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Rebel, rebel: We profile singing legend David Bowie

By Andy Gill

Published 02/01/2016

David Bowie
David Bowie

Approaching his 70th year, David Bowie is centrally involved in a Broadway show based on his life and is preparing to release his most extreme album in years. Ever the chameleon, he's always engaged with the music industry on his terms.

David Bowie is not like other men. There are those eyes, for starters: so like an alien, he was an obvious choice to play the lead in The Man Who Fell to Earth from the first moment he transfixed director Nicolas Roeg with that asymmetrical stare. Less flippantly, there's the way he's treated pop music as a platform for role-playing, in terms of both music and character.

Traditionally, pop stars located the source of their appeal early on and stuck rigidly to it. Only when a gifted few challenged this showbiz assumption did the notion of progress, of career development, shift from the purely commercial towards something more artistically intriguing.

And none was more intriguing than Bowie - the first star to wield androgyny with such shameless sexual provocation that he not only created a new genre, but helped overturn generations of antediluvian attitudes.

He then darted off on different artistic and theatrical tangents at a dizzying pace that challenged his fan base to keep up with him as he developed and discarded the series of personae through which he seemed to channel his creativity.

He was born David Robert Jones in Brixton, south London, on January 8, 1947. He showed an interest in music from an early age and began playing the saxophone at 13. He was greatly influenced by his brother, Terry, who was nine years older and exposed young David to the worlds of rock music and Beat literature.

But Terry had his demons and his mental illness, which forced the family to commit him to an institution - it haunted David for a good deal of his life. Terry committed suicide in 1985 - a tragedy that became the focal point of Bowie's later song, Jump They Say.

After graduating from Bromley Technical High School, David started working as a commercial artist. He also continued to play music, hooking up with a number of bands and leading a group called Davy Jones and the Lower Third. His first solo hit was the song Space Oddity in 1969.

The previous year, he had met the American-born Angela Barnett. The pair married on March 20, 1970, and had a son, Zowie (after the Greek word zoe: life), in 1971. They divorced in 1980.

In 1972, Bowie invented the flame-haired Ziggy Stardust, going on to produce a body of work that has created "perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture", according to David Buckley, Bowie's biographer.

He challenged the staid society of the 1970s, declaring himself bisexual. An icon of glam rock, he could never be pinned down to one musical style.

After Ziggy, he found success on both sides of the Atlantic with the white-boy soul of Young Americans before recording the 'Berlin Trilogy' (Low, Heroes and Lodger) with producer Brian Eno.

Bowie has sold more than 100 million records. He divides his time between New York and London with his second wife, Somali supermodel, Iman. They married in 1992 and have a daughter, Alexandria (15).

He hasn't toured since he suffered chest pains at a concert in Germany in 2004 and was diagnosed with an acutely blocked artery, requiring surgery.

Throughout his career, Bowie has engaged with the music industry on his terms, so we shouldn't expect him to do things the usual way, like trumpeting his recent comeback from the hilltops, via an organised series of high-profile interviews and media appearances.

When, early in 2013, the single Where Are We Now? suddenly appeared for sale with no prior warning, breaking his self-imposed decade of silence, the wave of shock generated a curiosity that bore its parent album, The Next Day, to Bowie's highest chart placing for 20 years.

Following his lead, the no-promo strategy soon became a showbiz commonplace, though its efficacy was inevitably linked to an artist's previous stature.

Likewise, we oughtn't to expect a David Bowie jukebox musical to follow the usual formula, in which an artist's biggest hits are shoehorned into a flimsy narrative depicting, if we're lucky, a biographical account of their struggle for success, or, if we're less lucky, a crass fantasy.

When it became known that Bowie was working with writer Enda Walsh and director Ivo van Hove on a musical play extending the stranded-alien concept of The Man Who Fell to Earth, the first things that popped happily into most peoples' heads were Starman and Space Oddity.

Neither of these feature in the Broadway stage production of Lazarus, but Bowie's central involvement is unusual in that it is the first time in his career that he has returned to previously trodden territory.

While other "heritage acts" perform their most fondly remembered albums to nostalgic fans, Bowie has steadfastly rejected the notion, retreating from any personal performance at all. Hence, perhaps, the play's title, reflecting a persona brought back from the dead. Or, indeed, Bowie's own career, restored to potency after years of comatose inactivity.

It's not hard to imagine the singer, holed up in his New York base, gazing at the world with a mix of stoicism, artistic fascination and melancholy nihilism. But that, of course, would be to impose the kind of analogous biographical parallel strenuously avoided in the play itself. Perhaps ...

It's undeniable, however, that Bowie is currently in the midst of a creative surge, the next expression of which arrives on his 69th birthday - January 8.

Blackstar is unlike any album he has released, on several counts. For the first time, he's not present visually on the sleeve, which features simply a star and the word "bowie" created from fragments of the star-shape. If The Next Day's cover image presented Bowie partly obscuring his past, here he's wiped it out completely.

That's certainly the impression given by the music, too: where The Next Day was comfortingly couched in a range of sounds and styles familiar from his earlier albums, Blackstar is a work of sonic extremity with only marginal relation to his past at all.

Guitar is barely featured at all, present as just an intro vamp on one song and a single, balletic lead break towards the close of the final track.

With Bowie crooning in alienated soul mode, the turbulent, overbearing, sometimes shrill power of the music recalls the uncompromising nature of Scott Walker's recent albums, and Tim Buckley's exploratory masterpiece, Starsailor, and is liable to divide fans in a similar manner.

Lyrically, it's little clearer, apart from the obvious references to the fallen alien Newton in Lazarus. The 10-minute title track, for instance, finds Bowie wondering "How many times does an angel fall"?, and sketching a tableau - villa, lone candle, execution - which, allied to the track's vaguely Middle-Eastern atmosphere and the repeated claim "I'm a black star", has led to (flatly denied) suggestions that it's about the rise of Isis.

The closest precedent in his earlier career is probably Station to Station, which found him stranded between America and Europe, en route from ersatz soul to krautrock motorik, searching for the new world that would come with Low.

Something similar seems to be happening here, and with similarly thrilling energy, as Bowie effectively bids adieu to his past and bravely sets out to seek a new future in his 70th year, an age when most are winding down.

But, then, David Bowie is not like other men.

  • Blackstar is released on RCA Records on Friday

A life so far ...

Born: David Robert Jones, Brixton, London, January 8, 1947

Married: Angela Barnett, March 20, 1970; one son, Zowie. Divorced 1980. Married Somali supermodel Iman in 1992; one daughter, Alexandria

Critical high-point: the 'Berlin Trilogy' of albums - Low, Heroes and Lodger - recorded with producer Brian Eno

He says: "I had to resign myself, many years ago, that I'm not too articulate when it comes to explaining how I feel about things. But my music does it for me. It really does."

They say: "David has created a body of work that is, perhaps, the biggest cult in popular culture." (Bowie's biographer David Buckley)

Belfast Telegraph

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