David Bowie was that strange contradiction: The quintessential Londoner, who didn’t live in his home city during the last 40 years of his life. Everything he did was shaped by that London upbringing, though, in a working-class family scarred by a heritage of mental illness. Restless and easily bored at school, he sought escape in music and art at the moment when so-called “Swinging London” was the most fashion-conscious city on earth. He was naturally stylish — he never lost the ability to wear a good suit — but during the 1960s he jumped haphazardly from one trend to another, in a desperate attempt to keep pace the times.
As the 1970s dawned, he felt alienated from the hedonistic world of London pop.
He channelled that innate sense of being an outsider into perhaps the most breathtaking coup in the history of popular music. As the world had lost interest in David Bowie, he reinvented himself as Ziggy Stardust, alien rock’n’roll superstar. He inhabited the role, and its ambiguous sexuality and multi-coloured flamboyance, with such conviction that people wanted to believe that Ziggy was real. Bowie no longer had to grasp for fame; he now claimed it by
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Bowie and Ziggy became the idols of everyone who didn’t know exactly who they were, or where they belonged. He inspired a sense of loyalty that would survive for decades, long beyond the expiry date of the traditional pop star infatuation. His live performances as Ziggy Stardust became gatherings of Bowie clones, each adolescent worshipper attempting to fashion their own replicas of his dazzling make-up and costumes concocted by London, Paris and Tokyo’s most daring designers.
Then, at the peak of Ziggy’s popularity, Bowie killed off a persona that would have fuelled any other celebrity for decades. He (or rather Ziggy) announced his “retirement” from the stage in 1973, sparking
an immediate howl of anguish from his fans. Within months, Bowie was back, cut to a new design and fired by a fresh agenda. His increasingly bewitched followers began to recognise that their hero was not a
static icon, but a revolution in a constant state of evolution.
For the remainder of the 1970s, Bowie unveiled an almost blinding succession of new identities: As the jaded rock star, Aladdin Sane; the apocalyptic prophet of Diamond Dogs; the doyen of what he called “plastic soul”; and the “Thin White Duke”, cheekbones as sharp as razors and songs stuffed with messages from the very brink of sanity. He ended the decade with a sequence of albums recorded in Europe, and shaped by his experiences in his adopted home of Berlin, the divided city on the borderline of two warring cultures. Each persona had its visual counterpart, but for David Bowie, style was never an end in itself: It always accompanied an eagle-eyed vision and a willingness to flirt with danger.
That was what made Bowie so influential, and enabled him to inspire musicians from genres as disparate as punk and hip-hop. Anyone with Bowie’s face and figure could act as a clothes horse: What Bowie added was not just mystique, but the compulsive need to explore new territory. He had left school at 15 with minimal qualifications, convinced that there were vital things his teachers could never tell him. He devoted the rest of his life to that quest.
Bowie was the ultimate self-educator, endlessly fascinated — and inspired by his discoveries. He soaked himself in the extremes of literature, art, fashion, theatre, cinema and every imaginable form of music, while maintaining an antenna tuned with uncanny accuracy to the turbulent spirit of the times. At its most perilous, his mid-1970s lifestyle required him to experiment with his own psyche and body, as if he was daring the madness with which he’d been threatened as a child to put up its fists and fight. His adventures in unhealthy living, under heavy chemical influence, took him close to the edge. What’s remarkable is not just that he made it through, but that he was able to channel these emotional and physical extremes into music that took just as many risks — but was still effortlessly commercial.
By the end of that decade, Bowie was raising his son as a single parent, and taking a deliberate step back from the precipice. He waved farewell to one era of his life with his Scary Monsters album in 1980, its “Ashes to Ashes” single reflecting nostalgically on all his previous escapades. Thereafter, his art continued to push at the boundaries — not least on his new album, Blackstar, with its visions of mortality and music that sound both startlingly new, and unmistakeably David Bowie. His career was living proof that pure creativity involves immense risks, but is repaid by work that will endure beyond its creator’s mortal span.