David Bowie's presence in popular culture was such that we're still processing both his passing and his elegant swan song, Blackstar. Thousands of pieces have been and will be written about how he shaped our lives, both musically and culturally, but at the core of it all — behind Ziggy Stardust, behind the Thin White Duke, behind David Bowie even — wasn't an alligator, a starman or an alien, but David Robert Jones, a restless creative soul who created work so fantastical and inspiring that it made us forget he was a flawed, passionate human being like us.
1947 to 1954
David Robert Jones is born on January 8, 1947 to Haywood Stenton Jones and Margaret Mary Burns (better known as John and Peggy) in their home on Stansfield Road in Brixton, a southern borough of London, England. The shadow of World War II still looms large, and in the void left by English culture's six-year pause, American pop culture — jazz, Hollywood films — sweeps in. Young David will be immersed in it.
David's family leaves Brixton for Bromley in 1953, and after moving a few times, settle at 4 Plaistow Grove, where a young David can overhear stories from a pub not 15 feet from his bedroom window. Polite and somewhat strict, Bowie will later call his childhood self "terribly shy," but though he reportedly wets himself on his first day at infant school, at home he's already exhibiting signs of showmanship, dancing and singing. "We thought he might be a ballet dancer," Peggy will later recall.
The Jones's buy a TV, which brings the world — Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, serialized dramas and science fiction — to the Jones's home.
1955 to 1962
As he ages, David's half-brother Terry, ten years his senior, becomes something of a father figure, despite increasing tension between Terry and John. In 1955, David is exposed to James Dean, a stylish, rebellious young actor whose world-weary outlook prefigures rock'n'roll; he becomes a quick idol. A year later, David finds another hero when John brings him a plastic 45 of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti"; "I had heard God," David will later declare. Obsessed with American culture, he collect 45s by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis and listens to American football transmissions on his father's radio.
Around this time, David begins his studies at Bromley Technical High School, alongside a young Peter Frampton and best friend George Underwood, with whom he forms a band, George and the Dragons. David plays a cheap guitar his father bought him and records songs on a tape recorder. Now a teenager, he accompanies Terry on trips to London, where he hears about music and literature and watches jazz performances, absorbing John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Albert Camus, Jack Kerouac and more through his half-brother.
He's also learning how to dress from record sleeves and films, and begins making whatever small alterations to his school uniform he can: wearing his tie slack instead of tight, and wearing round-toed shoes rather than pointed ones. In 1961, he and Underwood scuffle over a girl, and when Underwood catches David's eye throwing a punch, he tears the eye's sphincter muscles, preventing the pupil from dilating and contracting.
1963 to 1966
After leaving school, David promptly quits work as an electrician's assistant before becoming a designer at ad agency J. Walter Thompson. His boss, a music fanatic, sends David on errands to pick up records in downtown London, often telling him to pick up copies for himself; he finds Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, Dr. John and John Lee Hooker at this time. As blues music and Mod culture rises, George and the Dragons become the Kon-rads, but after recording a test single for Decca and subsequently being turned down, David departs. After a very brief stint as the Hooker Brothers, David and Underwood start the King Bees, in which David decides he'll go by the name Davie Jones. The King Bees record a single, but the reception is lukewarm.
When David agrees to paint his manager's office for a little extra cash, the other painter is a young, fellow musician named Marc Bolan; the two become fast friends, sharing song ideas and talking culture long into the night. Bowie joins a new band, the Manish Boys, in which he begins to find his feet as an ostentatious, campy frontman. They record a single in 1965 (one of the session guitar players on "I Pity the Fool" is a young Jimmy Page), and cause a small sensation when they're booted from a TV slot due to their long hair. David leaves to join the Lower Third, but when the band's new manager takes a shine to him, jealousy in the band leads to its dissolution.
By 1966, David is working with Kenneth Pitt, his first truly devoted, and resourceful, manager. Pitt's flat in London becomes a home away from home for David, who devours the literature and poetry on Pitt's bookshelves. Upon Pitt's recommendation that there are too many David Joneses, the young musician adopts a new name: David Bowie. His first recording under the name is "Can't Help Thinking About Me," a Pye Records single attributed to David Bowie and the Lower Third.
Pitt travels to New York to speak with Andy Warhol about representing his then-unknown new group, the Velvet Underground, and returns with an acetate of the unreleased The Velvet Underground & Nico, which he gives to Bowie. Bowie later writes that the listening experience "was shattering. Everything I both felt and didn't know about rock music was opened to me on one unreleased disc. The first track glided by innocuously enough and didn't register. However, from that point on, with the opening, throbbing, sarcastic bass and guitar of 'I'm Waiting For the Man,' the linchpin, the keystone of my ambition was driven home. This music was so savagely indifferent to my feelings. It didn't care if I liked it or not. It could give a fuck. It was completely preoccupied with a world unseen by my suburban eyes."
Around this time, he also catches new band Pink Floyd at London venue the Marquee, where lead singer Syd Barrett's theatricality leaves a lasting impression. These new influences take hold in the dying months of 1966, after Bowie finishes writing enough new material for an album.
1967 to 1970
Pitt signs a deal with Deram Records, and Bowie releases a number of singles in the first half of 1967 — "Rubber Band," "Love You Till Tuesday" and the novelty song "The Laughing Gnome" — but none of them earn him kudos, and his self-titled first album is released without fanfare. With the now-institutionalized Terry's mental health worsening, and Bowie's career plateauing, the singer adopts Buddhist meditation as a way to alleviate stress.
An employee at Bowie's publishing firm shows David Bowie to a 23-year-old musician and producer named Tony Visconti from New York. Visconti and Bowie are introduced; they start recording soon after. Their first singles together include "Karma Man" and "Let Me Sleep Beside You," on which Bowie seems to finally be finding a sound of his own. Bowie also meets Lindsay Kemp, a dancer who teaches him the essentials of movement, mime and Japanese Kabuki theatre, all of which will later become crucial elements of Bowie's exhilarating stage show. In late 1967, Deram drops Bowie, and Kemp and Bowie (who share a physical relationship as well as a professional one) work on a show together titled Pierrot in Turquoise. "I began to think about costuming music, creating an alternate version of reality onstage," Bowie will later say.
By early 1968, Bowie has shed Mod culture in favour of hippie aesthetics. He fails an audition for a touring performance of the musical Hair, but gets a part on BBC television production The Pistol Shot, where he meets his first love, a dancer who goes by the name Hermione Farthingale. The daughter of a wealthy lawyer, she lives in a small house in London; soon, they're cohabitating, and Bowie is living a quiet domestic hippie life, gardening and reading philosophy and poetry. Feeling less pressure commercially, Bowie's music becomes more folk-influenced and his interest in mime grows; he plays casual shows of both sorts around London, enjoying their more communal and creativity-focused aspect.
Bowie and Hermione split when his freewheeling sex life and increasingly erratic hours eventually become too much for her. The heartbreak is creatively good for Bowie, and inspires some of his best material yet: "Letter to Hermione," "An Occasional Dream" and a song that merges his sense of isolation with the space travel theme that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has made ubiquitous. "Space Oddity" convinces Mercury Records employee Calvin Mark Lee to finance the song's recording, and the demo earns him a deal at the label. Feeling that the song is a cheesy cash-in on the space travel fad, Visconti passes on the opportunity to record a full studio version of it. Bowie records the song at Trident Studios, where it's expanded into a widescreen epic featuring a Mellotron part played by studio keyboardist Rick Wakeman (later of Strawbs and Yes fame). Pitt pays a chart-fixer £140 — a regular practice in the 1960s — to help "Space Oddity" along, but although the single rockets to number 48 almost immediately, it lingers on the outskirts of the charts for most of the year.
