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David Bowie: Self-maker, and self-remaker

Overstating David Bowie's impact on pop music and popular culture is difficult to do.

Overstating David Bowie's impact on pop music and popular culture is difficult to do.

Bowie, who died Sunday after an 18-month struggle with liver cancer - just two days after releasing his hauntingly powerful album Blackstar on his 69th birthday - was not among the first generation of rock stars.

The British singer and songwriter was born David Jones but renamed himself after Alamo hero Jim Bowie, in part to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees. He grew up in the diverse Brixton section of South London and studied dance, avant-garde theater, and mime in the mid-1960s while aspiring to Beatles-like pop stardom. He released his debut album in 1967 and scored his first hit with "Space Oddity," an exploration of sci-fi loneliness and isolation, in 1969, the year human beings first landed on the moon.

But Bowie, at first, belonged to the 1970s. He was a post-hippie rock star, the brightest light - along with, initially, Marc Bolan of T-Rex - of the outlandishly costumed, gender-bending glam-rock movement. He was Ziggy Stardust, an extraterrestrial bisexual with a band called the Spiders From Mars, the embodiment of out-of-this-world fabulousness who understood and exploited better than any rock performer before him that identity, sexual or otherwise, was something you made up.

Bowie's body of work, musically speaking, is enormous and hugely impressive. While remaining creatively restless, and often making music that could be abstruse and difficult, he also built up a bountiful, crowd-pleasing catalog of songs that became classic rock staples. "The Jean Genie," "Fame," "Diamond Dogs," "Young Americans" (recorded in Philadelphia in 1974), "Suffragette City," "Heroes," "Let's Dance" - the list goes on. And he also recorded less familiar, boldly experimental work that's startling in its beauty, from fractured Brian Eno-produced albums like 1977's Low to songs like the lament "Lazarus" on Blackstar.

Bowie, however, was about much more than the music. As of his 1971 album Hunky Dory, he was already laying out what the future would hold with its lead track, "Changes." The song was an anthem for outsiders attempting to find their way - "These children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds" - and also a map for a way forward.

Bowie wasn't the first androgynous pop star, but he took the long-haired, gender-fluid acts of forerunners like Mick Jagger to a theatrical extreme. Earlier British Invaders such as John Lennon - who would later cowrite "Fame," a song Bowie performed on Soul Train in 1975, becoming one of the first white artists to appear on the syndicated black-music show - and Pete Townshend of The Who had brought their art-school educations to bear on rock and roll.

But Bowie brought a level of unabashed theatricality and attention to image that was new to rock and roll. And he made it work.

When Madonna - one of Bowie's prime influencees - perfected the art of maximizing the commercial potential of altering her persona from one album to the next, she met with a barrage of chauvinist criticism. Bowie's gender-bending and role playing, by contrast, were celebrated by critics and fans alike. Early on, he embraced spectacle. In his exaggerated red rooster haircut and elevator boots, he had little time for the earnestness of the counterculture. He sprinkled glitter on punchy rock-and-roll riffs in both his own hits and those he helped bring to fruition, like "All the Young Dudes," the 1972 Mott the Hoople FM radio smash hit he wrote that put the past behind him with the lyric, "My brother's back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / We never got it off on that revolution stuff."

Rather than earnestness, Bowie was all about artifice: Acknowledging that this was showbiz, and that since identity was malleable, there was room for him and his fans - be they girls, boys, or in between - to make of themselves what they wished. In 1974, Bowie appeared on the British music TV show Top of the Pops to perform "Rebel Rebel," his stomping youth anthem ("Got your mother in a whirl / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl. . . . We like dancing and we look divine!"). Wearing a patch over his right eye and lip-synching, he pretends to play the song's unstoppable guitar riff before turning the instrument over in his hands, hugging it, and holding it upside down like the prop that it is. Rather than go on pretending it was an entirely serious business, he let us in on the reality that what we were watching wasn't real. He knew, and we knew it, too.

Bowie made one of his unpredictable moves that year when first he played the Tower Theater in Upper Darby to record an R&B-drenched album called David Live, and then came back to Philadelphia to record the album Young Americans at Sigma Sound Studio on North 12th Street, the hallowed room that was then the recording home of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Sound of Philadelphia Hit Factory.

Ditching the makeup and the alien pose, Bowie played it straight, making music he called "plastic soul." The ever-erudite Bowie described the album as "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it exists in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey."

Tony Visconti, the longtime Bowie producer who worked with him on Blackstar and who will play the entirety of Bowie's album The Man Who Sold the World at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville on Friday with the band Holy Holy, describes the Young Americans sessions, which included sax player David Sanborn, bassist Willie Weeks, and drummer Andy Newmark, on the website "To contrast with the slickness of Newmark, Weeks and Sanborn, David was trying out a gang of NYC kids from the Bronx," Visconti said. "They were Carlos Alomar on guitar, his wife Robin Clark on vocals, and their vocalist friend Luther Vandross! What a lineup!"

During those sessions, Bowie also met with rising star Bruce Springsteen and recorded two of the New Jersey songwriter's songs - "Growin' Up" and "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" - which he released on future projects. Also during that time, Bowie first viewed the Philadelphia Museum of Art's extensive holdings of French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, one of the British rock star and sometime-painter's favorites.

In 1991, when Bowie toured with Tin Machine, the corrosive rock band that attempted the impossible task of being an equal partnership with Bowie as just one of its members, he was interviewed by The Inquirer (via fax) about returning to the city where he had recorded Young Americans and David Live.

"I think Tin Machine are so precious about the band that we felt like we'd like the Talisman effect offered by the Tower. I have such good memories of my early days there that it seemed so ideal to present this new, difficult band to the same encouraging audience that one finds in Philadelphia. I also get to see the Duchamp collection one more time."

This multi-instrumentalist, and multi-artist, had a private life he made purposely elusive (declaring himself gay, or bisexual, later calling that a mistake, etc.). He was married twice, to first wife Mary Angela Barnett from 1970 to 1980, and then to international model Iman from 1992 until his death. He had a son, Duncan, 44, from the first union, and a daughter, Alexandria, 15, from the second.