1. Eye for an Eye
In Bowie’s later years, around the time when his behavior was most outrageous, the pop star had a favorite saying: “Everyone finds empathy in a nutty family.” Bowie painted his mother as a repressed, eccentric woman who caused him to rebel as a kid. But, according to David Bowie: Starman, Bowie was described by his teachers as a bright, charming young thing with good manners—the kind of boy every mother would be proud of. There was one indelible incident during Bowie’s adolescence that would forever change his clean-cut image. When his closest friend and bandmate, George Underwood, was about to go out with a girl Bowie secretly fancied, he sabotaged the rendezvous, planning to move in on her himself. The boys got into a heated fight, and Underwood threw an impulsive punch, accidentally scratching Bowie’s eyeball. The injury left his pupil permanently dilated, making that eye appear to be a different color than the other.
2. The London Boy
In the mid-‘60s when Bowie was only in his late teens, he waltzed into London’s mod music scene as if he had been a part of it for years. It was during this period that Bowie wrote “The London Boys,” a “vignette of pill-popping boys dressed in their finery” that came to define Bowie’s gender-bending, man-child persona and set the precedent for later hits like “Lady Stardust” and “All the Young Dudes.” The mod scene was inextricably linked to the gay scene, and Bowie blended in seamlessly with both. But he was more admired for his unique image and charm than he was for his music.
3. First 'Trip' to Space
Though “The London Boys” defined Bowie’s early years, “Space Oddity” proved his clout as a musician. Bowie said the song came to him easily and was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I went stoned out of my mind to see the movie and it really freaked me out, especially the trip passage.” Indeed, the song had an eerie numbness to it that many believed was fueled by a heroin trip, and Bowie indulged the rumors in the mid-'70s when trying to build up his druggie image. But people close to him at the time say he couldn’t even smoke a joint without coughing. Regardless of whether Bowie was on drugs when he wrote the song, record producers liked its “otherworldly” sound, and the single’s timely release with the 1969 Apollo mission made it all the more marketable. Its trendy, sci-fi theme would later become synonymous with Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter ego.
4. The Prettiest Starman
As his music career progressed, Bowie’s public persona became more enigmatic, particularly when it came to his sexuality. Angela Barnett, whom Bowie eventually married and then divorced, was oddly instrumental in shaping the flamboyant image that everyone associated with Bowie in the ‘70s. The rock star puffed it up by bragging about his bisexuality. In 1975, Bowie told writer Cameron Crowe that he met Barnett “because we were both fucking the same guy.” They had an open relationship from the start, and would invite both men and women into their conjugal bed. Bob Grace, a music manager who worked with Bowie, said part of his obsession with the bisexual scene was tied to Mick Jagger. “Jagger was a role model … and David was convinced he was bisexual.”
5. Fascist Fascination
When Bowie was collaborating with Iggy Pop on The Idiot sessions in the late ‘70s—the beginning of what became known as Bowie’s Berlin period—the two lived together in Schöneberg, a southwest district in the city. Though the region was riddled with Nazi history, Berlin’s gay community embraced the cabaret culture it embodied at the time. Bowie was as fascinated with Schöneberg’s famous Nazi bunker as he was drawn to the gay communities wiped out by Hitler. His Nazi obsession resounded in the “gothic soundscapes” and “vampiric” music he and Iggy produced during the Berlin years. Bowie even went around repeating the catchphrase “Hitler was the first pop star”—allegedly coined by one of Iggy’s bandmates. It wasn’t until 1980 that he admitted his experimental fixation with fascism was “ghastly stuff.”
6. Next Stage in Life
When Bowie was living in New York and wrapping up Scary Monsters—the 1980 album that is still considered one of his best—the director of The Elephant Man scouted Bowie to be the lead in his play. Suddenly it made sense why he had branded himself “the actor” on his Hunky Dory album sleeve. Bowie was a natural. Even his theater-buff costars thought he was “right on the money” and “absolutely not a show-off,” despite his celebrity status. He went from the stage to the big screen with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which flopped at the U.S. box office but was well received in Europe and nominated for the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Bowie officially became a multimedia sensation with the release of his “Let’s Dance” music video that year, his first single to simultaneously top the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. For Bowie, 1983 was a year of firsts, including his first—and far most successful—world tour. The Serious Moonlight tour sold more than 2.5 million tickets and spanned 16 countries.
7. Back Down to Earth
Bowie’s mentally ill half brother Terry had been a constant source of fear and anxiety throughout his life. But Bowie rarely spoke about the black sheep in his family, who spent most of his adult life in a mental institution. When Terry committed suicide in 1985, laying his head down on a train track, the family tragedy sparked a tabloid frenzy portraying Bowie as “an uncaring, manipulative monster.” (Bowie wrote the song "Jump They Say" about his half brother's suicide.)
8. Iman’s Influence
Bowie garnered a lot of fame and attention for being a brilliant mimic throughout his career. To top it all off, it was one of the qualities that made the stunning African model Iman fall for him—she loved that he was “good at doing funny voices.” They married in 1992, and Iman triggered yet another Bowie transformation: He forever ditched his otherworldly persona in favor of a “strong streak of conventionality that had always run through him.”
9. 'Little Fat Man' Steals Ricky Gervais’ Comedy Show
Throughout the last 10 years, particularly after he suffered a heart attack in 2004, Bowie’s performances and public appearances have been infrequent. In 2005, he proved he was still capable of playing around with his image as a guest star on Ricky Gervais’ comedy show Extras. Parodying his own “stony-faced manipulator” persona, Bowie poked fun at the antagonistic “little fat man” on the show who tried to befriend him, and engaged the crowd in a sing-along about the “Little Fat Man (With the Pug-Nosed Face).”