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Oh you Pretty Thing! – Bowie celebrates 65th birthday

Around about this time every year we hear prophets of doom telling us that this is the year the world will end.  1972 was no different.  “Earth was really dying,” sang a whiny cockney. His fictional newscasters “wept and told us” there was only five years before the planet’s demise. Above London an alien hovered in his fantastical spaceship. Was he a saviour? His fans, young and shy teenagers, certainly thought so and they phoned each other and spoke excitedly about the sightings. They understood that this made-up, androgynous starman wanted to “come and meet us” but was worried he would “blow our minds”.

Thankfully, Ziggy Stardust finally did arrive and with his Spiders from Mars blew not just our minds but the lid off popular music. For a glorious but all too short eighteen months he offered something different. The whole package was more nuanced than the Led Zepplins and Deep Purples of straight rock-machismo but less self-satisfied and overbearing than the Carole King and James Taylor type balladeers that flooded early 1970’s popular music.

Ziggy Stardust was an ‘Alligator’, a ‘space invader’, a ‘rock n’rolling bitch’ and for many his creator, David Bowie, was nothing less than the saviour of rock music itself. With Ziggy, Bowie had taken the Beatles Sgt Pepper’s and made it man. He made the whole thing fun again and asked rock not to take itself so seriously.

By the time he famously pulled the plug on his creation in London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, however, he was so fully and dangerously immersed in his alien persona that separating illusion from reality became a problem for him. Spending much of his off stage time face down in bags of cocaine probably did not help his cause.

“[Ziggy] wouldn’t leave me alone for years,” he once said. “My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.”

Nonetheless, the relentless creation and re-creation of his image (and perhaps his very being) continued throughout the 70’s. When he retired one of his characters, Bowie would disappear for short periods, beaver away like a mad professor and return with another. Whether it was the half man half dog Rebel, Rebel of Diamond Dogs fame or the Thin White Duke of Station to Station the lines between his real self and his alter egos were often blurred.

In the 1974 BBC documentary Cracked Actor, his fragile grip on reality is frighteningly apparent. In its interviews he is sometimes evasive and often full of gibberish. Those surrounding him are treated with suspicion and a diet of milk and cheese sees Bowie go from thin to emaciate. What made these monsters even scarier was family history.

David Robert Jones was born in South London on the 8th January 1947. He was the only son of John and Peggy Jones. Peggy, who was of Irish descent, had had another child from an earlier relationship and it was this half-brother, Terry, who introduced Bowie to jazz and thus spurred his interest in the saxophone; the first of several instruments that Bowie would learn to master throughout his career. In 1970, Terry was committed to an institution for mental illness and he eventually committed suicide in 1985. Some biographers have suggested that at least two of Peggy’s sisters showed signs of mental illness and there is no denying Bowie’s fixation with the theme of sanity in songs like All the Mad Men and The Bewlay Brothers.  

Bowie’s penchant for playing with different identities started early in his career. When it became apparent that he would have to share his name with (the already famous) Davy Jones of The Monkees he took on his more famous moniker after the knife of the same name.

His career started slowly, and it took until late 1969 for him finally make an impact of note on the charts, reaching the top 10 with the timely Space Oddity. Two albums followed. The dark and perhaps at times overly dramatic The Man who Sold the World and the lighter Hunky Dory, a work of unquestionable brilliance which includes songs Life on Mars and Changes. The cover of the former saw Bowie strewn casually across a chez-lounge wearing a yellow dress. He had, at that point, met and married Angela Barnett who encouraged him to explore his sexuality and he soon declared himself bisexual; something he seems to have later regretted. His marriage to Angie would not last but it did give Bowie a son – the film producer Duncan Jones who was originally given the rather cringe-inducing name Zowie.

Having survived the 70’s Bowie came into the following decade with a bang. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ saw a fitter looking Thin White Duke seemingly heeding the warnings of an invented mother figure: “My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom”. Was he dispensing with his alter egos? The accompanying video which casts Bowie alternately as a sad clown, as an astronaut and as himself trapped in a padded cell suggested he was. The answer came three years later with the release of his most commercially successful album Let’s Dance which included the eponymous hit single and its almost equally successful China Girl. Gone were the far out characters – if you exclude his starring role in the movie Labyrinth – this was simply Bowie, and although many of his former fans found it difficult to relate to this more commercial pop star, his whole demeanour seemed sounder.

For critics and for many fans, Bowie’s musical output has fallen off something of a cliff since the mid 80’s but his personal life took a turn for the better when he met Somali model Iman. Bowie remarked that he was already thinking of names for their children the minute they met.

Having dated for two years the couple married in 1992 and in 2000 their daughter Alexandria Zahra was born. Four years later, Bowie, who was a heavy smoker, underwent an operation for a blocked artery after complaining of chest pains during a concert in Germany. Since then he has been decidedly low key and the question now is if he will ever return. He has done so before but now that his “spaceship seems to know which way to go” asking him to do it again might be too much. At 65, the starman is still hovering above us but this time round he seems happy to stay put.

 

BOWIE’S WOMEN

Angela Barnett

Bowie’s first wife was just 19 when they met in 1969. They married a year later and in her revelatory book Backstage Passes: Life on the wild side with David Bowie she tells of the couples open promiscuity and sexual relationships. The couple remained married until 1980. Angie claims that many of the ideas for Ziggy Stardust came from her.

Melissa Hurley

17 years Bowie’s junior, Hurley was a dancer on the star’s 1987 Glass Spider tour – the Irish leg of which was a sell out in Slane Castle. The couple were at one stage engaged but broke up in 1990.

Iman Abdul Majid

The couple were set up on a blind date by a mutual hairdresser friend (figures). They were married in Switzerland in front of a small gathering of less than 70 people. Bowie’s first born Duncan was his best man.

 

 

 

 

 

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