“I’ve always collected personalities.” – David Bowie
David Bowie always said that he was a writer and actor first and a musician second. Bowie initially wanted a career in writing musicals and songs for others to perform. How did he end up on the stage? And why did he develop different characters in the process?
He quickly found out that it wasn’t as simple and that he would have to perform the songs himself. While Bowie experimented with some character ideas earlier on – for example, Man Who Sold The World’s androgynous proto glam rocker and before that with his ‘Major Tom’ character who appeared in his masterpiece, ‘Space Oddity’ – his first real character that he developed a story to go with along with him, was Ziggy Stardust. He came to the conclusion that in order for him to be comfortable while performing, he would have to develop a persona to protect himself from the glaring eyes of the world.
“I’m pretty self-satisfied with my own individuality. I don’t think I have to exert myself so much to explain that I’m not part of rock ‘n’ roll, that I have my own identity; I just use rock ‘n’ roll,” Bowie once said in an interview. “I had to be very exaggerated in the beginning to defy people to put me in a category so that would leave me room to work in.”
Ziggy Stardust allowed Bowie to be comfortable and be himself, ironically so, as he had a mask on and couldn’t be further away from who he really was. Then again, Bowie never really knew who he was – this was part of his method and what enabled him to develop new characters in the first place.
These new characters were most times intrinsically linked with the music – as if they were real manifestations of the material found in his subject matter. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars contained songs such as the title track and the protagonist’s anthem, ‘Ziggy Stardust’; ‘Five Years’ told the story of Ziggy Stardust’s message – he was a space alien rocker who carried a message of Earth’s imminent demise.
The whole point of Ziggy Stardust was to turn the youth back on to subversive culture through the powers of intellectual and sexual energy. It was through Ziggy Stardust – arguably his most popular and definitive character – that he introduced ideas of gender fluidity to rock ‘n’ roll.
Up until 1976, Bowie had a string of different characters (which we will delve into in this article), but by the time he began working on his Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger, Bowie dared to be himself – whatever that was. He stopped writing songs for his imagined different personas and decided to write for himself. This formula that he used during this time was first tested on Iggy Pop, and one could make the argument that he treated Iggy Pop as just another character of his.
The lines between his different personas in the 1970s get blurry at times, such as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Halloween Jack – they are all very interconnected and share the same DNA, although there are some definable differences.
How many different personas did David Bowie have?
While there isn’t a definitive number of characters that Bowie has – as previously stated, the lines are often blurred between them – Bowie had at least five different characters.
These include Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke, and his very last character which made a few music video appearances for a couple of the tracks off Black star – the Blind Prophet.
Ziggy Stardust (1973)
While one could make the argument that Major Tom, the character that appears in the music video for his 1969 ‘Space Oddity’ appeared first, Ziggy Stardust is his first official major character.
“Who is Ziggy? I wanted to define the archetype messiah rockstar – that’s all I wanted to do. I used the trappings of Kabuki theatre, mime technique, fringe New York music; It was the British view of New York street energy,” Bowie once said in an interview.
His 1971 record, Hunky Dory contained the start of what the world was going to get with his follow up record, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Bowie’s ultimate space rock alien, (he called him the paradigm of rock) wasn’t just an overnight creation. His Major Tom character behind ‘Space Oddity’ had the red hair mullet and the otherwordly aesthetic that he would put into Stardust; it was clear that Ziggy Stardust was a result of years of experimenting.
As was the case with many of his characters, Bowie had a story to go with the character; these were usually conveyed in the songs on the respective album. ‘Five Years’ told of Earth’s imminent destruction in five years, as its natural resources were running out. The narrator of the story (Ziggy Stardust) comes down to Earth from his home planet and relays what the alien observes: whimsical scenes of chaos and nihilism.
Nihilism was a big part of Ziggy Stardust’s philosophy – as much as Nietzche’s philosophy. Bowie collected pieces of different types of art and culture and glued them together into a new creative expression.
Bowie also commented in the interview with Rolling Stone, “So Ziggy for me was a very simplistic thing. What it seemed to be was an alien rock star, and for performance value, I dressed him and acted him out – I left it at that. Other people reread him and contributed more information about Ziggy than I put into him.”
Aladdin Sane (1973)
Aladdin Sane was Bowie’s sixth album and was the first record he wrote and recorded from a position of fame. The record is associated with one of Bowie’s characters by the same name; many have described Aladdin Sane as ‘Ziggy goes to America’.
