alternative roots; immersing himself in everything from hard rock (inspired by Nine Inch Nails, Placebo), drum and bass, and euro dance (inspired by Prodigy).
Indeed, this period saw the return of Major Tom. During 'Hallo Spaceboy', collaborators The Pet Shop Boys affirm his ethereal presence singing "Ground to Major, Bye bye Tom/Dead the circuit, countdown's wrong".
David Bowie and Iman (via davidbowie.com)
Perhaps the biggest influence on Bowie during this period was his marriage to Somali-American model Iman. As Iman told the independent:
“For him [it was overwhelming], I was not ready for a relationship. Definitely, I didn't want to get into a relationship with somebody like him.
“But as I always said: I fell in love with David Jones. I did not fall in love with David Bowie. Bowie is just a persona. He's a singer, an entertainer. David Jones is a man I met.”
In 2000, Bowie—ever the adaptor of the new—became an internet service provider, launching Bowienet on September 1. Essentially it was a glorified fan site, granting access to exclusive material—including new music, pictures, videos—Bowie’s journal, forums, and even access to the man himself. Oh, and access to the entire internet was thrown in. A snip at $19.95/month.
January 8 2016, David Bowie is 69 and to celebrate he releases his 25th studio album, Blackstar. A master of suspense and hype, two songs trickle through to the public. 'Blackstar', used in the television series The Last Panthers, teased with a 1.08-minute snippet. Eventually, its full 9.58-minute glory was unveiled to great acclaim.
Essentially 90s Bowie could do whatever he wanted, and this pushing of boundaries (especially after such a commercial run in the 80s) isolated some fans, and received mixed reviews from his critics. Heathen, released in 2002, saw a return to critical acclaim. Fans have delighted in his mature nod back to the Berlin era, and while still maintaining a sense of new.
In 2005, performing with Arcade Fire (via Rolling Stone)
His productivity was halted in 2004. While touring the album Reality, he suffered a heart attack and had to have surgery to treat "an acutely blocked artery". Between then and 2013, the singer seemed to vanish almost completely, but he was still available to put his stamp on Bowie approved artists, performing with Arcade Fire and providing vocals for TV on the Radio’s ‘Province’.
Blackstar sees a world of influence but you can still hear the traces of Bowie’s former incarnations. His influences are still incredibly relevant (it was revealed he had been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar), Bowie is still unafraid of pushing boundaries. He may not have created a new persona, but his sound evolves as ever.
RIP David Bowie
11 January 2016, just three days after the release of Blackstar, it is announced that the iconic musician has died after an 18 month battle with cancer. He couldn't have left on a higher note as his final album was given met with fantastic reviews.
We love you David! You changed the shape of music forever.
Watch the video for the title track Blackstar: