As we noted earlier this week, David Bowie’s ever-evolving image has been the subject of more interest than pretty much any musician we can think of. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that it’s just so damn interesting — over the course of his career, Bowie’s moved from persona to persona like he’s trying on new coats at the thrift store, creating an image that’s always changing and always fascinating. As such, as part of Flavorwire’s David Bowie Week™, we thought we’d start at the beginning and go on a journey through the life of his most memorable incarnations. You’re more than welcome!
The Whimsical Singer/Songwriter
Laughing gnomes, a Herman’s Hermits haircut, acoustic guitars, psychedelia. Who’d have guessed at what was to come? But then came “Space Oddity,” and everything changed forever.
The Man Who Sold the World
And spent the proceeds on rather fetching thrift store dresses, clearly.
Three decades on, and still the definitive Bowie persona as far as a lot of people are concerned. It was also Bowie’s most extensive exercise in creating a background and actual character to go with his image, so much so that for a while, at least, Ziggy and his creator were largely indistinguishable. This, of course, made it all the more shocking when Bowie consigned the character to rock ‘n’ roll suicide.
Aladdin Sane A favorite of Halloween parties everywhere, and a sort of life after death for Ziggy, although Aladdin Sane lacked his predecessor’s defined personality and back story, representing Bowie’s ambiguity about the entire Ziggy experience, as well as the state of his career and his rising fame. The conflict found its representation in the lightning bolt down the middle of his face, an image that also referred to the mental conflict implied by the character’s name (we’re not sure about you, but it took us years to realize that “Aladdin Sane” was a pun on “A lad insane.”)
The Thin White Duke
AKA the “lots of cocaine” years. Drugs are bad, m’kay? Bowie grew into the Thin White Duke persona — “a nasty character indeed” — throughout his years in LA, making first the white-boy soul of Young Americans, and then Station to Station, an album that represented both the apogee of this period and its logical conclusion. The story goes that he can’t remember the recording process — he describes listening to it now as “a piece of work by an entirely different person.”
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Quite literally, in the sense that Bowie relocated to Berlin to get away from LA and a cocaine habit so colossal it led him to do things like trying to exorcise his swimming pool. Pretty much nothing Bowie does as far as his image is concerned can be considered irrelevant, and thus the choice to adorn the cover of Low with a still from Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth — in which he starred as an alienated alien — feels like a significant one.
The theatricality of Ziggy inspired a whole new generation of glam-influenced musicians, and the flamboyance of Bowie’s creation found perhaps its most extreme expression in the New Romantic movement of the early 1980s. Bowie never entirely embraced this group, but the most enduring image of him from the period is definitely New Romantic-inspired: the lonely, lost Pierrot of the “Ashes to Ashes” video, wandering on a beach, menaced by a chorus of priests and, um, a JCB.
Jareth the Goblin King
If you grew up in the 1980s, this may well have been your first introduction to Bowie: the alarmingly well-endowed, child-snatching Goblin King from Labyrinth, the man who’d make off with your baby brother and the contents of your sock drawer. (Also, it is one of the great tragedies of the internet that the images on this site got pulled by Photbucket and were never replaced.)
The Regular Dude with a Regular Dude Band
It’s perversely reassuring in its own way that even someone as prodigiously talented can find himself lost both creatively and personally, and so it was with Bowie in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Never Let Me Down and Tonight fell well below the creative peaks of his pre-Scary Monsters work, and our hero responded by reinventing himself as Just The Singer in Tin Machine, a determinedly egalitarian project wherein he refused to do interviews alone and split the band’s proceeds on a strict four-way basis.
The mid to late ’90s found Bowie embracing his outsider status and undergoing a remarkable, if largely overlooked, creative renaissance. Outside was a weirdly conceptual, industrial-inspired work that still makes for rather discomfiting listening, while Earthling, made two years later, involved an unexpected and surprisingly successful expedition into drum ‘n’ bass. Both were accompanied by an evolving image that found its fullest expression on the cover of Earthling — goatee, spiky hair, crazy Union Jack jacket.
The Elder Statesman
The suave, long-haired Soho resident, author of quietly reflective albums like …Hours and Heathen. This seemed to be Bowie ushering his career into graceful decline, especially after the heart attack that resulted in the cancellation of his tour in 2004. But then…
And finally, the latest and arguably most fascinating, of them all: meta-Bowie, which we discussed at length on Monday. And what comes next, if anything? Who knows? That’s all part of the fun.
In celebration of David Bowie’s first album in a decade, The Next Day — and, you know, because we really love him and will seize any excuse to write about him — we have officially declared David Bowie Week at Flavorwire. Click here to follow our week-long coverage of rock legend, from his new release to a legacy that now spans nearly half a century.