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David Bowie, An English Icon
One if the many reasons I love David Bowie is his powerful ability to follow his own star. He reinvented himself several times, through several transformations over several decades.
You know, they said he couldn't sing. Yet he has sold over 136 million albums of his music and ranks among the ten best-selling acts in United Kingdom pop music history.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 39th of the list of the top 100 Greatest Rock Artists of all time, and the 23rd best singer of all time.
His voice is patchy, uneven, sometimes raw-throated and off-key. Yet his astounding stage presence and the whole feeling of his music is a depth of spirit most performers never reach. His themes are universal, and heart-rending, and true. He speaks and sings of time, of changes, of fame, of perishing all alone.
He speaks of love, overall love, and you can feel his need for his audience to become involved, to get him, to understand why he is up there in his funky miniskirt or his outrageous one-piece decorated union suit, throwing his heart and soul on the table and hoping his audience comes away with that rare feeling of seeing the true performance, the true person, through all the glamour and glitz.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones, in Brixton (a part of London) on January 8, 1947. He was a post-World War II-baby, and London was a grim place in that era. It survived the blitzkrieg, just. His mother worked as a movie usherette. His father was a promotions officer for Barnardo's (a British charity for children). David was a handful as a kid--bright, creative, single-minded, and a bit of a brawler.
David sang in the school choir and played the recorder. He had some musical talent, and this was apparent from an early age. His dad brought home some records--American rock'n'roll. David danced like a mad thing to Frankie Lymon and the Teenager, the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley...he was nine years old, and his teacher found his dancing to be strikingly imaginative and his poise and style to be "vividly artistic".
Bowie wandered throughout the early days, joining and quitting several different bands. He was in search of a voice and a style, the thing that was peculiarly his own, and what drove him. His early imitations of what he heard sounded like and uneasy mixture of rock and jazz--Elvis Presley meets John Coltrane, but not happily... He went from his first band, the Kon-rads, which he formed at the age of 15, to the King Bees, to the Manish Boys, to the Lower Third...with no commercial success whatsoever.
David became David Bowie in 1967, at the age of 20 years. He ceased with music for two years, and studied the dramatic arts, from avant-garde theatre to Commedia dell'arte.
Fame came to David Bowie in 1968, with the single "Space Oddity", written the previous year with the moon landing, a ballad that tells the story of "Major Tom", and astronaut that becomes lost in space. It might have also been a drug allegory. There are layers of meaning to most of Bowie's work.
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David Bowie invented Ziggy Stardust and the Spyders from Mars in 1972, and Ziggy took the world by storm in a major rock tour.
He put on his famous flaming wild outfits, designed by Kansai Yamamoto, and his platform shoes, and took that show on the road. He made his first appearance, his first visit, to the United States, in a sell-out crowd at the Music Hall, in Cleveland, Ohio. "Ziggy Stardust", the "Space" number, and "All the Young Dudes" hit the top of the charts in both the UK and the US.
Bowie broke up the band with the last Ziggy show at London's Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973,
The Thin White Duke
David Bowie released another ambitious album, the Diamond Dogs, which went to number one in the UK on the pop charts, making him the best-selling act for the second year in a row. He was a solo act now, and his show was brilliantly produced and choreographed, with many special effects. The big-budget stage production was filmed for the documentary "Cracked Actor " by Alan Yentob.
Bowie was having cocaine problems at this time. You can see it in his gaunt cheeks and haunted eyes. David said that tour and the resulting live album, "David Live ",though commercially very successful, ought to have been called "David Bowie is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory ", because he was a frenetic mess at this point in his life. He was still the inveterate showman and thrilled audiences everywhere.
David's 1975 "Young Americans" was a new sound--that mixture of R&B and soul, with funk overtones, was something David called "Plastic Soul". It contained the first US number one hit "Fame", co-written by Carlos Alamar and John Lennon. Bowie's very strained and paranoid appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in December of 1975 was confirmation of his growing drug problems.
The "Station to Station" album and tour was a very dark version of the soul persona, the "Thin White Duke", who was also and extension of the character Bowie played in movie, "The Man Who Fell to Earth".
During 1977 to 1979, Bowie's growing interest in the German music scene prompted him to move to Berlin. He cleaned up his drug addiction there, and co-produced some music with Iggy Pop.
Strangely, for Christmas of 1977, Bowie joined Bing Crosby in Hertfordshire, England, to do "Little Drummer Boy". A month after that recording was completed, Bing Crosby died, and five years later, that version of the Christmas carol became a worldwide seasonal hit, charting in the UK at number three on Christmas day, 1982.
David's musicality and showmanship grew, and he learned a lot. In 1981, Queen released "Under Pressure", which was co-written and performed with David. The song was a hit, (it is still a hit!) and became David Bowie's third UK number one single.
In 1985, David performed several of his best songs at Wembley, for Live Aid. David toured again in 1987, the Glass Spider tour to support the new "Never Let Me down" album. His touring band included Peter Frampton on the guitar. He had dancers; he had special effects, and a great theatrical presentation.
In addition to his music career, spanning decades and still viable, David Bowie is a world-class actor. Here is a list of some of his film credits:
- 1976, The Man Who Fell To Earth
- 1977, Heroes
- 1979, Just a Gigolo
- 1981, Elephant Man
- 1983, The Hunger
- 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
- 1983, Yellowbeard
- 1985, Into the Night
- 1986, Labyrinth
- 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ
- 2001, Zoolander
- 2006, The Prestige
He played either starring roles or major supporting roles for the most part. He played Pontius Pilate (maybe the most sympathetic Pilate ever filmed) in Martin Scorsese's "the Last Temptation of Christ". He played Nikola Tesla in "The Prestige". His great, glamorous stage presence added something to every film.
Mr. Bowie remains one of the most creative and multi-talented people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.