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David Bowie: 30 things you need to know about the late rock icon

Andrea Warner

Join Radio 2 Drive guest host Emma Godmere on a deep dive into David Bowie's iconic album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, on its 45th anniversary. You'll hear every song off the record, plus stories behind one of the greatest albums of all time. Tune in at 6 p.m./6:30 NT on CBC Radio 2.

David Bowie's life was wild and weird, dark and beautiful, and his genius so diverse that it's impossible to catalogue his output, nevermind his legacy or his influence.

His is exactly the kind of life that offers up millions of anecdotes and stories and memories and facts. Musician, actor, producer, artist, writer, performer — Bowie was endless, a giant. His passing on Jan. 10 at the relatively young age of 69 seems impossible and unfathomable.

There's no real way to adequately quantify an artist like David Bowie, so instead we dug deep into the archives, reading old interviews and unearthing cool facts and fascinating tidbits from his life. It's a list that could have gone on forever. Instead, consider this is a kaleidoscope overview of 30 things you need to know about David Bowie.

1. By 1970, Bowie had already written 137 songs.

“I've always written all my own songs. I've had 137 published so far and my latest L.P. is all my own. I also did another one years ago when I was the first singer to record an L.P. before doing a single. My stage act consists entirely of my own material, apart from one or two songs that I like very much — 'Port of Amsterdam' by Jacques Brel and 'Buzz the Fuzz' by Biff Rose.”

2. Bowie spent years studying under Lindsay Kemp, “Britain’s leading exponent of mime.”

"I taught him to exaggerate with his body a well as his voice, and the importance of looking as well as sounding beautiful. Ever since working with me he's practised that, and in each performance he does his movements are more exquisite.

The mime uses gestures to convey his inner beauty; it's his natural way of doing it, and the only way he can do it marvellously. Bowie does that with his voice, so his gestures aren't truly those of a mime. But he has learned to free his body, and he now dances constantly. This is what I endeavour to teach everyone who studies with me — to free what is already there. Everybody has that dove flying around inside them, and to let it fly is a fabulous experience. That's why Isadora Duncan danced, and Pavlova danced — because they loved the moment when they actually became swans, not just impersonating them as actors do. Pavlova actually became a swan, and had a great time while she was up there. And so am I."

3. David Bowie and Elvis Presley were born 12 years apart, but they shared the same birthday, Jan. 8.

Bowie was asked about this confluence of events a lot in his lifetime. Our favourite Elvis/Bowie quote is from Interview magazine: "At no point did I ever doubt I would be as near as anybody could be to England's Elvis Presley. Even from eight or nine years old, I thought, 'Well, I'll be the greatest rock star in England.' I just made up my mind."

4. Vince Taylor, or "the French Presley," was the inspiration for Bowie's creation, Ziggy Stardust.

"He always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock 'n' roll.... And so he re-emerged in this Ziggy Stardust character," Bowie said in an interview with Q Magazine.

5. Bowie loved a good public library.

In a 2004 interview with Sean Moeller (future founder of the Daytrotter sessions), Bowie recalled flying to New York City to see Presley at Madison Square Garden — a fact Bowie had confirmed for himself by reading the New York Public Library desk reference fourth edition.

Q: What kinds of things are you getting from that [the New York Public Library desk reference fourth edition]?

A: Dumb things. I just found out what day I went to see Elvis Presley in 1972. They have the calendars from which you can look up any year and found out what any date was. So I now know that I flew over to see Presley on Friday, June the 9th, 1972. I knew it was in June sometime and I kind of knew that he was on around the 9th or 10th at Madison Square Garden and I didn't know which day I'd gone.

I had a gig on the Thursday night at the Polytechnic in Middlesbrough so I dashed down to London that night after the gig, got on the plane early in the morning, just made the concert - I got in late to the concert and he was already doing "Proud Mary." Then that night I had a quick sleep and got up early, early the next morning and got on a flight back to London and played a gig the next night. So I literally saw him between gigs. I absolutely had to see him before anything happened to him. He was pretty good at that time. He was still in pretty great shape and it wasn't that long after the black leather show that was on television.

6. A childhood scrap left him permanently injured.

His left pupil was permanently dilated after George Underwood punched him in the eye over a girl.

7. Bowie considered himself a “prop” for his songs.

“I want to make myself a vehicle, a prop for my songs. I've always been aware of how the actor must clothe himself for the role he is portraying."

8. Bowie’s “number one idol” was Little Richard.

“He was pretty much the main man for me. I think it was his sax lineup. I just loved the saxophones in that band. I just felt that that was the group I was going to join when I grew up because I was like nine when he happened in Britain. I just wanted to be a part of that sax lineup.” [Bowie began playing the saxophone at the age of nine.]

9. He never whistled in theatre dressing rooms.

“I never whistle in theatre dressing rooms, because that's something you're told not to do as soon as you start in the theatre — but that's more of a habit. I'm not superstitious about it or anything else.”

10. In 1975, Bowie declared that rock was “a boring dead end” and that he was over it.

“There will be no more rock 'n' roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless f--king rock singer.” But as Playboy notes in its 1976 feature interview, Bowie’s declaration was a tad premature: later that year, he released Station to Station, which Playboy called a new album of “double-fisted rock 'n' roll.”

