David Bowie: Musician, actor... tech admirer
The muso was the medium
Obituary David Bowie, the iconic rock star, has died aged 69 following an 18-month battle against cancer.
A chameleon, Bowie meant different things to different people thanks to a creativity that spanned music, film, fashion, technology, media and the web. He had a musical career that sprawled across 50 years and produced 25 albums... but there was more to the man than the music.
Since the news hit this morning, the internet has been overheating with tweets, Facebook posts and blogs – with comment from the predictable to the most unlikely individuals making the moment. We're also being treated to saturation news media coverage on TV and in print.
For many, it’ll be like the passing of Elvis Presley in 1977, or Princess Diana in 1997 – you’ll remember where you were and what you were doing that moment you heard the news.
Bowie might cock an eyebrow at the monumental media and internet attention, finding it ever so slightly ironic. But then he would.
Born David Robert Jones on 8 January, 1947, in Brixton, London, Bowie graduated from Bromley Technical High School at age 16. He entered music and took the name Bowie (from the knife) to avoid confusion with The Monkees’ Davy Jones.
Bowie released a number of early singles in the 1960s but made his name with 1969’s "Space Oddity", which went to No. 1 in the UK. That name was cemented by The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Fittingly, "Space Oddity" came to a new generation online in 2013 when it was played by ISS commander Chris Hadfield on aboard the space station.
For all the frocks, makeup and mime, there was always a strong technological current in Bowie’s work. Most people remember Major Tom and the "Oh You Pretty Things" homosuperior rather the earlier laughing gnome. His Man-who-fell-to-Earth made a fortune exploiting his extra-planetary technological nous via World Enterprise Corporation.
The scenes showing multi-screened disconnectedness, combined with the eerie Brian Eno-brewed sounds of the Berlin period – which spawned "Heroes" and "Ashes to Ashes", amongst others - defined the look and sound of our current techno-alienation, even as a bunch of West Coast dropouts and hippies were building the technology to create it for real.
Both sides cringingly came together when Windows 98’s launch was soundtracked with "Heroes". Still, we’ll all be playing "Heroes" today. Will anyone wheel out dusty Win98 CDs when Gates and Ballmer cash in their chips?
Decades after The Man who Fell to Earth, Bowie was an early internet believer, putting his name to BowieNet in 1998. The dial-up internet service was a collaboration with UltraStar, and the idea was to provide internet access for a monthly fee of $5.95 packaged with Exclusive Bowie art, words and music.
Whereas artists today talk about giving away albums free online or try to reach fans "directly" via social networks, Bowie was there first.
I crossed paths with Bowie just once, when he was humble enough to personally come into the offices of Internet magazine, where I used to work, to meet the editor and deliver the product pitch.
It was 1998, a time when others were taking sky-high valuations, talking business models and hiring PR agencies to deliver their message.
At the time he said of his ISP:
"I wanted to create an environment where not just my fans, but all music fans could be part of a single community where vast archives of music and information could be accessed, views stated and ideas exchanged."
That was two years before the internet bubble burst, and five years before MySpace – six before Facebook.
That was the Bowie, not just using the medium to communicate, but – literally - taking ownership of it. ®
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