In 1969, Bowie meets Mary Angela Barnett (better known as Angie), a Mercury employee, at a record release party for King Crimson and woos her by asking, "Do you jive?" Angie is smart, well-read, assertive and ambitious, and provides crucial support for Bowie when his father passes away before year's end. When a former journalist and copywriter named Olav Wyper takes over marketing at Phillips (Mercury's UK partner), he makes boosting "Space Oddity" a priority. The single hits number five and earns Bowie his first appearance on Top of the Pops in October.
After months of recording with Tony Visconti, Bowie's second self-titled album — a dark, psychedelic folk-rock suite that would finally announce him as a vital new voice — is released on November 4. (It will later be re-released as Space Oddity.) Bowie and Angie wed in March of 1970. Around this time, drummer John Cambridge, who played on Bowie's 1969 album, goes to Hull to convince Mick Ronson to join the fold. After a jam session, Bowie is so impressed that he allows Ronson to move in with him and Angie. Bowie, Ronson and Visconti set about converting part of the space into a rehearsal and recording studio where the foursome — Bowie, Ronson, Visconti and Cambridge — rehearse and exchange ideas constantly; Angie manages schedules, offers feedback, makes costumes and keeps the house running smoothly.
They call their band the Hype and each assume characters: Bowie is Rainbow Man, Visconti is Hype Man, Ronson is Gangster Man and Cambridge is Cowboy Man. Visconti will later recall their debut gig — where they play a mix of Space Oddity cuts and material that will appear on the gestating The Man Who Sold the World — as "the very first night of glam rock. Marc Bolan was visible resting his head on his arms on the edge of the stage, taking it all in. Bolan never admitted he even went to the gig."
When Bolan's T. Rex take off, Bowie is depressed and jealous; no longer feeling his manager capable of keeping up with the changing culture, David decides to legally part ways with Kenneth Pitt. Bowie, Pitt and a legal man named Tony Defries meet on May 7, 1970 to finalize the split; Defries sees Bowie's potential, and assumes the manager role. Bowie will later admit that Visconti and Ronson shaped much of the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie's hardest-rocking record, in the studio, but it's Bowie's lyrics about mental illness and war that add the album's famous sense of darkness. It's released on November 4, 1970.
1971 to 1972
On January 27, 1971, Bowie lands at Washington, DC's Dulles International Airport to embark on his first American press tour. The Man Who Sold the World isn't exactly a hit, but Mercury publicist Ron Oberman is intent on introducing Bowie to the right people. They head to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where he's introduced to Kim Fowley. "It was his 'I'm new in Hollywood, how does this place work?' phase," Fowley will later remark of Bowie's sobriety and general good behaviour. He's being handed records left and right, absorbing more American rock music, including a little-known band called the Stooges.
On May 30, back in England, Angie gives birth to Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. Cambridge is dismissed and replaced with Mick "Woody" Woodmansey, and David returns to writing, flush with ideas. In June, Bowie plays the songs live in front of 1,500 fans, who paid £1 each to enter, at the very first "Glastonbury Fair." Bowie lays down a series of demos at London's Radio Luxembourg Studios, including "Life on Mars?," "Oh! You Pretty Things," "Hang On to Yourself," "Moonage Daydream" and others that would appear on his next two albums, then summons Ronson and Woodmansey back to London (they'd headed north to find work while Bowie was writing; Visconti has moved on) to head into the studio in July. Ronson writes string arrangements for the songs, including "Life On Mars?"; many of his best are written, according to his wife, "In the loo. Without even a keyboard. Only by ear."
Influenced by artists like the Velvet Underground, John Lennon and Neil Young, the sessions are lively and inspired. The more piano-based Hunky Dory is the sound of Bowie hitting his stride, synthesizing his varied influences into a sound that is all his own on songs like "Changes," "Life On Mars?" and "Queen Bitch." Defries, Bowie's manager, successfully shops Hunky Dory to RCA in New York, and Angie and David Bowie fly there in the fall to sign the papers. Bowie meets Andy Warhol at the Factory on September 14, but Warhol is aloof; when Bowie plays him "Andy Warhol" from Hunky Dory, he's offended by the lyric "Andy Warhol looks a scream." "I tried to make small talk with him," Bowie will later admit, "and it wasn't getting anywhere. But then he saw my yellow shoes. He then started a whole rap about shoe design and that broke the ice."
Lou Reed is more polite when they meet for dinner, if a little sneering in general; he declines when Bowie invites him to Max's Kansas City, where Bowie meets Iggy Pop. Bowie and Pop form a fast friendship discussing music. Within months, Bowie's name is a hot topic in the taste-making underground circles in America; by the time Hunky Dory is released on December 17, the press is knocking.
In January of 1972, Bowie sits for a pivotal Melody Maker interview in which the writer establishes an air of expectancy surrounding Bowie's next album — "Everyone just knows that David is going to be a lollapalooza of a superstar throughout the entire world this year" — and Bowie himself cements it: "I'm going to be huge, and it's quite frightening in a way." The interview's bombshell, though, is when Bowie claims that "I'm gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones." The ambiguity, given Bowie's wife and son, is irresistible to the press, and the story is picked up widely. Bowie becomes a press favourite — "He was good for headlines, controversial, articulate, intelligent, always interesting," UK music journalist Chris Charlesworth will later note. (The question of Bowie's sexuality will become a favourite of journalists throughout Bowie's career, and Bowie will flip his answer, depending on the interview.)
The media frenzy makes a star of Bowie well before The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars drops. By February, after the initial shock of the statement has worn off, the band are warming up to the idea of being glammed-up rock stars, with the exception of Mick Ronson, who nearly walks before Woodmansey convinces him otherwise. "Mick," Bowie will say in a 1994 interview, "was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character. He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt Northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so that what you got was the old-fashioned yin and yang thing. As a rock duo, I thought we were every bit as good as Mick and Keith."
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is released on June 6, 1972. Ziggy Stardust, an anti-hero for a dystopian world, perfectly embodies the decadent, debauched '70s, and Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder (Visconti's replacement) give the record the rock'n'roll edge that truly sells it; "Five Years," "Moonage Daydream," "Starman" and "Suffragette City" will forever remain some of Bowie's most enduring work. The urgent cry, "You're not alone!," on album closer "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide," provides a rallying cry for marginalized people everywhere, turning Ziggy Stardust — and David Bowie with him — into a cultural leader for the first time.
After playing a series of shows at English colleges, the Ziggy Stardust tour kicks off in earnest, attracting feverish fans and garnering rave reviews. Bowie returns to Top of the Pops to play "Starman," a performance that will inspire the formation of bands like Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths and Siouxsie and the Banshees. "It's the concept of hope that the song communicates," Woodmansey will later claim to explain the popularity of "Starman." "That 'we're not alone' and 'they' contact the kids, not the adults, and kind of say 'get on with it. Let the children boogie.'"
When fellow UK rock band Mott the Hoople are on the verge of breaking up, Bowie pens "All the Young Dudes" for them — the song, and the album named after it, will become their most famous work. After an unsuccessful solo debut, Lou Reed comes to London to work on a followup in August; with Bowie's prodding and Ronson's support, Reed excavates tales of New York malaise and fatigue to make Transformer, still his most famous solo album. Bowie is gaining a reputation for having a golden touch. "The year started out with David Bowie fast gaining recognition as one of Lou Reed's trendy disciples," Billboard reports. "The year will end with the tables neatly turned."