11. In 1976, Bowie told Cameron Crowe, via Playboy, about how he staved off boredom: lying.

“I lie. It’s quite easy to do. Nothing matters except whatever it is I'm doing at the moment. I can’t keep track of everything I say. I don’t give a shit. I can't even remember how much I believe and how much I don’t believe. The point is to grow into the person you grow into. I haven’t a clue where I'm gonna be in a year. A raving nut, a flower child or a dictator, some kind of reverend — I don’t know. That’s what keeps me from getting bored.”

12. Corinne “Coco” Schwab, Bowie’s longtime personal assistant, best friend and also, allegedly, an ex-lover.

He told rock journalist Lesley-Anne Jones that in the mid-’70s Schwab became the most important person in his life. “My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers, and I had a complete breakdown. Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming and she made me snap out of it.”

13. He wrote his 1987 song, “Never Let Me Down,” about Schwab.  

"‘Never Let Me Down’ is a pivotal track for me. It's probably the most personal thing I've written for ... albums. I don't know if I've written anything quite that emotive of how I feel about somebody. Other tracks I think are too schematic to ... a lot of them are allegorical and I just wanted to sort of right on the nose.”

14. Bowie's changeling ability confounded many, maybe even the man himself, but eventually he settled into his own skin — or so he thought.

In 1983, Jones interviewed Bowie again. This is her recollection:

"The spangled, half-strangled, androgynous weirdo who had vanished from the scene five years earlier had metamorphosed into an athlete filming an ad for breakfast cereal. He was barely recognisable: cool, elegant, clean-cut, his hair baby-blond to offset a classy light suit. Instead of the tombstone bits and pieces, he now flashed perfect teeth.

'I was tired of the idea of being a freakish cult figure,' he told me. 'I wanted to do something more accessible, more soulful, a bit more R & B, and I've been overwhelmed by the response. I certainly didn't expect this much limelight. It's a joy to me. I have never performed like this before in my life. I feel so much more relaxed, now that I'm not carting some character around with me any longer. At long last, I think I have learned how to be myself.'"

15. In 1995, though, Bowie had a different recollection about his “Let’s Dance” era.

“I went mainstream in a major way with the song ‘Let's Dance.’ I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did ‘Let's Dance,’ and it was driving me mad — because it took all my passion for experimenting away.”

16. He was an excellent talent scout. 

Luther Vandross supplied the backing vocals on Bowie’s 1975 album, Young Americans

17. He was also willing to help out musicians he loved without making himself the star of the show.

Bowie did the handclaps on T-Rex’s “Debora.”

18. Bowie was not BFFs with Andy Warhol.

Though Bowie had played Andy Warhol himself in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film, Basquiat, Bowie didn’t mince words about the famed artist’s legacy in a 2002 interview.

“I'm not sure that there's such a thing as a fond memory of Andy Warhol. He was a strange fish. Even people who say they knew him well, I don't think they did. I certainly didn't know him well.”

19. Bowie was a boxing fan.

“I quite like boxing - but that's only because I use it as a training method. Just recently I've started again. You look at yourself and think [pats stomach] that could go. And boxing's not as boring as pumping bleedin' metal all day, which bores the shit out of me.”

20. David Bowie starred in the 1980 Broadway production of The Elephant Man.

The New York Times’ John Corry called him “splendid.”  

21. He helped christen a new stadium in Vancouver, BC. 

Bowie performed the first rock concert at Vancouver’s BC Place in 1983, a few weeks following its grand opening, for a crowd of more than 50,000 fans.

22. In 1983, Bowie challenged MTV about the racism in its music video rotation.

Bowie: Why are there practically no blacks on the network?

Mark Goodman: We seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play on MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrowcasting. 

Bowie: There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I'm surprised aren't being used on MTV. 

Goodman: We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Pick some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by... a string of other black faces or black music. We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we're a rock and roll station. 

Bowie: Don't you think it's a frightening predicament to be in?

Goodman: Yeah, but not less so here than in radio.

Bowie: Don't say, 'Well, it's not me, it's them.' Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be make the media more integrated? 

23. Bowie also brought some attention to Quebec.

He recorded his 1984 album, Tonight, in Quebec’s famed Le Studio.

24. Bowie first collaborated with Montreal dancers La La La Human Steps in 1988.

From CBC Montreal: Édouard Lock, the group's founder, said Bowie made decisions based on the "adventures he wanted to live.... He made society run after himself rather than him trying to see how to best fit into the mores of the time."

25. Bowie participated in a three-day 1987 concert in Berlin, which may have helped change history.

The German Foreign Office tweeted this memorial for Bowie with a link to the video below: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall#RIPDavidBowie"

26. He was immortalized in Hollywood almost 20 years before his death.

He received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997.

27. Bowie gave the 1999 commencement address at Berklee College of Music.

Bowie reflected on everything from John Lennon (he compares their behaviour together to that of Beavis and Butthead on Crossfire) to Shirley Bassey, but it's this paragraph that resonates the mostly deeply.

"Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can't say that life's pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it. But it's allowed me so many moments of companionship when I've been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people. It's been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in."

Read the speech in its entirety.

28. He wasn't just a visionary artist — he literally became art.

Bowie’s life and art were catalogued in David Bowie Is, an incredible museum exhibit that originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum and travelled to Toronto’s AGO in 2013. It was an overview of his entire creative life, but it also offered up fascinating insights into his less public self, including this 1978 self-portrait.

29. Bowie rejected most low brow and high brow differentiators. 

He voiced the character Lord Royal Highness in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

30. He believed that creativity was, essentially, priceless.

In 2013, Bowie made his “Love is Lost” music video for just $12.99 — and a little help from his friends, plus a few creepy/cool puppets from his archives.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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