"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Rolling Stone FEBRUARY 11, 2016 - by Mikal Gilmore
DAVID BOWIE 1947-2016
How rock's greatest outsider continually re-created himself, and changed the world along the way
Death had been on David Bowie's mind in recent years. In The Stars (Are Out Tonight), from his surprise 2013 release, The Next Day, he could see it above and below: "Stars are never sleeping / Dead ones and the living / We live closer to the Earth / Never to the heavens." Most memorably, he spoke about it in lyrics from his new album, Blackstar, released just two days before his end. In the spellbinding Lazarus, Bowie sang, "Look up here, I'm in heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen / I've got drama, can't be stolen / Everybody knows me now / Look up here, man, I'm in danger / I've got nothing left to lose." It was the least fanciful verse he'd ever written.
For us, though, death didn't seem to become David Bowie. At age sixty-nine, he was, to be sure, no longer a young man. For years he had been largely out of our scrutiny; once voluble in interviews, he had quit them entirely. In early 2015, he underwent chemotherapy for what was reported to be liver cancer. Some friends thought he had beat the worst part. At the time of his death, on January 10, Bowie was already working on a follow-up to Blackstar.
He had been a vital presence since the world saw him standing there, outfitted as Ziggy Stardust, in a glittery and tight fishnet top, wearing a perfect swept-up shock of bright, artificial red hair, sparkling earrings and an impossibly beautiful and confident face. He was unlike anything rock &amo; roll beheld before, and he proved its greatest liberator since Elvis Presley. Like Presley, he coalesced an audience of outsiders - young people held in disregard. Bowie gave his following the nerve to assert a sexuality that pop culture saw as marginal and abject. "We were giving permission to ourselves," Bowie wrote, "to reinvent culture the way we wanted it. With great big shoes." Sometimes Bowie seemed to recoil from what he'd done, as if it defined his image and possibilities too fast. He would spend years trying to distance himself from it; he'd drive himself to near madness, to confusion and to new greatness along the way, always a nomad, roaming from one future to another. By the end, in the video for Lazarus, he writhed in a sarcophagus, trying to wrestle either to or from death.
The public reaction to that death - in the hours and days that followed - was genuine and massive: There was an immediate and immense outpouring through social media; his influence on everything from fashion to underground culture was hailed in the media; the Vatican even offered a blessing. David Bowie was one of those people the world couldn't imagine living without. But since death was at his disposal, Bowie apparently decided to face it and make it an element in his work, a collaborative partner. This was what he'd always done: He transformed himself, and then moved on.
Changeability was, at least early on, David Bowie's most consistent trait. He restyled his appearance and sounds, he explored new places and perspectives, and was regularly described as a chameleon. Some observers wondered if this amounted to something more than a change in image or persona - something closer to a genuinely shifting personality or even psychology. Why so many variances? Why a space alien at one point, a sexualised prophet a couple of years later, a "plastic soul" singer a year after that?
The answer, of course, was that all of these characters were outsiders. "All I knew," Bowie once said, was that there was "this otherness, this other world, an alternative reality, one that I really want to embrace. I wanted anything but the place I came from."
He came from a place where madness threatened. His mother, Margaret Burns (known as Peggy), had three sisters who suffered from schizophrenia or other mental illness. In 1947, Burns - who already had a ten-year-old son, Terry, from an affair with a French bar porter - married Haywood Stenton Jones, a public-relations man who left his wife and daughter to be with her. The couple's only child, David Robert Jones, was born in Brixton.
Bowie's older half brother was his first influence: Terry introduced him to Nietzsche and the writings of the Beats, as well as to Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus. But Terry also suffered from mental illness, and would eventually be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. Bowie remembered taking Terry to see Cream at a 1966 concert in Bromley. "I had to take him out of the club because it was really starting to affect him - he was swaying," Bowie recalled. "We got out into the street and he collapsed on the ground, and he said there was fire and stuff pouring out the pavement."