In the fall, Bowie hosts a press event in London to preview the American leg of the Ziggy Stardust tour; there, photographer Mick Rock snaps one of the most famous rock'n'roll photos of all time as Iggy Pop throws his arms around the shoulders of Bowie and Reed. In September, now in New York, Bowie and Ronson audition keyboardists for their North American tour dates, and select Mike Garson, a jazz pianist; when they start writing new songs for the recording of Aladdin Sane in the coming months, Garson's skills play a crucial role in the album's piano-centric sound.
Bowie's first true American show is a sold-out night at the 3,500-capacity Cleveland Music Hall on September 22, 1972. Though the Spiders easily sell out most venues on the tour, including New York's Carnegie Hall, a date at an 11,000-capacity stadium in St. Louis attracts less than a thousand attendees. Bowie invites them down to the stage, and the band play an intimate gig to the grateful fans. After gigs, Bowie and Garson sometimes show up at cocktail lounges, Bowie still in his full Ziggy garb, to play Sinatra cover sets. By late October, they hit the West coast; a recording of one of their successful Santa Monica shows will become a famous bootleg until it's officially released by Virgin Records in 2008. While Bowie stays relatively sober on the tour, he's very sexually active; despite having an open marriage with Angie, their relationship is fraying.
1973 to 1974
In January 1973, Bowie returns to London to begin recording the songs he'd written in America, with the immense pressure of following up Ziggy Stardust on his shoulders. A second U.S. tour kicks off in February, ending in Hollywood in March.
While in L.A., Bowie invites groupie Lori Maddox, then still 13 years old, to have dinner; afterwards, they return to the Beverly Hilton hotel. "We were in the living room getting high and drinking champagne," Maddox will later say. "Sable [Starr, another famous '70s groupie] was fogging up the windows and writing 'I wanna fuck you' on them. At first I said, 'Yeah, go, you can have him.' 'Cause I was afraid. 45 minutes went by. And then an hour went by. All of a sudden the door opens, David comes walking out. So beautiful. I was mesmerized. He had flawless white porcelain skin. Carrot-red hair. Red kimono. A sight to be seen. My fear was gone." While Maddox claims "I was very aware of what was going on," the fact remains that she was 13 at the time.
Released on April 13, Aladdin Sane hits number one in the UK and sneaks into the U.S. Top 20. Perhaps even more nihilistic and glammy that its predecessor, it finds Bowie waxing campy about mortality, sex and America over piano and overdriven guitar on songs like "Time," "The Jean Genie" and "Cracked Actor." The latter would provide the title of an infamous 1974 Bowie documentary.
After touring Japan, tensions are high when the Spiders return to England due to the infrequent and inadequate payment they're receiving; they get cash when they need it on tour, but without paperwork and a payment schedule, it's hard to tell just how they're being compensated. Bowie takes their asking for money as an insult and secretly makes a decision to kill off Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Only Ronson knows ahead of time; the rest of the band find out when Bowie tells the crowd, at the end of their July 5 show at the Hammersmith Odeon, "Not only is it the last show of the tour, it's the last show we'll ever do." Within the hour, future Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones is stealing their gear out of the back of the venue.
A week later, Bowie flies to France with Mick Ronson to record Pinups, an record of cover songs from the 1960s and earlier. By this point, Bowie has become addicted to cocaine, a substance that, in the early '70s, is ubiquitous and synonymous with good times and luxury; it's legal to take publicly, and isn't yet widely considered addictive. It's not hindering his creativity, either: By the time Pinups is released on October 19 1973, Bowie has already recorded new songs "1984" and B-side "Dodo" and is planning his own theatrical production of George Orwell's novel 1984. He enters the studio in late 1973 to record most of it himself or dictate to others how it should be played.
When Bowie is denied the book's rights by Orwell's widow, Sonia Blair, he refashions the songs into a loose narrative about a dystopian future world called Hunger City, in which nihilistic, violent teenagers run the streets. In lieu of the original stage production, Bowie plans for a tour with an elaborate stage setup that reflects the themes of the forthcoming record, titled Diamond Dogs. Toni Basil, who would later choreograph David Byrne's hand gestures in the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" video, is hired to choreograph dance routines for the tour; Jules Fisher, the lighting designer, is a Tony Award winner.
RCA provides a huge budget for the tour, based on Bowie's rising star and the insane demand for a tour. American fans who, based on his "last show" speech, think he's done with touring for good will be presented with his most extravagant show yet: a theatrical set of a city, complete with streetlights, towers and a bridge that moves up and down, featuring brakes designed by Porsche. The bridge is shipped to Toronto to be tested during tour rehearsal in early 1974 where, one night, it suddenly falls 15 feet with Bowie on it; though the production team is frightened, he's unharmed. News of the tour is released to the public in the spring.
Bowie's management company, MainMan, financially drained from the limos, studio time, expense accounts and cocaine, needs money, so he rushes out a single, "Rebel Rebel," in February. Diamond Dogs, Bowie's darkest album yet and his last to flirt with glam rock, is released on May 24, 1974. The Diamond Dogs tour kicks off in Montreal on June 14, and it's an impressive affair: when Bowie first appears, he's seated on a giant hand; he never addresses the audience, or mentions the city he's in; there are no breaks between songs; during "Cracked Actor," he sings to a skull, Hamlet-style, and dons boxing gloves for "Panic in Detroit"; and he leaves without taking a bow. It's a spectacle mostly unseen in pop and rock performance, setting a new precedent for the potential of concert performance. And yet, Bowie tires of it; when the first leg of the tour wraps, he retires the spectacle, opting for a stripped-back soul revue that reflects the direction of his next album.
Led by RCA studio guitarist Carlos Alomar, Bowie's been making trips into the Bronx to absorb the unique culture there, and he and Alomar become close friends. In August, Bowie begins recording Young Americans, a "blue-eyed soul" tribute to American funk, soul and R&B, at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, the studio that launched the careers of the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and the Spinners. Alomar brings in his old high school classmate, an then-unknown singer named Luther Vandross, to contribute to the recording of the song "Young Americans"; Vandross suggests that it needs backing vocals, and Bowie is impressed by his instincts. The two co-write a song called "Fascination" for Young Americans. "It was the first time that I ever had someone of his stature be encouraging," Vandross will tell Marc Spitz in Bowie: A Biography. "[Bowie] was constantly telling me, 'You've got to stick with this. You're going to make it.'"
When the second leg of the Diamond Dogs tour begins in September 1974, now titled the Philly Dogs tour and featuring Bowie on a sparse stage, backed by his ace soul band, including Vandross singing backup and often opening the shows, old fans are puzzled and upset by the change. Bowie's gone disco, ahead of the curve — it will be years before such a thing is rendered acceptable by the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever, to uncomfortable white American audiences. David Live, a live album that captures a night of Bowie's Diamond Dogs tour, is released at the end of October.
In the dying months of 1974, Bowie is being filmed for Alan Yentob's documentary Cracked Actor. The film depicts Bowie at his most manic yet, subsisting on cocaine, milk, peppers, coffee and cigarettes, and referring to himself in the third person. He makes a disastrous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in which he's seen tapping a cane, seeming unable to make sense of Cavett's soft questions; it airs December 5.
1975 to 1976
In January of 1975, work continues on Young Americans. Bowie invites John Lennon to New York's Power Plant, where he's recording a version of "Across the Universe"; while there, Carlos Alomar plays a riff for the two singers, who make up lyrics to new song "Fame" on the spot. Around this time, Bowie is growing more paranoid; he has little access to or control over his funds, and begins asking questions of his manager, Defries, about where his money is going. He hires a lawyer and, on January 29, heads to the RCA offices to tell them he's breaking with Defries. When he receives a letter of severance a week later, Defries sends RCA an injunction to stop them from releasing Young Americans. The reported settlement is that Defries will own a piece of all of Bowie's recordings from 1972 through 1982.
