David Bowie EW cover story: How the singer, style icon, and eternal chameleon, ch-ch-ch-changed pop culture forever
EW remembers David Bowie, who died Jan. 10, 2016 after an 18-month battle with cancer.
“I’m not a nostalgic person”, David Bowie told EW in 1997 on the occasion of his 50th birthday, a milestone he celebrated with a concert at New York City’s fabled Madison Square Garden. The rock icon was discussing his decision to perform that night with younger artists, including Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, instead of with contemporaries and longtime friends such as the Rolling Stones or Tina Turner. But with those five succinct words, he might as well have been summing up his entire approach to his career—one that yielded 28 studio albums, well over 100 million records sold worldwide, and an influence that has spanned generations and disciplines, inspiring everyone from Madonna and Annie Lennox to Arcade Fire, Kanye West, and Lorde. “My reason for performing is not to please an audience,” Bowie continued. “It’s to present what I believe are exciting new ideas.”
For more than 40 years, he was rock & roll’s greatest innovator, blazing a trail right up until the end. His acclaimed final album, Blackstar, was released on his 69th birthday, just two days before his Jan. 10 passing. Following a very private 18-month struggle with cancer, the artist “died peacefully,” according to a public statement, and “surrounded by his family,” which included two children, daughter Alexandria, 15, and son Duncan, 44, and his devoted second wife, supermodel Iman, 60, whom he married in 1992. Even those closest to the musician were shocked by news of his death. “I received an email from him seven days ago,” said Brian Eno, who collaborated with Bowie on classic albums like 1977’s Low and “Heroes,” in a statement. “It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot.’ And it was signed ‘Dawn.’ I realize now he was saying goodbye.”
Just one month earlier, on Dec. 7, Bowie made his final public appearance at the premiere of his Off Broadway musical Lazarus in New York City. “He seemed truly at peace and excited by what he was experiencing,” James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, which is presenting the production, tells EW. “He floated into the lobby, really happy.”
Like the planet-hopping astral beings he conjured on the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie was constantly stepping into the unknown, reinventing himself with astonishing regularity and innovating at the drop of a bespoke hat. He morphed and moved on and never looked back, leaving the past where he thought it belonged. “My strength has always been that I never gave a s— about what people thought of what I was doing,” he told Q magazine in 1989. “I’d be prepared to completely change from album to album and ostracize everybody that may have been pulled in to the last album. That didn’t ever bother me one iota.”
GALLERY: David Bowie’s life in pictures
But even a brilliant extraterrestrial like Bowie had to start out as a mere mortal. Before he revolutionized rock & roll with androgynous characters like Ziggy Stardust, he was born David Robert Jones to working-class parents in 1947 London. As a child, he was already looking beyond Britain’s borders: He was tuned in to American pop and jazz pioneers like Little Richard and John Coltrane. “I had America mania when I was a kid, but I loved all the things that America rejects,” he told EW in 1997. “It was black music, it was the beatnik poets, it was all the stuff that I thought was the true rebellious subversive side.” His earliest recordings were released under the name Davie (or sometimes Davy) Jones, but, unhappy about his lack of success with that moniker—and to avoid confusion with the Monkees singer of the same name—he rechristened himself David Bowie. “I have no confidence in David Jones as a public figure,” Bowie told People in 1976. The new name—inspired by what he said was “the ultimate American knife”—was “the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions.”
It wouldn’t be Bowie’s last reinvention, of course. After early singles failed to catch on, he scored his first notice with the 1969 single “Space Oddity,” its rise coinciding with the return of the Apollo 11 astronauts that July. A chart hit in the U.K., the track was considered a novelty in the States, but it helped set Bowie on a lifelong journey of mutation and innovation. “I’m very aware of the impact I’ve had in Europe,” Bowie told EW. “But my impression of the reception I’d had in America was ‘Oh, here comes this eccentric limey again.’ I never felt that I’d contributed much to the fabric of American rock.”
That all changed in 1972 when Bowie dreamed up an intergalactic alter ego named Ziggy Stardust, whom he introduced on the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. One of the first—and most important—concept albums in rock & roll, Ziggy told the tale of an Earth on the brink of Armageddon and the interstellar rock god sent to save it. The album also paved the way for future generations of androgynous, gender-bending icons in pop. “He was emaciated, he had bright orange hair and silver lipstick and no eyebrows, and he looked fantastic,” the Cure’s Robert Smith told EW in 1997. “The potency of the image was so strong that the next day at school everyone was saying, ‘Did you see Bowie on Top of the Pops?'”
It’s trite to point out, but no less true: Nobody had seen (or heard) anything like him in pop music before. Here was a guy performing with cabaret-glam theatricality in women’s clothing—but he was playing loud, tough, hummable rock songs. It started Bowie on the road to being a barrier-busting hero who acted as an avatar for gender fluidity before that was even a term. (He stayed loyal to the cause: In 2014 he appeared in a PSA with Tilda Swinton that declared “Gender is between your ears, not between your legs.”) But the fundamental power of the tunes on Ziggy Stardust could not be denied, and the album helped launch Bowie into the orbit of stars such as Mick Jagger. “David was always an inspiration to me and a true original,” Jagger told EW in a statement. “He was wonderfully shameless in his work, we had so many good times together.”
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As Bowie’s reinventions continued that decade—from the Americanized alien of 1973’s Aladdin Sane to the enigmatic Thin White Duke of 1976’s Station to Station—his stardom in the United States hit a fever pitch. One of his biggest fans at the time was a young Bruce Springsteen, who first met Bowie in Philadelphia in 1974. Bowie’s former business manager Pat Gibbons tells EW: “We were in the middle of the Diamond Dogs tour, and Philadelphia’s premier disc jockey called me and told me how Bruce was making a lot of noise [in the city] and had a really great first record—would [Bowie] come down to the studio and watch him record a little bit? David said, ‘Absolutely,’ and he went to meet him. He was aware of Bruce. And Bruce was this shy guy, but on the spur of the moment David recorded Bruce’s song ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ right there in the recording studio with him.”