Bowie became concerned that his family's madness might be communicable. He started to form emotional distances from his parents, who had trouble handling Terry and eventually turned him out of the house. In 1976, Bowie told Playboy, "My brother Terry's in an asylum right now. Everybody says, 'Oh, yes, my family is quite mad.' Mine really is. No fucking about, boy. Most of them are nutty - in, just out of, or going into an institution. Or dead."
One thing the family shared, though, was music. His mother, in particular, was a fine singer. Bowie later said, "'All our family could sing,' she'd inform my father and me. We couldn't do much else, but we all loved music."
In 1956, Bowie first heard rock & roll, in the music of Little Richard and Elvis Presley. The music was already transforming American culture and society - it was, in a sense, about disturbance, race, sex and a new youthful power. For Bowie, this was the obsession that saved him. He wanted, like Presley, to become somebody who could transform himself before the world, who invented his own prospects, who could stand in defiance and never be unremembered.
By 1963, British rock & roll aspirants - including The Beatles and The Rolling Stones - were developing their own R&B informed versions of the music: rough, insolent, inventive and overpowering.
Bowie joined several R&B and mod groups, but he didn't have a band disposition; he wanted to stand apart. By the time he was nineteen, he'd met a manager who secured him a record contract with a subsidiary of Decca. Ken Pitt - who believed he'd found the next Frank Sinatra when he first heard Bowie sing Rodgers and Hammerstein's You'll Never Walk Alone at London's Marquee Club in 1966 - let the young man share his home, as relief from the hell of the Jones household. Pitt convinced him that he could no longer use the last name Jones, after the rise of Oliver! child actor Davy Jones (later a member of the Monkees). The singer selected Bowie, after American knife-wielding pioneer Jim Bowie; the new last name, he decided, signified a way of cutting deeper. Pitt also turned Bowie on to the grotesque art of Egon Schiele and Aubrey Beardsley, and the writings of nineteenth-century decadents such as Oscar Wilde. But the manager's most lasting gift was introducing Bowie to the music of the Velvet Underground: The group, and the songwriting of its leader, Lou Reed, showed Bowie how to write about a mean world, in terms and sounds that were both beautiful and cacophonous.
Bowie was casting about musically, singing cabaret at times, working in collectives and sometimes playing solo folk music. He was a fan of Bob Dylan, and he admired friend and rival Marc Bolan's abstruse work in Tyrannosaurus Rex, before Bolan metamorphosed into T.Rex. Bowie's debut album, David Bowie - released in June 1967 - displayed wide-ranging and unconventional sources: British music hall, French chanson and show-tune-style balladry - none of which connected with much of an audience.
Some who knew Bowie thought that his mutability in adapting new musical styles and looks carried over to his erratic treatment of others. He could be charming, attentive and enticing, but he could turn indifferent, even seemingly unfeeling. Bowie would describe himself at times as disconnected. In 1972, he told Rolling Stone, "I'm a... very cold person. I can't feel strongly. I get so numb. I find I'm walking around numb. I'm a bit of an iceman." Bowie's inconstant aspect wasn't helped by his libertine marriage to the flamboyant, eccentric Angela Barnett; Bowie once said that being married to her was "like living with a blowtorch." As one story goes, Angela once threw herself down a staircase, thinking Bowie was going out to meet another lover; Bowie purportedly stepped over her and said, "Well, when you feel like it, and if you're not dead, call me." Producer Ken Scott told author David Buckley, "When [Angie] walked into a room, you knew it. I think David saw the effect she had on people and started to emulate it. I think it was part of him taking from everything around him and making it part of him. Because, in the early stages, he was much more quiet and subdued. And he became more flamboyant as time went on."
