The Man Who Sold the World

David Bowie was not of this earth. I knew it at age five as I sat transfixed in front of the TV, my normally short attention span completely absorbed by a grainy VHS tape of a Bowie concert my father insisted on buying. I was fascinated by every aspect of him—a pale waif of a man so slim it seemed that his powder blue suit might swallow him at any moment. Yet he commanded the stage as if he was a full troupe of performers, strutting with unshakeable confidence and slipping in and out of self­made characters as each song called for it. His shock of bleached hair and his high cheek bones, accentuated by more makeup than I had ever seen on a woman before, let alone a man, caught my eye with each dramatic zoom of the camera. The eyes that glared at the audience, challenging them to keep up, consistently held my focus.

My captivation with his largely feminine features in contrast with his hyper-masculine stage presence was something that would help me understand my own sexual fluidity years later, but at the time it was a phenomenon I could not place.

He was a cluster of identities, a whirlwind of contradictions, and in the simplest terms, undeniably strange. But there was something magical about him that I could not articulate. As I would come to find out, this was the way he affected the rest of the world, conducting a kind of hypnosis on popular culture in order to accomplish what he set out to do.

In doing this, however, he left us shrouded in the fog of his legend. It’s sometimes difficult to separate myth from fact when he worked so hard to craft his character, not to mention that he was conveniently vague in interviews throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. (Did you know that Bowie’s diet once consisted of only milk, peppers, and cocaine? Did you know that “Heroes” was partially responsible for the collapse of the Berlin wall? Did you know that Bowie’s wife caught him in bed with Mick Jagger?) With a figure so enveloped in mystery, the only concrete information we have about him concerns the way he made us think and feel.

The experimental sixties, even the anticipation of the moon landing that very year could not have prepared the mainstream for “Space Oddity,” a song about an astronaut who drifts away from his ship while in orbit. And yet, it became Bowie’s first Top 5 UK hit, introducing the world to the gangly long­haired musician who could have easily been discovered by Apollo 11.

Although he would not experience that same level of success for several years, he continued to shock and confuse. He appeared on the cover of his 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World posing on a chaise lounge in a long dress, the catalyst for his dabbling in androgyny. He puzzled protectors of societal norms, all the while crafting an album that would bend music industry rules as well.

He used his talent for illustrative lyrics to write about pressing matters on 1971’s Hunky Dory, connecting directly to a young audience with the message behind the classic track “Changes.” At a time when there was immense conflict between baby boomers and their parents regarding political, cultural, and social issues, Bowie’s stance on the matter was clear: “These children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” He fueled a generation of young activists and innovators, encouraging them all to “turn and face the strange.”

Perhaps that was a warning of sorts, or an indication of what he was planning to throw our way. Just one year later, Bowie had completely morphed his persona, drawing inspiration from the emerging glam rock scene and channeling his unrelenting passion for the theatrical. He traded in his unruly gold locks for a striking red mullet, painted his face with glittery eyeshadow and lipstick, and stepped into a colorful spandex one­piece. From this moment on, he was no longer David Bowie, but Ziggy Stardust – a tragic fictional rock ‘n’ roll frontman unable to adequately cope with the dark side of fame.

Shockingly enough it was this character, a bisexual extraterrestrial ringleader with no concern for any gender restrictions, that really struck a chord with a wide audience. He blasted into superstardom with lyrically nonsensical tracks like “Moonage Daydream” (“I’m an alligator/ I’m a mama­papa coming for you/ I’m a space invader”) and interstellar songs like the iconic “Starman.” He was overtly sexual onstage, groping and grinding his all­male backing band while wearing too­tight (often very revealing) jumpsuits and leotards. His music was loud, raw, and unapologetic, and his image was dangerous in a way that no other rock stars were. Bowie may have killed off this character after only one year at best, but he won over a legion of adoring fans in the process.

