By RAY CONNOLLY FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Chameleon of rock: David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1976 at theÂ TopPop Studios in the Netherlands
Who, other than someone so outside the norm, could have hit upon the idea of turning the first space voyages into the most unconventional of hit songs? That Bowie did with Space Oddity.
After the first man landed on the Moon in July 1969, the world was in awe of astronauts and the silent emptiness of Space. But it was the unknown former mime artist from Bromley who, with a song written a few weeks before the Moon landing, personalised their journey.
â€˜This is Major Tom to Ground Control,â€™ he sang in a voice inspired by the very, until then, ungroovy Anthony Newley. It worked.
Space Oddity became 22-year-old Bowieâ€™s first hit and it would remain his biggest for the rest of his life â€” a song heard on radios around the world yesterday and, so very aptly, out in Space by Tim Peake and the other astronauts on board the International Space Station.
With that song, the thin, straggly Bowie, with his badly bleached hair, vulpine teeth and one eye blue and the other dark grey, charted musically the moment and space exploration. And building on it and his androgynous looks, he defined an outrageous era for rock music.
Because the Seventies, more than anything in rock, was about looks and sex.
With the introduction of the Pill in the previous decade, the Seventies was an age of free love, and Bowie enjoyed its unshackling even more than most rock stars. Mainly he went for girls, but he liked boys, too.
Before Bowie, sexual ambiguity was a no-no for rock stars â€” rock and roll bands being expected to be, or to at least promote themselves as being, lustily heterosexual.
But from the very start of his career, Bowie, with his make-up, dyed red hair and unisex outfits, flouted all the rules.
Conquest: Actress Susan Sarandon has spoken of her affair with Bowie (pictured in 1982) 30 years ago
Together: Not many of Bowie’s sexual conquests were famous â€” although actresses Bette Midler and Elizabeth Taylor (pictured), at least one of the Three Degrees, and Ronnie Spector were said to be among them
â€˜Iâ€™m bisexual,â€™ he told me early in his career. â€˜I first realised it when I was about 13 or 14.â€™
So, had he been afraid of public scorn, I inquired? â€˜No. I was more afraid of football,â€™ he replied. In todayâ€™s age of same-sex marriages, a star admitting to bisexuality or even a television personality wearing a dress, is hardly newsworthy. But 45 years ago it could have spelled career death.
That it didnâ€™t is testimony to not only Bowieâ€™s bravery but also to his prescience in sensing the massive change in public attitudes that was taking place around him as Gay Lib protesters took increasingly to the streets.
He was being deliberately provocative, but that was Bowie, catching the zeitgeist as his emergence coincided with the introduction of colour television into most peopleâ€™s homes.
By wearing the most dazzling outfits his first shows were eye-poppingly unforgettable, a style very quickly followed by other groups.
Oh, you pretty things: A flamboyant Bowie and wife Angie take their son Zowie for a walk in 1971
All the young dudes: Partying with Lou Reed (left) and Mick Jagger (centre) in London’s West End in 1973
When we see film of the young Beatles from a decade earlier, itâ€™s in black and white. But conjure up the young Bowie, and we remember him in dazzling colour as he began his series of reinventions, from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust (And The Spiders From Mars) to sing Starman â€” a song which has become current again after being played in Matt Damonâ€™s film The Martian.
Open marraige: By the time Starman was a hit in 1972, Bowie was already married to American Angie Barnett, a young lady of equal bisexuality
By the time Starman was a hit in 1972, Bowie was already married to American Angie Barnett, a young lady of equal bisexuality. As a marriage, apart from producing their son, Zowie (now known as Duncan Jones, a successful film producer), it was notable mostly, and most famously, for its openness.
Whether or not you believe Angieâ€™s veiled suggestion in her autobiography that her husband and Mick Jagger had a sexual relationship, and many of us donâ€™t, Bowie became celebrated in the rock world for enjoying the sexual fruits of fame on a banqueting scale, involving, it is said, hundreds of girls. (Angie claimed she once found Bowie in bed with Jagger at their house in Chelsea, where it was said that she created a â€˜sexual cocoonâ€™ in the hope of keeping Bowie close â€” putting a 4ft-deep bed covered in fur in the living room and naming it â€˜the pitâ€™.)
