To music fans across the world, British rock legend David Bowie was known as a range of different personas — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Man Who Fell to Earth, to name a few.
Bowie, who passed away from liver cancer Jan. 10 at the age of 69 — two days after the release of his album “Blackstar” — had an enormous impact on the global music scene. His influence is felt from the recording studios of major record labels to the music practice rooms in Reynolds Hall. His catalogue is rife with themes of isolation and alienation, as well as fusions of rock, cabaret and jazz that moved avant-garde music into the mainstream. What many may not know is that the singer, songwriter, producer, painter, playwright and actor had a special connection to the city of Washington, D.C.
The Rise of Ziggy Stardust
The eccentric, chameleon-like British musician was born David Robert Jones in 1947, and adopted the surname “Bowie” just prior to his ascension into the public spotlight. He found his first mainstream success in 1969 with the release of “Space Oddity,” a ballad about a fictional astronaut exploring new frontiers released just 10 days before the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Bowie re-emerged three years later as Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous alien rock star on a mission to save the world. This persona was instrumental in the genre of glam rock and his 1972 release, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” is widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time.
Music professor Benjamin Harbert, who teaches a course on the history of rock at Georgetown, said Bowie reinvigorated the world of music.
“He reminded us that rock is a performance, that it is role playing,” Harbert wrote in an email to The Hoya. “In a sense, it’s a critique of the authentic rock star. Pretending to be an alien rock star is a perfect antidote to the cult of authenticity.”
Still, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” together with 1973’s “Aladdin Sane,” are widely identified as classic-rock masterpieces rather than glam-rock novelties. Bowie’s lasting appeal and universal acclaim continues 30 years after the death of the glam-rock movement he helped to animate. Bowie’s transgressive metamorphoses, as well as his flamboyant sense of theatricality and fashion, are impossible to categorize.
“Bowie opened up possibility during a time of mainstream constriction,” Harbert wrote. “I was always baffled when coming upon him.”
Bowie’s experience in the greater Washington, D.C., area spans his entire career, with the city almost serving as a home away from home. In the early 1970s, a time when Britain’s greatest gift to the world was rock ’n’ roll, Bowie’s creativity redirected attention away from concerns about a glum economy and war to another world entirely of his own creation, filled with fantastical imagery and infinite possibilities.
Following the poor reception of Bowie’s 1970 album “The Man Who Sold the World” in England, music label Mercury Records sent the young artist to America in hopes of inspiring a breakthrough.
In 1971, Bowie conquered his phobia of flying and arrived at Dulles International Airport, just outside of Washington, D.C., on his first trip across the Atlantic. According to Paul Trynka’s 2011 biography of the rock star, Bowie was held up by immigration officers for nearly four hours, and even denied a work visa — likely the result of his bright purple coat, long hair and suitcase full of dresses.
Bowie’s first truly American experience was a meeting with Meteor Records publicist Ron Oberman at a steakhouse in nearby Silver Spring. Opting to sit in a corner booth to avoid catching undue attention, Bowie displayed the understated brilliance that set him apart from the attention-grabbing antics typical of his rock ’n’ roll contemporaries. He preferred to hold a private conversation over drinks rather than tantalize the tabloids.
Afterward, Bowie played his first major concert in the country at the Capital Center in Largo, Md. He would go on to return to the venue many times in the future. In 1996, he played four shows in a row at D.C.’s Capitol Ballroom. Later, in 2004, he played his final local show in nearby Fairfax, Va.
The greater D.C. music community has had a profound and visible reaction to the passing of one of contemporary music’s biggest names, with tributes hosted following his death at local establishments such as local JR’s Bar and Grill, the Rock and Roll Hotel and the Birchmere Music Hall.
Bowie’s lasting influence can also be seen in the Washington Ballet company’s upcoming performance of “Dancing in the Street.” This production explores the iconic reinventions of Bowie’s persona. Music by Gabriel Gaffney Smith is interwoven with selections from Bowie’s catalogue, with choreography by Edward Liang bringing excitement and daring into a celebration of rock’s fallen hero.
Bowie’s far-reaching impact is evidenced by the reactions of Georgetown students and artists to his death. Michael White (COL ’19), a member of the WGTB Georgetown Radio board and creator of his own music blog, said Bowie left an indelible mark on the world.
