The music industry lost an icon when David Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016. Bowie’s death due to liver cancer occurred two days after his 69th birthday. It also came as a surprise to music fans around the world considering that he managed to keep his diagnosis a secret. But, then again, it’s not all that surprising when you think about the often-elusive nature of Bowie.
Since we can’t shy away from the fact that David Bowie – aka Ziggy Stardust – was such an iconic figure in music history, I don’t think you even need a reason for reading about his life. This is all things Bowie – the music, the alter ego, the complicated love stories, and everything in between. So stick around and get an intimate look at one of music’s biggest (and most flamboyant) stars.
David Robert Jones was born on January 8, 1947 in London. He went to Stockwell Infants’ School until he was six, and it was there that he gained a reputation as both a gifted child and a “defiant brawler.” When Bowie attended Burnt Ash Junior School and sang in the school choir, his voice was considered merely “adequate.”. Still, he demonstrated above-average abilities when he played the recorder.
When he was nine, his dancing in music and movement classes was considered “imaginative,” with his teachers calling his interpretations “vividly artistic.” His poise? “Astonishing” for a child. It was around this time that his interest in music began; his father brought home a collection of American 45s of artists such as Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard. When he listened to Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, Bowie later said that he “heard God.”
His given name was David Robert Jones, but once he was ready to embark on his musical career as a teenager, there was one particular problem: There already was a Davy Jones. Davy was the lead singer of The Monkees and a known name in the music industry. And so, that’s why David Jones changed his name to David Bowie – to avoid any possible confusion.
In 1967, 14-year-old super fan Sandra Dodd sent Bowie what happened to be his first fan letter from the US. In her letter, she asked him about his name. Bowie responded to her with: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it.” He then quoted his manager who once told him: “Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you.”
People often claim that Bowie had what’s called heterochromia – a genetic condition that results in two different colored eyes. But that’s just not true. Both of his eyes are, in fact, blue. But what people are seeing is an ocular oddity that’s known as anisocoria, which is a permanently dilated pupil. It’s something that happened to Bowie when he was 15 years old after he got into a fight with his friend George Underwood.
What was the fight about? You guessed it: a girl. “I was so aggrieved I walked over to him, basically, turned him around and went ‘whack’ without even thinking,” is what Underwood said of the incident. It was his fingernail that sliced into Bowie’s eye, by the way.
Bowie had to go through a series of operations during a four-month hospitalization period, when his doctors ultimately determined that the damage couldn’t be fully repaired. Thus, Bowie was left with faulty depth perception and a pupil that was permanently dilated. It gave the false impression that one of his irises was a different color, which became one of Bowie’s most recognizable features.
But there were no hard feelings between the two; they even collaborated on an album called The King Bees. Underwood later went on to design the album covers for some of Bowie’s biggest records, including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Then, in 2004, another incident happened involving Bowie’s eye. While he was performing in Oslo, Norway, a “fan” (for some reason) threw a lollipop onto the stage. It managed to strike Bowie right in the eye — and get stuck. A member of his crew had to help him remove it, and they were able to continue on with the concert.
Bowie went to Bromley Technical High School, an unusual technical school, as biographer Christopher Sandford noted. He studied art, music, and design. His half-brother Terry Burns introduced him to modern jazz, and his mother gave him a Grafton saxophone in 1961. He then took lessons from baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross.
During his time at the technical school, Bowie befriended future musician Peter Frampton, whose father was Bowie’s art teacher. The two bonded over music and remained close until Bowie’s death. “He introduced me, along with George Underwood, to Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran; people I wasn’t aware of at that age,” Frampton said of Bowie. The two collaborated several times over the years.
“If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose, and it plays a guitar upside down, I will go and look at it. I love to see people being dangerous.” Those were Bowie’s words as he set out to create the greatest alter ego the pop world has ever seen: Ziggy Stardust. At the beginning of 1972, Bowie was struggling to get rid of his label as a one-hit-wonder (Space Oddity).
By the end of that year, he was a star. Within months, he transitioned from a merely acceptable pop singer to a cultural phenomenon in a new form – Ziggy Stardust. “I never really felt like a rock singer or rock star or whatever,” Bowie said. “I always felt a little out of my element, which is a ridiculously [grandiose] way of looking at it. Now, when I look back, I realize that from ‘72 through to about ‘76, I was the ultimate rock star. I couldn’t have been more rock star.”
