14 Cool Things David Bowie Did During His Time on Earth
David Bowie died last night at the age of 69. The musician, actor, and genuine space oddity leaves behind a body of work that defies easy categorization. He was an achingly moving singer-songwriter. He was a glam rock god. He was in Labyrinth. What unites all these roles, personas, and eras? They were cool. Effortlessly, brazenly, unapologetically cool.
Perhaps most importantly, he was always transforming. No other modern artist made constant change -- whether it was his sexuality, his makeup, or his ever-shifting musical taste -- such an essential part of his work. On 1971's "Moonage Daydream" he laid it all out there: he was an alligator, a space invader, a rock 'n' rollin' bitch, and a mama-papa coming for you. And, he never stopped evolving, releasing one of his most daring and experimental albums, the jazz-inflected Blackstar, only a week before he died.
When an artist changes so quickly, some of the little bits of Bowie trivia and cultural ephemera get lost over time, falling away with each passing era. As a tribute to the original Martian, we've collected a few of our favorite anecdotes, performances, tracks, and just plain fun details about the legendary Thin White Duke.
He advocated for long hair way before man buns were cool
At age 17, Bowie (then Davey Jones), who would become known for his radical and ever-changing 'dos, appeared on the BBC as founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men. "For the last two years, we've had comments like 'Darling!' and 'Can I carry your handbag?' thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now," the young artist declared, in one of his earliest sartorial rebellions. "I don't see why other people should persecute us because of this." Throughout his career, Bowie's ever-evolving mop would continue to serve as a reflection of his chameleonic aesthetic.
He was a classically trained mime (who probably taught MJ how to moonwalk)
Before he was a musician, Bowie trained as a mime, learning from famed teacher Lindsay Kemp (who was also the choreographer for Kate Bush), and then starting his own short-lived group, Feathers, in 1968. Yet the skills he learned as a mime would continue to influence his choreography going forward. In fact, Bowie was likely the first major rock-star to "moonwalk" onstage -- a move pioneered by French mime Marcel Marceau -- during the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour choreographed by "Mickey" singer Toni Basil. A young Michael Jackson, who would go on to elevate the backwards-glide to international renown in 1983's "Billie Jean," was in the audience for one of these shows.
He rejected the chance to play a Bond villain...
Originally sought for Christopher Walken's role as villain Max Zorin in 1984 Bond flick A View to a Kill, Bowie refused the gig, reportedly saying "I didn't want to spend five months watching my stunt double fall off cliffs."
... but jumped at the chance to be in SpongeBob SquarePants
In one of his many eclectic acting choices (The Last Temptation of Christ, Twin Peaks, The Prestige, Zoolander, et al.), Bowie guest-starred in a made-for-TV musical SpongeBob SquarePants film back in 2007 called SpongeBob's Atlantis SquarePantis, where he played the voice of Lord Royal Highness, the King of Atlantis. From sitting a tin can far above the world to living in a pineapple under the sea, Bowie continued to find himself most at home in extreme geographic conditions.
He had incredible taste
What was the secret to David Bowie's longevity? Taste. As this radio special from 1979 shows, Bowie was always seeking out the new and celebrating the eccentric, spinning records from his collaborator Iggy Pop alongside more experimental fair like Philip Glass. He was eclectic without ever feeling self-conscious or precious. Bowie was a tastemaker late into this life, discussing the social significance of hip-hop on the Today show back in 1993 and appearing on album cuts from Brooklyn art-rock group TV on the Radio in the '00s. It's a shame we won't have his keen ear to help us discover new sounds in the future.
He repped for booksIn response to the question "What is your idea of perfect happiness?" in Vanity Fair's famous Proust questionnaire, David Bowie answered, "Reading." And that love of reading can be spotted throughout his discography, from the Orwell referencing tracks on 1974's Diamond Dogs to the many Biblical allusions on his latest record. Back in 2013, Bowie shared his own top 100 books on Facebook, which included everything from classics like William Faulkner and The Great Gatsby to contemporary titles like Junot Díaz and the famous '80s comic anthology Raw.