Bowie landed his first major hit, Space Oddity, from the album of the same name. Timed to be released close to the first manned moon landing, in July 1969, it was an affecting reflection of a man lost in space - a representation of Bowie's own disconnection. In that same season, Bowie, Angela and some friends and band members settled into Haddon Hall, a Victorian house with Gothic windows in Kent that would become the birthplace of David Bowie's legend. It was there - amid a lot of club-going and promiscuity - that Bowie developed the songs and ideas that would turn into his next three, breakthrough albums (The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars).
The first salvo, 1970's The Man Who Sold The World, was a strange, paranoid and philosophical album. Bowie was now working largely in electric rock & roll - hard and dissonant, and not quite like anybody else's. He was also playing with musicians who could carry out his increasing sense of risk: bassist Tony Visconti (who would become Bowie's longtime friend and producer), drummer Woody Woodmansey and, in particular, guitarist Mick Ronson, who gave Bowie's songs a crucial majesty. "You believed every note had been wrenched from his soul," Bowie once said.
Hunky Dory, from 1971, is one of rock's perfect works. On the mellifluent opening track, Changes, he stood up for the audience he wanted and identified with: "And these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to your consultations / They're quite aware what they're going through." His new pop skills first became evident in Oh! You Pretty Things, a hit single he'd written for Peter Noone, formerly the lead singer in Herman's Hermits. Noone would call Bowie the best songwriter since the team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Yet behind the sweetness of Oh! You Pretty Things, there was also a complex mind at work, willing to turn dark: "I look out my window, what do I see? / A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me / All the nightmares came today / And it looks as though they're here to stay."
Hunky Dory was also unexpectedly seedy at moments: particularly Queen Bitch (a tribute to The Velvet Underground's Reed), about a man who is desirous, mistrustful, finally raging, over another man's sexual attentions. When Bowie performed the song on U.K. television in 1972, the moment made him. Nobody had seen anybody like this before: an utterly confident young man, facing the camera in a commando suit and tall red boots, singing unashamedly about proscribed matters and people in degraded conditions in both their lives and the culture around them.
By this time, Bowie had invented a famous and outrageous character who would define him: Ziggy Stardust, an otherworldly messiah who fell to Earth - therefore to corruption - and who lost everything but a legacy. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) was Bowie's breakthrough, and a complicated one. Not unlike The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album and its title formed an alter ego for a creative mind. In The Beatles' case, though, they were already famous and their second self was clearly a stand-in or fiction. In Ziggy's case, the alter ego seemed to define the creative mind - Bowie - rather than the other way around. That's because an audience hadn't really known Bowie before. This is how he made his imprint: as a vain and charismatic being, suddenly making the best music on the planet and attracting an audience that became a following, and who recognised a liberator when it saw one.
Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was a dividing line for popular music, as surely as punk or disco would prove in a few years. "I was incredibly excited by it at the time," Bowie later said. "It just felt so radical - completely against everything that was happening at the time with the denims and the whole laid-back atmosphere."
Musically, Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was often exuberant, with undertones that were even darker than Hunky Dory's. The new album opened with Five Years, about the immediate reaction people have when they learn the Earth's days are numbered: "Five years, that's all we've got." The revelation brings out the worst and the best: "A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children / If the black hadn't a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them... / A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest / And a queer threw up at the sight of that." It is among Bowie's most remarkable songs: Everybody, it says, is equal and bewildered and precious standing before the knowledge of death. At the album's end, Bowie sang the equally enthralling Rock & Roll Suicide, from the view of a man trying to save a person who is confused, hurting and in peril of self-destruction. But if we've been following the album's loose story, it's implicit that the person singing, trying to rescue another, doesn't have long to live himself.
Perhaps most important, Ziggy Stardust, even more than Hunky Dory, delineated sexual themes - bisexuality and homosexuality among them - that popular culture hadn't depicted on this scale before. Bowie's outrageous appearance alone was enough to do the job, but he took it much further than that, miming oral sex on Ronson's guitar at shows. It was the sort of image of libido that had never been allowed before in the public arena.
