“If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose and it plays the guitar upside down, I’ll go and look at it. I love to see people being dangerous.” – David Bowie
The quote above is perhaps the most indicative that David Bowie offered up in his entire chatterbox life. He was an endless slew of superlatives, but the area where he excelled way beyond any of his peers is just how revolutionarily daring he was as an artist. When the world zigged, he zagged. And that trailblazing lightning bolt that he flashed through mainstream culture remains a beholden beacon for us all to aspire towards in our own humble ways.
As Bowie once said: “I reinvented my image so many times that I’m in denial that I was originally an overweight Korean woman.” With each of those dazzling reinventions came a bold artistic step away from the wills of the gallery into a world of uncertain artistic progression. Just as he was finally finding a smattering of fame with Ziggy Stardust, he killed him off.
Just as ‘Heroes’ landed him in the commercial mainstream, he decided to star in his Broadway debut with a prosthetics-free interpretation of The Elephant Man. And all of this finally culminated in ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, one final song that proved so poignant brazen in the face of mortality, complete with the whistle of refrains from his career gone by, that it retained the joyous mystique that Bowie forever had one foot in the future and was orchestrating things from afar.
As a writer whom Bowie greatly admired by the name of Hunter S. Thompson once opined in adrenalised prose: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”.
With that pulverising piece of advice ringing between the ears, let us look at the unravelling tailspin of Bowie’s life on what would’ve been his 75th birthday—a hero forever missed, but never fully departed.
A timeline of David Bowie’s life:
A Star is Born
A boy falls to Earth named David Robert Hayward-Jones, he lands in Brixton, London.
Relocating to the cultural wilderness
The young David ‘Bowie’ Jones moves to the suburban neighbourhood of Bromley. He was never a fan, describing the suburbs as a place without any culture of its own, devoid of the art of the city or the high-class ideals of the country.
The voice of God
The young Bowie begins to excel in his classes newly introduced ‘Music and Movement’ lessons. This fuels an interest in American 45s. He hears Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ and later comments that it was like he “heard God”.
His schizophrenic maternal half-brother Terry Burns notices his younger brothers musical potential and introduces him to modern jazz, beat literature and the occult. “All this led me into songwriting.” – David Bowie.
An eye for individualism
A playground squabble over Bowie stealing a date from a school friend results in a punch in the eye. His eternally enlarged pupil creates a sense of visual individualism. “[Bowie] said to me later, I did him a favour [with the punch] it gave him that enigmatic look… ‘people always talk about the eyes’ he said.” – George Underwood.
Sound and Vision
Young Bowie is given his first musical instrument. It’s a Grafton saxophone. He begins imitating his heroes Charles Mingus and John Coltrane during living-room bound family talent shows.
Bowie forms his first band, The Konrads. They play a rock ‘n’ roll hybrid with Bowie on tenor sax. In later school careers meetings, Bowie boldly announces: “I want to be in a modern jazz quartet.”
Encouraged by Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, Bowie feels liberated and sets about making headway in bohemian London. “I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture I was living in,” he remarked.
The birth of Bowie
Bowie ditches the name Davy Jones and official takes on the moniker we now know him by. He later remarks: “I liked the idea that the Bowie knife was sharpened on both sides so it cuts both ways. I felt there was something terribly ambiguous about the name.”
The start of endless flops
David Bowie releases his debut album. It is a monumental flop and fails to chart. The paradigm for his initial failure is offered up by the BBC who said call him “devoid of personality” and rubbish his group’s performance. “[There is] no entertainment in anything they do, an inoffensive pleasant nothing.”
Countdown to lift-off
Bowie receives his first recognition with a song that caricatures the space race. The masterful ‘Space Oddity’ lands him a number five hit in the UK. Bowie never liked the song. Friend and producer Tony Visconti liked it even less, describing it as “a cheap shot – a gimmick to cash in on the moonshot.”
Bowie gets married for the first time to Angela Barnett. “Watching David write was inspiring to me. He was at his most content composing. Music floated from his mind and fingertips.” – Angie Bowie.
The man who flopped again
Bowie’s honeymoon period is spent in an abandoned mansion with a bohemian coterie of friends. It is here that he crafts the album The Man Who Sold The World. It flops once more.
