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The many deaths of David Bowie

On 8 January 2016, on his 69th birthday and two days before he died, David Bowie released Blackstar, an album replete with images of death, but also hints of the possibility of its transcendence. “Lazarus,” the third track sung from heaven where he was as free as a bluebird, appeared to announce his rebirth into yet another of the series of personae he inhabited throughout his career. And, even though he was himself absent from it, his death and the music and videos in which he dramatized it together precipitated the most extensive media storm of his career. For the previous 45 years, Bowie’s public fabrication and annihilation of alter egos always aspired to such visually and aurally innovative media spectacles.

After his early mod dabbling with the blues, his first rejection of the period’s rock ’n’ roll personae was met with little success. Fey Dylanesque folk ditties performed by a long-haired waif in a dress—albeit, he insisted, a man’s dress—had few links to late 1960s cultural touchstones. And so, when his early musical efforts failed to attract attention, he turned to mime and acting, gaining small roles in several film projects, including one in a short experimental melodrama, The Image (Michael Armstrong, 1969). Here, Bowie haunts an artist who is painting a portrait of him, driving the artist to such a point of distraction that he stabs his inspiration to death. The same year, Bowie’s manager, Kenneth Pitt, produced a promotional film, Love You till Tuesday (Malcolm J. Thomson), featuring the recent hit, “Space Oddity,” and seven more Bowie compositions, including “The Mask,” in which Bowie mimes in accompaniment to his spoken voice-over story. Bowie recounts how his performances with a mask he finds in a junk store become so popular that he is invited to appear at the London Palladium—where the mask strangles him.

David Bowie, shooting a video for “Rebel Rebel” on AVRO’s TopPop, a Dutch television show, in 1974, after he killed his famed alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Bowie persevered with the combination of death and doppelgänger motifs, and when he abandoned the shibboleths of expressive authenticity that the counterculture prized to create Ziggy Stardust, the progress of his future career was assured. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972), his fifth album, changed everything: his music, his persona, and his position in the mass media. Recorded in late 1971 and early 1972, ten of its eleven songs were his own compositions, featuring a harder rock sound than he had recently favored. But rather than identify with it himself, Bowie projected the music onto the alter ego of an extra-terrestrial rock star. His performances as Ziggy—a star, but also an alien “Starman“—created a cult around him that he sustained for over a year, before he abruptly dispatched Ziggy in a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”

Projections of these multiple alter egos in strongly visual, dramatic performances that culminate in death were integral to Bowie’s Ziggy concerts, and thus to D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film of the last of these shows at Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973). Enacting a utopia of communality within a dystopia of artifice, Ziggy’s performance was, like the countercultural spectaculars it invoked, a ritual event both within and beyond the alienation of commodity relationships, one celebrated jointly by David Jones, David Bowie, Ziggy, the Spiders, his fans, and Pennebaker’s crew—and the film’s viewers. As Ziggy brought these together, the summary performance of communal suicidal redemption occurred twice: once immediately before the intermission, when in the last stanza of “My Death,” after the line “for in front of that door, there is…,” one audience member then another calls out, “Me!” and Bowie smiles slightly and says, “Thank you.” And again just before “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” the climactic final song of the concert and the film, when Bowie made an astonishing announcement: “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”

Terminating Ziggy’s career freed Bowie to develop the personae that made him arguably the most important musician of the 1970s, as well as a leading innovator in the period’s distinctive form of audio-visual composition, the music video. He had already written his own best epitaph in “The Man Who Sold the World,” when his alter ego replied to the voice who thought him dead: “Oh no, not me, I never lost control.”

Image Credit: “David Bowie – Aladdin Sane” by Piano Piano! CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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