Goodbye, Starman

David Bowie (above) performing in Vienna in 1996.
David Bowie (above) performing in Vienna in 1996.PHOTO: REUTERS
Bowie in concert in 1975 (above), when he was known as the Thin White Duke.
Bowie in concert in 1975 (above), when he was known as the Thin White Duke.

Pop-culture icon David Bowie's career spanned more than 50 years

LONDON • Tributes flowed on Sunday following shocking news that David Bowie had died, days after releasing his 25th album, Blackstar.

The innovative British musician, who epitomised the glam rock era of the 1970s, turned 69 last Friday, when the album was released.

He died on Sunday following an 18-month battle with cancer, according to a statement on his official Facebook site.

"David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime," wrote musician Kanye West.

Actor Val Kilmer called him a "searing genius" while British comedian Ricky Gervais said he had "lost a hero".

As he fought cancer unknown to the world, Bowie, an elusive rock star whose music has been as famously changeable as his image, had remained active, working and launching projects.

In yet another new direction for him, Blackstar is a collaboration with a jazz quintet. It was a follow-up to his 2013 release, The Next Day, the first record he put out in over a decade.

He also penned the music for the off-Broadway musical Lazarus that premiered last November, in which he revisits the alien character he played in the 1976 movie The Man Who Fell To Earth.

His death brings the curtain down on one of the most acclaimed artists of modern British music, with a career dating back to the hit Space Oddity in 1969, about an astronaut called Major Tom, who is abandoned in space.

It spanned styles ranging from glam rock, New Romantic, Krautrock and dance music to alternative rock, jungle, soul and hard rock, underpinned by an astonishing array of stage personas from the sexually ambiguous, jumpsuit-wearing Ziggy Stardust to the so-called Thin White Duke.

He was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, inner south London, on Jan 8, 1947, before his family moved out to the leafy suburb of Bromley when he was six.

In the first of many re-inventions, he named himself David Bowie in 1966 to avoid confusion with Davy Jones, lead singer with The Beatles rivals The Monkees, and studied Buddhism and mime.

The 1970s - the decade that saw him dominate the British music scene and conquer the United States - brought a string of successful albums. It began with the critically acclaimed Hunky Dory, continued with The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars - whose hits included Starman and Suffragette City - followed by the rock album Aladdin Sane, the apocalyptic Diamond Dogs and a fling with so-called plastic soul, Station To Station.

He then switched gears once more, moving to Berlin to work with the electronic experimentalist Brian Eno to produce a trio of albums - Low, Heroes and Lodger.

The 1980s saw him win over a new generation with the album Let's Dance, which yielded the hit singles China Girl and Modern Love, and a 1985 team-up with Mick Jagger for a cover of Dancin' In The Street that helped to push the BandAid and LiveAid charity projects.

His chameleon-like ability to reinvent his image, drawing on everything from mime to kabuki theatre, was accompanied by a string of albums until heart problems curtailed his productivity in the 2000s.

But he surprised the world by launching a surprise single Where Are We Now? on his 66th birthday in 2013 after a decade of silence, recalling his days in Berlin in the 1970s and which was hailed by critics as a major comeback.

His Starman tune, often heard on TV soundtracks, is featured in this year's Golden Globe-winning film The Martian directed by Ridley Scott.

In films, apart from his definitive role in the science-fiction The Man Who Fell To Earth, he also played pop artist Andy Warhol in Basquiat in 1996, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Memorably, he was also in the films Just A Gigolo (1978), Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), and played Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988).

He was critically acclaimed for his Broadway stint as the lead in productions of The Elephant Man in the early 1980s.

An innovator to the end, Bowie moved away from pop into a new jazz sound in his final album Blackstar. A dark work marked by tense instrumentation, a sense of dread and lyrics about mortality, the work is cast in a new light by the revelation of how ill he was when he created it.

The extent of his cultural importance and influence was underscored two years ago when London's Victoria and Albert Museum dedicated a retrospective exhibition on his career. It drew record ticket sales at the museum.

He had a daughter, Alexandria Jones, 15, with his wife, former model Iman, and a son, Duncan Jones, 44, from his first marriage.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'Goodbye, Starman'. Print Edition | Subscribe