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David Bowie, rock star who mastered music reinvention, dies at 69

Iconic, innovative singer, who released an album just days before his death, had battled cancer for 18 months

David Bowie, the innovative rocker who, through constant reinvention, broke pop boundaries across more than four decades, has died. Bowie turned 69 on Friday, the same day he released a new album

“David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer,” read a statement posted Jan. 10 on the rock star’s official social media accounts.

News of his death led to an outpouring of tributes. The Rolling Stones hailed Bowie as an “extraordinary artist.” Collaborator Iggy Pop called the pair’s friendship “the light of my life,” and Madonna commented, “Unique. Genius. Game changer.”

Bowie moved through such genres as glam rock, art rock, soul, hard rock and dance music.

After releasing his first, self-titled album in 1967, the singer-songwriter first gained notice with the song “Space Oddity” in 1969. His 1971 album, “Hunky Dory” is widely considered one of the best rock albums of all time, spawning “Changes,” a perennial hit.

Bowie’s followed up that success with the artistic breakthrough “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” a 1972 album that introduced the alter ego of a alien rock star. 

The early 1970s glam rock music gave way to disco soul in the form of the album “Young Americans” before he reinvented his sound again through means of a series of albums produced in collaboration with Brian Eno in Berlin that saw Bowie venture further into avant garde. Included in this period was the album “Heroes,” which spawned a song by the same name that is also among the most beloved of his many songs.

At the beginning of the 1980s, he turned to more danceable sounds, in sync with the new wave and dance music movements coming into vogue, with hits like “Under Pressure,” the 1981 collaboration with Queen, and “Let’s Dance” in 1983.

“My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter,” Bowie told The Associated Press in a 2002 interview. “The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety — all of the high points of one’s life.”

David Bowie in 2010.
Jamie McCarthy/WireImage

His performance of “Heroes” was a highlight of a concert for rescue workers after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

“What I’m most proud of is that I can’t help but notice that I’ve affected the vocabulary of pop music. For me, frankly, as an artist, that’s the most satisfying thing for the ego.”

Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and was ranked 39th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time and 23rd on its list of best singers of all time. He was the first major recording artist to release a song only on the Internet, according to IMDb.

After news of his death, tributes poured in even from the Vatican’s culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who wrote on Twitter Monday, referring to “Space Oddity,” “Ground Control to Major Tom Commencing countdown, engines on Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.” 

The news drew condolences on social media from Bowie fans and former collaborators, including Brian Eno and Giorgio Moroder.

Born David Robert Jones on Jan. 8, 1947, in London, he changed his last name to Bowie in the 1960s to avoid confusion with Davy Jones, the lead singer of the Monkees, according to IMDb.

An androgynous figure with changeable voice, Bowie declared himself bisexual in 1972, only five years after male homosexuality was decriminalized in the U.K.

He married the supermodel Iman in 1992. In 2013, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum mounted an exhibition that included his costumes, set designs and music videos.

He was listed as one of the richest British-born pop stars in the world. Heat magazine listed his earnings for 2001 at over $30 million.

Bowie kept a low profile in recent years after reportedly suffering a heart attack in the 2000s. He made a moody album three years ago called “The Next Day” — his first recording in a decade, which was made in secret in New York City.

The Los Angeles Times called his latest album, a collaboration with a jazz quintet, “fierce and unsettling — and sometimes as beautiful — as anything in Bowie’s one-of-a-kind catalog.” The Wall Street Journal described it as “Ziggy Stardust plays jazz” adding, “the delicious conceit of David Bowie conspiring with modern jazz artists is fulfilled beautifully.”

Al Jazeera with wire services

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