Corinne "Coco" Schwab becomes Bowie's new personal assistant; she was originally hired as a MainMan secretary on the recommendation of Angie, who by now has little to no contact with Bowie. At the 1975 Grammy Awards on March 1, Bowie introduces himself to "Ladies, gentlemen and others" before presenting the Best R&B Female Performance award to Aretha Franklin. Young Americans is released March 7; produced mostly by the returned Tony Visconti, it's a sinuous, swaggering record that continues Bowie's flawless streak of innovative, stylish records. In April, he leaves New York for Los Angeles, staying at the house of Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes, who spends most of the year on the road. Left to his own devices, the paranoid Bowie, who's stopped going out entirely, has stashed all of the kitchen knives and sharp objects under the bed. He's reading Psychic Self-Defense and books about Aleister Crowley, the Nazis and Kirlian, a type of photography that allegedly captures one's aura; his only visitors are couriers, drug dealers and groupies. "If you really want to lose all your friends," Bowie will later say, "that's the drug to do it with. Cocaine severs any link you have with another human being. I would work at songs for hours and hours and days and days and then realize after a few days that I had done absolutely nothing."
When Bowie becomes certain that there are witches after his semen, with the goal of making a child to sacrifice to the devil, he reaches out to a famous witch named Walli Elmlark, a teacher at the New York School of Occult Arts and Sciences who has given spiritual guidance to rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix. In L.A., Elmlark exorcises the pool — Angie, who comes to visit when Bowie called her in a cocaine-induced panic, will later swear that the pool bubbled and smoked — and writes out spells for Bowie to use should the spirits return.
Bowie takes the lead in Nicolas Roeg's film The Man Who Fell to Earth, an allegorical film about the corruptive power of greed that begins filming in July. Roeg mostly stays out of Bowie's personal (read: drug-related) affairs, but working on the film keeps Bowie away from dealers and, thus, fairly sober. Upon the film's completion, Bowie returns to L.A. in songwriting mode, assuming he was writing the film's score; when he finds out ex-Mamas and the Papas musician John Phillips is composing it, he continues writing anyway, and books time at the new Cherokee Studios in Hollywood with Alomar and the rest of a newly formed band. They rarely leave, and without windows and clocks, writing and recording continues unfettered. The songs mix the funk and soul of Young Americans with the motorik rhythms of Neu! and the robotic synth-pop of Kraftwerk.
When Frank Sinatra comes to the studio, he and Bowie hit it off; Bowie contributes harmonies to one of Sinatra's tracks, and when Sinatra approves of Bowie's "Wild is the Wind" cover, Bowie decides to make it the final track of his forthcoming album, Station to Station. In promotional appearances to tease the album's single "Golden Years" in late 1975, he appears gaunt and unhealthy. Following the album's release on January 23, 1976, Bowie plots the Isolar tour, which kicks off in Vancouver in February. The tour is austere and minimalist; Bowie dresses in a sharp black suit, introducing himself with the intro to "Station to Station": "The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers' eyes." A young Madonna is in the audience at the Detroit show on March 1; 20 years later, she will induct David Bowie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When Iggy Pop hits rock bottom, puking mysterious colours, Bowie asks Pop to accompany him on tour. They're briefly arrested for marijuana possession in Rochester; in New York, they head to CBGB to catch new band the Ramones. Bowie returns to London for a series of sold-out shows; on May 2, he arrives from Victoria Station in a Mercedes, from which he waves to fans and issues a Nazi salute. After newspapers report the incident, Bowie unfortunately follows it up by claiming, in an interview with Cameron Crowe, that "Britain is ready for a fascist leader… I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism. I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership." He adds, "Rock stars are fascists. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars." Though he'd later admit that his mind was addled by cocaine at the time, the incident, along with a racist tirade by a drunken Eric Clapton a month later, in August, leads to the formation of the Rock Against Racism campaign.
RCA release greatest hits package ChangesOneBowie in May 1976. In July, Bowie, Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and Carlos Alomar leave for France. Bowie begins working with Pop on his solo debut, The Idiot. Bowie moves to Switzerland in late 1976 in an attempt to gradually wean himself off of cocaine.
Rather than aiming to make a hit album to capitalize on the success of Young Americans and Station to Station, Bowie brings the remnants of his film score for The Man Who Fell to Earth to France's Château d'Hérouville to record his next album with Visconti and former Roxy Music keyboardist/producer and solo artist Brian Eno. Eschewing schedules and traditional writing methods, Bowie delves into the painful experiences of the last few years during these sessions; encouraged by Eno's Oblique Strategy Cards (a deck of inspirational cards, each with a suggestion like "Honour thy error as a hidden intention"), he indulges his most left-field impulses. "I decided I had to start writing in terms of trying to find a new music language for myself to write in," Bowie will later claim. "I needed somebody to help with that because I was a bit lost and too subjective about it all."
The result is a mix of spiky, abrasive and vibrant songs that address Bowie's cocaine anguish ("Sound and Vision" and "Breaking Glass") and more ambient, instrumental compositions like "Warszawa," "Subterraneans" and "Art Decade." As such, Low is split into sonically distinct halves: the more traditional songs comprise Low's first side; the second side houses Bowie's ambient pieces. Bowie and Iggy Pop move to West Berlin, where Low is mixed. Though the record is submitted before the end of 1976, RCA are hesitant to release it for the Christmas season, putting it off until the new year.
1977 to 1979
Low is finally released on January 14, 1977. In Berlin, Bowie enjoys his relatively low profile, spending his free time in bookstores and the local pub. He meets with Visconti and Eno at Hansa Studios regularly, where they continue the fruitful sessions and adhere to the creative philosophies that birthed Low; he's also working with Iggy Pop on his The Idiot followup, Lust for Life.
The Berlin Wall, visible from Hansa Studios, casts a shadow over city life in 1977, and the sense of constantly being monitored heightens the emotion charge of the sessions. One day, inspired by seeing Visconti and his mistress embracing nearby, Bowie writes a song that imagines a couple living on either side of the divided Germany, forced to meet at the Berlin Wall. Eno and Visconti set to work fleshing it out, and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp is flown out to contribute; his looping guitar riff provides the driving force of one of Bowie's greatest songs, "Heroes."
In summer 1977, Bowie joins Iggy Pop on his North American Lust for Life tour as a keyboardist; he stays seated throughout the shows, letting the spotlight shine exclusively on Pop. Blondie are hired as the opening band. When Bowie returns to Berlin after the tour, he refocuses on Low follow-up "Heroes." Like its predecessor, the new record is organized with a more traditional first side and an ambient second side that features ominous pieces like "Sense of Doubt" and "Neukoln." On September 16, Bowie's childhood friend Marc Bolan dies in a car crash; Bowie attends the funeral. That same month, Bowie appears on Bing Crosby's holiday special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, where the two sing "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" together, Bowie providing a contrapuntal melody specially added to the song for the duet. It will become a holiday staple. "Heroes" is released on October 14.
After deciding earlier in the year to finally divorce, Angie and Bowie throw a celebratory divorce party, though things will get complicated in the years to come. Bowie spends the rest of the year reconnecting with his son and rehearsing for his 1978 Isolar II world tour, preparing a set list that mixes Low and "Heroes" material with Ziggy Stardust hits. The tour kicks off in March 1978 and lasts until December; the set is recorded and released as a Tony Visconti-produced live album titled Stage in September, around the same time that Bowie heads into the Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland to beginning recording the third and final album of his so-called Berlin triptych. Though Eno will later claim that the spark behind Low and "Heroes" was "petering out" by this point, Lodger is only slightly more accessible than those records: studio experiments include reversing tracks, using identical chord progressions on totally different songs and employing sounds from around the world on "African Night Flight" and "Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)."
