David Bowie Dies at 69

News   David Bowie, Rock Star Chameleon and Lazarus Composer, Dies at 69
The glitter rock star became a stage composer in the last year of his life.
David Bowie
David Bowie

David Bowie, the pop music chameleon whose ever-shifting musical styles and stage personae kept him an object of fascination, innovation and inspiration in the music, film and fashion worlds and beyond for several decades, died Jan. 10. He was 69.

Mr. Bowie had been quietly battling cancer for the past 18 months.

The musician, songwriter and actor’s passing came after a sudden flurry of artistic activity. His final album, "Blackstar," was released Jan. 8 (his birthday). And, this past fall, Lazarus, his first work for the stage, opened at New York Theatre Workshop Off-Broadway, where it continues through Jan. 20.

The piece was a quasi-sequel to "The Man Who Fell to Earth," the 1975 film that starred Bowie as an alien who comes to Earth for supplies for his planet but becomes entangled in territorial existence and is unable to leave. Lazarus looked in on the same character 30 years later. The score of the experimental, surrealistic piece was made of Bowie compositions, some of them extant, some of them original. The anticipation for the show was high, and the Off-Broadway run quickly sold out, becoming the best-selling show in New York Theatre Workshop’s history.

David Bowie had a career quite unlike any other artist of the rock era. He was as much actor as rock star, changing his look to match his current musical style, and building entire worlds around those various artistic, often androgynous personae. His musical personality was one of almost complete self-invention, and his sharp sense of costuming, make-up and pose borrowed as much from the theatre as it did from music. Among his guides were Ziggy Stardust, the fictional star of "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders Form Mars," which remains, perhaps, Mr. Bowie’s best-known and most career-defining album; the Thin White Duke, which arose with the release of the "Station to Station" album; and the dapper, suited cosmopolitan figure who accompanied his 1980s comeback recording, "Let’s Dance."

Yet through all his iterations, David Bowie was always recognizably David Bowie, an impersonator whose greatest creation was always himself. This was due partly due to his distinctively reedy, taught vocals, partly to his arty, intelligent songwriting skills and partly his physiognomy. Delicately handsome, with a gaunt face, high cheekbones and narrow eyes, he could look as alien as many of the otherworldly characters he impersonated—a Cary Grant from Mars.

Mr. Bowie burst onto the pop world in characteristic fashion when his song "Space Oddity," about an astronaut named Major Tom who has willfully gone astray in space, became a hit in 1969. (Despite the challenging, art-world-rock nature of much of his output, Mr. Bowie retained the ability to chart hit singles throughout much of his career.)

"Hunky Dory," released in 1971, gave him another hit in the youth anthem "Changes." In 1972, he released the ambitious "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders Form Mars," a concept album about a fictional rock star who is a messenger for aliens. Mr. Bowie adopted the persona of Stardust himself for a time, thus turning the nifty trick of transforming himself into a slightly mythical figure. The album was an artistic and commercial breakthrough for him, and came to be regarded as one of his seminal works.

He followed the success up with the albums "Aladdin Sane," "Pin Ups" (a collection of covers of other artists’ songs, released the same day as "These Foolish Things," a similar album by Bryan Ferry, whose band Roxy Music was an influence on Bowie), "Diamond Dogs," another concept album, influenced by George Orwell’s "1984"; and "Young Americans," a foray into American soul music, which saw him collaborate with Luther Vandross and John Lennon, and gave him a number one hit in "Fame."

During these early years of fame, Mr. Bowie was often tied to the glitter-strewn, neo-romantic glam rock movement. Yet he hovered somehow apart from and above it, an artistic integrity and musical seriousness—not to mention solid rock-and-roll chops—coming through all the artifice and showmanship.

Any questions regarding Mr. Bowie’s prowess as a singer and songwriter were put to rest with a trio of critically acclaimed albums he made in collaboration with songwriter Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti in the late ‘70s. “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger,” which came to be known as "The Berlin Trilogy," produced some of Bowie’s most mature songs, including "Sound and Vision," "Heroes" and "DJ."

Mr. Bowie, always a performer in all aspects of his life and career, embarked on a career as an actual actor as the star of "The Man Who Fell to Earth" in 1975. From then on, he regularly dabbled in film, taking often oddball roles in such movies as "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," "The Hunger" (as a vampire), "Into the Night," "Labyrinth" (as the Goblin King), "Absolute Beginners," Martin Scorcese’s "The Last Temptation of Christ" (as Pontius Pilate), "Basquiat" (as Andy Warhol) and "The Prestige" (as Nikola Tesla).

Mr. Bowie made his Broadway debut in September 1980 in The Elephant Man, taking over the starring role of John Merrick during the show's original Broadway run. Prior to that, he led the national touring company of Bernard Pomerance's drama in Chicago and Denver.

In 1982, Mr. Bowie had an unexpected commercial comeback, when his album "Let’s Dance" became an international smash, producing the singles "Let’s Dance," "China Girl" and "Modern Love," and engendering a blockbuster world "Serious Moonlight" tour. In keeping with the New Wave styles of the time, Mr. Bowie emerged as a zoot-suited embodiment of pop suavity.

He followed up this commercial juggernaut with a couple albums that some critics deemed as pandering to his newly won mainstream audience. Mr. Bowie responded to these criticisms in typical form by reinventing himself once again as the leader of a hard-hitting rock ensemble called Tin Machine.

David Bowie was born David Jones on Jan. 8, 1947, in Brixton, England. He later changed his name to avoid confusion with Davey Jones of the group The Monkees. He was married twice, first to Mary Angela Barnett, whom he divorced in 1980; and the model Iman, whom he married in 1992, and who survives him, along with his daughter Alexandria Zahra Jones.

A tribute concert is planned for March 31 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

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