He claimed he intended Ziggy Stardust as a fictional character, "but I play that character right down the line." Ziggy Stardust was assumed by many - especially fans - to represent David Bowie's true values and lifestyle. Bowie knew this. "It's very hard to convince people that you can be quite different offstage in rock & roll than you are onstage. One of the principles in rock is that it's the person himself expressing what he really and truly feels."
In an eventful 1972 Melody Maker interview, Bowie spontaneously announced, "I'm gay - and always have been, even when I was David Jones." He didn't appear to be exclusively gay; after all, he was married to a woman, now with a child - Angela had given birth to Duncan Jones, born Zowie Bowie, in 1971 - and was purported to have had sex with many women. In 1983, he would tell Kurt Loder, in Rolling Stone, that claiming to be bisexual "was the biggest mistake I ever made." Later, he clarified: "I think I was always a closet heterosexual. I didn't ever feel that I was a real bisexual. It was like I was making all the moves, down to the situation of actually trying it out with some guys. But for me, I was more magnetised by the whole gay scene, which was underground. Remember, in the early 1970s it was still virtually taboo. There might have been free love, but it was heterosexual love. I like this twilight world. I like the idea of these clubs and these people and everything about it being something that nobody knew anything about. So it attracted me like crazy."
Critic John Gill and others thought that Bowie had used and betrayed gay culture, but also admitted that he had emboldened many people to be more open about their sexuality. Singer Tom Robinson said, "For gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later."
Bowie said later, "I couldn't decide whether I was writing the characters or whether the characters were writing me, or whether we were all one and the same." He toured with the Spiders From Mars - bassist Trevor Bolder, drummer Woodmansey and guitarist Ronson - in the U.K. and America for much of 1972 and 1973. Then, on July 3, 1973, at a show at London's Hammersmith Odeon, Bowie did away with Ziggy Stardust in one sure and shocking move. Before the evening's final song, Rock & Roll Suicide, Bowie spoke to his audience. "Not only is this the last show of the tour," he said, "but it is the last show we'll ever do. Thank you. Bye-bye. We love you."
The crowd erupted in a shriek. Bowie's band was just as surprised. Nobody knew that he had planned this. "I really did want it all to come to an end," Bowie wrote in his memoir, Moonage Daydream. "I was now writing for a different kind of project and exhausted and completely bored with the whole Ziggy concept... couldn't keep my attention on the performance. I was wasted and miserable."
Bowie never worked again with The Spiders From Mars - perhaps the best band in the world at the moment. He no longer wanted musicians with a reputation as good as his own, or who shared his identity. "I honestly can't remember Mick that well nowadays," he said in 1976 of Ronson. "It's a long time ago. He's just like any other band member." Ronson went on to play with Ian Hunter and in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. He and Bowie later reconciled, and Bowie was more forthcoming with his respect: "Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character," he said. "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... Ziggy and Mick were the personification of that rock & roll dualism." The guitarist died of liver cancer in April 1993.
Bowie fully intended to leave Ziggy Stardust behind at the Odeon that night. He did something at the end of that concert, though, that made the likelihood impossible, in that performance of Rock & Roll Suicide. Bowie wasn't just addressing a single soul in this instance, but he was also - crucially - talking to his audience, and to every marginalised person in that crowd: "You're not alone...," he sang with empathy that felt real; it was a trait he might have learned from one of his heroes, Judy Garland: "Gimme your hands 'cause you're wonderful." Bowie didn't realise that this assurance, real or fictional, was the most important thing he ever did. He had provided a model of courage to the Ziggy audiences - and in turn, over the years that followed, to millions of others - who had never been embraced by a popular-culture hero before. He helped set others free in unexpected ways. He promised to be there for them. He could never annul that moment.
In the seasons that immediately followed, Bowie found himself in a quandary: He still emitted the Ziggy Stardust vibe - so did his growing audience. He hadn't yet redefined himself in any clear way, and he never broke his pace of working and touring - it only intensified, though fuelled increasingly by drug use.