Bowie is convinced to star actor David Hemmings' directorial debut, Just a Gigolo, swayed by the fact that legendary German actress Marlene Dietrich is attached; it's ripped to shreds by critics upon its release in February, 1979. Around this time, the recording of Lodger is finished in New York City. It's released on May 18, along with promotional videos for "Boys Keep Swinging," "D.J." and "Look Back in Anger." In the pre-MTV era, few artists dedicate time or money to the music video format, but Bowie's ahead of his time: "Boys Keep Swinging" features three female backups singers (three Bowies, all in drag); "D.J." finds Bowie walking through public streets as the camera rolls, with fans mobbing him and kissing him as he sings. In New York, Bowie discovers new wave, and falls in love with it watching new artists like the Human League and Klaus Nomi. Bowie and Angie spend much of the year settling the terms of their divorce, which will be finalized in early 1980.
1980 to 1983
On January 5, 1980, Bowie makes his debut on Saturday Night Live. With Klaus Nomi's help, Bowie performs captivating, high-concept renditions of "The Man Who Sold the World," "TVC15" and "Boys Keep Swinging" that feature a solid plastic tuxedo, a pink stuffed poodle and an oversized Bowie head atop a flailing puppet, respectively; it remains a landmark television event.
With the freaks and weirdoes being pushed out of punk by violent skinheads and National Front supporters, New Romanticism takes off. At recording studio the Power Station in New York, Bowie is fusing his inventive Berlin style with elements of this new sound and big, brash pop production. Meanwhile, punks transitioning to softer alternative music are finding Bowie's early and mid-'70s catalogue, causing something of a Bowie renaissance. Steve Strange, of New Romantic band Visage, founds "Bowie Night" at Billy's Club, where the DJs play Bauhaus, Nina Hagen, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and more.
The event becomes so huge that eventually it's moved to the Blitz Club, where Strange works the door and enforces a strict no-norms policy that tightens further when publicity for turning away a drunken Mick Jagger makes the lines even longer. When Bowie shows up at the club one night, he asks Strange to round up four people to appear in his music video for forthcoming single "Ashes to Ashes." The single — which closes the loop on a decade of artistic invention by including a reference that acknowledges Major Tom of 1969's "Space Oddity" as a junkie — is his first number one in the UK since "Fame" in 1975. Bowie releases Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) on September 12, 1980, to great acclaim.
After rehearsing all summer, Bowie draws from his early mime and theatre experience to play John Merrick in stage play The Elephant Man from autumn until the end of the year. Bowie is nearly unrecognizable onstage, committing fully to the part; critics praise his captivating performance, and between the reviews and word of mouth, the theatrical run quickly sells out. When Mark David Chapman is apprehended after murdering John Lennon on December 8, a program for The Elephant Man is found among his belongings, along with a photo he'd taken of Bowie; Chapman would later claim that he had plans to kill Bowie, who was second on his list after Lennon, and Bowie tightens his security.
Shaken, he returns to Switzerland in January of 1981, where he stays mostly out of the spotlight for a few years to focus on raising his son. When Queen visit Montreux in July to record Hot Space, Bowie pays a visit, and the dignified but passionate anthem "Under Pressure" is written, recorded and mixed in a single day. It becomes a number one single shortly thereafter. Bowie collaborates with disco maven Giorgio Moroder that same month on "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)"; it will be released in early 1982 to coincide with the erotic horror film Cat People.
In November 1981, RCA releases a second hits compilation, ChangesTwoBowie. Around the same time, Bowie plays the lead in the BBC's televised adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Baal and releases a five-song EP of songs from the production. He takes a role as Catherine Deneuve's vampire companion in Tony Scott's The Hunger, and while the film has a cult following now, it's seen as a failure upon its release a year later. By the end of 1982, Bowie has his eye on returning to music after his longest break between records yet. Happy, free from the grasp of drug addiction and determined to reinvent himself as a suit-wearing pop mega-star, he enlists famed producer and Chic founder Nile Rodgers (an avowed David Bowie fan) to produce his next album. The choice hurts Tony Visconti, who won't record with Bowie for another 20 years.
Rodgers and Bowie begin work at the Power Station in the winter, recording the songs Bowie has been writing for the past year, fusing funk, disco and new wave into a template that Rodgers will use later with artists like Madonna, Duran Duran, INXS and others. Steve Ray Vaughan, who Bowie meets at Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, is called in to play guitar on the album. Bowie's contract with RCA is finished, and he signs with EMI, who release the single "Let's Dance" in March. It soars to number one, setting the stage for the release of Let's Dance release on April 14. It will become the best-selling album of his career, but at the time, it divides old and new Bowie fans. "China Girl," a song that Bowie co-wrote with Iggy Pop for The Idiot, is released as a single, and later as a music video; the royalties Pop earns for it will sustain him for roughly the next decade.
In May, Bowie's gay following is dismayed when he refers to his early '70s sexuality as "youthful experimentation" in a Rolling Stone interview. Many see it as a betrayal that he used homosexuality as an accoutrement that he could shed, especially given the then-current AIDS epidemic. That same month, Bowie departs on the Serious Moonlight tour, hitting 15 countries over 96 performances between then and the year's end. In July, Bowie graces the cover of TIME magazine.
MTV, by now an established cultural force, invites Bowie to an interview in which he grills VJ Mark Goodman about the channel's unwillingness to play videos by black artists. In October, D.A. Pennebaker's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars concert film is finally released, a full decade after it's filmed at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973. Bowie doesn't write while on tour, but despite being exhausted when he returns home at the end of 1983, he feels pressured by EMI to follow-up the success of Let's Dance, and immediately begins writing his next album.
1984 to 1987
1984 marks the beginning of Bowie's creative nadir; in 1995, Bowie will note that "Let's Dance was a good record, but it was only meant as a one-off project. I had every intention of continuing to do some unusual material after that. But the success of that record really forced me, in a way, to continue the beast. It was my own doing, of course, but I felt, after a few years, that I had gotten stuck." The two original tracks on Tonight — "Loving the Alien," a song that Bowie will hand-pick for his self-curated 2008 compilation iSelect, and "Blue Jean" — are the album's best; elsewhere, it's a mix of covers (does the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" need a redo?) and old, tossed-off Iggy Pop co-writes ("Neighbourhood Threat," Tumble and Twirl" and the title track, which features Tina Turner). It's a disaster of lazy writing, cringe-worthy faux-reggae and tinny production, but it sells well upon its release on September 1, 1984, reaching number one thanks to leftover goodwill from Let's Dance.
Bowie and director Julien Temple release a 22-minute music video for the album's "Blue Jean" titled Jazzin' for Blue Jean, for which Bowie wins a Grammy. By late 1984, David's half-brother Terry is in decline: he's been in and out of mental health centres, and his wife, citing Terry's alcoholism, has divorced him. On January 16, 1985, Terry checks himself out of the hospital and commits suicide by laying his head over nearby train tracks.
Bowie doesn't tour in support of Tonight, but pulls together a band, including Thomas Dolby on keyboards, to play a now-legendary set at the London half of 1985's charity concert event Live Aid alongside Queen, U2, Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Who and more. Bowie's music video cover of Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" with Mick Jagger, recorded and shot for charity, is premiered worldwide at the event.
Bowie is cast as Jareth, the Goblin King in Jim Henson's Labyrinth alongside co-lead Jennifer Connelly, written by Monty Python's Terry Jones and executive produced by George Lucas. Filming of the campy, Muppet-based film begins in early summer of 1985 and finishes near the end of the year, to be released in the summer of 1986. It's a commercial flop, but it will become a cult favourite for children who grew up with it. The film and soundtrack include five original songs by Bowie, none of them very good.