Even after killing Ziggy, Bowie remained the head of the misunderstood. He continued to reach out to those who didn’t fit within the gender binary. “You got your mother in a whirl/ ‘Cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” he sang on “Rebel Rebel” in 1974. “I’m gay,” he told British magazine The Melody Maker. “And always have been.” He made statements that would have jeopardized his career if not for his larger­than­life confidence and apathetic attitude. His embrace of gender and sexual fluidity told young people that it wasn’t just okay to be themselves, it was the coolest fucking thing they could be.

Bowie rode the high of being a celebrated cult figure, working alongside some of the biggest names in the business (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, John Lennon) and diving headfirst into the drug scene of the mid­seventies. While touring for his number one album, Aladdin Sane, he began sleeping less and overindulging in cocaine. This untamed drug habit would evolve into one of his last great personas, the Thin White Duke, whom the artist would describe as a “nasty” character in later years.

This period was characterized by great success for Bowie with the release of Young Americans and Station to Station, but it was also a time of drug­induced psychosis. He became emaciated due to his limited diet (of, yes, milk, red peppers, and cocaine, according to biographer David Buckley), he engaged in black magic, and he suffered from many paranoid delusions. His lifestyle was so reckless that it was clear he would have to make a drastic change in order to save himself.

So in 1976 he moved to Germany to get clean, writing what became known as the Berlin Trilogy in the process. Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger saw the reestablishment of Bowie’s health, and more importantly, his identity. He chose to experiment with his sound instead of his look, including synthesizers and bizarre recording techniques in the studio; the vocals for the Cold War­themed “Heroes” title track were famously recorded using three different microphones that were varying distances apart (to catch the reverb, of course).

Although these albums were important for his personal growth, they would not bring him anywhere near the amount of success that Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) would in 1980. The hit singles “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes,” the latter serving as a sequel to “Space Oddity,” would push Bowie back into the commercial limelight. Here was the man that the general population remembered and loved—an elfish figure caked in makeup, singing about space.

But Bowie still had a few tricks up his sleeve that would help shape the weird world of the eighties. From his collaboration with Queen to form the classic “Under Pressure,” to his hugely popular night club track “Let’s Dance,” and even his role as the goblin king in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth, he avoided any opportunity to be pigeonholed. With each new endeavor, the already iconic musician expanded his audience to greater lengths. He might have looked like the antithesis of Ziggy Stardust, but he still carried the tenacity. He still didn’t care.

Bowie kept working into the nineties, making music intended to capture a more basic, hard rock sound. He began to slip away from the spotlight as he remarried, had a child, and grew older. He maintained a ten-year hiatus from music until he released The Next Day in 2013, surprising millions of fans and earning himself his first number one since 1993. He unveiled Blackstar, his twenty­fifth album, on his birthday in 2016 to much critical acclaim. It seemed that Bowie was back to conquer the world again—he released several music videos, his songs were on the radio, his social media posted promotional pictures of him laughing and smiling with pride.

And then he was gone.

It didn’t make sense to me, just like it didn’t make sense to many others. He seemed untouchable, almost ethereal. Cancer? Could aliens get cancer?

But as celebrities and everyday people alike paid their respects to Bowie around the world, it was clear that he was still with us after all. Musicians from Kanye to Madonna thanked him for his influence, fashion shows honored him with their runway looks, and loyal fans painted murals of him and sang his songs in the streets. People spoke of the way his music made them feel, all of the stories carrying the same underlying theme of understanding and empowerment.

For a moment in time we were spectators to a man so dedicated to breaking barriers that he was willing to drive himself to extremes in the name of reinvention, a man who never took no for an answer, a man who was far beyond his time. Whether he shaped our culture or our culture shaped him, we will never know. But if one thing holds true, it’s that the idea of personal expression was never the same after he took the stage. Many of us looked on at David Bowie with amazement because we didn’t think that he was of this earth. But the most remarkable thing about him was that he was.

Photograph by Yasmina Hilal.

A&E, In The MagazineRachel Fucci