David Bowie, the English rock idol who meshed music with theater and stamped his indelible, but ever-changing sonic signature on many genres and into the annals of pop-culture history, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer. The type of cancer was not initially specified, according to a statement on his website, but the 69-year-old had battled the disease for 18 months. Speculation quickly swirled that the update was part of a hoax, but Bowie’s son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, confirmed via Twitter early Monday morning that he was “very sorry and sad to say [the news was] true.” Not long after, scads of other celebrities and friends began posting in memoriam tributes on social media, too.
Born David Jones on January 8, 1947, in Brixton, Bowie grew up with a penchant, first, for jazz and a hunger, always, for stardom. The idea to perform as David Bowie came in 1966, before he was 20, after a handful of stints with early bands; the beginning of his success came soon after, with such releases as Space Oddity (1969), his first platinum project Hunky Dory (1971), and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972, also platinum).
Over the course of an international, multi-platform career that spanned roughly five decades, Bowie would become known for his chameleonic artistry and pseudo-mythological personae (Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke), the allure of which were reinforced by his collaborations with such musical forces as John Lennon, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, as well as his forays into other creative arenas, namely film. He had especially memorable turns in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Just a Gigolo, Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me, and Zoolander.
In 1996, with several more releases under his belt, Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which labeled him rock’s foremost futurist and genre-bending pioneer. “David Bowie’s contribution to rock ‘n’ roll has been wit and sophistication. He’s smart, he’s a true musician and he can really sing,” Reed noted in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists package. “There had been androgyny in rock from Little Richard on up, but David put his own patina on it, to say the least. He bethought hard about that Ziggy character; he’d been studying mime, and he didn’t do it just for laughs. He was very aware of stagecraft. He made an entire show out of that character — and then he left it behind. How smart can you get?”
Bowie most recently had an off-Broadway show titled Lazarus, scheduled to run through January 19, open last month; it signified his first time scoring a stage show. His 25th studio album, Blackstar, also came out last week, on his birthday. “Its expertly exerted control between self-indulgence and accessibility, between high art and pop, is the most deliciously sinister thing about Blackstar,” Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz wrote in her review. “These are diabolical earworms, all the more creepy for their singsong lucidity. But hasn’t that always been Bowie’s genius, knowing exactly how much sugar is needed to smuggle in the strange? After all, he’s still the same person who got the mainstream to accept everything from androgyny to ambient music, and the same one who, 40 years ago, got millions of people to listen to a ten-minute avant-rock experiment, because you had to play through ‘Station to Station’ before you got to hear ‘Golden Years.’”
For more on Bowie’s tireless reinvention, revisit New York’s 2013 article on him and his golden years, here.
This story has been updated throughout.