He turned down a knighthood
Bowie is many things: Psychedelic alien rock star, interplanetary voyager, Thin White Duke, Goblin King -- but not, by his choice, a Knight of the British empire. Upon being offered the title by Queen Elizabeth in 2003, Bowie, ever the iconoclast, turned it down, saying: "I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that, I seriously don't know what it's for. It's not what I spent my life working for."
He was at the vanguard of digital music
Long before In Rainbows or the Beyoncé surprise album drop, Bowie was one of the first artists to release his music digitally. In 1996, he made his single "Telling Lies" available via download from his website -- a bold feat, in the age of dial-up modems! -- marking the first time a major artist had attempted such an experiment. (In 1998, he also set up his very own ISP, called BowieNet).
He mailed a pig fetus to a writer
What type of gifts did David Bowie send? Frightening ones, apparently. As he told it on the Adam Carolla podcast, Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild was writing a profile of Bowie when the singer reportedly decided to send him a gift after the piece was over. A kind gesture for sure, but the gift ended up being a pig fetus in glass. Was it a prank? An obscure reference to this charming photo taken on the set of the 1979 film Just a Gigolo? Like many things about Bowie, it'll remain a mystery.
He got "Deranged" for David Lynch
David Bowie and David Lynch are natural collaborators: both dress well, have cool haircuts and are named David. In addition to appearing in Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Bowie also contributed a haunting, beguiling track to Lynch's underrated identity-swapping drama Lost Highway. As he sings on the track, "It's the angel man." Of course it was.
He challenged MTV for failing to support black artists
Mainly known for his radicalism when it came to eroding sex and gender stereotypes, Bowie was also an outspoken supporter of racial equality. Long before diversity was a major cultural talking point, the artist challenged MTV during a 1982 on-air interview, asking "Why are there practically no blacks on the network?" When the interviewer defended MTV's programming choices, saying it had to appeal to midwestern viewers, the ever-fearless Bowie shot back: "Don't say, 'Well, it's not me, it's them.' Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair... to make the media more integrated?"
He turned kid fantasy into a kid's fantasy
If you were an oddball, genre geek growing up in the '80s or early '90s, it's very possible your introduction to Ziggy Stardust was Labyrinth, Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy musical. Indebted to Alice in Wonderland and Maurice Sendak, realized by the illustrator Brian Found, the goblin-filled adventure oozes with Bowie's brand of campy, phantasmagoric, near-sexual energy. Henson wanted to spook kids -- his first fantasy film, The Dark Crystal, inched away from The Muppets in that direction -- but the musician's presence, amplified by his delectable, original songs, made it mature. Bowie never let his Jareth the Goblin King creep into the creepy, peddling most of the fanciful humor in the movie, but Labyrinth puts the relationship between a 16-year-old girl and her rock god idol up close. Don't let the singing puppet costars fool you; Labyrinth was radical, like everything Bowie touched.
He has his very own spider
While Bowie's '70s backing band, the Spiders From Mars, may have disbanded, Bowie is still an honorary member of the eight-legged community. In 2009, a rare Malaysian spider -- known for its vast size and prominent (read: stylish!) yellow fur -- was given the name Heteropoda davidbowie after the arachnophilic singer. Further proof that Bowie's influence is everywhere: from the runways to the silver screen to the depths of the Malaysian rainforest. (Also, speaking of spiders, check out the song "Glass Spider" from his 1987 album Never Let Me Down, above.)
He didn't take himself too seriously
The above clip from Extras will always be a classic bit of British comedy. While many of Bowie's acting roles had a serious quality to them -- you don't play Pontius Pilate and perform in The Elephant Man on Broadway if you're just goofing off -- he wasn't afraid to satirize his own mysterious image. In moments like his hilarious cameo in Zoolander and his delightful song about Ricky Gervais, Bowie proved that even our most important artists should be able to both take and make a joke. It's nice to imagine Bowie leading a sing-along like the one above somewhere in the great beyond.
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