06.06.12

David Bowie’s Vanishing Act—and Looming Return

The superstar never officially retired, but stopped recording and performing nearly a decade ago after a massive heart attack. Chris Lee looks at the erstwhile Thin White Duke’s disappearance from public view—and his plans to reenter the limelight next fall.

Earlier this week, on a street-facing wall above a small social club in the British coastal town of Bristol, the unique tribute went up without fanfare or attracting the unwanted attention of police: guerrilla art as explicit homage to both rock star and royalty.

The graffiti, believed to have been painted by the street art provocateur Banksy, is a mashup featuring Queen Elizabeth II with a jagged blue-and-red lightning bolt streaked across her face that instantly recalls David Bowie’s 1973 album, Aladdin Sane.

With the British monarch having received saturation coverage thanks to her Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the past few days, the presumed Banksy work gives rise (fittingly enough) to a question that’s been hiding in plain sight for nearly a decade: where in the world is David Bowie?

To the bitter consternation of legions of his fans who consider Bowie’s disappearing act a kind of dereliction of duty, an unforgivable absence, he hasn’t stepped into the limelight in quite some time. But this year, the Glam godfather made an inexorable transformation, officially trading his status as a Golden Rock God to become a card-carrying senior citizen, hitting age 65 in January. Just this week, Bowie’s seminal album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release with a lushly remastered CD reissue that includes unreleased bonus tracks and high-resolution audio.

Meanwhile, director Ridley Scott says he partly modeled Irish actor Michael Fassbender’s outer-space humanoid character in the upcoming sci-fi thriller Prometheus on the androgynous singer. “We … took inspiration from David Bowie and some of his looks as well,” Fassbender recently explained at a press event for the film. “I liked the idea of having a feminine quality to him for sure.”

It all adds up to a curious cultural predicament. Although Bowie basically dropped below the radar in 2003—recording no new music since then, performing only sporadically, and ceasing to give any interviews—the entertainer never announced his “retirement.” Now, some eight years after suffering a massive heart attack, Bowie seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“He has consciously dropped out of sight,” says Paul Trynka, author of David Bowie: Starman, considered the definitive biography of the singer. “For someone so consistently vain and self-obsessed, the heart attack—the realization of his mortality—came as a massive psychological blow. But he’s someone who has always had a real understanding of how to manipulate the media and saw the dramatic potential of a disappearance in a very Hollywood way. It became a kind of Houdini disappearing act. The fact that it’s gone unstated makes it even more mysterious.”

You can almost carbon-date Bowie’s disappearance to two specific points. In September 2003 the erstwhile Thin White Duke released his 24th studio album, Reality—his last recorded output. And after touring extensively that year into 2004, at a concert in Oslo, Norway, a fan threw a lollipop that nailed Bowie directly in the eye, causing the rocker to shout out in pain and outrage. A few days later at a Prague concert, he cut his performance short, complaining of a pinched nerve in his shoulder. Little did Bowie know that the muscle pain was due to an “acutely blocked artery.” In June 2004 he took the stage in Scheessel, Germany, and minutes after a final encore of “Ziggy Stardust,” went backstage and collapsed. The singer was rushed by helicopter to the hospital and underwent immediate heart surgery; the tour was canceled.

These days, sources close to Bowie say he lives in semi-seclusion in a $7.7 million penthouse apartment in New York’s SoHo with his wife of 20 years, the supermodel Iman, and their 11-year old daughter Alexandria (better known as Lexi). There, the shape-shifting rock pioneer—who was famously addicted to cocaine for 10 years followed by a hellish descent into alcoholism he later overcame—strenuously avoids paparazzi-bait restaurants and hyped-up nightspots, instead preferring to draw, paint, and collect 20th-century British artwork.

Over the past few years, he has performed sporadically, joining the Canadian group Arcade Fire onstage at a 2005 Fashion Rocks event. And in 2006 Bowie surprised those attending David Gilmour’s performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, joining the Pink Floyd leader for two songs. In 2009 Bowie announced he would perform in New York for a concert celebrating the inaugural High Line festival. But later, the pop revolutionary mysteriously canceled. “Due to ongoing work on a new project, David Bowie has announced that it will not be possible for him to perform,” a press release explained.

Video screenshot

David Bowie performs with Arcade Fire at Radio City Music Hall in September 2005.

Some of the most compelling intelligence about the rock recluse has come courtesy of his wife’s Twitter feed. In April when a fan tweeted at Iman asking her to put continuing rumors about Bowie’s ill health to rest, the supermodel responded that her husband was “Healthy & Happy.” And when the head teacher of Lexi’s primary school tweeted “Imagine David Bowie turning up to your school,” Iman retweeted the message with the addendum: “he turns [up] as david jones, dad.”

Over the years, Bowie has remained a dutiful husband supporting Iman’s fashion and philanthropic efforts. And in June 2010 he attended the CDFA Fashion Awards at Lincoln Center and told The New York Times where his priorities lie. “I’m not thinking of touring,” he said. “I’m comfortable.”

“When he takes on a character, he takes it on 110 percent. Right now, he’s in the character of the doting father and family man.

“His friends say he’s living life the wrong way around,” Trynka says. “Most people have kids and spend time with them while they’re in their 20s and 30s. David spent very little time with [his now adult son] Duncan while he was growing up. But now he’s spending a lot of time with his daughter.”

In October, however, Bowie is set to break his long silence with the scheduled release of his difficult-to-classify, top-secret book project, Bowie: Object, that stoked a hive of buzz when it was announced at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair. In keeping with the performer’s recent Greta Garbo-esque mystique, the book has been described so far only in oblique terms on davidbowie.com: “Bowie: Object features 100 fascinating items that give an insight into the life of one of the most unique music and fashion icons in history. The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself.”

To hear it from Ken Scott, who coproduced four of Bowie’s albums including 1971’s Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and has remained in semi-regular contact with the performer over the years, Bowie is not only bored with the idea of performing his yesteryear hits and sliding by on past glories, he is staunchly unsentimental and allergic to nostalgia. Moreover, says Scott—who has chronicled his exploits working with the performer in his new memoir, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust,—Bowie never stopped seeing himself as an “actor” taking on various roles in his life, a professional habit the rock icon developed four decades ago.

“When he takes on a character, he takes it on 110 percent,” says Scott. “Right now, he’s in the character of the doting father and family man. Maybe one day he’ll drop that character and become a rock-and-roll star again. And when he does, he’ll take that on 110 percent as well.”