Aladdin Sane is a word-play on ‘a lad insane’ and many have also interpreted this character as Bowie channelling his estranged half-brother, Terry Jones, who was schizophrenic. It was because of his half-brother and the reality (and possibility) of mental illness in Bowie’s family that prompted the Starman to explore the topic of mental illness in his music.
His The Man Who Sold the World record, released in 1970 was influenced by this; songs like ‘All The Madmen’ and ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ examined Bowie’s relationship with his brother and mental illness.
Aladdin Sane was a continuation of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, but it had a harder and more rock-based edge to it. Musically, it seemed to pay homage to The Rolling Stones – but with a glam-rock spin. He would even include his cover of a Stones song on the album, ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’.
Halloween Jack (1974)
Bowie’s Halloween Jack appeared in his Diamond Dogs record. In a way, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Diamond Dogs could be considered part of a trilogy – an end of the world rock opera. Ziggy Stardust tells of the impending doom of the end of the world, Aladdin Sane references a world ravaged by war, and Diamond Dogs is the dystopian society that comes of this.
Like Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack is just another mutation of Ziggy Stardust. Imagine this war-torn dystopian world; Ziggy has learned to live among humans but he has turned it into a ‘cool cat’ living underground and observes Clockwork Orange-like gangs pillaging cities.
Halloween Jack is more cartoonish and less theatrical than Ziggy; he wore an eyepatch and dressed in other androgynous pirate wear. This dystopian trilogy perspective would make sense, and Diamond Dogs was likely intended to some degree or another to be about a dystopian society, as the album was originally supposed to be a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984; Bowie could not get permission from Orwell’s wife.
“We took the Diamond Dogs tour from New York to Los Angeles and thought that’s enough really. Rather than coming back with the same thing, I wanted to give myself the opportunity to work with the band,” Bowie told Dick Cavett on the talk show. Halfway through the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour while in Philadelphia, Bowie retired the different iterations of the space alien completely and began his long and twisted transformation into the Thin White Duke.
The Thin White Duke (1975-1976)
The Thin White Duke took on different forms and varying degrees of intensity. When he landed in Philadelphia during The Diamond Dogs tour, he was swept away by American soul, funk and dance music. While he knew that this is what he wanted to embrace next to keep his material fresh and exciting, he also knew that many would probably criticise him for being a white limey who plays Black music.
This is how he termed the phrase, ‘plastic soul’. Unlike other phrases found in popular culture and especially music, a journalist didn’t coin this phrase; Bowie specifically knew that in order to approach soul music in some authentic way, he had to approach it from a place of irony.
This exposure to the Philly soul scene would culminate in Bowie writing 1975’s Young Americans. He was also trying to crack America and top the Billboard Charts with a hit single. He would be proven right after teaming up with John Lennon to do his first number one American hit, ‘Fame’.
The character of The Thin White Duke wouldn’t be fully realised until his 1976 album, Station to Station, in which the name is referenced in the title track. By this point, the character became a lot more sinister and dark. While Station to Station is very much steeped in soul and funk music, the cracks began to show, in both his faith in American music as well as the integrity of his psyche. He began developing a serious cocaine addiction, and was also allegedly flirting with black magic, fascism, and developed a deep fascination with Adolf Hitler. In his worst moment, he said: “Britain could benefit from a fascist government.” The Thin White Duke became more ghostly, arid, and misanthropic.
Bowie began looking back to Europe for the future of music which is how he would end up in Berlin, Switzerland and France to record Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
The Blind Prophet
David Bowie’s final album, Black Star, was released only two days prior to his death, making the release only that much more epic. The album paid homage to the starman’s creative lifetime, as many of the songs revisited the familiar dystopian settings that he’s explored many times before.
When the music videos for two of the songs, ‘Lazarus’ and ‘Blackstar’, surfaced, it revealed a new character that happened to be in both of these videos. As many are calling him, ‘The Blind Prophet’ appears to be a man with a bandage covering his eyes and two black buttons placed on where his eyes would be.
One can’t help but wonder that perhaps the blind prophet is Bowie’s acknowledgement of his impending death and therefore his mortality. He is no less determined to answer life’s impossible questions with the kind of vigorousness of a youthful man. He was a consummate artist right up until the day he died.