As an artist, it is nearly impossible to avoid assuming something of a persona. The person on stage and in the media is infrequently a true reflection of the person behind the scenes, instead portraying themselves through a stylised lens in their output. No artist has ever taken this so far as David Bowie. Bowie himself was a façade, the mask worn over David Jones, designed to be the Rockstar he would eventually become. Jones reappeared as he retreated from the public eye, after suffering health problems on stage in 2004, then increasingly so in the run-up to Blackstar and his death immediately after.
More recognisable are his distinct stage personae of the late 1960s and early-mid 1970s. Skirting flamboyance, youth, anarchy and fascism, during this period Bowie created some of the most striking work of his career and staked his first claims to a position as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, if not of all time.
While not a persona assumed by Bowie, the character of Major Tom is worth discussing here. Some see the character evolving over time into an almost autobiographical figure for Bowie. After his first appearance in ‘Space Oddity’, Major Tom did not reappear until 1980 and ‘Ashes to Ashes’, the lead single to album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Described by Bowie as a song “wrapping up the seventies really”, the line “We know Major Tom’s a junkie” seems almost self-referential, describing Bowie’s problems with drug addiction while living in Los Angeles.Embed from Getty Images
Bowie’s first persona was, of course, the indomitable Ziggy Stardust (pictured above). Stardust is the embodiment of the hedonism of the rock gods of the early 1970s, a character as shocking to look at as he was to the sensibilities of the time. As a bisexual alien Rockstar, the enduring infamy of the character certainly seems well earned. Originally just a character, Bowie admitted that, as people began to treat him as though he were Stardust, he briefly fell into also believing that he himself was Stardust. While the album spawned tracks like ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Suffragette City’, not to mention the smash hit of ‘Starman’, for the character of Ziggy Stardust ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ has to be the most significant track.
Like the track on which Stardust is destroyed, by the apocalypse he fails to avert, it’s lamentations should be tragic rather than heartening. The opening and closing lines of the bridge summarises the energy projected by Stardust and felt by its listeners at the time, when Glam Rock was strange and new – “Oh no love, you’re not alone!”. While Ziggy Stardust may well be most remembered for his shocking look, it must be the way in which he made the audience feel special that drove his popularity and separated that persona from the sea of outrageous rock stars to become a character that has embedded itself into the very fabric of modern music.
Two slight variants of Ziggy Stardust appeared on the following albums – Aladdin Sane on the album of the same name, and Halloween Jack in Diamond Dogs.
Aladdin Sane is the more distinct sub-character, widely recognised for his iconic lightning bolt face makeup. The character was born of Bowie’s struggles with his newfound success and therefore is a more conflicted and introverted take on Stardust. Described by Bowie as “Ziggy Stardust goes to America”, the album swerves between the excess of glam rock and restrained, yet experimental, almost jazz-influenced numbers. Aladdin Sane never appeared live, further showing how Bowie initially struggled to deal with his growing fame.Embed from Getty Images
Halloween Jack appears as a tonally darker take on the glamour of Ziggy Stardust. This is reflected in the album, with the overall sound seeming grittier to some degree, especially on tracks like ‘Rebel Rebel’, when compared to its more polished feeling ‘Rise and Fall…’ equivalent ‘Ziggy Stardust’. One key line from the album emulates this – “This ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide!”
Overall, these two characters seem to be a misguided failure to escape the persona of Ziggy Stardust. They are nowhere near as significant, either culturally or personally (to Bowie), as their progenitor.
The Thin White Duke emerged on the 1976 album Station to Station as a product of Bowie’s cocaine addiction and work as Thomas Gerome Newton in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Musically it is an evolution, building on the funk of 1975’s Young Americans with a darker edge. The centrepiece of the album, from both a musical and character perspective, is a lurching, occult, and frankly epic titular track. In this 10-minute piece, the Thin White Duke is born, in a manner akin to Ziggy Stardust’s death in ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, perhaps even from the ashes of that persona.Embed from Getty Images
The track opens with three minutes of syncopation and swirling chaos, as guitars, bass, and drums lurchingly drive forwards. A line is then finally uttered – “The return of the Thin White Duke / Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”. As the Duke emerges, he appears as emperor of an industrious nation, obsessed with the occult, and taking actions to deny others what he cannot find – love.
From this opening follows a near-hysterical second half. Driven on by bounding piano, Bowie reveals the source of his struggles. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking that it must be love” is an often-repeated refrain here, showing the depths of drug addiction and how far it has deluded him. As the Duke struggles with his inability to find love, he projects this as the root of his troubles.
The character of the Thin White Duke was undoubtedly the most impactful of Bowie’s characters upon his person. While previous characters were confined to record and stage, the Duke took over all aspects of Bowie’s life. In interviews he advocated a rise of fascism in Europe and described Adolf Hitler as “One of the first rock stars”. Combined with his dramatic weight loss and “astronomical” drug habit, the era took as much of a toll physically as it did mentally.
Despite the brevity of Bowie’s dive into personae, they are one of the most remembered and celebrated aspects of his career. Here is an artist so dedicated that he became his art, so impactful that the passing of a character was as shocking as the death of himself. No artist since has been able to reinvent themselves and find only greater notoriety, and if another ever will is up for debate.