COVID restrictions have forced commemorations of the music icon’s fifth death anniversary online, but the Thin White Duke will never be forgotten.
David Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016 shocked the musician’s legions of fans around the world. His passing came a mere two days after Bowie had released his 27th studio album, Blackstar —the day that also marked his 69th birthday. Only Bowie’s family and close inner circle knew that the music icon had been battling liver cancer since a diagnosis in 2014.
Commemorating birth and death
In the wake of Bowie’s death, fans in Berlin held a weeks-long vigil outside the apartment where he famously lived with Iggy Pop in the late 1970s. A year later, hundreds of devotees gathered in front of the David Bowie memorial in the London district of Brixton to commemorate his first death anniversary. Numerous memorial concerts and events have celebrated Bowie in subsequent years.
In 2021, however, the COVID pandemic restrictions have caused both Bowie’s 74th birthday and fifth death anniversary commemoration events to go virtual.
“A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day,” was a live stream concert that took place on the January 8-9, and featured artists who worked directly with Bowie or have been inspired by his music.
In addition to including members of his final touring band and long-time producer, Tony Visconti, the all-star lineup featured Ricky Gervais, Gary Oldman, Gavin Rossdale, Boy George, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, and Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters.
Chameleon of rock
A master of reinvention, Bowie loved to experiment and influenced multiple music genres from glam rock to soul, electronica and punk. His alter egos Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane, along with his sexual ambiguity, cemented his reputation as the chameleon of rock.
Born David Robert Jones in 1947, he chose the name Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees — he was inspired by the Bowie fighting knife. His earliest hit, “Space Oddity,” was released in 1969, just five days before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. It introduced a fictional astronaut called Major Tom, a character who would reappear throughout Bowie’s career.
Thereafter, Bowie scored successive hits spanning more than four decades, ranging from “Changes”, “Starman,” “The Jean Genie” (1972) and “Rebel Rebel” (1974), to “Heroes” (1977), “Ashes to Ashes” (1980) and 1981’s “Under Pressure.”
Angst, fear, alienation and self-destructive lifestyles were recurring themes in his songs, though he also dabbled in more upbeat dance-floor numbers such as “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance.”
Bowie sold an estimated 140 million records worldwide, and indelibly influenced scores of artistes.
Bowie and Berlin: a symbiosis
In 1976, Bowie moved to West Berlin to escape the drug scene in Los Angeles. His interest in German culture, especially the avant-guard innovation of 1920s Weimar Berlin, went back to his teenage years. He was long attracted to the city where Metropolis, the 1927 expressionist film by Fritz Lang, was created.
Having loved in the Schöneberg district, Bowie later told Uncut magazine that he felt Berlin “was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care.”
It was here that from 1976 to 1979, he created his “Berlin trilogy,” three albums which included the influential Low (1977) and Heroes (1977), co-produced by Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. This album radically departed from his usual songwriting to embrace more experiment, avant-garde structures and sounds.
Sharing his Schöneberg apartment with Iggy Pop at this time, who was also seeking respite from drug addiction, Bowie collaborated on Iggy’s Berlin albums The Idiot and Lust for Life.
We can be heroes
Months after Bowie’s death in 2016, a memorial plaque was placed on the wall of the tenement house where he lived in Berlin. David Bowie was “a symbol of the cosmopolitan and tolerant atmosphere of the city,” Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller said at the unveiling of the plaque.
He added that the musician brought the divided metropolis closer to countless people around the world, and emphasized that, with the song “Heroes” from the album of the same name that described two lovers from both sides of the Berlin Wall, Bowie had written the unofficial anthem of the city.
In addition to listing Bowie’s Berlin trilogy albums, the memorial plaque contains a line from his signature song that will be forever associated with the division, and reunification, of the city — and Bowie’s timeless legacy: “We can be heroes, just for one day.”