The loss of David Bowie, who died of cancer Jan. 10 at age 69, hit everyone differently. Maybe his “Ch-ch-ch-changes” was the theme of your senior yearbook, or you found yourself humming “Space Oddity” whenever you gazed at the stars. Maybe his androgyny made you feel less alone, or his art-school sensibilities drew you in. He was a musician, sure, but he was also a fashion icon, an artist, an actor, always out there on the thin edge of invention and social change. Music lovers who think they’re too young to miss him have no idea how many of their own favorite artists drew from Bowie’s legacy, followed where he blazed trails.
With so many Bowie treasures to look back on, it’s impossible to include them all, but here are a few highlights.
Space Oddity came out in July 1969, the same month man landed on the moon — its topic was so of-the-moment that the BBC reportedly would not play it until the Apollo astronauts had returned home safely. But it hasn’t aged as other songs about current events sometimes do — instead feeling as fresh and poignant now as then. Its deceptively simple lyrics were among the most-quoted after Bowie’s death. “The stars look very different today,” “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do” and “Tell my wife I love her very much / She knows” took on heartrending new meanings after the loss. Naturally, it was this song that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded while in space in 2013. Bowie was from another world right from the start.
Of Bowie’s many glittering and exotic looks, 1972’s Ziggy Stardust era might be the most memorable. The concept album to beat all concept albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars features Bowie as a bisexual alien rock superstar who futilely offers humanity a shot at peace and love. “Ziggy played guitar,” the song lyrics ran. “Ziggy really sang.” Yes, yes he did.
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth
In the strangest holiday duet of all time, a clean-cut Bowie pairs up with crooner Bing Crosby for a surreal Christmas gift. Bowie’s mother liked Bing, and Bing’s kids liked Bowie, so the two musicians blended their voices in a holiday special clip just five weeks before Crosby’s 1977 death. Crosby’s voice rolls resonantly through that old classic, “Little Drummer Boy,” but Bowie requested, and got, another song — “Peace on Earth.” The song has become a Christmas-season radio staple, but look up the video for the adorably awkward scripted dialogue.
Bowie in the movies
He played a myriad of characters onstage, so it should surprise no one that Bowie had the talent and the wherewithal to play a variety of roles onscreen as well. He was an alien (The Man Who Fell to Earth), a POW (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), a vampire (The Hunger), a goblin king (Labyrinth), Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ), Andy Warhol (Basquiat) and Nikola Tesla (The Prestige), among other. It could be hard to forget who was behind the makeup, but Bowie was so good it just didn’t matter, and never felt like stunt casting.
Bowie and Iman
OK, it's not really a moment, but we love that his enduring love affair with model Iman started out as a hairdresser's setup. Although he married Angela Barnett in 1970, he would later claim to be gay, and then bisexual. But it was with Somali supermodel Iman, whom he wed in 1992, that he appeared to have found true love. Despite the cliché of the unstable rocker-model relationship, the two raised a daughter and stayed married until Bowie’s death, working hard to (mostly successfully) keep press and paparazzi out of their private life. “I am married to David Jones,” Iman once said, using her husband’s birth name. “David Bowie and David Jones are two totally different people.”
Bowie confronts MTV
In these days when the “M” in “MTV” no longer stands for “Music,” it’s easy to forget that the channel once was the main place to go for the hottest music videos. But that early video lineup was embarrassingly white, and Bowie wasn’t about to let that stand. While promoting Let’s Dance in 1983, he flat-out asked VJ Mark Goodman why the channel was ignoring black artists. According to the book Inside MTV, Goodman squirmed and tried to claim that small-town America was scared of black faces on their television sets. Bowie was having none of it and said so. Perhaps his bluntness didn’t force the channel’s hand — Michael Jackson’s exploding popularity had more to do with it — but Bowie was one of the biggest artists to take the network to task.
Bowie meets Ricky Gervais on Extras
In a hilarious 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais’ British sitcom Extras, Gervais’s character, Andy Millman, runs into Bowie and tries to tell him about his own pathetic entertainment career. This inspires Bowie to write an impromptu song about what a loser Millman is, the aptly titled “Little Fat Man with the Pug-Nosed Face.” Gervais sits by as Bowie belts out such lyrics as “chubby little loser, national joke.” The lyrics just get better as even Millman’s friends chime in with suggestions, and soon the whole room is singing along. When you see Gervais making awards-show digs at the expense of put-out celebrities, remember this scene, and how brilliantly he and Bowie made Gervais the butt of the joke.
Bowie’s eloquent farewell
Although Bowie’s cancer was diagnosed 18 months before his death, not one friend or family member sold him out — no tabloid snapshots, no lurid videos leaked to TMZ. He kept his disease private, as was his right. But after the sad news became public, the last song he released took on a special poignancy. Titled “Lazarus,” about the man Jesus resurrected from death, it begins with the lyrics, “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” and the video features Bowie on his deathbed. Producer Tony Visconti said that his final album, Blackstar, was the singer’s parting gift to the world. Indeed, Bowie left this world with the impeccable style he displayed throughout his career. We would have expected no less.