LONDON — Even David Bowie couldn’t live forever.
He fooled the world into thinking he was timeless—perhaps even ageless—but Bowie has stunned us one last time.
The lead single “Lazarus” from his final album, which was released last week on his 69th birthday, opened with the words: “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”
He was saying goodbye, but no one believed him.
Across half a century of musical invention, he was always one step ahead. Fans would throng to his concerts dressed flamboyantly in celebration of his latest iconic album but the man on stage had already moved on. From David Jones, to David Bowie; Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke; he was a rock ’n’ roll pioneer and a cultural trailblazer.
When news of his death broke early Monday, the universal reaction was incredulity. Surely, the era of David Bowie could not be over, could it?
“Very sorry and sad to say it’s true,” his son, Duncan Jones, wrote on Twitter.
Bowie died peacefully, surrounded by his family, after 18 months of battling cancer.
Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, spoke for a devastated nation. “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie,” he said. “He was a master of reinvention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.”
Born David Robert Jones on Jan. 8, 1947, in Brixton, south London, Bowie’s influence would stretch around the world. His mother, Peggy, was a waitress and his father, Haywood “John” Jones, worked for a charity.
By the age of 16, young Davy Jones was already playing for a number of bands. He changed his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones, a member of The Monkees, but his first new persona did not catch on with the public until 1969, when “Space Oddity” blasted him to the forefront of the British music scene.
Ground control to Major Tom,
Commencing countdown, engines on.
Once he had entered the stratosphere, there was no looking back for Bowie. Three years later, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars transformed him into one of the world’s preeminent stars.
Just one year later, in 1973, he sent a crowd at London’s Hammersmith Odeon into hysteria by announcing that they were watching his last performance before ending the show with “Rock and Roll Suicide.”
Ziggy Stardust was dead but the Thin White Duke was just getting started. The single “Fame,” co-written with John Lennon, would give him a first No. 1 hit in the U.S. His ever-expanding musical styles—avant-garde, soul, blues, New Romantic, punk—suited the extraordinary breadth of his collaborations from Mick Jagger to Queen and Bing Crosby.
Among those who benefited most from Bowie’s help were Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.
Bowie helped write Lust for Life as Iggy Pop began a solo career after The Stooges. “David’s friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is,” Iggy said.
VIDEO: A Tribute to David Bowie
His unique otherworldly charm also led Bowie to the big screen where he starred in Labyrinth and played The Man Who Fell to Earth. As one of the great pop-culture icons, his influence spread far beyond music and film.
Bowie’s androgynous image and bisexuality made him a hero to many. “David Bowie’s importance—at least in my life, and probably in the lives of most people—is, in a way, more important than the entire gay-rights movement,” wrote singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt a few years back. “Bowie is about the freedom to have any identity you want, not just gendered. Space alien, crazy person—it’s all tied together, and it’s all sorts of fun.”
He was also twice married to women. Angie Bowie gave birth of the couple’s son, Duncan. Twelve years after their divorce, he married the supermodel Iman, in 1992. They had a daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, in 2000.
Bowie was also ahead of his time in his understanding of fashion and business. He even produced financial instruments dubbed “Bowie Bonds,” which allowed him to monetize future royalties.
London Mayor Boris Johnson said: “No one in our age has better deserved to be called a genius.”
Those whom he influenced—virtually every music star born since the 1970s—added their tributes Monday as the news of Bowie’s death echoed around the world. “David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations,” said Kanye West on Twitter. “So fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.”
Pharrell Williams described him as “a true innovator, a true creative.”
As ever, Bowie had the final word. The last haunting refrain from “Lazarus,” which debuted in Bowie’s surreal and brilliant off-Broadway show:
Oh, I’ll be free Just like that bluebird Oh, I’ll be free Ain’t that just like me?