Caroline Davies in London and Edward Helmore in New York
David Bowie, the iconic rock star whose career spanned more than half a century and whose influence transcended music, fashion and sexuality, has died aged 69.
The singer’s death was confirmed in a Facebook post on his official page: “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer. While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family’s privacy during their time of grief.”
Writing on Twitter, Bowie’s son, the film director Duncan Jones, 44, said: “Very sorry and sad to say it’s true.” The news came as a shock to some, who were initially sceptical, but Bowie’s publicist, Steve Martin, told the Reuters news agency: “It’s not a hoax.”
Bowie’s 25 albums produced a string of hits including Changes, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. He was known for experimenting across diverse musical genres, and for his alter egos Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. He also had a notable acting career.
His latest album, Blackstar, was released last week to coincide with his 69th birthday, and had received widespread critical acclaim.
Blackstar was the first Bowie release not to feature a picture of him on the cover: instead, a stylised black star heralded a darker work. On re-examination, there is much in Blackstar to suggest Bowie was saying goodbye, particularly in Lazarus, and the video for the title track, which opens with the image of a dead spaceman.
Tributes were paid on social media. In a heartfelt Facebook post, Tony Visconti, who produced a series of Bowie’s albums, including Young Americans and his seminal Berlin trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger, wrote: “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of art.
“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.”
An hour after the news broke, fans began to gather near his apartment on Lafayette Street in the Soho district of New York. The first, Kate Corman, left a candle and flowers. “First Lou Reed, now David Bowie. It’s so sad. Unbelievable. New York is really over now,” she said.
At Puckfair, a bar across the street from Bowie’s apartment andfrequented by the singer, the barman played a string of his hits – Jean Genie, Let’s Dance and Heroes. “It’s hard to put into words what he gave us in his songs,” said late-night drinker Bill Marlborough. “If you don’t feel it, I can’t explain.”
Flowers and tributes were also laid at a mural on a wall in Brixton, south London, where the singer was born, and a candle was placed outside a property in Stansfield Road, thought to be his childhood home.
Bowie had been absent from public view for a decade. After a heart attack while touring in 2004 there were only a few low-key live appearances – his last at a charity show in New York in 2006 when he performed alongside Alicia Keys – and an acting role in the film The Prestige the same year.
He was said to sit quietly in his apartment, or at the house in upstate New York near Woodstock, which he purchased with the supermodel Iman, whom he married in 1992 and with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria, 15.
Paul Trynka, his biographer, told the Press Association the decade between his 23rdalbum Reality in 2003 and The Next Day in 2013 gave Bowie time to be “a family man”. “He walked Lexi [his daughter] to school every day – something he had missed with Duncan [his son] which was something he deeply regretted”.
Ricky Gervais, the comedian and actor who convinced the famously private Bowie to star as himself in an episode of the 2006 sitcom Extras, wrote: “I just lost a hero. RIP David Bowie”.
The rapper Kanye West said: “David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.”
Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis recalled the singer’s first appearance in the Somerset field in 1971. “He had lovely long flowing hair, a right hippie-looking lad. Fantastically beautiful he looked, actually,” Eavis told the BBC. “Nobody knew who he was, he played at 4 in the morning at sunrise, song’e we’d never heard before.”
Bowie was born David Robert Jones on 8 January 1947 in Brixton, south London, to mother Margaret “Peggy”, a waitnress, and charity worker Haywood “John” Jones. His older brother’s record collection introduced him to rock music at an early age.
The family moved to south-east London and he graduated from Bromley technical high school at 16, when he was busy forming a number of bands and leading a group. He called himself Davy Jones, later changing his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees. The name was reportedly inspired by a knife developed by the 19th century American pioneer Jim Bowie.
He released three singles as a solo artist for Pye Records, and a debut album David Bowie, but did not achieve huge success and retreated to a Buddhist monastery in Scotland in 1967.
After returning to London he started the arts troupe Feathers in 1968, then helped organise the Free Festival, a day-long free music event in Beckenham, southeast London, in 1969. That same year he released Space Oddity, which went on to be his first UK No 1. The release the following year of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars made him an international star, and he conquered the US with his theatrical stage show.
He produced albums for Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, as well as writing All the Young Dudes, which he gave to Mott The Hoople who had a massive hit with it. In the late 1970s he produced a three-album collaboration with Brian Eno, known as the Berlin trilogy.
Bowie combined his rock career with appearances in films. His acting career took off with his performance in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, followed by roles in films such as Labyrinth, The Last Temptation of Christ and Absolute Beginners. More recently, he appeared as himself in the film Zoolander.
Bowie officially retired Ziggy Stardust in 1973, making the announcement during a London gig. But the hits kept coming, with albums including Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs and Pin Ups.
He changed direction with the soul-inspired Young Americans. His first US No 1 was a collaboration with John Lennon on Fame, which topped the charts in 1975.
He continued to sell millions of albums and pack out stadiums with the rise of the New Romantic scene in 1980s Britain. He embraced pop, finding chart success with songs such as Let’s Dance and Queen collaboration Under Pressure.
Friend and collaborator Iggy Pop described him on social media as “the light of my life”, while singer Madonna tweeted: “Talented. Unique. Genius. Game Changer”.
The Rolling Stones hailed his as “an extraordinary artist and a true original”. The rock group Queen, with whom he collaborated on Under Pressure, tweeted a link to the video of the song, with the words: “This is our last dance….”
Prime minister David Cameron, speaking on an engagement in north London, said: “Musically, creatively, artistically David Bowie was a genius”.
Bowie once said that he was bisexual, although he later suggested that his sexual interactions with men should be seen in the context of his wider cultural experimentation. “I was always a closet heterosexual,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1993.
In 1970 he married Angie Bowie, and the couple had a son named Zowie Bowie, now known as Duncan Jones. They split in 1980. He settled in New York one year after marrying Iman.
Bowie continued to record and tour until 2003, when he released Reality, his 23rdalbum, which many assumed to be his last.
“I am not a natural performer,” Bowie said in a rare interview in 2002. “I don’t enjoy performing terribly much. Never have. I can do it and, if my mind’s on the situation, do it quite well. But, five or six shows in, I’m dying to get off the road and go back to the studio.”
In the same interview, he said: “My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life.”
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