Monday 11 January 2016

RIP David Bowie

The world of music, film and art today lost one of its most enduring figures, as well as the most iconic face of pop culture of the latter half of the 20th Century. David Robert Jones, known to the world as David Bowie, passed away on Sunday 10 January at the age of 69.

Bowie's undeniable contribution to the world of music has been covered, extensively, on thousands of blogs and news sites today. However, he also played a significant role in the pop imagery of science fiction and fantasy. His first hit single, "Space Oddity" (1969), was about a fictional astronaut blasting off into space. The song was partially inspired by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (released the previous year) and was used to help soundtrack the BBC's coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bowie returned to the imagery of space for "Life on Mars" (1971), a track on his seminal, career-redefining record Hunky Dory. It was re-released by Bowie (in his Ziggy Stardust persona) in 1973 to huge acclaim and later soundtracked the well-regarded BBC time travelling drama Life on Mars (2006-07). A later Bowie track, "Ashes to Ashes" (1980), provided the title for and was also featured on the sequel series, Ashes to Ashes (2008-10).

In February 1972 Bowie reinvented himself as the glam-rock superstar Ziggy Stardust, supposedly a being from Mars who visits Earth to help stave off its impending destruction. The accompanying Ziggy Stardust Tour and the album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) accomplished a major breakthrough for Bowie on both sides of the Atlantic and turned him into a household name and superstar. For just over a year Bowie extensively toured both the UK and USA, even finding the time to record a follow-up, Aladdin Sane (1973), before abruptly retiring the Stardust persona. In 1974 he released Diamond Dogs, a concept album inspired by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (and originally intended to be a concept album directly based on it, but he could not acquire the rights).

In 1976 Bowie starred in his first movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, playing an alien being who tries to use water from Earth to save his drought-ridden homeworld but ultimately fails as he becomes addicted to alcohol. Bowie effectively took this alien persona on tour as the Thin White Duke for his Station to Station album and tour of the same year, but fell into extensive drug use. Retreating to Europe to recuperate, he produced a trilogy of highly acclaimed albums (Low and Heroes in 1977 and Lodger in 1979) in Berlin. Returning to London in 1980, he recorded Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) which reintroduced SF elements to his music, most notably for "Ashes to Ashes" (a sequel to "Space Oddity") which became his most successful chart single. In 1983 he hit a commercial high point with the Let's Dance album which was his most successful overall in sales time. His 1980s and 1990s work largely concerned themselves with more terrestrial concerns, although dystopian themes re-emerged on Hours (1995). His final album, Blackstar (2016), made in full knowledge of his impending mortality, features complex songs based around themes such as death, resurrection and transcendence.

In 1983 Bowie starred in the vampire movie The Hunger, along with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. However, Bowie's most famous acting role, not to mention arguably his most iconic SFF role, was playing the role of the Goblin King in the 1986 Jim Henson movie Labyrinth. As well as playing the charismatic, enticing villain, Bowie also contributed several songs for the soundtrack. In 2006 he played the role of Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's film adaptation of Christoper Priest's classic 1995 SF novel.

Bowie's interest in other media resulted in the peculiar 1999 video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, a bizarre SF epic for which Bowie created ideas, characters and music. The game was commercially unsuccessful but did win a small, cult audience.

David Bowie, of course, will be remembered for his astonishing musical output, his artistic interests, his eclectic tastes and his refusal to stay still or be pigeon-holed. But in the world of science fiction he is rightly regarded as an influential crossover figure, someone who used SF ideas and characters freely in his music and art.

Bowie loved SF and SF loved Bowie, with the list of references or homages to Bowie in the genre almost too long to publish. Among the more notable were Neil Gaiman basing the character of Lucifer on several of Bowie's looks in Sandman; Alastair Reynolds writing a novella called Diamond Dogs, named after the Bowie album; a major villain in Fringe is called David Robert Jones, whilst another villain is named Thomas Jerome Newton after Bowie's character in The Man Who Fell to Earth; and Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes use both Bowie's music and iconography, particularly the latter where the white-faced clown from the "Ashes to Ashes" music video becomes a recurring motif.

In 2013 Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield covered "Space Oddity" on the International Space Station, actually playing it in space. David Bowie was moved, calling it his favourite version and allowing it to be played free to the rest of the world.

Farewell to Mr. Bowie, the man who sold the world a body of work that is beyond hyperbole and beyond accolades. The world is a little dimmer but the stars a little brighter tonight.

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