By mid-1986, Bowie is back in Switzerland, writing a new album on which he aims to return to his rock'n'roll roots. He turns 40 on January 8, 1987, as he's finishing his next album, Never Let Me Down. It's released on April 27, and though it includes some ambitious high points like "Time Will Crawl," a bouncy but melancholy song about the Chernobyl disaster that remains one of Bowie's favourites, it's only slightly better than Tonight. Bowie's theatrical, big-budget Glass Spider world tour, in support of the album, lasts from May until December, and includes Peter Frampton in the live line-up. In the meantime, he has plans to return to the studio to indulge his more experimental side, but Never Let Me Down's poor critical reception, and the dismissal of the tour as over-produced — it features a 60-foot, brightly lit steel spider from whose head Bowie emerges — discourages him.
1988 to 1993
With indie rock and hip-hop taking hold as exciting new art forms, Bowie's big, shiny, over-produced stadium rock has grown stale. In an effort to return to the basics, he begins jamming with long-time collaborator Erdal Kizilcay and Reeves Gabrels, the husband of one of Bowie's press staff that he befriends after hearing him play guitar. After Gabrels is flown to Switzerland in early 1988, Bowie recruits Tony and Hunt Sales, with whom he played supporting Iggy Pop on the Lust for Life tour (and the sons of American entertainer Soupy Sales) to jam with them (Kizilcay doesn't join). As Tony recalls, Bowie "didn't know exactly what he wanted to do, but he wanted Hunt and I to meet Reeves and maybe we could all write together, come up with something."
Inspired by the sessions, Bowie forms Tin Machine, his first band in over 20 years. The band idea is a legitimate surprise to Gabrels and the Sales brothers, and a relief for Bowie; desiring to contribute without leading, he insists that the band be a democracy, free from record contracts and driven by enjoyment and passion. By late 1988, they're rehearsing and recording at Mountain Studios in Montreux, recording live off-the-floor with minimal overdubbing. Recording finishes in early 1989, and the first album, Tin Machine, is released May 22, to mixed reviews. Some praise the new direction; others are disappointed that Bowie is fading into the background of a generic rock band, shedding the theatricality that had long been his calling card. The fact that they're frequently wearing suits, which takes them out of the back-to-basics context Bowie is seemingly aiming for, doesn't help. "Under the God," a song condemning racism, fascism and "right-wing dicks," fares well on rock radio, though, and after playing a series of shows in the summer of 1989 at smaller, more rock-based venues, the band head to Sydney, Australia to record a Tin Machine follow-up.
Bowie takes a break in early 1990 to begin rehearsals for his Sound+Vision tour, a greatest hits tour that Bowie promises will be his last before retiring most of his 1970s catalogue from his live repertoire. "It's time to put about 30 or 40 songs to bed and it's my intention that this will be the last time I'll ever do those songs completely," Bowie says. "It's so easy to kind of keep going on and saying, well, you can rely on those songs, you can rely on that to have a career or something, and I'm not sure I want that." Bowie sets up a phone line and allows mail-in ballots to request songs for the Sound+Vision set list. "Fame," "Let's Dance," "Changes," "Heroes" and "Blue Jean" are favourites; cheeky NME readers stuff the ballot with votes for 1967's "The Laughing Gnome," but when Bowie realizes that the magazine has set up the joke campaign, he disqualifies the votes. Kizilcay re-joins Bowie for the simple, understated Sound+Vision tour, his largest yet, which hits 27 countries over 108 dates between March and October 1990. On October 14, Bowie is introduced to Somali supermodel Iman: "I was naming the children the night we met," Bowie will later say. They will marry in 1992.
Tin Machine return to the studio upon Bowie's return in late 1990. In December, Bowie splits with EMI, and by 1991, despite interest in Tin Machine fading, the band sign with Victory Music. A new album, Tin Machine II, features a Roxy Music cover and two songs sung by Hunt Sales. Described by a press release as "just as impure and twisted, but more R&B and less abrasive," Tin Machine II is met with negative reviews upon its September 2 release. The band embark on the It's My Life Tour from October 1991 to February 1992, and play Saturday Night Live, Bowie's second appearance on the show, on November 23, 1991.
Bowie's friend and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury dies of an AIDS-related illness a day later, on November 24. Bowie agrees to perform at Mercury's tribute concert at Wembley Stadium on April 20, 1992. Both Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter and former Spider from Mars Mick Ronson join Bowie onstage for "All the Young Dudes"; Annie Lennox fills in for Mercury on "Under Pressure"; the remaining Queen members back Bowie's band on "Heroes." In July, Tin Machine release a live album titled Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby; it sells poorly. Bowie plans to record again with Tin Machine, but the urge to return to his solo career is too strong, and "personal problems within the band" — including Hunt Sales' allegedly worsening drug addiction — lead to the band's dissolution. In 1996, Bowie will look back fondly on Tin Machine as a turning point: "For better or worse it helped me to pin down what I did and didn't enjoy about being an artist. It helped me, I feel, to recover as an artist."
Bowie and Iman meet throughout 1991, celebrating monthly "anniversaries" on the 14th of every month. Bowie proposes on a romantic boat ride around the Seine in Paris; they're married in June of 1992. By this point, Bowie is back in the studio working on a new album with Nile Rodgers after reconnecting in New York a year previous. They've agreed not to rehash Let's Dance, instead citing R&B, jazz and even hip-hop as reference points. Bowie's new label, Savage Records, has given Bowie a big budget based on Rodgers' involvement, and the duo spend the next year in the studio.
Impressed by Morrissey's Mick Ronson-produced Your Arsenal, Bowie invites the former Spider to play on his new album, and decides to record a cover of the singer's "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday." Iman inspires five songs, and three of them, "The Wedding," "Pallas Athena" and "The Wedding Song," make the final cut. Black Tie White Noise is released on April 5, 1993. It's well-produced, and though the songwriting pales next to Let's Dance, the album is considered something of a return to greatness after years of losing the plot. It's his last UK number one album until 2013's The Next Day. On April 23, Ronson passes away.
After sessions for a new Tin Machine record fizzle, Bowie agrees to compose a soundtrack for BBC2's serialized television adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel The Buddha of Suburbia, writing with Erdal Kizilcay in Switzerland. At turns jazzy, ambient and electronic, it evokes the brilliance of Low and "Heroes"; at one point, Bowie refers to it as his favourite album he's written. The soundtrack garners rave reviews when it's released in November, but it remains an obscurity to the general public. In a set for MTV Unplugged recorded in November and aired on December 16, Nirvana, perhaps the biggest band in the world at the time, play an acoustic cover of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," breathing new life into Bowie's legend.
1994 to 1997
Bowie reconnects with Brian Eno, and in January 1994 the two visit the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in Vienna, Austria, where several of the patients have become famous for their Outsider Art. In the summer, Bowie invites Eno, Kizilcay, Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson to jam at Switzerland's Mountain Studios. Eno is back to his old ways, layering electronics over the sessions and writing individual assignment letters to the players that urge them to inhabit characters and play in specific styles — "You are the disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes that were suppressed." The sessions mix electronic music with rock, ambient and industrial; Bowie is obsessed with Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. As the band jams, Bowie, paints and assembles a narrative that will designate the ensuing album, 1. Outside, a concept album. Loosely: it's the end of the millennium, and the new art craze is mutilating and murdering human beings; a hard-boiled, sci-fi detective named Nathan Adler is in search of a missing baby who's feared dead. The music, on the other hand, feels passionate and purposeful, despite running a whopping 75 minutes. 1. Outside is released on September 26, 1995 and earns positive reviews.