Glastonbury to the rescue
Bowie is thinking of turning his back on music entirely when he is invited to play Glastonbury. The performance saves his career. He tells the enraptured crowd: “I just want to say that you’ve given me more pleasure than I’ve had in a good few months of working, and I don’t do gigs anymore because I got so pissed off with working and dying a death every time I worked, and it’s really nice to have somebody appreciate me for a change.”
Everything is Honky Dory
Enthused by the Glastonbury experience, Bowie releases his most successful album to date. “Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, ‘Good album, good songs.’ That hadn’t happened to me before,” he later opines.
The birth of a rock star
David Bowie invents the rock ‘n’ roll character Ziggy Stardust and changes the way people look at music. “I’m very happy with Ziggy. I think he was a very successful character, and I think I played him very well,” he says. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… perhaps the greatest album of all time, nevertheless, only charts at five in the UK and 75 in the US.
The fall of Ziggy Stardust
Despite the growing success and one of the greatest tours in history, Bowie announces to the crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon: “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest… Because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.”
Powdering the nose
Bowie produces the masterful albums Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, all while battling dementing substance abuse. It would go by in a blur that he later stated as: “I never really felt like a rock singer or a rock star. Now, I realise that from ’72 through to ’76, I was the ultimate rock star. I couldn’t have been more rock star.”
The Berlin excursion
Bowie and his friend and collaborator abscond to Berlin to get sober and creative. They both reinvigorate their careers, but more importantly, they level out. “David went to Berlin with Iggy for isolation. It was to humanise his condition, to say, ‘I’d like to forget my world, go to a café, have a coffee and read the newspaper.’ They couldn’t do that in America. Sometimes you just need to be by yourself with your problems. Sometimes you just wanna shut up.” – Carlos Alomar.
You go your way and I’ll go mine
Bowie files for divorce with Angie. She later comments: “Looking back, I can see that my life with David was moulded by forces beyond my control and even my understanding. Still, I don’t regret trying.”
Get me a hit!
Following the success of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), Bowie makes a dash for the mainstream. In order to do so, he recruits Nile Rodgers. They craft ‘Let’s Dance’ and his stardom is secured forevermore. “On some level we were kindred spirits and that allowed him to say, in our next meeting, that he wanted a hit album. It was one of the greatest moments of my entire career.” – Nile Rodgers.
The Goblin King
Bowie stars in Jim Henson’s cult classic Labyrinth as Jareth, The Goblin King. It introduces his work to a new generation of fans. “He was funny and gracious and made me feel so comfortable,” Jennifer Connelly would later eulogise.
The big disappointment
Bowie followed Let’s Dance with another number one album, Tonight. Never Let Me Down failed to make it three on the bounce. “[The great public esteem at that time] meant absolutely nothing to me,” Bowie reflected. “It didn’t make me feel good. I felt dissatisfied with everything I was doing, and eventually, it started showing in my work.”
Another career, another town
Bowie forms a new band named Tin Machine. Frankly, the intent remains obscure to most fans to this day. “I met Bowie when I was in Top of The Pops and I think he had this idea that he was a Heavy Metalist and he ponced about a bit like that. He was playing the part. So, I don’t think I saw the real Bowie.” – Vic Reeves.
Iman in love
Bowie marries supermodel Iman after a two year courtship. “You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is.” – David Bowie.
The obscure ’90s
Punctuated by being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Bowie endures a creatively obscure period with albums that are deemed middling by most fans and critics alike.
The second coming
Bowie makes his triumphant return to Glastonbury, this time as a headliner. The show is deemed one of the greatest in the festival’s decorated history. He wraps up with an encore of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’.
Knockin’ on the door
Bowie suffers a heart attack on stage in Germany. He later refers back to a quote from 1976: “I suppose I’ve been knocking on heaven’s door for about 11 years now, with one sort of high or another.” It would seem it caught up with him, but he vows to battle on.
The Next Day
On his 66th birthday, Bowie makes the surprise announcement of a new album. The Next Day is undoubtedly a return to form. During the drawn-out secret recording Visconti would recall: “I was walking around New York with my headphones on, looking at all the people with Bowie T-shirts on—they are ubiquitous here—thinking, ‘Boy, if you only knew what I’m listening to at the moment.'”
On his birthday, Bowie released Blackstar. The magnificent album is a bold look at his mortality. It seems to defiantly and courageously recall the answer he once gave a reporter when asked what is the greatest depth of despair, Bowie responded, “Living in fear.”
The Starman ascends
Two days after the release of the album, the news of Bowie’s sad passing is revealed. A simple official announcement states: “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer. While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”