David Bowie was one of the most enigmatic, iconic, and beloved British rock musicians and actors of the 20th and 21st centuries. Famous as much for his ever-changing visual style and numerous otherworldly personas as he was for his always challenging music, Bowie was undoubtedly one of the most influential, popular artists of his generation.
Early Life and Career
David Bowie, 1974
David Bowie was born David Jones in 1947. In school he learned to play the saxophone, the first of many instruments that Bowie would learn throughout his life. A fight with one of his friends resulted in Bowie's left eye being permanently dilated and nearly cost him his vision in that eye. This injury would give Bowie's eyes an otherworldly quality that remained one of his trademarks throughout his career.
After leaving school, Bowie joined a number of different short-lived bands, but never really committed himself to any of them. Avant-garde theater, particularly mime, became an abiding interest for the young Bowie, an enthusiasm that would prove highly influential to his forthcoming projects. Around this time, he adopted the moniker David Bowie in order to distinguish himself from the vocalist for the Monkees, Davy Jones.
In 1966, Bowie began releasing quasi-psychedelic folk singles that culminated in his first record The World of David Bowie. These early attempts were somewhat derivative of the folk pop music that was popular at the time and did not really indicate the full flowering of his talents that would come later.
In 1969 Bowie released the album Space Oddity, which featured one of his most enduring tracks about an astronaut lost in space. Although minimally successful at the time, the record has since become a fan favorite and an early example of what Bowie was capable of. Bowie followed Space Oddity in 1970 with The Man Who Sold the World, which continued in the same folk, troubadour style of its predecessor.
Bowie Goes Glam and the Birth of Ziggy Stardust
In 1971, Bowie released one of his most significant albums that would prove to be a major shift in both his sound and career, Hunky Dory. The record opened with 'Changes', which would remain one of his most famous songs. Hunky Dory's first side also contained 'Oh! You Pretty Things' and 'Life On Mars?', which remain perennial classics today. Strikingly original, relentlessly catchy, and far more rock driven than his previous releases, Hunky Dory can be seen as Bowie first fully mature record and one of the key examples of glam rock.
During this period, Bowie also began changing his image. At a time when jeans, long hair, and machismo were requisite features for male rock stars, Bowie began donning outlandish, glitter-infested costumes that made him look like an endogenous Martian. During the 1960s, rock was all about 'authenticity' and rock performers were expected to show 'who they really were.' Bowie turned this paradigm on its head and promoted rock performance as performance.
Bowie's stylistic and performative ambitions climaxed with his 1972 hit record, 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.' During this period, Bowie donned the persona of Ziggy Stardust, an alienated rock star poised on the brink of self-destruction. Ziggy Stardust contained many of Bowie's most beloved songs including the eponymous 'Ziggy Stardust,' as well as 'Lady Stardust,' 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide', and many others.
Much to his audience's confusion, Bowie abandoned the Ziggy Stardust persona after the touring cycle for that record ended and continued to create new images and personas to embody throughout the 1970s. Records like 'Young Americans' and 'Station to Station' featured a character Bowie called the Thin White Duke, which was a partial incarnation of the character that Bowie played in the surreal, now cult classic film The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976. In addition to his own work, Bowie would produce and collaborate with an impressive array of musicians, including Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and John Lennon.
By the late 1970s, fame, success, and especially his spiraling drug use had begun to take their toll on Bowie. Bowie moved to Berlin in an attempt to straighten himself out and collaborate with avant-garde producer Brian Eno in the epicenter of the burgeoning Kraut rock scene. The result was a fascinating trilogy of records: 'Low' and 'Heroes', both released in 1977 and 'The Lodger' released in 1979. Strange, experimental, and challenging, audiences did not always connect with this trilogy, but fans and critics consider these records timeless classics today.
The Bowie's Late Career
Bowie's music and career took a more commercial turn in the 1980s. Records like Let's Dance and Tonight moved in a more accessible direction, although they still featured some excellent songs. Bowie also continued his acting career, appearing in a stage production of the Elephant Man in 1980. In 1983, Bowie starred in the vampire flick, The Hunger, to mixed reviews. In 1986, Bowie starred as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson's Labyrinth. Although the film was a bit of a flop when it was released, it has become one of the most cherished fantasy films of the 1980s in the 20 years since.
In the 1990s, Bowie continued to challenge audiences and himself. He formed the band Tin Machine to moderate critical approval. Bowie made a cameo in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in 1992. In 1995, Bowie again collaborated with Brian Eno on the excellent, but underappreciated record, Outside, which was followed by a tour with Nine Inch Nails.
In the 21st century, Bowie was widely considered one of the most important living legends of rock. In 2016, Bowie released Blackstar to much critical approval. At the time of its recording, Bowie had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. David Bowie died on January 10, 2016.
David Bowie was one of the most creative and influential rock performers of his generation. He popularized rock performers, adopting stage personas and using androgyny to disrupt the expectations of audiences. Bowie incorporated avant-garde music, soul, glam rock, and psychedelic folk music into an ever-changing sound. Appearing in numerous movies and plays, Bowie always kept performance as the heart of his artistic projects. Throughout his career, Bowie collaborated with a wide swath of talented artists and influenced generations of musicians. Bowie is remembered as one of the iconic rock stars and popular artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.