Bowie invites Nine Inch Nails to open the first leg of the Outside Tour, which kicks off that month and lasts until October 13. Trent Reznor is initially reluctant to meet his hero, but eventually agrees, and the two become peers. Bowie and Reznor agree to eschew show intermissions in favour of a four-song segue that slowly transitions from one set into the next: Bowie plays "Scary Monsters," backed by Nine Inch Nails; Reznor and Bowie sing the NIN's "Reptile" together; the curtain rises to reveal Bowie's band, who accompany NIN on Bowie's "Hallo Spaceboy"; then NIN leave the stage, and Bowie's band backs Reznor and Bowie on "Hurt"; Bowie continues alone from there. Unfortunately, Nine Inch Nails are a scintillating act to follow, and the audiences are mostly there for the openers; the crowd thins considerably after Reznor's exit at the North American dates.
In 2003, Bowie will tell Belgian magazine HUMO that "It was an extremely young audience, between about 12 and 17 years old. My starting point was simply: I've just made an adventurous album, what can I do now to [make] the concerts as adventurous. Looking at it in that way, it seemed logical to confront myself with the NIN audience. I knew it would be hard to captivate them by music they never heard, by an artist whose name was the only familiar thing."
Morrissey is enlisted to open the European leg of the tour, but the problem is familiar: the former Smiths singer has his own diehard fans that want more than an opening set. Unlike Nine Inch Nails, Morrissey is too proud to work on a collaborative segue (He refers to it as worshipping "at the temple of Bowie"), and high tension throughout the tour leads to Morrissey throwing subtle barbs at Bowie from the stage. He quits two weeks in, after a show in Aberdeen, Scotland on November 29.
On January 17, 1996, a week or so after his 49th birthday, Bowie is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Madonna and David Byrne. The European tour ends in February of 1996, and Bowie immediately heads back into the studio, where he and Reeves Gabrels start experimenting with aggressive electronic sound. They don't hire an outside producer; Bowie tells the Seattle Times that, "Unlike most drum and bass things, we didn't just take parts from other people's records and sample them. On the snare drum stuff, Zac [Alford, Bowie's drummer] went away and did his own loops and worked out all kinds of strange timings and rhythms. Then we sped those up to your regular 160 beats per minute. We kept all sampling in-house and created our own soundscape in a way." He uses a synthesizer to distort and filter the sounds of his guitar and saxophone, mixing European electronic influences like the Prodigy with more American industrial and rock sounds.
Around this time, production begins on director Julian Schnabel's film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, in which he's asked Bowie to play the role of Andy Warhol; Bowie turns in a committed but interpretive performance that finds him retaining his British accent. On breaks from set, Bowie wanders into SoHo dressed as Warhol, just to see the reactions he gets. Basquiat is released to theatres in August, around the time that recording of his drum & bass-inspired album, Earthling, finishes.
In the fall, Bowie is approached by a Wall Street investor named David Pullman with the idea that Bowie offer future royalties and a fixed interest rate from his pre-1990 recordings (25 albums, 287 songs) to investment firms; he calls them "Bowie Bonds." Funded by January 1997 and raved about in the Wall Street Journal, the bonds are bought for $55 million by Prudential Insurance Company of America. It's an incredibly prescient move that eventually allows Bowie to buy the share of his pre-1982 catalogue rights back from former manager Tony Defries.
Bowie begins 1997 with a massive show at New York's Madison Square Garden on January 7 to celebrate his 50th birthday. He's joined by a mix of new and old bands paying homage to the star, including Sonic Youth, the Pixies' Frank Black, Billy Corgan, the Foo Fighters, the Cure and Lou Reed. Earthling is released February 3, 1997, with a cover that features Bowie wearing a Union Jack-inspired jacket designed by Alexander McQueen. The Earthling Tour launches in June and lasts until November. In October, a Trent Reznor remix of the album's "I'm Afraid of Americans" becomes Bowie's first major radio single of the '90s, and Earthling is nominated for a Best Alternative Music Performance Grammy Award.
1998 to 2004
By 1998, Bowie is internet-obsessed. Since 1993, he's used a personal computer to write lyrics and make digital art; that same year, he released Black Tie White Noise's "Jump They Say" as a CD-ROM that allowed fans to remix the song on their computer. Work begins on BowieNet, a Bowie-centric dial-up internet service provider that offers unique online content to fans. Launched on September 1, 1998, BowieNet offers fans the chance to view Bowie's personal art archives and even chat with Bowie and other fans online; it predates proto-social media like Friendster by half a decade. The homepage reads: "I welcome all you web travellers to the first community-driven internet site that focuses on music, film, literature, painting and more, where you can interact with all the members of our adventurous new project. The purpose of BowieNet is interactivity and community […] — everybody has a voice." In 2007, Bowie will be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 11th annual Webbys.
In November, Todd Haynes releases his film Velvet Goldmine, a depiction of the glam-rock era including proxy characters for Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop; Bowie denies Haynes the rights to his music, so the soundtrack features Roxy Music, T. Rex, Brian Eno and Iggy and the Stooges instead. A decade later, Bob Dylan will allow Haynes the rights to his catalogue for the much better I'm Not There.
In late 1998, Bowie begins work on the soundtrack for the computer game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, which features two characters based on him, and gives input on the game's storyline and design. The songs are slower and more introspective than most of his mid- to late '90s work, and find him moving away from his electronic music fascination and looking back on his past work. He holds a "Cyber Song" contest on BowieNet to write lyrics for the song that will become "What's Really Happening"; the winner receives a trip to New York in May to watch Bowie record the song's vocals, and is allowed to record backup vocals as well. On August 23, Bowie appears on VH1 Storytellers, where he performs and reveals thoughts and feelings behind favourites from across his catalogue.
Though he rerecords parts and rewrites lyrics, Bowie uses much of the Omikron soundtrack's music for his next album, 'Hours…', which he releases digitally on September 21 and on CD October 4, two days after playing Saturday Night Live again. Reeves Gabrels leaves the fold after the album's release, citing exhaustion with the music industry and tension between him and Bowie's manager, Coco Schwab. Omikron is released in November, and Bowie closes the year with the short, nine-date 'Hours…' tour.
In June of 2000, Bowie plays Glastonbury Festival for the second time. That same week, he heads into the BBC to record a session for the BBC Radio Theatre, to be included with past sessions on the release of Bowie at the Beeb later that year. On August 15, Iman gives birth to Bowie's first daughter, Alexandria Zahra. Bowie begins works with producer Mark Plati on Toy, a planned album of revisited songs from his early catalogue ("I Dig Everything," "Liza Jane" and "London Boys" among them) to be released in 2001, but new label Sony pressures Bowie to release a wholly original new album.
Toy is scrapped, but the original songs ("Afraid" among them) are saved for sessions with Tony Visconti, with whom Bowie has recently reconnected. After starting in Manhattan, the duo move to Allaire Studios in New York State's Catskill Mountains, where the beauty and wildlife instil Bowie with a sense that his next album should sound expansive and powerful. Around this time, he quits smoking, and finds time to film a cameo in the 2001 Ben Stiller-starring film, Zoolander.
Bowie is upstate when the planes fly into the World Trade Centre's twin towers on September 11, 2001. After ensuring his family is fine, he tries to return to recording, but ends up quietly watching from the studio balcony as the smoke swells upwards from the city into the clouds. When Paul McCartney begins organizing a benefit concert for the victims of 9/11, called the Concert for New York City, Bowie jumps at the chance to perform. He forms a band and opens the October 20 event with a stripped-down rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "America." Bowie claims that all of the album's songs were written before the event, but it remains hard not to read the events of 9/11 into Heathen, especially given the lyrics on "Sunday": "Nothing remains / We could run when the rain slows / Look for the cars or signs of life / Where the heat goes / Look for the drifters / We should crawl under the bracken."
