By Paul Sandle and Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON – David Bowie, the visionary British rock star who framed hits such as “Space Oddity” with flamboyant pop personas like “Ziggy Stardust” and androgynous displays of sexuality, has died aged 69 after a secret battle with cancer.
A pioneering chameleon of performance imagery, Bowie straddled the worlds of hedonistic rock, fashion, art and drama for five decades, pushing the boundaries of music and his own sanity to produce some of the most innovative songs of his generation.
“David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer,” read a statement on Bowie’s Facebook page dated Jan. 10. Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, confirmed the death.
A spokesman for Bowie said he died on Sunday but declined to say where he died or from what type of cancer.
Mourners laid flowers and lit candles beside a memorial to Bowie in the edgy Brixton district of south London where he was born. Tributes poured in from titans of popular music, including the Rolling Stones, Madonna and rapper Kanye West.
“The Rolling Stones are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of our dear friend David Bowie,” the Stones said. “He was an extraordinary artist, and a true original.”
Madonna said on Twitter: “Talented. Unique. Genius. Game Changer. The Man who Fell to Earth. Your Spirit Lives on Forever!”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had grown up with Bowie’s music and described his death as “a huge loss”. The Vatican said: “Check ignition and may God’s love be with you” – borrowing a verse from Bowie’s first hit “Space Oddity”.
In a music video accompanying Bowie’s new, jazzy “Blackstar” album, released on his 69th birthday last Friday, the singer was shown in a hospital bed with bandages around his eyes.
Born David Jones in south London two years after the end of World War Two, he took up the saxophone at 13 before changing his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones, according to Rolling Stone.
He shot to fame in Britain in 1969 with “Space Oddity”, whose words he said were inspired by watching Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” while stoned.
Bowie’s haunting lyrics summed up the loneliness of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union and coincided with the Apollo spacecraft landing on the moon.
“Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on … For here am I sitting in my tin can. Far above the world. Planet Earth is blue. And there’s nothing I can do.”
But it was Bowie’s 1972 portrayal of a doomed bisexual rock envoy from space, Ziggy Stardust, that propelled him to global stardom. Bowie and Ziggy, wearing outrageous costumes, makeup and bright orange hair, took the pop world by storm.
He defined the theatrical glam rock movement with the albums “Hunky Dory”, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, and “Aladdin Sane”.
“Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly,” Bowie sang with a red lightning bolt across his face and flamboyant jumpsuits. “Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind, like a leper messiah.”
By now an influential icon of artistic reinvention venturing into the theater, film and fashion worlds, Bowie continued to innovate, helping produce Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” album, delving into American rhythm & blues and co-writing the hit “Fame” with John Lennon.
This was a period which saw Bowie sporting an array of fantastic costumes, some reportedly based on the chilling Kubrick movie “A Clockwork Orange”.
“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,” Bowie said in a rare interview in 2002.
“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,” said Tony Visconti, the U.S. producer who helped lift Bowie to stardom.
“He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry,” he said.
Ever ahead of public opinion, Bowie told the Melody Maker newspaper in 1972 that he was gay, a step that helped pioneer sexual openness in Britain, which had only decriminalized homosexuality in 1967. Bowie had married in 1970.
Four years later, he informed Playboy that he was bisexual, but in the 1980s he told Rolling Stone magazine that the declaration was “the biggest mistake I ever made” and that he was “always a closet heterosexual”.
Bowie went through another metamorphosis in the mid-seventies, adopting a soul and funk sound, and abandoning stack heels for designer suits and flat shoes.
He scored his first U.S. number one with “Fame” and created a new persona, the “Thin White Duke”, for his “Station to Station” album.
But the excesses of a hedonistic life were taking their toll. In a reference to his prodigious appetite for cocaine, he said: “I blew my nose one day in California. And half my brains came out. Something had to be done.”
Bowie moved from the United States to Switzerland and then to Cold War-era Berlin to recuperate, working with Brian Eno from Roxy Music to produce some of his least commercial and most ambitious music, including “Low” and ”Heroes” in 1977.
He scored a big hit with funk dance track “Fashion” in 1980.
In 1983 Bowie changed tack again, signing a multi-million-dollar five-album deal with EMI. The first, ”Let’s Dance”, returned him to chart success and almost paid off his advance.
“If you say run, I’ll run with you. If you say hide, we’ll hide. Because my love for you. Would break my heart in two,” he sang in Let’s Dance.
He starred on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” at the start of the decade and appeared in an array of films including “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence”, “The Snowman”, “Absolute Beginners” and as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”.
His love-life fascinated gossip columnists and his marriage to Somali-American supermodel Iman in 1992 guaranteed headlines.
Bowie kept a low profile after undergoing emergency heart surgery in 2004. It was not widely known that he was fighting cancer.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings from a hospital bed in the video accompanying his last album.
“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.”