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Two years ago on this day, the world lost rock god, gender rebel and cultural icon David Bowie. On this anniversary of his death, we honor the life and career of the enigmatic, superhuman space oddity whose contributions to music and art will never be forgotten.
David Robert Jones was born on January 8, 1947, in Brixton, South London. His parents were working-class folks: his father worked for a children's charity, and his mother was a waitress. In school, he quickly earned a reputation for being both scrappy and "vividly artistic."
In his teens, he suffered a serious eye injury during a schoolyard brawl with a friend, reportedly over a girl. After being punched in the eye, it was never quite the same—the pupil in that eye became permanently dilated. The damaged eye is visible in photos, giving him the appearance of having two different colored eyes.
By age 15, he had formed a band. Deciding to be a pop star was a natural next move for the bold young rocker.
Bowie took some time to find his personal style musically.
He joined—and quit—a handful of bands during his late teens and early twenties, performing under his real name, Davie Jones. Finding there was some confusion between him and Davy Jones (of the Monkees), he changed his stage name to David Bowie. It was the first time he would reinvent his stage alter ego, but would not be the last.
David Bowie studied a variety of dramatic art disciplines—particularly dance and mime. He toured as a mime, as we worked on his second album, David Bowie, later reissued as Space Oddity. Although the album initially did not see much commercial success, it nevertheless established him as a solo artist to watch.
The haunting, isolated lyric "Ground control to Major Tom" set Bowie's penchant for reinventing himself in motion. Major Tom is an alter-ego that was reprised many times during his career, in subsequent songs "Ashes to Ashes," "Hallo Spaceboy," "New Killer Star," and the title track of the last album he would release, "Blackstar."
After a period of soul-searching, Bowie opened his Ziggy Stardust Tour with the Spiders from Mars. Fans latched onto this new David Bowie, launching him into instant stardom.
He would play with the accompaniment of Spiders from Mars' Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums) through the height of his Ziggy Stardust fame. They backed him on his early albums, including David Bowie (1967), David Bowie (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970), and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).
As Ziggy Stardust, Bowie refreshed his image as a theatrical, glam performer. He personified his new identity as Ziggy, adopting a stage presence that no longer resembled the blander "David Bowie." He later revealed that it was not all an act, saying the character "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."
The band also produced the concert film The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which portrayed a 1973 show in London—as well as his dramatic retirement announcement. This was the end of Ziggy Stardust, but still just the beginning of David Bowie.
Aladdin Sane ("a lad insane") was was an American take on Ziggy Stardust. The album sharing the name of his new persona was released in 1973, with hits like "The Jean Genie."
Bowie left the Spiders from Mars, Bowie abandoned Ziggy Stardust and focused on new projects. He moved to the United States after the fall of Ziggy Stardust. He first moved to New York, then settled in LA, for what would be most chaotic year of his life—and likely the worst.
Living in LA, Bowie released Diamond Dogs (1974), which brought the world the hit song "Rebel Rebel." During this time, he referred to himself as Halloween Jack, but this was a short-lived persona.
Next, Bowie became the Thin White Duke.
This character was, at first glance, much more normal than former alter-egos. However, the Thin White Duke was a borderline fascist character, and the darkest of all his personalities. Bowie described him as "A very Aryan, fascist-type; a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion at all but who spouted a lot of neo-romance." He blamed the Thin White Duke on living in LA while trying to create a film career in Hollywood. He made The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), during this time, but not much else in the way of movies.
This character was closely entwined with Bowie's psyche during a time when he mostly subsisted on "red peppers, cocaine, and milk." His brief dalliance with fascism was front and center after trying to board a plane with Nazi paraphernalia, and making public comments seemingly in support of fascism. He later regretted this phase, blaming his addiction for the tumultuous period of identity.
He went on to release the 1975 soul-inspired album Young Americans. On this record he shared writing credit with John Lennon with "Fame," and traded in his glam rock style for R&B.
Station to Station was released in 1976, with tracks written during his dark year, including "Golden Years."
David Bowie played the lead in 'The Elephant Man' on Broadway for three months, during which he internalized his new character, creating a whole new persona. In 1981, he teamed up with Freddie Mercury to create the famous one-off duet, "Under Pressure."
Listen to the haunting acapella version here.
He sculpted, painted and made films. In 1986 the cult classic film, The Labyrinth was released, featuring David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. The Jim Henson film initially had mixed reviews, but has become one of Bowie's most creative and enduring performances.
Over the course of his musical career, David Bowie released 25 studio albums, 10 live albums and 128 singles.
During his time in America, Bowie spiraled into cocaine addiction. He did so much, in fact, that he later stated there were entire years, albums and songs he didn't remember making. Many late nights of songwriting were fueled by cocaine, and at times it allowed David Bowie to fully evaporate into new personas.
Despite being a creative boon, the abuse caught up to him by the time he left LA. He slowed down after that dark year, but continued to use cocaine through the 70s, considering it his "soul mate." He kicked the habit by the mid-80s.
David Bowie married Mary Angela Barnett in 1970. She was a model, actress and journalist, who was openly bisexual. While together, they shaped the glam rock culture as a queer power couple. She gave birth to son Duncan Jones in 1971. They divorced after 10 years of marriage, with Bowie finally winning custody of his son in 1980.
He remarried in 1992 to supermodel Iman. Together they had a daughter, Lexi Zahra Jones. He remained married to Iman until his death in 2016.
Bowie's 1971 UK release of The Man Who Sold the World featured him wearing a dress, sprawled on a chaise lounge. His striking preference for androgynous clothing, hair styles and glam rock signalled change and controversy during the sexual revolution and following years.
David Bowie's gender and sexuality was a fluid journey for the star. He came out as gay in 1972, then later as bisexual. His status as a queer man was broadly accepted in the UK, but held him back in conservative America. By 1983, he identified as a "closet heterosexual," saying coming out had been a mistake. By 2002, he had reversed again, saying his openness about his sexuality was only a mistake in terms of his career success.
Though David Bowie refused to be labeled in terms of gender or sexuality, he had a huge part in the LGBTQ movement that would follow. To this day, he is a queer icon, revered for both his androgyny and refusal to be pigeonholed.
Bowie continued to make music into his golden years. Blackstar (2016), his final album, was released on his 69th birthday. He died two days later. He had been battling liver cancer for a year and a half, though he hadn't made news of his ill health public.
His death brought an outpouring of grief from all over the world. Tribute nights to Ziggy Stardust popped up at bars for communal mourning. Artists, politicians and academics lamented the loss of the rock god. And today the world still feels the loss, even two years after his death. David Bowie's legacy and impact live on in song, and stories of his unique life.
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