The death of his mother Peggy Jones in April, casts further darkness over the sprawling, cinematic Heathen, which includes covers of Neil Young ("I've Been Waiting For You") and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy ("I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship") and the long-gestating, pensive "Slip Away." Upon its release on June 11, 2002, Heathen earns Bowie his best reviews since 1. Outside. Citing his no-longer-youthful visage, Bowie neglects to film any music videos for the album.
In July, he joins Moby's three-week Area 2 festival tour, which he bookends with his own Heathen dates; it ends, in October, with a show in each of New York's five boroughs, Bowie's way of showing love for his adopted home. By this point, the former megastar is enjoying blending into the background of the city, and makes regular appearance at the shows of younger, up-and-coming bands like the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol. That "New York sound" inspires the writing of his next album, which he begins recording in January of 2003.
New compositions "Fall Dog Bombs the Moon" and "Never Get Old," covers of the Moderns Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" and "George Harrison's "Try Some, Buy Some" and "Bring Me the Disco King," a song written in the late '70s and demoed for Black Tie White Noise, all make the final cut for Reality, which is released on September 16. It's followed by A Reality Tour in October. Of the tour's Toronto date, Exclaim! says "This is Bowie at his most casual and relaxed, sharing laughs with the audience and carrying on between songs."
At 110 shows, it's set to be the longest of Bowie's career, but it's cut short in June 2004, after a performance at the Hurricane Festival in Germany, when Bowie is forced to undergo an angioplasty procedure for an acutely blocked artery. Bowie says that: ""I'm so pissed off because the last ten months of this tour have been so... fantastic. Can't wait to be fully recovered and get back to work again." In October, a recording of the tour's Dublin stop is released as a DVD, but Bowie will never tour again.
2005 to 2012
Bowie mostly retreats from public life to focus on his health and family. He records one-off songs for films like Stealth, makes an onstage appearance at Arcade Fire's CMJ performance and contributes backing vocals to TV on the Radio's "Province" in 2005. On February 8, 2006, he's awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He appears onstage with David Gilmour in May, then performs alongside Alicia Keys in November at a benefit show for charity Keep a Child Alive. In September, Bowie appears as himself on an episode of Extras. When he's asked to curate the 2007 High Line Festival, Bowie picks comedian Ricky Gervais alongside artists like Air, Arcade Fire, Daniel Johnston and Deerhoof.
In late 2007, he voices a character on children's television cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants, then contributes vocals to Scarlett Johansson's 2008 Tom Waits covers album, Anywhere I Lay My Head. In mid-2008, the long-circulated concert bootleg David Bowie: Live Santa Monica '72 is officially released by EMI, 36 years after its original recording. In January 2009, Bowie appears at the premiere of his son Duncan Jones's directorial debut feature film, Moon. In September, a newly discovered species of Malaysian spider is named Heteropoda davidbowie after the singer.
In 2011, his unreleased 2001 album Toy leaks online. By this point, Bowie has left Manhattan to live quietly with his family in upstate New York. More and more, it seems like he may never release another studio album, even as festival headline rumours circulate, but Bowie has secretly begun work on a new album, working with Tony Visconti, long-term engineer Mario J. McNulty and former collaborators like guitarist Earl Slick and drummer Zac Alford. He invites his band to the studio sporadically, when he's happy with the songs. Everyone involved in the album's making is asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
2013 to 2016
On January 8, 2013 (his 66th birthday), Bowie announces his first album in a decade with an introspective new single, "Where Are We Now?" A press release reads, "In recent years radio silence has been broken only by endless speculation, rumour and wishful thinking…. a new record… who would have ever thought it, who'd have ever dreamed it! After all, David is the kind of artist who writes and performs what he wants when he wants…when he has something to say as opposed to something to sell. Today he definitely has something to say."
In February a second single, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," receives a Floria Sigismondi video treatment starring Tilda Swinton as Bowie's wife. The Next Day is released on March 12 by Columbia with a cover that references "Heroes" but obscures the centre of the 1977 album with a white square. Musically, the album balances the mature tone of Heathen and Reality with more upbeat, weirdo songs like "I'd Rather Be High" and "Dancing Out in Space," which harken to his early '70s material. There are rumours that Bowie might return to the studio to record a new album for the end of 2013, but it doesn't happen. There are no concerts and no interviews for the album.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London mounts the David Bowie Is exhibition, a showcase of Bowie artefacts that demonstrate his tremendous cultural reach. It comes to Toronto in late 2013 and later hits Chicago, Paris, Melbourne and Groningen. Bowie contributes vocals to Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" and wins Best British Male at the 2014 Brit Awards in February. In late 2014, Bowie releases a best-of compilation titled Nothing Has Changed, which features a new single, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)." In April 2015, it's revealed that Bowie is co-writing a stage adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth titled Lazarus.
In October 2015, Bowie presents the theme song he composed for British television series The Last Panthers; the minute-long composition will later be revealed as a snippet of a ten-minute opus titled "Blackstar." That same month, Bowie's booking agent, John Giddings, puts to rest any rumours that he might tour again: "David is one of the best artists I've ever worked with. But every time I see him now, before I even speak to him, he goes, 'I'm not touring' and I say, 'I'm not asking.' He has decided to retire and, like Phil Collins, you can't demand these people go out there again and again and again."
In November, Bowie unveils a trailer for a new album titled ★, or Blackstar, to be released on January 8, 2016, the singer's 69th birthday; Tony Visconti claims that rapper Kendrick Lamar is a partial inspiration for the record. Blackstar is an urgent and captivating album that flirts with jazz and features his best melodies in years; reviews are uniformly positive. Exclaim! notes that "with Blackstar, Bowie has made a record that fits comfortably within that legacy while reasserting himself as an artist that continuously makes challenging and rewarding music. It's a defining statement from someone who isn't interested in living in the past, but rather, for the first time in a while, waiting for everyone else to catch up."
Two days later, on the night of January 10, news of Bowie's death shakes the world. It's revealed not just that Bowie has been suffering from liver cancer, but that he wrote and recorded Blackstar with knowledge of his impending passing. Hours after the announcement, Tony Visconti offers a statement: "He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry."
Brian Eno, who was unaware of Bowie's impending death, writes that, "I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: 'Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot.' And it was signed 'Dawn.' I realise now he was saying goodbye."
Blackstar rockets to number one around the world (his first in the U.S.), and breaks Adele's YouTube streaming record as fans clamber to connect with the departed icon; he's honoured with a lightning bolt-shaped constellation. Tributes pour in, from peers and fans around the world including Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Madonna, Nile Rodgers, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Jimmy Page, Yoko Ono and more, for one of the greatest artists of all time.
The Essential David Bowie:
In 1971, Hunky Dory formally announced Bowie's arrival as a genius after he hinted at the fact with Space Oddity and his heavier, more focused The Man Who Sold the World. On songs like "Changes," "Life on Mars?" and "Queen Bitch," Bowie puts all of his talents to work, making for an exuberant, brilliant showcase that can barely contain itself.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
As much a collection of strong, standalone singles as a cohesive, narrative-based full-length statement, Ziggy Stardust put David Bowie on the road to stardom and helped establish glam-rock with classics like "Starman," "Moonage Daydream" and "Suffragette City." It's a timeless album, and the perfect introduction to one of the century's most inventive and fascinating artists.
Low's first side comprises a series of jittery pop songs whose lyrics address the pain and isolation of his past few cocaine-addled years in L.A.; the second features a set of ambient compositions that provide the melancholy comedown. As a whole, it's a captivating work that still sounds ahead of its time today.