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David Bowie, An Icon Who Wrote Anthems For The Alienated

Legendary rock musician David Bowie, who influenced generations of musicians and fans, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday.

A statement posted on his Facebook page and confirmed by his publicist, Steve Martin, said Bowie died peacefully, "surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer."

On Friday, his birthday, Bowie released an album, Blackstar, that he made in collaboration with a quintet of jazz musicians. The surreal music video for one song on the album, " Lazarus," is quintessential Bowie: It features a dead astronaut, creepy figures, strange religious overtones and Bowie singing — at first, blindfolded.

Bowie's work often addressed inner truths and existential questions. He was always morphing his sound and his look. He even changed the name he was born with: David Robert Jones. Born on Jan. 8, 1947, in South London, Bowie was the son of a waitress and a nightclub owner. In 2003, he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that as a child, he wanted to be a baritone saxophone player in the Little Richard band. He talked about getting blinded in one eye when he was 13.

"My best friend hit me because I pulled his girlfriend. In his mind he had every right to do that. The best part of it, of course, is that we still remain very close friends," he said.

Bowie said he started playing in a rock band when he was a teenager. "It was a real trip to have girls wave at you and smile and everything just because you opened your mouth and sang," he recalled. "But really, I guess, what I really wanted to do more than anything else was write musicals. But because I liked rock music, I kind of moved into that sphere, somehow thinking that somewhere along the line I'd be able to put the two together."

Mixing rock music and theatricality is what Bowie did throughout his musical career. In 1969, he released a hit song, "Space Oddity," about a fictional astronaut named Major Tom who is lost in space.

In the early 1970s, Bowie was an icon of glam rock, wearing androgynous clothing and eye makeup, with chopped, bright-red hair. He became known for creating alter egos such as Ziggy Stardust. He said that character defined him in many ways to some fans.

"That's me in the American eye," he said with a smile. "But in fact in Europe I'm more, kind of, this bloke what writes lots of stuff. A greater number of 26 or so albums that I've made are [better] known in Europe than they are in America."

Bowie also had a successful acting career, including his role as an alien trying to help his dying planet in the 1976 Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie also played the Elephant Man on Broadway and Pontius Pilate in the movie The Last Temptation of Christ.

Throughout the years, he continued to write songs about being an outsider, mixing rock, jazz, disco, pop, soul — whatever genre he could think of. In keeping with his multifaceted career, Bowie was set to be honored at a concert at Carnegie Hall. His musical Lazarus began an off-Broadway run last month.

Bowie's songs were anthems for generations of fans who felt alienated or different. As many of them noted on social media after news of his death, the stars look very different today.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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