The music industry lost one of its most iconic artists when David Bowie passed away from liver cancer on January 10, 2016. Bowie’s death came as a surprise to music fans around the world, as he kept his diagnosis quiet. Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider the often-elusive nature of Bowie over the years. Here are some other things you might not have known about David Bowie, who was born on January 8, 1947.
David Bowie was born in London on January 8, 1947 as David Robert Jones. But as he readied to embark on his musical career as a teen, there was a problem: Davy Jones, the lead singer of The Monkees, was already a known quantity in the music industry, and the aspiring artist was afraid they might be confused. So David Jones changed his name to David Bowie.
In 1967, 14-year-old Sandra Dodd sent Bowie what would be his first fan letter from America, in which she asked him about his name. Bowie quipped: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. ‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said my manager.”
When “I Never Dreamed” was recorded in 1963, David Bowie was just 16 years old and in his first band, The Konrads. David Hadfield, former drummer and manager of The Konrads, found the old tape recording tucked away in a bread box when he was moving homes in the 1990s. The tape went to auction in 2018, and sold for almost £40,000 (or just over $50,000).
While people often claim that Bowie had heterochromia, a genetic condition that results in having two different colored eyes, that is incorrect. Both of his eyes are blue; the ocular oddity that you do notice is what is known as aniscoria, or a permanently dilated pupil—which happened when Bowie was 15 years old and got into a fight with his friend, George Underwood, over a girl. “I was so aggrieved I walked over to him, basically, turned him around and went ‘whack’ without even thinking,” Underwood explained. (His fingernail sliced into Bowie’s eye.)
Fortunately, there were no hard feelings; the two later collaborated on an album as The King Bees and Underwood went on to design the album covers for some of Bowie’s most famous records, including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
In 2004, while performing in Oslo, Norway, a “fan” threw a lollipop onto the stage, which somehow managed to strike Bowie in the eye—and get stuck. A member of his crew was able to remove it, and Bowie went on with the concert. Rebel rebel indeed.
Despite Bowie being more than three years older than Peter Frampton, the two struck up a friendship as youngsters. Both attended Bromley Technical High School, where Frampton’s dad was Bowie’s art teacher. The two shared a unique bond over music, and remained close friends until Bowie’s death. “He really introduced me, along with George Underwood, to Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, people I wasn’t aware of at that age,” Frampton once said of his childhood friend. The two would collaborate a number of times over the years.
Back in their teens—when Bowie was still known as David Jones and Elton John went by Reginald Kenneth Dwight—the two future rock icons became fast friends and would frequently get together to talk about music. But shortly after Bowie’s death, John admitted that they had a falling out and hadn’t talked much in about 40 years.
“David and I were not the best of friends towards the end,” John said. “We started out being really good friends. We used to hang out together with Marc Bolan, going to gay clubs, but I think we just drifted apart. He once called me ‘rock ’n’ roll’s token queen’ in an interview with Rolling Stone, which I thought was a bit snooty. He wasn’t my cup of tea. No; I wasn’t his cup of tea.”
In 1964, when he was just 17 years old, Bowie formed The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, an organization aimed at protesting the treatment that he and other men with long hair received on the streets of London. He took the matter seriously, as you can see from the BBC interview above.
That BBC spot led to an interview with the London Evening News, where Bowie explained that the organization was “really for the protection of pop musicians and those who wear their hair long. Anyone who has the courage to wear their hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell. It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.”
On July 11, 1969, Bowie released the single “Space Oddity.” The timing could not have been more perfect. Nine days after its release, the BBC ran the song over its coverage of Apollo 11’s lunar landing. It would end up being his first big hit in the UK.
In 2018, Elon Musk launched a Tesla Roadster into space using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Musk claims “Space Oddity” was playing on the car’s stereo system during the journey. And the dummy in the car was given the name “Starman,” after another outer space-themed song on Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
In 1985, Bowie’s half-brother Terry Burns, who battled mental health issues throughout his life, escaped from the hospital where he had been admitted and killed himself. In Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, the writer revealed that Burns had quite an impact on Bowie’s writing. He was reportedly the inspiration for a number of his songs, including “Aladdin Sane,” “All the Madmen,” and “Jump They Say.”
As he was recording his debut album, Bowie holed up in London’s Decca Studios, during which time he taught himself music theory out of a book, “shuffled about in a box of gravel” to get ambience for a song called “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” and also recorded “The Laughing Gnome,” which was inspired by Bowie’s admiration for Anthony Newley, who wrote “The Oompa-Loompa Song.” In it, Bowie sang in a Chipmunks-style voice, alternating with his own voice. He released it as a single in April 1967, and it’s widely considered one of Bowie’s worst songs by fans.
