David Bowie Changed the Very Meaning of Being a Rock Star

David Bowie Changed the Very Meaning of Being a Rock Star

David Bowie made clear, in a way that was exhilarating and sometimes frightening, what every rock star since Elvis Presley and Little Richard had been telling us all along — that anything was possible.


In this Sept. 17, 1980 photo, David Bowie listens during a news conference after a rehearsal at the Booth Theater in New York. Bowie was appearing in the Broadway production of “The Elephant Man.” Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades, died Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, after battling cancer for 18 months. He was 69. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)


With his unpredictable range of styles, his melding of European jadedness with American rhythms and his ever-changing personas and wardrobes, the gaunt and erudite Bowie brought an open theatricality and androgyny to popular music that changed the very meaning of being a rock star.

From album to album, and concert to concert, fans were never sure how he would look — in black leather and a pompadour; in makeup and orange hair as his alter ego Ziggy Stardust; shirtless and wearing a Mohawk; or elegant and debauched in a dark vest and white shirt, cigarette dangling from his mouth, taking in the uncertainty of modern life.

“My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter,” Bowie, whose death was announced early Monday, told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview. “The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety — all of the high points of one’s life.” 

Representative Steve Martin said that Bowie died “peacefully” surrounded by family after battling cancer for 18 months.

“While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief,” the statement read. No more details were provided.


A makeshift memorial surrounds David Bowie’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. Bowie, the other-worldly musician who broke pop and rock boundaries with his creative musicianship, nonconformity, striking visuals and a genre-spanning persona he christened Ziggy Stardust, died of cancer Sunday. He was 69 and had just released a new album. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

People gather and sing next to tributes placed near a mural of British singer David Bowie by artist Jimmy C, in Brixton, south London, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. Bowie, the other-worldly musician who broke pop and rock boundaries with his creative musicianship, nonconformity, striking visuals and a genre-spanning persona he christened Ziggy Stardust, died of cancer Sunday aged 69. He was born in Brixton. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

People gather next to tributes placed near a mural of British singer David Bowie by artist Jimmy C, in Brixton, south London, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)


Bowie turned 69 on Friday, the same day he released a new album called “Blackstar.” He also released a music video on Friday for the song “Lazarus,” which showed him frail and lying in bed, eyes bandaged. The song begins with the line: “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

To millions of fans, his appeal was on all levels — visually, intellectually, sonically. He was as likely to quote Friedrich Nietzsche as he was to refer to an old pop song. He was a writer, a musician and producer. He was also one of the first rock stars to receive serious critical attention as a stage performer, for “The Elephant Man,” and as a movie actor for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” among others. Years before the rise of MTV, he was using videos not just for promotion, but for creating narratives and expanding on the themes implicit in the music.

“What I’m most proud of is that I can’t help but notice that I’ve affected the vocabulary of pop music. For me, frankly, as an artist, that’s the most satisfying thing for the ego,” he said in the 2002 interview.


This is a Dec. 1, 1972 photo of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period pictured in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/ Brian Horton)

This is an Oct., 1972 photo of British singer David Bowie. (AP Photo)

British rock singer, David Bowie, shown performing at a New York concert in May 1978. (AP Photo/Brian Killigrew)

David Bowie sits holding a cigarette in Cannes, May, 1983. (AP Photo)

The team that created the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is pictured in Paris, May 11, 1983. From left: Jack Thomas, producer; Ryuichi Sakamoto, musical composer; David Bowie, star, and Nagisa Oshima, director. (AP Photo/Jacques Langevin)

Rock star David Bowie performs on stage at Wembley Stadium, London, July 13, 1985, during the Live Aid famine relief rock concert. (AP Photo/Joe Schaber)

Rocker David Bowie, right, points to the hamburger that he wants for lunch during a barbecue for his crew at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, July 27, 1987. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

 

David Bowie performs on stage during his concert at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, June 20, 1987. (AP Photo)

Singer David Bowie performs before an estimated 61,000 fans Sept. 3, 1987 at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Deborah Harry of the rock band Blondie visits David Bowie backstage at the Booth Theater where he is starring in “The Elephant Man,” Nov. 1980. (AP Photo/Nancy Kaye)

David Bowie plays an acoustic guitar while being photographed at a press conference in Japan on May 19, 1990. (AP Photo)

Entertainer David Bowie performs during a concert celebrating his 50th birthday, Thursday, Jan. 9, 1997, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

In this June 3, 2002, photo, Iman, left, and her husband, singer David Bowie arrive at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards in New York. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)


Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury were among the many artists who collaborated with Bowie and were influenced by him. He was a central figure in the “Glam Rock” wave of the mid-1970s, and a key influence of the disco era and on Madonna and the other visually-oriented performers who rose with MTV in the 1980s.

His tense, wiry voice, capable of a baritone croon or falsetto shriek, proved as suited for the groove-based hits “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” as for the sci-fi drama of “Space Oddity.”