Despite the headiness of his ascendant stardom in the ’70s, Bowie found time to start a family. He wed first wife Angie in 1970, and the following year the couple had a son, Duncan, whom they affectionately called Zowie. They divorced in 1980. (Angie was in the midst of filming the current season of the U.K.’s Celebrity Big Brother when she was informed of his death.) Despite the split, he cared deeply about family. “He was a devoted, devoted father to Duncan,” Gibbons recalls. “While he went through his divorce with Angela, he was adamant about being a custodial parent, which he was granted.”
But Bowie’s struggles with drugs, specifically cocaine, took their toll in the 1970s. Station to Station may be regarded as one of his most vital releases, but he noted that his penchant for partying was so intense during the era that he recalls little about the actual creation of the album. “I was flying out there, really in a bad way,” he told Q in 1997. “I listen to Station to Station as a piece of work by an entirely different person.”
In an effort to get clean, Bowie relocated to Switzerland in 1976 and eventually settled in Germany. There he teamed with Brian Eno to craft what became known as his Berlin Trilogy of albums—1977’s Low and “Heroes,” and 1979’s Lodger—which set his dystopian obsessions against the still-emerging electronic sounds that would inform the radio-friendly new wave of the ’80s. “In the mid- to late ’70s Berlin was an incredible city,” his friend and collaborator Giorgio Moroder tells EW. “There were a lot of things happening, the nightclubs were open 24 hours. It was a great experience in Berlin for him.”
Mass audiences finally caught up with Bowie at the dawn on the MTV era. He had been crafting music videos long before there was a proper outlet for them, but the cable channel gave him a platform for clips like 1983’s “China Girl,” which helped turn him into an international pop sensation. Even as MTV boosted him, though, he was never afraid to bite the hand that fed him. “It occurred to me, having watched MTV over the last few months, that’s it’s a solid enterprise, really. It’s got a lot going for it. I’m just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it,” he told VJ Mark Goodman during an on-air interview in 1983. “Why is that?”
Bowie’s creative impulses never wavered either, whether he was teaming up with Nile Rodgers for the hit album Let’s Dance or pursuing film roles like his memorable turn as Jareth the Goblin King in 1986’s Labyrinth. “I’ve always called him the Picasso of rock & roll,” Rodgers tells EW. “We were doing Let’s Dance, and one day he came to my apartment and he was sort of hiding something behind his back. And he says, ‘Nile, darling, I want the album to sound like this.’ And he whipped out a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red Cadillac convertible. I knew exactly what he was talking about.”
As grunge and alternative revolutionized music in the 1990s, Bowie was there too, as an artist who was part of the conversation and as a godhead to a new generation of musicians. Some of them became collaborators and friends. Trent Reznor cited Bowie as a major influence, and in 1995 his band Nine Inch Nails toured with Bowie. “That’s one of those things where I still look back and go, ‘Oh man, that actually really happened,'” Reznor told EW in 2014. “He came to me and said, ‘I made this difficult album [1995’s Outside] with Eno, and we’re probably going to bum everybody out because we’re just going to play stuff off this record. We’re not going to do any hits, because that’s what I want to do.’ I thought that took real courage and conviction…. He’s the real deal. He’s one of those few people who didn’t disappoint you when you actually get to know them.”
As Bowie advanced into his 50s, his creative output began to wane. Following the release of 2003’s Reality he had planned a massive world tour, but the trek had to be cut short when a blocked artery required surgery, and he performed his last full concert in Germany on June 25, 2004. (His final performance would be a “Changes” duet with Alicia Keys in New York City in 2006.) Still, he continued to be a champion of new sounds—he could often be seen scoping out indie-rock bands in New York’s downtown clubs—and collaborated with such acts as Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio. “Every report I’d heard about ‘meeting Bowie’ suggests that the guy was really, really good at meeting people and making them feel like a million bucks,” recalled Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallett, who recorded with Bowie on the title track to the band’s 2013 album Reflektor. “But no words could really describe the man’s complete generosity of spirit, intelligence and charisma.”
One possible reason for Bowie’s retreat from the spotlight at this time: rampant speculation suggesting his health was in decline. While Bowie never spoke about it to the press, his longtime musical partner Tony Visconti told The Hollywood Reporter in 2013, “We all know he had a health scare. I hate to hear it described as a major heart attack—it was not a major heart attack—but he had surgery in 2004 and he’s been healthy ever since.” Gibbons tells EW of an encounter with Bowie in upstate New York a few years later: “He had told me about the heart attack he had—but he seemed terrific.” Despite Bowie’s hiatus from recording, he kept busy, guesting on the Ricky Gervais series Extras and curating the inaugural High Line Festival in New York.
Then came 2013—and a triumphant return with his 27th studio album, The Next Day, a startlingly vibrant collection that bridged the past and future of Bowie’s musical career. That creative spark continued through his final album, Blackstar. According to Visconti, the record was intentionally crafted as his farewell. “He really wanted to do something new and to push the boundaries,” saxophone player Donny McCaslin told EW about recording with Bowie on Blackstar. “I didn’t notice him reaching back. I just felt like he’s pushing.”
All his life, Bowie never stopped his restless reach toward the unknown. “There’s a song on his album Low called ‘Speed of Life,’ and that’s the speed at which he seemed to move—his music and his image and his focus were always changing, always in motion,” said Martin Scorsese, who directed Bowie in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. “With every movement, every change, he left a deep imprint on the culture.”
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