In Aladdin Sane (1973), the album's eponymous lead character was an extension of Ziggy Stardust - though a more disconnected observer of others' excesses and creeping ruin. Bowie had thought of the album as an interim effort (he had theatrical hopes for the one that would follow) but later changed his mind: "Funnily enough, in retrospect, for me, it's the more successful album, because it's more informed about rock & roll than Ziggy was." The next album, 1974's Diamond Dogs, was more foreboding: It began with howls, and though there were beautiful (Rock & Roll With Me) and insolent moments (Rebel Rebel), Bowie's soundscape was strewn with waste, bad faith and intimations of death; he was talking about a world that might not survive and might not deserve to. Yet even if the song structures on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs had grown more complex, the man making the music still resembled Ziggy Stardust. His audience of outsiders knew what it wanted from Bowie - more of the same, in sounds and looks, and he was giving it to them.
Bowie put together an evolving touring ensemble for North America that included, at various times, guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, saxophonist David Sanborn, bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Tony Newman and pianist Mike Garson. (Garson brought a new stretch to Bowie's music. Garson's complex, atonal solo in Aladdin Sane remains the single best instrumental break in all of Bowie's music.) Bowie, though, wasn't happy with what was developing.
Bowie resolved to make a soul - or as he termed it, "plastic soul," album. He appreciated the funk and R&B of the time, and in America he could expose himself to it. This time he decisively changed his look, fashioning his hair up into a suave pompadour. The album that resulted, 1975's Young Americans, proved to be Bowie's breakthrough in the U.S. - in part because of the taut and unusual Fame that he wrote and recorded with his friend John Lennon.
Young Americans wasn't purely an emulation of black pop. Some songs, such as a cover of The Beatles' Across The Universe, didn't fit the purported scheme at all - and that diversity made the album stronger and more singular. In the end, though, the album didn't solve anything for Bowie. "Young Americans was damn depressing," he said. Bowie had developed a horrific cocaine habit. "It was a terribly traumatic time. I was in a terrible state. I was absolutely infuriated that I was still in rock & roll. And not only in it, but had been sucked right into the centre of it."
Bowie later implied he was driving himself crazy. In 1993, he told England's Radio 1, "One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. You start to approach the very thing that you're scared of." He moved to Los Angeles, lived with little sleep on a diet of cocaine, milk, and red and green peppers. He investigated the occult, and according to one rumour, stored his urine in a refrigerator so no wizard could harm him with his own bodily fluids. In a 1976 Rolling Stone profile, Cameron Crowe related an incident during an interview: "Suddenly - always suddenly - David is on his feet and rushing to a nearby picture window. He thinks he's seen a body fall from the sky. 'I've got to do this,' he says, pulling a shade down on the window. A ballpoint- penned star has been crudely drawn on the inside. Below it is the word 'Aum.' Bowie lights a black candle on his dresser and immediately blows it out to leave a thin trail of smoke floating upward. 'Don't let me scare the pants off you. It's only protective. I've been getting a little trouble from... the neighbours.'"
"David was never insane," Angela later wrote. "The really crazy stuff... coincided precisely with his ingestion of enormous amounts of [drugs]. His madness simply didn't happen unless he was stoned out of his mind."
Perhaps as proof that he hadn't lost it, Bowie's magnificent 1976 album, Station To Station, took his soul and funk interests into new directions, incorporating both art-rock structures (the title song) and some of the artist's most beautiful ballad vocals (Word On A Wing, Stay and a cover of Dimitri Tiomkin's Wild Is The Wind, originally recorded by Johnny Mathis in 1957). It ended up being recognised as one of Bowie's freshest and finest works. "The only way to remain a vibrant part of what is happening," he said, "is to keep working anew all the time. For me, it always will be change. I can't envisage any period of creative stability and resting on any laurels. I think for what I do and what I'm known for, it would be disastrous."