Bowie also wrote the glam rock anthem “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople, worked with John Lennon on the James Brown-styled funk of “Fame” and brought in a young Luther Vandross as a backup singer on his hit “Young Americans.” Vandross and Bowie co-wrote another song from the “Young Americans” album, “Fascination.”

When Bowie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, David Byrne of Talking Heads spoke at the ceremony and recalled being shocked the first time he saw him.

“And yet it was very familiar,” Byrne said. “It was very necessary. It was something that was needed. It was essential. And like all rock and roll, it was tasteless, it was glamorous, it was perverse, it was fun, it was crass, it was sexy, it was confusing.”

Added Madonna, who accepted the honor for Bowie: “Before I saw David Bowie live I was your normal dysfunctional, rebellious teenager from the Midwest. He has truly changed my life.”


Rock singers David Bowie and Annie Lennox perform a duet at Wembley Stadium in London, April 20, 1992, during a concert in memory of Freddie Mercury, who died last year of AIDS. At least 72,000 fans attended the concert. (AP Photo/Gillian Allen)


Bowie was born David Jones in London in 1947. He had an early and obvious taste for music, design, art and dancing, and, like so many children of the time, was profoundly moved by rock music. “I had heard God,” was how he described the impact of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”

By his teens, he was performing in bands that played blues, folk, contemporary pop and other kinds of music. But his early singles didn’t sell and he also suffered from being confused with a superstar of the time, Davy Jones of the Monkees. He changed his last name to Bowie, after the knife identified with American frontiersman Jim Bowie. In 1969, his perfectly timed single “Space Oddity,” released soon before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first men on the moon, became a top five hit in England.

Into the mid-1980s, he was one of rock’s top stars, with No. 1 albums including “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs” and the smash “Let’s Dance,” produced by Nile Rodgers and featuring such hits as the title song and “Modern Love.” Other notable Bowie songs included “Blue Jean,” ”Golden Years” and “Heroes,” which he performed at a concert for rescue workers after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.


Two fans of glitter-rock singing star David Bowie wears makeup at Bowie's weekend concert at New York's Radio City Music Hall, Nov. 3, 1974. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)

A fan of glitter-rock singing star David Bowie wears makeup at Bowie's weekend concert at New York's Radio City Music Hall, Nov. 3, 1974. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)

A copy of David Bowie's "Starman" record is seen, Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Scarborough, Maine. The seven-inch vinyl record is being released for Record Store Day on Saturday, April 21. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Costumes seen at the VIP reception for the 'David Bowie Is' exhibition at the V&A Museum in London on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Photo by Jon Furniss/Invision)

A woman looks at paintings by deceased popstar David Bowie, the one at right of popstar Iggy Pop, at the Groninger Museum which hosts the "DAVID BOWIE is' exhibit, in Groningen, northern Netherlands, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. The museum is normally closed on Mondays but opened its doors to allow people to sign a condolence register and visit the Bowie exhibit which runs till March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Visitors take an audio tour at the Groninger Museum which hosts the "DAVID BOWIE is' exhibit, in Groningen, northern Netherlands, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. The museum is normally closed on Mondays but opened its doors to allow people to sign a book of condolences for the deceased popstar and visit the Bowie exhibit which runs till March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

In this Sept.29, 2012 photo, model Hannelore Knuts wears a creation by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier during the presentation of his ready to wear Spring-Summer 2013, in Paris. The look channels the style of late pop icon David Bowie, as part of the rock star-themed show. Bowie died on Sunday Jan.10, 2016. He was 69. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)


Bowie kept a low profile in recent years after reportedly suffering a heart attack in the 2000s. He made a moody album three years ago called “The Next Day” — his first recording in a decade which was made in secret in New York City. “Blackstar,” which earned positive reviews from critics, represented yet another stylistic shift, as he gathered jazz players to join him.

He was uneasy with some of his greatest material, once embarking on a “greatest hits” tour saying it would be the last time performing much of his old material. He later relented, however.

“I’m not a natural performer,” he said. “I don’t enjoy performing terribly much. Never have. I can do it and, if my mind’s on the situation, do it quite well. But five or six shows in, I’m dying to get off the road and go back into the studio.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that Bowie’s death is “a huge loss.” He wrote he had grown up listening to and watching Bowie and called the singer a “master of reinvention” and a pop genius who kept on getting it right.

Kanye West said on Twitter that Bowie “was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.”

Bowie was married twice, to the actress and model Mary Angela “Angie” Barnett from 1970-80, and to international supermodel Iman since 1992. He had two children — Duncan Jones and Alexandria Zahra Jones — one with each wife.


Rock icon David Bowie is backlit as he rises from beneath the stage for the start of his concert at the Fleet Center in Boston, Tuesday, March 30, 2004. (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)


Text from the AP news story, David Bowie Changed the Very Meaning of Being a Rock Star, by Hillel Italie.

AP Music Writer Mesfin Fekadu and AP Entertainment Writer David Bauder contributed to this report.

 

Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Raf Casert in Brussels, Susannah George in Baghdad, Jill Lawless in London and Nour Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

 

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