Back in their teens, in the days when Bowie was still David Jones and Elton John was still Reginald Kenneth Dwight, the future rock stars became fast friends. The two would frequently hang out and talk about music. But not long after Bowie’s death, John admitted they had had a falling out and hadn’t talked much for about 40 years.
“David and I were not the best of friends towards the end,” John admitted. “We used to hang out together with Marc Bolan, going to gay clubs, but I think we just drifted apart.” John then explained how Bowie once called him “rock ’n’ roll’s token queen” in an interview with Rolling Stone, which John thought was “a bit snooty.”
Fun fact: Bowie was also a close long-time friend of Iggy Pop’s. In fact, the two shared an apartment together for time in Berlin during the 70s.
Speaking of his teenage years, in 1964, when he was 17, Bowie formed an organization about something he was clearly passionate about: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. It was an organization aimed at opposing the treatment that he and other long-haired men would receive on the streets of London.
And he took the matter very seriously, which can be seen in a BBC interview. That interview then led to another interview, this time with the London Evening News. Bowie explained that it was all about “the protection of pop musicians and those who wear their hair long.” The way he saw it, any guy who has the guts to wear his hair down to his shoulders ends up going through hell. He protested: “It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.” Seriously…
Since we’re on the subject of hair, you might be interested to learn that a lock of Bowie’s hair was sold at auction. That’s right. In June 2016, a few months after his passing, a lock of his hair — which had been snipped by a wig mistress in London in 1983 — went up for auction. It was part of the Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction.
According to Margaret Barrett, the director of the auction, Bowie changed music forever and his fans are hungry for precious objects that can bring them closer to their favorite musician. “What brings you closer than a lock of hair?” The bidding started at $2000 and made it all the way up to a whopping final price of $18,750.
Bowie had many alter egos over the years, but Ziggy Stardust was the most famous of them all. In 1972 and 1973, he toured as the glam rock persona until he suddenly announced at a concert that he would be putting Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars to rest.
Bowie later admitted that Ziggy wouldn’t leave him alone for years. His alter ego was lingering around, and that’s when “it all started to go sour.” He later explained how his whole personality was affected. “It became very dangerous,” he described. “I really did have doubts about my sanity.” Four years after the Ziggy Stardust period, he became the Thin White Duke.
An early version of this character started to appear in late 1974, during the Philly Soul part of his Diamond Dogs tour. His hair was still orange but shorter, and his stage costumes went from colorful glam outfits to conventional dress clothes. The Thin White Duke was officially mentioned by name in the title track of his next album, Station to Station. He then appeared in that persona during the next Isolar 1976 Tour.
It was during his “Thin White Duke” period that he struggled with drugs and emotional problems. Author David Buckley wrote that in 1975 Bowie was “living a cocooned existence in Los Angeles, disconnected from the real world.” He was apparently living on a diet of peppers and milk. He did some very strange things, like keep his urine in his refrigerator so that “no other wizard could use it to enchant him.”
On July 11, 1969, Bowie released the single Space Oddity. It turns out that the timing was nothing short of perfect. And that’s because nine days after its release, the BBC ran the hit song over its coverage of Apollo 11’s lunar landing. The single also ended up being Bowie’s first big hit in the UK.
The song, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is about a fictional astronaut, Major Tom, and his launch into space. In 2013, the song saw renewed popularity when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed the song (with revised lyrics) aboard the International Space Station. It became the first music video shot in space.
Not only was Bowie considered to be ahead of his time when it came to his music, but some say that he seemed to foresee the rise of the internet. In 1999, he discussed the new invention known as the “worldwide web” with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC. The host suggested that the internet’s potential was being “hugely exaggerated.”
But Bowie quickly made it clear that he didn’t agree with him. He said how he was really embracing the idea “that there’s a new demystification process between the artist and the audience.” The way he put it, the “interplay between the user and the provider” will become so compatible that “it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”
For many fans, seeing an international music superstar tie the knot with one of the world’s most recognized supermodels was just part of the package. But Bowie’s relationship with the model-turned-entrepreneur Iman Abdulmajid was very private, which is probably why it lasted so long. Their wedding in 1992 looked like a union made in tabloid heaven.
But the tabloids were actually a far cry from Bowie and Iman’s marriage, which proved to be a stable, long-lasting union. But what else is new? Tabloids get it wrong on a daily (perhaps hourly) basis. Bowie himself said: “You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is.”
