When David Bowie died in 2016, the world was left with a void that it has never filled. Brixton’s favourite son was the embodiment of chameleonic, and over his long and celebrated career, he helped to reinvent what popular music could be and do, all the while going against established social mores.
Whilst we can praise Bowie for the pioneering steps he made in music, we must mention that it wasn’t all his own doing. Bowie was always helped by a cast of supporting characters along the way, a trend which started with his half-brother, Terry Burns, when he was a child.
Related through their mother, Burns was ten years older than Bowie. He is credited with introducing Bowie, then known as David Jones, to the artistic side of life. He showed him modern jazz, Beat poetry, Buddhism, and even the occult. This exposure was to be transformative for Bowie moving forward, and it lit the creative fire within him.
Bowie was all too keen to acknowledge Burns’ influence, saying that he received “the greatest serviceable education that I could have had. He just introduced me to the outside things,” from his older brother. Explaining further, he added: “I saw the magic, and I caught the enthusiasm for it because of his enthusiasm for it. And I kinda wanted to be like him”.
The unusual facet of Burns and Bowie’s relationship was that Burns was a fleeting presence in Bowie’s childhood. Suffering from crippling schizophrenia and other health issues, he split his time between the family home and psychiatric wards. However, once Bowie reached adulthood, over the period spanning from the late 1960s to the early ’70s, Burns, Bowie and Bowie’s first wife, Angie, formed a close friendship.
Burns’ condition deteriorated in the mid-1970s, which was attributed to him quitting his medication. Then, shortly after, he was readmitted to a South London mental hospital where he’d spend the rest of his days. The last time the brothers saw each other was in 1981. Four years later, when Bowie was a global superstar, Burns committed suicide in January 1985.
It became a contentious subject for the family. It is said that Bowie never attended Burns’ funeral as he wanted the media circus to stay away. So far removed from his brother at this point, Bowie sent a basket of flowers which were accompanied by a note from the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, one of the decade’s most iconic films.
It referenced a line from the monologue at the end of the film that Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty delivers before his death. The note read: “You’ve seen more things than we could imagine, but all these moments will be lost, like tears washed away by the rain.”
A poetic way to say goodbye to his brother, it’s a tragic shame the two were estranged at the time of Burns’ death. In life, Burns gave Bowie so much, and it is sure that without his influence David Bowie the musical icon, would have never come to fruition.