Interestingly not many of his sexual conquests were famous â€” although actresses Bette Midler and Elizabeth Taylor, at least one of the pop group the Three Degrees, and Ronnie Spector were said to be among them. Actress Susan Sarandon has spoken of her affair with Bowie 30 years ago.
A male lover once claimed that Bowie was less gay than lusting for adoration. â€˜When we were in bed together, he was more sensual and narcissistic,â€™ says Tony Zanetta, one-time Bowieâ€™s assistant. â€˜To him, it was about being adored . . . I donâ€™t think sex mattered to him.â€™
Beautiful models, it seems, were more to his taste, as was cocaine â€” which boosted his sexual drive as he became â€˜dedicated to having sex with as many partners as possibleâ€™.
Station to station: Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson in a British Rail dining car during the 1972 Ziggy tour
And, throughout the Seventies, drugs would become a problem for him. One girlfriend Ava Cherry blamed his â€˜extreme personalityâ€™, saying â€˜his capacity for cocaine was much greater than anyone elseâ€™sâ€™.
Bowie said heâ€™d â€˜found a soul-mateâ€™ in the drug and once admitted: â€˜I blew my nose one day in California and half my brains came out.â€™ And he said: â€˜I like fast drugs. I hate anything that slows me down.â€™
On stage: A good generation and a half older than the great mass of the fans at Glastonbury in 2000 (above), Bowie could still do it
So open was his drug use that, in the same year, 1975, the pop newspaper Record Mirror described him as â€˜Old Vacuum-Cleaner Noseâ€™.
Nothing, however, could get in the way of his ever-expanding talent, as he invented, then jettisoned, one self-creation after another.
In the Sixties, a rock and roll show had been usually four or five young men on stage singing their hits. The artist in Bowie â€” and art was the only O-level he passed â€” insisted he give the fans a visual show as well, be it shades of psychedelia, him in a clownâ€™s suit or with his new band, the post-modern heavy metal outfit, Tin Machine.
His was a chameleonâ€™s gift, using the tricks he had learned in mime. But as hit followed hit â€” Jean Jeanie, Life On Mars, Rebel Rebel, Fame, which he wrote with John Lennon, and Ashes To Ashes â€” it was he who often dictated the fashion.
Nor was it only in music that he excelled. On Broadway, he played the lead part in The Elephant Man, to good reviews, while his role in the film The Man Who Fell To Earth captured the sad fate of a stranded alien whose mission to Earth ends in alcoholism.
Then there was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, in which he played a rebellious soldier in a Japanese PoW camp.
Perhaps his dramatic roles illustrated his own personality. As he said in 2002: â€˜In my entire career Iâ€™ve only really worked with the same subject matter . . . isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety â€” all of the high points of oneâ€™s life.â€™
But music was his main love. In the mid-Seventies, he had mixed with the people who surrounded pop artist Andy Warhol and produced some of Lou Reedâ€™s Transformer album, which carried the hits Walk On The Wild Side and Perfect Day.
Watch that man: Bowie as Aladdin Sane in 1973. His left pupil was permanently dilated following a fight at school
Movie star: In Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, Bowie played a rebellious soldier in a Japanese PoW camp
Meanwhile, his own hits still came with Letâ€™s Dance and China Girl and the hilarious video showing him and Mick Jagger singing Dancing In The Street for Band Aid.
Then, in 1993, he composed the music for the TV dramatisation of Hanif Kureishiâ€™s novel, Buddha Of Suburbia.
By that time he was one of the elder statesmen of rock, able to look back on changes he had pioneered â€” not only in the chances his early sexual ambiguity gave to performers such as Boy George, but in the scope of his music.
All his albums may not have been hits, but he was never anything but adventurous.
Also, by this time he was married to supermodel Iman. Living mainly in New York with his wife and daughter, middle age gave him the quiet life of the contented recluse, busy with his drawing and painting.
The last time I saw him on stage was at Glastonbury in 2000. A good generation and a half older than the great mass of the fans, he could still do it.
He really was a complete one-off.