There are many people who are confused by Bowie’s love life. He himself declared he was gay in an interview in 1972 during his debut as Ziggy Stardust. According to author David Buckley, if Ziggy managed to confuse his audience, a big part of it centered on the topic of sexuality. In a 1976 interview with Playboy, Bowie stated, “It’s true, I am a bisexual.”
“But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” From his lips to our ears (or eyes). Before Iman, Bowie married Mary Angela “Angie” Barnett in 1970. They had an open marriage, and she openly supported his claim of bisexuality and alleged that Bowie even had a relationship with Mick Jagger.
In 1983, Bowie told Rolling Stone that his public declaration of bisexuality turned out to be “the biggest mistake I ever made.” He added that he was always a “closet heterosexual.” Later, in 2002, Bowie was asked whether he still believed that it was his biggest mistake. After a long pause, the rock star said that he doesn’t think it was a mistake in Europe, “but it was a lot tougher in America.”
He stated that he had no issue with people knowing that he was bisexual. But he also didn’t want to hold any banners or be a representative of any groups of people. All he wanted was to be a songwriter and performer – he didn’t appreciate the label for his bisexuality, alluding to the fact that Americans put him into a category that he ended up remaining in.
Barnett described her marriage to Bowie as one of convenience. She stated that they married so that she could get a work permit. She also admitted that she didn’t think it would last. According to Barnett, Bowie told her before they got married “I’m not really in love with you.” And she then said that she thought it was “probably a good thing.”
About living with Barnett, Bowie said it was “like living with a blow torch.” In 1971, the two had a son together named Duncan, who was known as Zowie. When Bowie and Barnett divorced in 1980, he received custody of Duncan. After an order that was part of their divorce agreement timed out, Barnett wrote a memoir called Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie, in which she described their turbulent marriage.
Bowie and Iman met in 1990 at a dinner party. Iman, who had just retired from modeling, was introduced to her future husband by her hairdresser. For Bowie, it was love at first sight. He said his attraction to her was “immediate and all-encompassing,” and that he couldn’t sleep due to the excitement of their first date.
In his mind, getting married was a done deal. “I’d never gone after anything with such passion in all my life.” Iman happened to have a real and dramatic effect on the otherwise smooth Bowie. He found her “intolerably sexy.” According to Iman, he told her he was so nervous when he asked her to have “tea” with him after their first date. “He doesn’t drink tea; he never drinks tea. He had coffee,” Iman recalled of that date.
Within a couple weeks, Iman was ready to start a relationship with Bowie. She said that his actions spoke louder than words. She described the time she arrived at the Los Angeles airport. The doors opened, she came out of the plane, and all these people were taking photos of somebody. And there he was, standing with flowers in hand, without any security.
“That was when I knew he was a keeper,” she stated. “He didn’t care if anybody saw.” The two married two years after their first date. They made their first public appearance together in 1990 at an AIDS benefit. But still, Iman was hesitant about diving into marriage with a rock star. In 2004, she told The Guardian that she “fell in love with David Jones. I did not fall in love with David Bowie. Bowie is just a persona. He’s a singer, an entertainer. David Jones is a man I met.”
The two tried to keep their relationship as private as possible. The way they saw it, their marriage was a relationship to be shared with each other – not for a public eager to hear intimate details. Aside from the rare public occasions, the couple kept the press and their home life separate.
They were hardly ever photographed together. One of the only times they were photographed together as a couple was in a Vogue magazine shoot which took place in their New York apartment after the birth of their daughter, Alexandria (nicknamed Lexi) in 2000. When it came to parenting, Iman said Bowie was “measured, sensible” but also “fun and relaxed.” She, on the other hand, is the disciplinarian.
20 years into their marriage, Iman told Bazaar that she was still fascinated with her husband. Sadly, though, it all came to an end when Bowie passed away in 2016. On January 10, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of the Blackstar album, Bowie died in his New York City apartment. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer 18 months earlier, but the public wasn’t in the know.
Before his death, Bowie was working with Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove for his Off-Broadway musical Lazarus. According to van Hove, Bowie wasn’t able to attend some of the rehearsals because of his cancer’s progression. Still, Bowie kept working throughout.
After his death, fans gathered at impromptu street memorials in London, Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York. After news of his death, his albums and singles sales soared. Bowie insisted that he didn’t want a funeral, and he was cremated in New Jersey. As stipulated in his will, his ashes were scattered in Bali, Indonesia in a Buddhist ceremony.
