The process of discovering a musician is often as intriguing as the artist and the music itself. And my discovery of David Bowie’s works, has made him among the greatest oddities in my personal inventory of impactful artists. I discovered that Bowie had passed when I was driving, while listening to Queen’s Greatest Hits 2.
Obviously, it gave me the chills since I had just heard the starman’s collaboration with Queen in Under Pressure, which is deservedly overplayed. That song had incidentally been my serious introduction to Bowie many moons ago and it set the tone of the many re-introductions to Bowie I’ve had over the years.
His last and 25th album Blackstar was released just two days ago and I had been curious about how Bowie would reinvent himself this time. If the title track was anything to go by, it was an embodiment of Bowie’s eccentricity and penchant for pushing the intergalactic limits of convention; a trait that I most relate to with the iconoclastic performer.
The roots of that quintessential Bowie-ness can be traced all the way to his childhood. Born in Brixton, London, as David Robert Jones, the English artist was recognised in school as much for his “vividly artistic” dance as he was for his vocals and flair for instruments. When he wasn’t learning the ukulele, tea chest bass or the piano, Bowie was on stage replicating with astonishing perfection, the gyrations of Elvis Presley. Despite a childhood steeped in the arts, he went to the then Bromley Technical High School, an institute that encouraged students to look beyond technical education.
It was also here that Bowie got into an altercation with his friend over a girl and ended up seriously injuring his eye. After a series of operations, he was left with faulty depth perception and a permanently dilated pupil. Some say he had a condition called heterochromia that resulted in him having two different eye colours. But like most things in Bowie’s life, the adversity was tossed right on its head to become among the musician’s most instantly recognisable features.
Over the years, his musical influences included jazz legends like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, and Bowie soon started saxophone lessons. After going through five different bands and as many managers in less than five years, and growing increasingly disgruntled with his stage name Davie (Davy) Jones, he renamed himself David Bowie — the surname taken from American frontiersman James Bowie and the knife he popularised.
The reborn music personality embarked on a solo career voyage that initially didn’t see much success either. His eponymous debut album didn’t gain much traction and Bowie didn’t release any music for two years. The Bohemian musician instead signed up for dance lessons and pursued the stage while constantly writing music. It wasn’t until his song Space Oddity was released two days ahead of the Apollo 11 launch that Bowie actually tasted commercial success. Although, it is today rated among his most successful songs, it didn’t typecast his musical personality.
His avant garde nature took him towards folk music, strains of which are prominent in his second album, also originally called David Bowie. It was later internationally re-released as Space Oddity. In an interview to Concert Live Wire, Bowie described his disdain for being pigeon-holed, while saying, “It amazes me sometimes that even intelligent people will analyze a situation or make a judgement after only recognizing the standard or traditional structure of a piece.”
Running parallel with his musical dalliances were his coquetries with women, many of whom consciously and inadvertently affected his music. His marriage to Angela Barnett had an immediate impact on his career and Bowie started shaping his career as a solo artist with a trusted backing band.
It was his third album "The Man Who Sold The World" that characterised a wholly different sound for him. The heavy rock sound was a marked departure from his folksy overtones and saw him promote the album extensively. It was during these promotions that Bowie’s androgynous appearance was first capitalised upon. The original British cover saw Bowie in a dress, one that he often sported during promotional interviews.
His androgynous avatar was hugely popularised and Bowie went on to tease his fans about his perceived bisexuality. Reams have been written back in the day of his sexual preferences, quotes that he himself has later debunked. I never could quite get my head around why he’d do that but it set the notion that if anyone could promote androgyny with such sass, it had to be Bowie.
Among his loftiest traits was his versatility. It is no doubt an adjective that is bandied about rather flippantly but Bowie symbolized it like few musicians could. Every time you felt that you could define his style, he’d come back with an album or even just a song and toss the right out of the window.
He returned with a lighter and more pop-ish Hunky Dory that saw him pay a series of homages to his musical inspirations. The album also included Bowie’s immensely popular song Life On Mars?. While touring for The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie was deeply impacted by the works of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
This gave birth to Bowie’s most successful persona, Ziggy Stardust. The show Spiders From Mars was fronted by Ziggy Stardust and went on establish a Bowie cult for generations to come. Substantiated by his next album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie had captured the audience’s imagination like never before. His love for creating personalities meant that Bowie not only created extensions of himself but also personae he could hide behind. Over time though, masquerading became the norm and Bowie found it difficult to cope with the expectations of being such a famed personality.
From Ziggy to the Thin White Duke, the rise and fall of David Bowie concurrently saw an alarming use of hard cocaine, an addiction that soon started to affect his performances and interviews. He was also detained for possessing Nazi paraphernalia and it didn’t help his caused that he was caught on an open-top Merc, doing what was perceived as a version of the Nazi salute. By his own admission, it was a long phase of being “out of mind, totally crazed”.
Despite his personal tribulations, musically Bowie was constantly reinventing himself. Which is probably one reason why people find it hard to categorise Bowie as a musician. So influences of the German rock scene find traces in Low, an album that prolific composer Philip Glass called “a work of genius” while Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was augmented by the contributions of legends like Robert Fripp and Pete Townshend.
All through his career, Bowie had dabbled with various forms of the arts and media, while straddling musical and personal complexities. From portraying the title role in The Elephant Man on Broadway to Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and later Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige — a film I was most amazed by, at the time— Bowie wasn’t just a rockstar making cameos, but a performer with the proclivity to get into the skin of the character he played. He was a songwriter, composer, instrumentalist, singer, actor, fashion icon and mythological personality all rolled in one, often simultaneously.
His music was as metaphorically schizophrenic as was his multi-faceted personality; where understanding Bowie often meant looking through a kind of kaleidoscope. He was a jukebox of talent and today that tin machine has gone silent. Bowie once said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”
True words, Ziggy. I’m going to be spending this evening listening to his Cat People (Putting Out The Fire), from the soundtrack of Inglourious Basterds, on loop.
The author runs a content consultancy firm Little Wing Communique, while serving as media consultant for the True School of Music. She ended her decade-long stint with The Asian Age as senior editor, where much of her work was in the space of cultural writing. In her free time, she’s learning to play the bass.