A damaged icon: His glory days as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke are long gone. What’s left for David Bowie at 50?

by Neil McCormick / The Telegraph

9th January 1997

DAVID BOWIE was 50 years old yesterday. Given the current fascination with the extraterrestrial, pop’s original space oddity could hardly have timed this anniversary better: the man who fell to earth has now spent half a century on the planet. He celebrates tonight with a concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, where he will be joined by an eclectic selection of special guests including Lou Reed, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Robert Smith of the Cure. But fans of The X Files may be disappointed to learn that there are no plans for a spaceship to descend at the climax of the performance and beam Bowie up.

These days, as the title of his new album, Earthling (out next month), implies, Bowie is no longer alienated enough to be considered remotely alien. Extolling the virtues of an early-to-bed, early-to-rise, drug-and alcohol-free lifestyle, he recently described himself as “an obscenely happy man”. And who wouldn’t be, under the circumstances? He is, after all, handsome, famous, talented, rich and married to one of the most beautiful women in the world, Somalian model Iman. Long considered a master of self-transformation (his career has encompassed such alter-egos as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke), Bowie has emerged in the Nineties under a radical new guise: The Man Who Has Everything.

So what do you give the man who has everything for his birthday? Respect is probably what he still craves most. According to an interview in the current issue of Q magazine, Bowie believes he is the only 50-year-old in British rock whose music really challenges the listener. While his age and superstar status might seem to align him with the tried and trusted likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, Bowie insists he remains “keen to be different from everybody”. He plays only a handful of old songs live, recently released a jungle-influenced track over the Internet and plans to perform at raves with his new band, whom he has compared to hardcore techno act Prodigy.

It is the restless, neophyte quality that most defines Bowie, driving him through an apparently endless series of permutations. An article introducing the young Bowie to the readers of Melody Maker in 1966 makes revealing reading in hindsight: “Without doubt, David Bowie has talent. And also without doubt it will be exploited. For Mr Bowie, a 19-year-old Bromley boy, not only writes and arranges his own numbers, but he is also helping Tony Hatch to write a musical score and the numbers for a TV show. As if that wasn’t enough, David also designs shirts and suits for John Stephen of the famed Carnaby Street clan. And his ambition? `I want to act,’ says Bowie modestly.”

In his pre-fame years, Bowie appears to have tried his hand at as many different careers in popular culture as possible. He has been a commercial artist, clothes designer, jazz saxophonist, R & B singer, rock guitarist, cabaret crooner, actor and mime artist. Asked in Q how he thought his career would have turned out if he had enjoyed a hit with one of his many novelty singles in the Sixties, he laughingly replied, “I’d probably be in Les Miserables now … I would have been a right little trouper on the West End stage. I’d have written 10 Laughing Gnomes …”

The West End’s loss was the rock world’s gain when the Laughing Gnome put on platforms and Ziggy Stardust ascended to the stratosphere. It can be argued that the dramatic shifts of music and persona that characterised Bowie’s career in the Seventies almost single-handedly established the prototype of pop stardom as we know it today. Although everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles had gone through changes throughout their careers, it was always a case of gradual evolution. With Bowie it became instant revolution: a constant and deliberate process of metamorphosis that was almost an end in itself. Lookalike fans who glammed themselves up in lurid moon-age glitter for the later stages of his 1974 American tour (circa Diamond Dogs) were shocked to be greeted by a smooth, soul lounge lizard in a white suit and side parting, already shifting towards his Young Americans phase.

Now, of course, such transformations are the norm. “Reinvention” is a pop buzzword – artists such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince and George Michael regularly change style and image in an attempt to keep apace of the public’s appetite for something new. In the fast-moving consumer world of pop, it is a case of adapt or die a slow death on the nostalgia circuit. Bowie’s conscious manipulation of the pop process has always had an intellectual agenda that appealed to rock critics, yet it seems questionable whether, as a contented 50-year-old family man, an artist so dependent on constant change can maintain major contemporary appeal.

His power as a pop icon was badly damaged in the Eighties, a decade he spent pursuing a more conventional form of celebrity, apparently intent on recouping the sort of income generally associated with the job of superstar. The problem with the new besuited, heterosexual, clean and sober Bowie who set about this task with such dedication is that the majority of his fans still hanker for the sheer visceral intensity and emotional alienation of the cocaine-addled, bisexual Seventies version. And the early dividends reaped by the global success of Let’s Dance (1983) were badly undermined by some astonishing lapses in his previously unquestionable taste. By the time Bowie had completed the ludicrous Glass Spider tour, crooned through the atrocious Never Let Me Down album (1987), gone grunge with Tin Machine (1989) and appeared on the cover of Hello! magazine, his fan base had dwindled. It seems unlikely that a late conversion to techno will save him.

Bowie has at least one more transformation up his sleeve, however. Working with business managers at the Rascoff Zysblat Organisation in New York, he is contemplating becoming the first rock star to float himself on the stock market, in a Bowie bond issue scheme. It is a characteristically audacious move designed to raise up to ?50 million for future projects. You too could own a piece of a legend. Of course, you’d have to be careful about which piece you end up with. He has, after all, only one good eye.

The real question is just how good an investment would a 50-year-old rock star with a dwindling fan base be? And what voting rights would shareholders have over Bowie plc’s future direction? The big money would currently come from a share of the royalties from his back catalogue (bringing in about ?1 million a year). But future royalties would depend on his ability to recapture the muse responsible for a succession of outstanding albums between Hunky Dory in 1971 and Scary Monsters and Super Creeps in 1980. Of course, he was an unhappily married, sexually ambiguous, drug-crazed alien freak back then.

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