It turns out that even Bowie’s close musical collaborators were unaware of his illness. Apparently, Iman avoided any public discourse on the subject. She consistently commemorates their love on social media. For example, on Valentine’s Day and the anniversary of his death, she posted: “My favorite love story is ours! #BowieForever #ForeverAndEver.” She also vowed to never remarry. “I mentioned my husband the other day with someone, and they said to me, ‘You mean your late husband?’ I said, no, he is always going to be my husband.”
Many people forget that the man behind Ziggy Stardust was also an actor. While primarily a musician, the natural performer took acting roles throughout his career as well. He appeared in over 30 movies, TV shows and theatrical productions. His acting career, however, was very selective and in a good way.
He mainly avoided starring roles and went for the cameos and supporting parts. Many critics believe that had he not chosen to pursue music, he would have been a successful actor. Other critics say that his best contributions to film were the songs he wrote for movies, such as Lost Highway, A Knight’s Tale, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Inglourious Basterds.
Bowie’s acting career predated his breakthrough as a musician. He had studied avant-garde theater and mime, taking the role of Cloud in Kemp’s 1967 theatrical production of Pierrot in Turquoise. In 1976, Bowie earned praise for his first major film role as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
He later admitted that his cocaine use during the filming left him in a very fragile state of mind, so much so that he barely understood the movie. Then there was Just a Gigolo in 1979, in which Bowie played the lead role as a Prussian officer named Paul von Przygodski. The movie bombed, and Bowie later expressed his embarrassment over his role in it.
Bowie played Joseph Merrick in Broadway’s The Elephant Man, which he did wearing no stage make-up. His expressive performance earned him much praise. After all, he played the part 157 times between 1980 and 1981. Bowie also did a 21-minute short film called Jazzin’ for Blue Jean in 1984 to promote the single Blue Jean.
The short film won Bowie his only Grammy award while he was still alive (he won others posthumously). Other roles included the hitman Colin in the 1985 John Landis film Into the Night and Goblin King in Jim Henson’s dark musical fantasy Labyrinth. But he declined the role of the villain Max Zorin in James Bond: A View to a Kill in 1985.
In 2017, director Denis Villeneuve revealed his intention to cast Bowie in his movie Blade Runner 2049 as the lead villain, Niander Wallace. But once the news broke of Bowie’s death, Villeneuve was forced to look for another star with similar “rock star” qualities. He went with actor and lead singer of Thirty Seconds to Mars, Jared Leto.
Villeneuve said his first thought for the character was Bowie, who had actually influenced Blade Runner in many ways. According to Villeneuve, Bowie embodied the Blade Runner spirit. Director David Lynch also wanted Bowie to reprise his Fire Walk with Me character for his film Twin Peaks: The Return, but Bowie’s sickness near the end of his life prevented it. His character was thus portrayed via archival footage.
Aside from his acting roles, many don’t know that Bowie was also a painter and artist. In 1976, when he moved to Switzerland, he lived in a chalet in the hills over Lake Geneva. There, his cocaine use dwindled, and he found time for other interests outside of music. He devoted a lot of his time to painting.
He produced a number of post-modernist pieces. When he would go on tour, he would take his sketchbook with him and photograph scenes for later reference. One of his paintings sold at auction in 1990 for $500 – a lot less than what his lock of hair was valued at…
In 1998, during an interview with The New York Times, Bowie stated that art was “seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own.” A year later, in an interview with the BBC, he said the only thing he buys “obsessively and addictively is art.” His art collection, which included Damien Hirst, Derek Boshier, Frank Auerbach, Henry Moore, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, was valued at over £10 million in 2016.
After his death, his family sold most of the collection. Why? Because they “didn’t have the space” to store it all. Three auctions were held in London, attracting 51,470 visitors and 1,750 bidders. The auctions earned a total of £32.9 million.
“Bowie Bonds” served as an early example of celebrity bonds – asset-backed securities of current and future revenues of the 25 albums (287 songs) that David Bowie recorded before the year 1990. Issued in 1997, these bonds were bought for $55 million by the Prudential Insurance Company of America.
Ever heard of BowieNet? As weird as it may sound, Bowie launched an Internet service provider called BowieNet in 1998. The dial-up service was developed in conjunction with Robert Goodale and Ron Roy. BowieNet subscribers were offered exclusive content as well as the BowieNet email address and, of course, internet access. Not surprisingly, the service was closed by 2006.
And there you have it, folks! I bet you learned something new today.