At the same time, little by little, something changed for the better in Bowie's personal life - at least in a short run. "It was time to get out of this terrible lifestyle I'd put myself into and get healthy," he later said. "It was time to pull myself together."
In late 1976, bowie relocated to West Berlin, where he caroused with his friend Iggy Pop, of The Stooges. Bowie was intent on putting his drug habits behind him, but ended up just trading them in and became a heavy drinker. His efforts at self-imposed rehabilitation hadn't taken hold. "I was in a serious decline, emotionally and socially," he said in 1996. "I think I was very much on course to be just another rock casualty - in fact, I'm quite certain I wouldn't have survived the '70s if I'd carried on doing what I was doing. But I was lucky enough to know somewhere within me that I really was killing myself, and I had to do something drastic to pull myself out of that. I had to stop, which I did."
In 1977, Bowie divorced the erratic Angela, winning custody of Duncan, who largely avoided communication with his mother in the years after. Bowie also vindicated himself in other ways and found some relief from his excesses by making new groundbreaking music. With former Roxy Music keyboardist and music experimentalist Brian Eno, Bowie took the abject state that he'd been in and converted it into new, shattered art-rock textures, writing fragmentary and impressionistic lyrics that fit the new forms. Eno "got me off narration, which I was so intolerably bored with," said Bowie. "Narrating stories, or doing little vignettes of what I thought was happening in America and putting it on my albums in convoluted fashion... Brian really opened my eyes to the idea of processing, to the abstract of communication."
The resulting album, 1977's Low, was unconventional pop by any standard: Entire tracks consisted of odd instrumental fragments; others - Breaking Glass, Speed Of Life and Sound and Vision - lastingly redefined modern art-song; and the extraordinarily beautiful Warszawa invented a new language (Visconti described it as "quasi-Balkan") to contain its hypnotic mysteries. When Bowie sang on Low, it was often in a horizontal, undisturbed voice, as if from a dissociated place.
At first his label, RCA, did not want to release Low. "I remember getting angry about RCA's reaction," Bowie said. "I went into incredible anger first and then depression for months. I mean, it was really awful, the treatment they gave to that album. It was hideous, because I knew how wrong they were about it." The subsequent collaboration with Eno, , produced one of Bowie's most popular anthems in its title song, about lovers meeting under the threat of the Berlin Wall. Low and "Heroes" went on to inspire a generation - or more - of new artists, from Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark to Trent Reznor, and proved to be Bowie's most sonically influential work.
The making of the music and the time in Berlin itself helped Bowie's health and psychology. Bowie and Eno wound down their collaboration with 1979's Lodger - a less-experimental effort that in some instances (D.J., Look Back In Anger and Boys Keep Swinging) returned to the pop forms that Bowie had eschewed. In 1980, Bowie returned to New York, where he recorded what was generally considered to be his last great work for more than a decade, Scary Monsters. In some ways, it was a summation of what Bowie had done since the early 1970s: music that recalled both the boldness of the Ziggy period and the Berlin avant-garde albums. Scary Monsters yielded Ashes To Ashes, an evocation of Space Oddity that met and surpassed the original.
In September 1980, Bowie took a three-month role on Broadway, playing John Merrick, the title character in The Elephant Man. It was a physically tiring role, and Bowie received praising reviews. On the night of December 8, he received news that his friend John Lennon had been shot to death in front of the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan. It was reported that Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman, had attended a performance of The Elephant Man just days before the killing, and had Bowie on a list of potential targets. Bowie soon left the role.