Though Bowie had many alter egos over the years, Ziggy Stardust was the most famous of them. From 1972 to 1973 he toured in character as the glam rock persona until he abruptly announced that he would be retiring Ziggy during a concert in 1973. “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do,” Bowie said of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
He later admitted that Ziggy “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.”
Four years after his Ziggy Stardust period, Bowie became the Thin White Duke. It was during this period that he struggled with both drug and emotional problems. In David Buckley’s book, Strange Fascination: David Bowie—The Definitive Story, the author wrote that by 1975, Bowie was “living a cocooned existence [in Los Angeles], disconnected from the real world.” He was apparently subsisting on a diet of peppers and milk, and exhibited some truly strange behaviors—like keeping his urine in his refrigerator so that “no other wizard could use it to enchant him.”
July 11, 2019 was the 50th anniversary of “Space Oddity,” and the androgynous-looking Barbie created to commemorate it, rocked Ziggy’s flame-red hair, gold forehead astral sphere, black nail polish, platform boots, and psychedelic space suit. The box in which it was packaged was printed with a collage of photos of the musician.
In 1973, David Bowie told photographer Justin de Villeneuve, who was model Twiggy’s ex-boyfriend and manager at the time, that he wanted to be the first man on the cover of Vogue, so de Villeneuve arranged a joint photo shoot with Twiggy for Bowie.
Bowie was pale, and Twiggy was tan from a recent vacation, and their two faces together just looked off, and so an idea came to the photographer to paint masks on both of them in order to create a more cohesive picture. Bowie asked if he could use the photo for the Pin Ups record sleeve, de Villeneuve reluctantly agreed, and Vogue never spoke to him again.
Not only was Bowie ahead of his time when it came to his art, but he also seemed to foretell the rise of the internet. In 1999, while discussing a newfangled invention known as the world wide web with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC, the host suggests that the internet’s potential has been “hugely exaggerated.” Bowie was quick to make it clear that he didn’t agree. “I really embrace the idea that there’s a new demystification process between the artist and the audience,” Bowie said “The interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”
In September 1996, Bowie became the first major artist to release a single via internet download only with “Telling Lies.” It took about 11 minutes to download. (Times have changed.) That was just the beginning: In 1998, Bowie announced that he’d be launching his own internet service provider, known as BowieNet.
Much like America Online, the leading internet service provider at the time, users were free (for $19.95 per month) to access any part of the Internet on BowieNet, though their default landing page was DavidBowie.com, and they were given a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5MB of storage that allowed them to create their own content. But most significant and most cool was the fact that Bowie used BowieNet to interact with fans, posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, and he even hosted chats in real time.
The character was called Lord Royal Highness, and the episode was titled “Atlantis SquarePantis.” Lord Royal Highness was emperor of the Atlanteans of Atlantis, and keeper of the world’s oldest bubble. His character didn’t sing, but he did impart this wisdom to SpongeBob’s underwater world: “Art is what happens when you learn to dream.”
While he was mostly known for his musical output, Bowie was a major bookworm who often read a book a day. In 2013, the curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario compiled a list of the artist’s 100 favorite books as part of an exhibition, “David Bowie Is.” It was an eclectic list, encompassing everything from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.
In late 2017, Bowie’s son—filmmaker Duncan Jones—announced via Twitter that he would be paying tribute to his father’s love of reading with an online-based book club. “My dad was a beast of a reader,” Jones wrote. The club kicked off with Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.
In 2019, music journalist John O’Connell published Bowie’s Bookshelf: The Hundred Books that Changed David Bowie’s Life. Each of the one hundred book titles is paired with an essay that then explores the influence the book might have had on Bowie’s life. For example, the book’s description queries, “How did the power imbued in a single suit of armor in The Iliad impact a man who loved costumes, shifting identity, and the siren song of the alter-ego?”
A giant red-and-electric blue lightning bolt was slated to be built in Bowie’s birthplace of Brixton, South London, in tribute to the late musician. The bolt took inspiration from Bowie’s face paint in photographer Brian Duffy’s cover of Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane. A large crowdfunding effort got underway back in 2017, but fans were unfortunately only able to raise $60,000 of the $1 million needed, so it was never built.
In June 2016, just a few months after the singer’s passing, a lock of Bowie’s hair—which had been snipped in 1983 by a wig mistress at Madame Tussauds in London—went up for auction as part of Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction held by Heritage Auctions and sold for a hair-raising $18,750.
“David Bowie changed music forever and fans are hungry for related precious objects that bring them closer to their favorite musician,” Margaret Barrett, Heritage’s director of entertainment and music auctions, said at the time. “What brings you closer than a lock of hair?” (The bidding started at $2000 and early estimates thought it might only go as high as $4000.)
It’s a bowie knife, and it’s on her ankle. “David” is written on the knife’s handle.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.