The man of many characters is regarded as an “excessively talented and attractive singer/actor with more influence on music than possibly any other musician in the history of time” according to urbandictionary.com, and has managed to stay at the top of the charts for more than thirty years, largely due to his talent for modifying his persona with characters like Ziggy Stardust – whom he created in 1972 following the release of ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 – and Thin White Duke, identified alongside his album Station to Station.
In an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1999, the musical chameleon explained that as a teenager, he dreamt of becoming a playwright for musicals; “I was not a natural performer” he says, “I never felt at ease on stage, ever.” The character of Ziggy Stardust was intended to be played by another person, singing Bowie’s songs; upon the realisation that Ziggy would need to be portrayed by the man himself, he became more comfortable performing on stage because he was somebody else, not David ‘Bowie’ Jones. This came at a cost, however, as it was explained in one interview that the perspective that others had towards him as Bowie altered; he was treated differently when he was maintaining the Stardust persona, particularly due to the bright red hair and lack of eyebrows. The character essentially materialized from the creation of the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; the acclaimed character of Ziggy was a rock star who acted as messenger for extra-terrestrial beings, with “screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo”. The album itself emits a light on the artificiality of the Rock culture – the music in general – stressing themes of sexual exploration, politics and drugs. The name of ‘Ziggy’ was adopted because – as Bowie told Rolling Stone – it was “one of the few Christian names I could find beginning with the letter ‘Z’”. Along with the unique stage name, the abstruse character’s birth derived from the magnetism of various artists that Bowie himself admired; the Legendary Stardust Cowboy – a pioneer for the psychobilly genre in 1960, British Rock’n’Roller Vince Taylor whom believed he was a cross between an alien and God, and Kansai Yamamoto – Ziggy’s costume designer. The next album and supposed new character ‘Aladdin Sane’ was primarily an advancement of Ziggy Stardust, with the album title playing on the phrase ‘a lad insane’ and the persona defined by the distinctive red and blue lightning bolt across his face. To many people of the younger generation, of my age for example, Bowie’s most known songs such as ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Starman’ derived from his time as Ziggy Stardust, yet the talent that he oozed was not subject to that one persona; after Ziggy’s illustrious era came to an end after his so-called “rock ’n ’roll suicide”, Bowie persisted in his reinventions and the new – albeit less commemorated – character of ‘Halloween Jack’ was introduced to the world, along with an abundance of new chart-toppers with the new album Diamond Dogs. Distinguished by the maintenance of Ziggy’s mullet hairdo, the newfangled use of an eyepatch, platform heels and gold hooped earrings, Halloween Jack was yet another art form that Bowie had concocted of which had become an innovation for the punk rock scene. This disposition of Bowie’s only lasted for the duration of his Diamond Dogs tour, which is most probably the reason behind why the character stands to be one of Bowie’s least recalled of the bunch. As 1976 materialized, yet another renovation occurred alongside the release of the album Station to Station; this became known as the birth of the ‘Thin White Duke’.
The cutting-edge character acquired a more conservative demeanour than Bowie’s previous character Stardust; rather than being a vibrant and visionary symbol, Thin White Duke was a paradigm of class and aristocracy with his cabaret-style waistcoat and songs of romance. It seemed as though David took advantage of having a new character to play with, as he occupied his time in the company of cocaine and became “emotionless” – acting somewhat objectionable in interviews by making obscene comments upon the likes of praising Adolf Hitler and nationalism. It could be argued that the Thin White Duke was considerably dangerous for Bowie; the star’s mental health escalated due to his commitment to the character and his hyperactive addiction. Bowie fans became disenchanted as the man who many had grown up listening to and admired for his fun-loving and inspirational spirit has transformed into an unappetizing and reasonably colourless being; “I just wish Dave would get himself sorted fucking out. He’s totally confused, that lad… I just wish he could be in this room, right now, sat here, so I could kick some sense into him” – Mick Ronson, 1975. Eventually, Bowie’s mindset became symmetrical with that of his supporters, and in 1976 the icon made the decision to gradually eliminate the contestable persona.
Bowie described himself as a “collector” in one interview – that he’s always seemed “to collect personalities, ideas” which had clearly contributed to his many changing profiles. The collection of ever-evolving personalities that he exhibited to the world could potentially be the source of his supreme success, with each individual character bringing a new interpretation to lyrical meanings and never failing to generate a new flurry of exhilaration within the industry and eventually, his personas evolved even further as he became a devoted husband and a father.
Throughout his career, David Bowie wished to inspire people to find more characters within themselves than they knew they had. As Jarvis Cocker once reflected, “he was like an umbrella for people who felt a bit different” and the gift of self-expression that he gave the world will continue to inspire the people for generations to come.
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© Sophie Barnden, 2016