In 1983, after a three-year absence from recording popular music, Bowie moved to a new label, EMI - reportedly for $17,000,000 - and made the biggest album of his career, Let's Dance, produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic. Bowie had remade himself once again: He was a global superstar now, on the same plane as Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen (whom Bowie had championed years before). His image and movements were elegant, the music was an enjoyable foray into huge, synth-powered R&B, Stan Kenton-inspired big-band swing and suggestions of 1950s pop. But Bowie now had to face new questions: When you lose your excesses, do you also lose your brilliance? What does it mean for an artist to forswear the cutting edge for mere success, even if it is immense? "I don't really have the urge to continue as a songwriter and performer in terms of experimentation - at this moment," Bowie told NME. "I feel that at the moment I'm of an age - and age has an awful lot to do with it - I'm just starting to enjoy growing up. I'm enjoying being my age, thirty-six, and what comes with it."
Around this time, Bowie mentioned his half brother, Terry, during an interview. "It is my fault we grew apart," he said, "and it is painful." On January 16, 1985, Terry left a psychiatric hospital, walked to a nearby train station and laid his head on the tracks. Bowie sent roses to his brother's funeral and a card that read, "You've seen more things than we can imagine, but all these moments will be lost, like tears washed away by the rain. God bless you - David." Bowie later said he was "never quite sure of what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me. I wonder if I imbued my stepbrother with more attributes than he really had."
After Let's Dance, Bowie wandered a confusing creative trail, making two indifferent- sounding albums - Tonight (1984), Never Let Me Down (1987) - that met with little esteem. In 1984, Bowie said, "I think because I was starting to feel sure of myself in terms of my life, my state of health and my being... I wanted to put my musical being in a similar staid and healthy area. But I'm not sure that that was a very wise thing to do."
He was right: He had become a successful mainstream artist. He had wealth, homes, legend, and if the albums didn't succeed, he could mount profitable stadium-size tours. "The main problem with success," Brian Eno said of Bowie, "is that it has a huge momentum. It's like you've got this big train behind you, and it wants you to carry on going the same way. Nobody wants you to step off the tracks."
Eventually, Bowie was ready to step off. As he had once wanted to abandon Ziggy Stardust, he now wanted to relinquish his superstar standing. In 1989, he formed a supposedly democratic quartet, Tin Machine, with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Tony Sales and drummer Hunt Sales. It started with a promising idea. "We realised when we first talked," Gabrels later said, "that we were both listening to the same thing - John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cream, the Pixies, Hendrix, Glen Branca, Sonic Youth, Strauss, Stravinsky. These were all things we wanted this band to be." In the end, it was a metallic band, blaring with feedback, and its sheer force levelled both the concept and the music the band played. "The consensus," Bowie said, "was that... it was a huge hype, because I was saying I was 'part of the band.'" At the same time, Tin Machine provided Bowie a respite from his mainstream persona and may have even helped him regain a gradual new ambition - one that, by his life's end, found him at an almost unparalleled artistic pinnacle.
There was an even more important source of renewal when he met Somali fashion model Iman Abdulmajid in 1990. (According to one story, Bowie saw a picture of her in a magazine and said, "I want to have a date with her.") "I'd never been out with a model before," he said, "so I hadn't even bargained on the cliché of the rock star and the model as being part of my life. So I was well surprised to meet one who was devastatingly wonderful and not the usual sort of bubblehead that I'd met in the past. I make no bones about it. I was naming the children the night we met." Bowie said that their romance "was conducted in a very gentlemanly fashion, I hope, for quite some time. Lots of being led to doorways and polite kisses on the cheek. Flowers and chocolates and the whole thing. I knew it was precious from the first night, and I just didn't want anything to spoil it."
Bowie proposed to Iman in Paris, and the couple married in secret in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April 1992. "I had to learn how to evaluate what sharing one's life meant," Bowie later said. "Strange new things like learning to listen, knowing when a reply was not necessary but just being a receptive human being... Most importantly, though, turning one's asocial, possessive and inevitably destructive characteristics around."
