Cancer claims the genius behind Ziggy Stardust

Bowie at the 36th Cannes Film Festival

Legendary British rock star David Bowie, who framed hits such as “Ziggy Stardust” with daringly androgynous displays of sexuality and costume, has died aged 69 after a private battle with cancer. A chameleon and a visionary, Bowie straddled the worlds of hedonistic rock, style 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 Sunday. Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, confirmed the death.

Mourners laid flowers and lit candles beside a memorial to Bowie in the Brixton area of south London where he was born, and tributes poured in from some of the biggest names in 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.”

“Talented,” Madonna Tweeted. “Unique. Genius. Game Changer. The Man who Fell to Earth. Your Spirit Lives on Forever!”

In a music video accompanying Bowie’s new “Blackstar” album, which was released last Friday on his 69th birthday, 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 II, he took up the saxophone at 13, according to Rolling Stone, changing his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones.

He shot to fame in Britain in 1969 with “Space Oddity,” whose lyrics he said were inspired by watching Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” while stoned.

The then-Princess of Wales shakes hands with David Bowie after a show in London
The then-Princess of Wales shakes hands with David Bowie after a show in London

Bowie’s lyrics summed up the loneliness of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union and coincided with the Apollo landing on the moon.

“Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on … Here am I sitting in my tin can. Far above the world. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”

It was Bowie’s 1972 portrayal of a doomed bisexual rock envoy from space, Ziggy Stardust, that propelled him to global stardom. Wearing outrageous costumes, makeup and bright orange hair, Bowie and Ziggy took the rock world by storm.

Ever the innovator, Bowie told Melody Maker daily 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 told Playboy he was bisexual. 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.”

This was a period which saw Bowie sporting an array of fantastic costumes, some reportedly based on the chilling Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange.” By then one of the top transatlantic rock stars, Bowie continued to innovate, helping to produce Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” working with John Lennon, delving into American R&B.

“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.”

Bowie reinvented himself again in the mid-’70s, adopting a soul and funk sound, and abandoning stack heels for designer suits and flat shoes.

He scored his first U.S. No. 1 with “Fame” and created a new persona, the “Thin White Duke,” for his “Station to Station” album.

The excesses of a hedonistic life were taking their toll. “I blew my nose one day in California, he said, recalling his prodigious appetite for cocaine, “and half my brains came out. Something had to be done.”

Bowie moved from the U.S. to Switzerland, 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.

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,” he sang in “Let’s Dance.” “If you say hide, we’ll hide. Because my love for you, would break my heart in two.”

Bowie acted on stage and screen. He starred on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” at the start of the decade. After his breakout role in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 feature “The Man who Fell to Earth,” Bowie appeared in an array of films, including “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Snowman,” “Absolute Beginners” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

His 1992 marriage to stunning Somali supermodel Iman 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.”

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