LONDON (Reuters) - David Bowie, the visionary British rock star who coupled hits such as “Space Oddity” with trend-setting pop personas like “Ziggy Stardust,” has died at age 69, apparently of liver cancer, just two days after releasing what appears to be the parting gift of a new album.
A pioneering chameleon of performance imagery, Bowie straddled the worlds of hedonistic rock, fashion, art and drama for five decades, pushing the boundaries of music and his own sanity to produce some of the most innovative songs of his generation.
“David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer,” read a statement on Bowie’s Facebook page dated Jan. 10. Bowie’s son, film director Duncan Jones, confirmed the death.
A spokesman for Bowie said he died on Sunday but declined to say where he died or from what type of cancer. Bowie had kept a low profile after having emergency heart surgery in 2004 and it was not publicly known that he had cancer.
Belgian stage director Ivo van Hove, who directed the current off-Broadway experimental play “Lazarus,” which Bowie co-created and for which he provided much of the music, said the singer had been diagnosed with liver cancer some 15 months ago.
“He told me more than a year and three months ago just after he had heard himself ... he said it was liver cancer,” van Hove told Dutch public radio broadcaster NOS in an interview on Monday.
“I saw a man who didn’t want to die, he really didn’t want to die. ... He was in a battle for his life. Sometimes he looked at me and I saw a man who was suffering through and through because he knew the clock was ticking,” the director told Dutch TV in a separate interview.
One of Bowie’s last-known public appearances was in New York in mid-December to watch the show, which is due to close on Jan 19.
In London, mourners laid flowers, lit candles and sang his greatest hits besides a mural to Bowie in the edgy Brixton district of south London where he was born
Fans also gathered and laid flowers outside the apartment building in New York’s trendy Soho district where he had a home.
Bowie died two days after releasing “Blackstar”, which won some of the best critical reviews of his career. A music video for the first single, “Lazarus,” showed him lying in a hospital bed with bandages across his eyes, and singing lyrics that after his death, took on added poignancy.
“I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now. Look up here, man, I’m in danger. I’ve got nothing left to lose,” Bowie sang.
“He made ‘Blackstar’ for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it,” Bowie’s record producer, Tony Visconti, wrote on his Facebook page on Monday.
Sales and streaming of “Blackstar” and Bowie’s older albums soared on Monday, rising to the top of Apple’s iTunes charts in the United States and the UK. Streaming service Spotify said streams of Bowie’s music were up 2,700 percent on Monday.
Tributes poured in from titans of popular music, including the Rolling Stones, Madonna, rapper Kanye West and Paul McCartney.
“I’m proud to think of the huge influence he has had on people all around the world. ... His star will shine in the sky forever,” McCartney said.
“The Rolling Stones are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of our dear friend David Bowie,” the Stones said. “He was an extraordinary artist, and a true original.”
Madonna said on Twitter: “Talented. Unique. Genius. Game Changer. The Man who Fell to Earth. Your Spirit Lives on Forever!”
The Vatican said: “Check ignition and may God’s love be with you” - borrowing a verse from Bowie’s first hit, “Space Oddity.”
Born David Jones in south London on Jan. 8, 1947, he took up the saxophone at 13 before changing his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones, according to Rolling Stone.
He shot to fame in Britain in 1969 with “Space Oddity,” whose words he said were inspired by watching Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” while stoned.
Bowie’s haunting lyrics summed up the loneliness of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union and coincided with the Apollo spacecraft landing on the moon.
Bowie married the Somali-American supermodel Iman in 1992 with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, born in 2000.
It was Bowie’s 1972 portrayal of a doomed bisexual rock envoy from space, Ziggy Stardust, that propelled him to global stardom. Bowie and Ziggy, wearing outrageous costumes, makeup and bright orange hair, took the pop world by storm.
He defined the theatrical glam rock movement with the albums “Hunky Dory”, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, and “Aladdin Sane”.
“Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly,” Bowie sang with a red lightning bolt across his face and flamboyant jumpsuits. “Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind, like a leper messiah.”
By now an influential symbol of artistic reinvention venturing into the theatre, film and fashion worlds, Bowie continued to innovate, helping produce Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” album.
This was a period that saw Bowie sporting an array of fantastic costumes, some said to based on the chilling Kubrick movie “A Clockwork Orange”.
“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,” Bowie said in a rare interview in 2002.
Ever ahead of public opinion, Bowie told the Melody Maker newspaper in 1972 that he was gay, a step that helped pioneer sexual openness in Britain, which had only decriminalised homosexuality in 1967. Bowie had married in 1970.
Four years later, he informed Playboy that he was bisexual, but he told Rolling Stone magazine in the 1980s that the declaration was “the biggest mistake I ever made” and that he was “always a closet heterosexual.”
Bowie went through another metamorphosis in the mid-1970s, adopting a soul and funk sound and abandoning stack heels for designer suits and flat shoes.
He scored his first U.S. No. 1 with “Fame” and established a new persona, the “Thin White Duke”, for his “Station to Station” album.
But the excesses of a hedonistic life were taking their toll. In a reference to his prodigious appetite for cocaine, he said: “I blew my nose one day in California. And half my brains came out. Something had to be done.”
Bowie moved from the United States to Switzerland and then to Cold War-era Berlin to recuperate, working with Brian Eno from Roxy Music to produce some of his least commercial and most ambitious music, including “Low” and ”Heroes” in 1977.
He scored a big hit with funk dance track “Fashion” in 1980.
In 1983, Bowie changed tack again, signing a multimillion-dollar five-album deal with EMI. The first, ”Let’s Dance”, returned him to chart success and almost paid off his advance.
He starred on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” at the start of the decade and appeared in an array of films including “Merry Christmas, “The Hunger”, “Absolute Beginners” and as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”.
Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in London, Jill Serjeant in New York and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Nick Zieminski and Peter Cooney