Bowie wrote and recorded a new work in 1993, Black Tie White Noise - his first solo effort in six years - in part to commemorate the wedding. Both the album and the marriage proved turning points for him. The album (like Let's Dance) still had one foot in an overtly commercial sound, but it also looked at the real world and real pain with new understanding. The title song was Bowie's response to the 1992 L.A. riots that erupted after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King ("I'm lookin' through African eyes / Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire / I've got a face, not just my race"). In another track, Jump They Say, Bowie addressed the suicide of his half brother, Terry.
Black Tie White Noise loosened Bowie up. He went on to record a series of ambitious, occasionally brilliant, albums - Outside (1995), The Buddha Of Suburbia (1995), Earthling (1997), 'Hours...' (1999), Heathen (2002), Reality (2003) - that were always musically bold and that sometimes examined vulnerable psychology, an elusive spirituality and a world in trouble. "If you can make the spiritual connection with some kind of clarity, then everything else would fall into place," Bowie told journalist and author Paul Du Noyer in 2003. "A morality would seem to be offered, a plan would seem to be offered, some sense would be there. But it evades me. Yet I can't help writing about it."
Heathen was one of the most successful of the sequence - an album that was about the rising anxiety of the times, but which also had a pop and rock & roll sure-handedness that matched the dexterity of Bowie's early-'70s music. There was both devastation and pop to be had here, and like much of Bowie's best music, each had the effect of deepening the other. Also, his new fatherhood - he and Iman's daughter, Alexandria, was born in 2000 - was affecting his thoughts. "Since my daughter's been born, I am changing as a writer," he said. "There has been a shift in the weight of my responsibilities, relinquishing my own concerns about myself and Iman as a couple, and instead thinking about Lexi and what her world is going to be like." On another occasion, Bowie said, "I desperately want to live forever. You know what I want [is] to still be around in another forty or fifty years... I just want to be there for Alexandria. She's so exciting and lovely, so I want to be around when she grows up."
In 2004, he suffered a heart attack on a European tour, collapsing after a show in Germany. He never toured again, though he performed in New York with Arcade Fire in 2005; with Pink Floyd's David Gilmour in London in 2006; and with Alicia Keys at a Manhattan charity concert that year. When he was seen on New York's streets in the spring of 2005, he looked recuperated and fit. The year before, Bowie had said he was preparing for a new record. "I'm heading for another period of experimentation. [I'm at] a time when I'm collecting myself before I break all my own rules." That following album, The Next Day, wouldn't arrive until 2013, though it was worth the wait. It was a work of beauty and craft - like Heathen, an encapsulation of Bowie's prime early strengths. However, the long-awaited masterpiece, Blackstar, didn't come until January 8, 2016 - David Bowie's sixty-ninth birthday. It took hold like nothing since Low or "Heroes".
Two days later, he was dead. "I really don't have too many regrets," Bowie said in 2003. "I have personal regrets about myself and my own behaviour and people I let down considerably during those years. But that's how life was for me."
In his last decade, Bowie lived a private life in downtown Manhattan and his home in Woodstock, New York, with his wife and daughter. He made music from time to time, but he gave no interviews. In his final months, as he fought to restore his health with cancer treatment, he also strived to live as creatively as ever - and he did so, in unexpected and resounding ways. Blackstar walks us right up to death, about as far as we can go without somebody holding our hand. We don't know what happens past that point, short of the rumoured miraculous.
But miracles can happen. In Bowie's case, they came both early and late. The times when he performed Rock & Roll Suicide to the Ziggy Stardust audiences were miraculous moments, as he extended himself to his newfound audience - his hands stretching to theirs, theirs reaching back, his fingers touching theirs - and sang: "Oh, no, love! You're not alone / You're watching yourself but you're too unfair / You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care / Oh, no, love! You're not alone." He would end with the refrain: "Gimme your hands 'cause you're wonderful / Oh, gimme your hands."
We are not alone. In telling his audience that, David Bowie sealed his meaning, and he offered to them a promise of deliverance. You are not alone. David Bowie showed us that even past death, you can still reach out.