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David Bowie: The Man, the Myth and the Legend

Andrew Roberts, Benjamin Olson
  • Author
    Andrew Roberts

    Andrew Roberts is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where they earned a bachelor's in journalism. They have spent the past two years working as a freelance journalist, as well as a substitute teacher in Houston.

  • Instructor
    Benjamin Olson
Learn about David Bowie. Examine the works of David Bowie in the 70s, 80s, and beyond, and discover how David Bowie's music influenced rock forever. Updated: 04/19/2022

Who was David Bowie?


David Bowie

David Bowie performing at the


Ziggy Stardust. The Duke. Halloween Jack. The Blind Prophet. These are only some of the many personas dawned by the famous rock musician David Bowie. His creativity and imagination to create and transform himself into different fantastical and other-worldly characters, along with his unique and changing songwriting and sound has solidified Bowie as one of the most iconic musicians of the modern age and crowned him the first pop chameleon. Throughout his life, he released more than two dozen albums, played over a dozen instruments, and continues to influence hundreds of artists even after his death.

Born David Robert Jones in the Southend of London on January 8, 1947, Bowie quickly showed a knack for music at an early age when he began to play the saxophone at the age of 13. His interest in the musical arts was greatly influenced by jazz and his older half-brother Terry, who exposed the young Bowie to the world of rock music and beatnik literature. The brothers had a very close relationship, and Terry's institution to a mental health facility and eventual suicide in 1985 greatly effected both Bowie's personal life and music. Bowie attended Bromley Technical High School, where he would expand his musical skills, as well as be involved in a fight with one of his friends. This fight resulted in Bowie's left eye being punched and permanently dilated for the rest of his life. This injury in his left eye would eventually lend itself to giving Bowie an otherworldly or magical quality that would influence his personas and music throughout his career.

After graduating from high school in 1963, Bowie began to dip his toes into the music industry, hooking up with a number of different bands. It was during his time that the young artist went by the name ''Davy Jones'' while leading a group called Davy Jones and the Lower Third. However, the band failed to gain major commercial traction and eventually split up. Following the dissolution of his last band, Bowie began to worry that a reason why his previous musical endeavors were unsuccessful was confusion around his name and Davy Jones of the Monkees, another popular band at the time. To avoid further confusion, he officially changed his name to Bowie, inspired by the 19th-century American and Texan figure Jim Bowie.

In 1967, after the recording of an unsuccessful solo album, the young Bowie met Angela Barnett, an American-born woman who he would later marry on March 20, 1970 and would have one son together a year later in 1971. Their son goes by his birth name, Duncan Jones. Bowie and Barnett would, however, eventually divorce in 1980. It was also around the time of meeting Barnett that the artist began to live for several weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Scotland. Here he continued to explore his own identity and begin the crafting of a new style for himself and his music. This work would pay off when, in 1969, he released his first hit solo and one that is still considered one of his best and quintessential songs; ''Space Oddity.''

Overview

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
Bowie

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.

History of David Bowie's Music

In 1969, the young David Bowie returned full time to his music career and signed on with Mercury Records to produce more songs. Following a screening of the Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowie wrote and recorded the single ''Space Oddity'' about an astronaut lost in space. The song was a breakout hit in the U.K., thanks in large part by the BBC's use of the single during the coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Upon entering the U.S. in 1972, the song's popularity increased, climbing to the number 15 spot on the popular music charts.

The success of ''Space Oddity'' launched Bowie's career forward and propelled him to create the albums The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory the following two years. His avant-garde style, especially his use of mime styles and imagery, mixed with a glam rock aesthetic of bright colors and big hair would also help to solidify Bowie in the public consciousness. His use of glam rock and avant-garde imagery would also help to inspire Bowie in the creation of several personas that he would use throughout his career.

David Bowie in the 70s

In an attempt to keep his fans guessing and to stretch his own avant-garde creativity, Bowie introduced the persona of Ziggy Stardust, his own imagining of a doomed rock star. For this persona, Bowie dawned wild futuristic costumes and body paint that were meant to signal a new age of rock music. With this new persona, Bowie released his new album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972. The album and Bowie's strange but alluring persona were a massive hit upon release and helped to propel the rock star's fame even further.

Despite the persona and album's success however, Bowie shed the persona not long after the touring cycle for the record. Instead, he opted to create new characters and images that would embody both the 1970s and Bowie's own feelings. His next persona was called the Thin White Duke, an alien who travels to Earth in search of help for his home planet. The character would be played in both his next album, as well as in the 1976 sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was also around this time that the young star would collaborate with other musicians, including John Lennon, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. It was also around this time that Bowie began to discuss his journey with his own sexuality, coming out as gay in 1972 and then coming out as bisexual in 1983.

But, as so often is the case, with fame comes struggle. Like many musicians at the time, Bowie's fame led him to experiment with drugs, and this quickly spiraled into an unhealthy addiction that began to take its toll on the pop star. After years of addiction, Bowie decided to move to Berlin, which at the time had a strict no-drug policy, to help him get clean. He stayed there for some time, along with other musicians like Iggy Pop, and began to get inspiration from the burgeoning Kraut Rock scene, a style of punk rock music originating from the struggles of divided Berlin. Here, Bowie would release what would later become known as the Berlin Trilogy of albums from 1977 to 1979, which includes Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

David Bowie in the 80s and 90s

Following his time in Berlin, David Bowie moved to New York where he would continue to work on both his music and his burgeoning film career. During the 1980s, Bowie would release some of his most critically lauded and financially successful albums of his career, and would cement himself in the minds of audiences also through his various film roles. In 1980, Bowie released the album Scary Monsters and in 1983, the album Let's Dance, which quickly became Bowie's most successful album at the time, with such songs like China Girl and Modern Love nearly dominating the charts. In fact, Bowie's Let's Dance continues to be the artist's most successful album to date, selling over 10.7 million copies.

Bowie in the 1980s also continued and expanded his acting career, appearing in a stage production of The Elephant Man in 1980, and was praised for his performance. He would also land supporting roles and cameos in films, including his role as the human familiar John Blaylock in the 1983 vampire romance, The Hunger, and his brief appearance as FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in David Lynch's 1992 follow-up film to the Twin Peaks television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. But by far the most popular and critically lauded film performance of Bowie came in 1986, when he starred as Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson's classic Labyrinth.

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.

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Additional Info

Overview

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
Bowie

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What disease did David Bowie have?

David Bowie suffered from terminal liver cancer that had spread throughout his body. He died peacefully surrounded by his family two days after his 69th birthday. The pop star had been diagnosed 18 months before his death on January 10, 2016.

What is David Bowie's best selling album?

David Bowie's best selling album of all time is his 1983 album ''Let's Dance.'' The album sold around 7 million copies worldwide in its initial release and has since gone on to sell 10.7 million copies.

Did David Bowie lose his eye?

David Bowie's iconic mismatched eyes was the result of a childhood injury that he received after a fight with one of his friends. The result was a permanent dilation and altered green color to his left eye. The incident nearly cost him vision in the eye, but luckily the injury recovered and added an otherworldly quality to the artist.

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