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Remembering David Bowie

Judith Lynch

Born David Robert Jones, the man the world knew as David Bowie died late last night. He was 69. According to a statement released on his Facebook page, he died surrounded by his family.

Bowie had released his 25th album, Blackstar, just two days ago on his 69th birthday. An album which, in hindsight, was Bowie's parting gift to the world. He wasn't going to give us the details of his personal life — which included an 18-month struggle with cancer that ultimately killed him — but he would give us this, his art.

Bowie left his first mark on the music world in July 1969 with "Space Oddity." Released at the height of the global space race, the song became a hit with its ever-enduring opening lyric, "Ground control to Major Tom." 

Bowie's most creative period in terms of output was the 1970s. He released 11 albums in that decade, including The Man Who Sold the World (1970), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Diamond Dogs (1974) and Heroes (1977). He took on many performing personas during that time, from the enigmatic Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke that came out of Station to Station. Widely regarded as bold in his decision to embody characters, he later revealed that it was insecurity, not bravado, that fuelled his most famous alterego, Ziggy Stardust.

The 1980s ushered in new wave and Bowie rode along with it, releasing some of the biggest songs of his career. In 1981 he teamed up with Queen and released "Under Pressure," which became his third number-one song in the U.K. In 1983 Bowie gave us "Let's Dance" from the album of the same name.

That same album also gave us "Modern Love" and "China Girl." All three singles went on to become top 20 hits and introduced Bowie to a whole new (younger) audience.

By the end of the '80s, Bowie put his solo career aside and fell back into being a member of a band for the first time since the late 1960s. He joined forces with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Tony Sales and drummer Hunt Sales to form Tin Machine. Whether by accident or by design, Bowie was the centrepiece of the operation.

The '90s saw Bowie embracing musical change once again as electronic music became the new normal. By 1991 his incubation with Tin Machine had come to an end and, in 1993, he released his first solo album in years, Black Tie White Noise, which fused elements of soul, jazz and hip-hop. His fascination with electronics and the future continued with his 1995 release, Outside. In a CBC interview with Laurie Brown, Bowie discussed his plan behind Outside, his 21st studio album:

"Ostensibly it's a storyline and a narrative that frankly, that's just subject matter but the intention would be to capture the spirit of each year as it goes past over the next five years, so that by the year 2000 we've virtually created a musical and textural diary of the last five years of the millennium, which is a pompous kind of ambition but I think it's one that's worth trying to complete."

The subsequent volumes never materialized, and Bowie closed out the '90s with Earthling and Hours....

Bowie had a Canadian connection as well. In the late '90s, Ontario's Emm Gryner moved to Los Angeles and wound up taking a job singing and playing keyboards in Bowie's band around the time of his Hours... tour. Bowie also made a guest vocal appearance on the lead single from Arcade Fire's fourth studio album, Reflektor.

"It was just after The Next Day had come out. He basically just came by the studio in New York while we were mixing, just to have a listen to the stuff we were doing," said band member Richard Reed Parry in a 2013 interview with NME. "He offered to lend us his services because he really liked the song. In fact, he basically threatened us — he was like, 'If you don't hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!' So we thought, well why don't we go one better, why don't you sing on our version? Thankfully, he obliged, and we were really happy about that."

In 2004, Bowie suffered a heart attack while performing onstage in Germany. In the years following the emergency surgery, his musical output was seriously curtailed. It wasn't until March 11, 2013, that he released The Next Day — his first studio album in a decade.

On Jan. 8, 2015, Bowie released what would be his final album, Blackstar. Just 18 months earlier, he was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life. According to longtime producer Tony Visconti, the release of Blackstar so close to Bowie's death was part of the plan.

"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. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry," Visconti posted on Facebook.

Bowie will be honoured on March 31 with a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City featuring the Roots, Cyndi Lauper and Bettye LaVette.