“He reaffirmed that music is art. Not all art has to follow a struck formula, especially popular music. His style can’t be pinpointed and was never stagnant for his entire career,” White wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Stephen Yaeger (SFS ’18), the drummer of student band Liberal Leave and Instructional Continuity and host of “Collateral Jammage” on WGTB, said Bowie’s ability to excel at so many different genres serves as a testament to his greatness.
“I like to think that the music I listen to and make myself isn’t dependent on a certain genre or style … which is a concept that he really pioneered,” Yaeger wrote in an email to The Hoya. “His constant reinvention was more than a novelty. It was revolutionary to the world of music, and he was one of the best artists to change their style from project to project.”
Ethan Beaman (COL ’15), a member of the student band Faces for Radio, was particularly influenced by the revolutionary sound and lyricism of “Life on Mars” from Bowie’s 1971 album, “Hunky Dory.”
“The instrumentation behind it … gave me a lot of ideas for how to use dissonance in my musical work, lyrically and melodically,” Beaman said. He also found Bowie’s lyrics particularly poignant during a personal struggle.
Bowie is perhaps best known for his edgy alter egos that pushed not only the boundaries of musical innovation, but also inspired a generation to explore and celebrate their own subconscious.
“My policy has been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date,” said Bowie in a 1977 interview with Melody Maker. Known for his tireless work ethic, Bowie was in constant pursuit of new possibilities, never content to rest on his laurels.
“Good music can come in any form,” Yaeger said of Bowie’s philosophy. “Not [innovating] can cause a good artist to get stale pretty quickly.”
This insight may explain the frequent adoption of new styles or characters altogether following his enormous success from the late ’60s to the mid 1980s. The transition was often abrupt, even for those closest to him. For instance, members of his band The Spiders from Mars were fired onstage immediately following the conclusion of their highly successful 1973 glitter-rock tour.
In one five-year stretch, fans saw Bowie as a curly haired folky, evening gown-draped siren, vampire and drug-fueled haberdasher. Fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto refigured kabuki theater designs, intended for female clients, to the needs of Bowie at various times.
Bowie’s appeal was not only in his prolific musical production, but also in his raw sexual energy and theatrical persona. Influenced by the likes of Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol, he was driven to succeed at a young age. Bowie’s disregard for convention was evident in his pursuit of formal mime training, for instance. His impact can be seen in the innumerable musicians he influenced including Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, Lady Gaga and Prince.
Bowie’s legacy will live on across every genre in Western music. No style escaped Bowie’s reach, nor would any be the same without innumerable artists drawing on aspects from any one of his 27 studio albums. His forays into electronic, jazz, classical, folk and alternative music affirm Bowie as one of the most influential musicians of all time.
Few would describe David Bowie as a forefather of hard rock or metal in the same way they would Led Zeppelin. Insofar as Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper were inspired by Bowie’s dark theatrics, an essence of glam also became the identifying feature of such diverse artists as Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Twisted Sister and Ratt.
Even grunge, the genre that sought above all to escape tradition and establish itself independent of defined mainstream influence, found Bowie inescapable. Tellingly, the king of grunge, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, famously covered Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” during the band’s legendary performance on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994.
One of Bowie’s most underrated accomplishments, 1977’s “Low,” paved the way for bands such as Radiohead to fuse the rock and electronic genres into such works as “Kid A” and “OK Computer.”
While hip-hop may seem to lack any hint of Bowie, in the 1970s, no R&B or funk artist was bigger than George Clinton, a longtime admirer of Bowie’s experimentalism. On his band Parliament’s immortal sing along “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” Bowie not only gets a shout-out, but also reportedly served, at least in part, as an inspiration for the entire song. Even Bowie’s collaboration with Queen on “Under Pressure” has been sampled by countless hip-hop artists.
The release of Bowie’s final album, “Blackstar,” an experimental jazz album inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” has been met with widespread critical acclaim and immense commercial success. The album is already No. 1 in many countries and is the first Bowie album to reach No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart. This album will surely come to define Bowie’s late legacy and serve as a defining capstone to an unparalleled body of work.
Bowie’s thinking was remarkably forward during his time, to say the least. This clairvoyance was evident in his progressive views concerning sexual identity and celebrity during the 1970s. As White described, “He pushed boundaries with sounds and imagery. His idiosyncratic presence is unrivaled and historic. That will be his legacy.”
Bowie’s ability to encapsulate both a particular moment in his life and communal human emotion in his songs has contributed to his widespread popularity and artistic immortality, both of which continue on the Hilltop, in D.C. and across the world.
Hoya Staff Writer Tom Garzillo contributed reporting.