2016 – David Bowie was born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947 in South London, England. Bowie developed an early interest in music although his attempts to succeed as a pop star during much of the 1960s were frustrated. Bowie’s first hit song, “Space Oddity”, reached the top five of the UK Singles Chart after its release in July 1969.
After a three-year period of experimentation, he re-emerged in 1972 during the glam rock era with the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, spearheaded by the hit single “Starman” and the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie’s impact at that time, as described by biographer David Buckley, “challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day” and “created perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture”. The relatively short-lived Ziggy persona proved to be one facet of a career marked by reinvention, musical innovation and visual presentation.
In 1975, Bowie achieved his first major American crossover success with the number-one single “Fame” and the hit album Young Americans, which the singer characterised as “plastic soul”. The sound constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees. He then confounded the expectations of both his record label and his American audiences by recording the electronic-inflected album Low, the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno. Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979)—the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” albums—all reached the UK top five and received lasting critical praise.
After uneven commercial success in the late 1970s, Bowie had UK number ones with the 1980 single “Ashes to Ashes”, its parent album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and “Under Pressure”, a 1981 collaboration with Queen. He then reached a new commercial peak in 1983 with Let’s Dance, which yielded several hit singles.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Bowie continued to experiment with musical styles, including blue-eyed soul, industrial, adult contemporary, and jungle. He stopped touring after his 2003–04 Reality Tour, and last performed live at a charity event in 2006. Bowie released the studio album Blackstar on 8 January 2016, his 69th birthday, just two days before his death from liver cancer.
Bowie also had a successful, but sporadic film career. His acting roles include the eponymous character in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) Jareth, the Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986), Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006), among other film and television appearances and cameos.
David Buckley said of Bowie: “His influence has been unique in popular culture—he has permeated and altered more lives than any comparable figure.” In the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, Bowie was placed at number 29. Throughout his career, he has sold an estimated 140 million records worldwide. In the UK, he has been awarded nine Platinum album certifications, eleven Gold and eight Silver, and in the US, five Platinum and seven Gold certifications. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
In 1992 Bowie married international super model Iman and in the decade that followed the once flamboyant Ziggy Stardust learned that privacy and focus on art beats marketing anytime. Bowie had always been protective of his private life, but often toyed with his fans in search of surprise and shock. He claimed to be gay in 1972 just to get attention for his Space Oddity. Later he turned that statement into bi-sexual, but inside the circle, everyone knew it was just a marketing ploy.
His life of putting art before celebrity is a masterclass for today’s musicians who search for their their best camera angle or hashtag before seeking out their unique contribution.
Before Bowie disappeared from public view, he made the rounds in 2002-03 promoting his album Heathen. His various interviews – and a few choice moves in the years since — provide the syllabus for the class. Here are four key takeaways from Bowie’s transformation:
You Don’t Need to Show Up for Everything
Bowie’s take on the hypocrisy of awards and the hunger for attention are perfectly summed up in this 2002 Late Night interview with Conan O’Brien. “I only want [the ones] that you really mean.”
Keep Your Private Life Private
Over the years, Bowie famously professed bisexuality and played the eligible bachelor (he also had an unsuccessful tumultuous first marriage). In 1992, however, he married supermodel Iman, and together they have become the prototypical married couple. Aside from Paul and Linda McCartney, there isn’t another rock couple that keeps their balance and priorities more in check. Iman shared their secret in this 2012 interview.
Remember the Element of Surprise
Bowie released his first album in 10 years, The Next Day, in March 2013 without advance warning or publicity. It’s the move of a confident artist who not only knows the work speaks for itself, but also has no need to speak about anything else. Beyoncé imitated the move later that same year.
Above all else, David Bowie’s public life has been a lesson in the importance of placing one’s own creative journey above all else. Look at any of his videos; listen to any of recordings. You’ll see and hear a man who is first and foremost chasing his own muse and searching for his own truths. The commercial consequences of that search are the byproduct, not the motivation.
Sadly the Master passed away on January 11, 2016 from cancer at age 69. A true legend moved to that big gig in the sky.