[Author’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Syfy.com]
To borrow from one of his lyrics, he was in the best-selling show, and it was one of the freakiest shows we have had the benefit of watching. David Bowie was a musical icon and accomplished actor, and with his death on Sunday, January 10, 2016, at age 69, he is legend.
But along with being a musical genius, Bowie was also the coolest nerd around, who loved sci-fi and contributed to the genre on multiple occasions. And as a way of memorializing him, let us briefly revisit the top times he made his mark in nerd circles -- accompanied by a few song suggestions.
"Life on Mars?"
As a teen in South London, David Bowie helped edit a UFO newsletter and believed in extraterrestrial life. In the February 1975 issue of Creem magazine, he talked about how he’d have multiple nightly UFO sightings for about a year. He additionally went on record discussing other sightings over the years. He also told Dick Cavett in 1974 that he preferred flying in saucers to airplanes, and demonstrated their method of propulsion.
Bowie brought his fabulous rock ‘n’ roll weirdness to the role of Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s dark fantasy film Labyrinth in 1986 (which was produced by Lucasfilm, and upon which George Lucas contributed to the script). The big hair, in-film songs, the crystal orbs he played with … the codpiece. Everything about Jareth made the antagonist an iconic part of the cult film (which was, sadly, a commercial failure when released). Though not a goblin himself, and likely a fae, Jareth would appear in Marvel Comics tie-ins with the film. Instead of being a baby-snatching Goblin King, Bowie -- who recorded five songs for the movie -- said Jareth would rather be living down in Soho. Interesting tidbit: The ballroom dance scene in the movie was choreographed by Gates McFadden, the future Dr. Beverly Crusher.
Bowie plays physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film about magic, The Prestige. Without revealing too much about his role, the futurist (and designed of the alternating current electricity supply system) creates a machine for Hugh Jackman’s magician character. The appearance of Tesla in the movie, which I personally think is Nolan’s best work, is itself a fun surprise, but to be played by Bowie adds a whole other level of cool to it. (And yes, Tesla was born on a Thursday, so Bowie’s song title above works.)
"Never Get Old"
David Bowie likewise impacted the horror world. In the 1983 film The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott, he portrays a vampire who begins to age rapidly, and is part of a love triangle with his maker (Catherine Deneuve) and a human doctor (Susan Surandon). While the film isn’t considered a great, it is richly atmospheric and dark, and has no shortage of eroticism and blood. Deemed a “post-modernist vampire film” by feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter, The Hunger also has a legacy for using vampirism as an allegory for bisexuality and lesbianism. It also has a following in the goth subculture. For his part, Bowie thought the story was unique but told Rolling Stone he was worried it was too bloody. Right around the same time, Bowie also performed the theme song "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" for the 1982 erotic horror remake Cat People. Composed by Giorgio Moroder with Bowie's lyrics, the song was eventually included on his '83 album Let's Dance. Fun fact: The movie featured a young Willem Dafoe as "1st Phone Booth Youth"; Bowie and Dafoe would eventually appear together in The Last Temptation of Christ and Basquiat.
"Strangers When We Meet"
“Who do you think this is, there?” pretty much sums up David Bowie’s bizarre scene in the bizarre 1992 David Lynch movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Although we’ve never met him before, and he doesn’t seem to know Dale Cooper when he directs that line to him, Bowie’s Agent Phillip Jeffries remains a mystery within the Twin Peaks-verse. After missing for two years, Jeffries walks off an elevator, raving and relaying stories involving The Man From Another Place and BOB. Then he vanishes once more. His story was to be pursued in future movies or TV episodes, but Fire Walk With Me was a flop at the box office, and Jeffries’ story was never fully told.
Beyond his musical achievements, Bowie is perhaps best known for his first starring role in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth. The sci-fi classic, based on Walter Trevis’ 1963 novel of the same name, is without a doubt high concept. Bowie plays extraterrestrial Thomas Jerome Newton on a mission to Earth to retrieve water for his drought-stricken world. After crashing, he poses as a human and amasses wealth using his alien tech to patent inventions on our world, and develops a fondness for vodka and television. He is eventually discovered, imprisoned, and subjected to experiments and loveless sex. Interestingly legal issues prevented Bowie from being involved musically with the film, so the cult film rests squarely on his acting. The film has its issues but it is nonetheless quite beautiful, and Bowie is unsurprisingly engaging and a thrill to watch. And it is no doubt an original story, which makes it a must-see 40 years later.
Three years before the world met Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s 1969 single "Space Oddity" (released just five days before the Apollo 11 launch first put men on the moon) is about astronaut Major Tom who becomes lost in space. It was his first big hit in the UK -- and an early example of the musician’s fascination with space and science fiction. The re-recorded version of the single became his first hit stateside in 1973. The song, which has allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey, is arguably the most famous space rock tune out there. Its legacy cannot be overstated for both genre and popular culture as a whole, but it literally became part of space exploration when International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield covered the song while on board in 2013. Bowie brought Major Tom back in the songs “Ashes to Ashes,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and, finally, in “Blackstar,” the title track on the album released on his Jan. 8, 2016, birthday. (An avid sci-fi reader, Bowie's Starman was influenced by the 1953 Robert A. Heinlein children's book, Starman Jones. He also referenced Ray Bradbury's 1951 book The Illustrated Man in his song "Karma Man," and interpreted George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for Diamond Dogs.)
How does one sum up the importance of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in just a few words? David Bowie’s concept album was his fifth, released in 1972, and is about a rock star who happens to be a bisexual alien with a message of peace for humanity. The glam rock album -- and basis for the concert film where Bowie portrayed the androgynous Stardust -- tells a rich, trippy story, and is hands-down one of the best albums. Ever. Of his extensive contributions to music and pop culture, this is Bowie’s greatest.
Pardon the hyperbole, but, to me, David Bowie transcended simple human existence. I never thought of him as David Bowie the man so much as David Bowie, the Starman posing as human -- and making being human seem way cooler than the rest of us could. And I don't think I am alone in that estimation. Bowie as cultural icon influenced countless creatives who loved paying tribute to him. There are far too many to list, but let's name just a few recent ones. The speculative fiction British series Life On Mars had nods to Bowie all over. Beyond naming the series after one of his songs (and using another Bowie song, "Ashes to Ashes," as the name for its sequel series), co-creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah used his music throughout the show. In the second season finale of The Venture Bros., The Sovereign -- the shadowy leader of The Guild of Calamitous Intent -- is revealed to be none other than Bowie (or is perhaps a shapeshifter who looks like Bowie, but whose true form is the creature on the cover of the Diamond Dogs album). The musical comedy act Flight of the Conchords dedicated an episode of their HBO show to him, where a dream version of David Bowie (played by Jemaine Clement) appears, and the duo sing the Bowie-esque song "Bowie's in Space." Clement again channels Bowie in the Rick and Morty episode "Mortynight Run" when, as the gaseous alien Fart, he sings the tune "Goodbye Moonmen." The Season 26 Elon Musk-centric episode of The Simpsons featured "Starman" in the closing scene as the inventor traveled to space. Additionally, in a high point of American Horror Story: Freak Show, Jessica Lange sang a version of "Life on Mars." As news spread of his death, the science community joined the public, and entertainment industry, in posting farewells. NASA tweeted the quote, "And the stars look very different today," and Neil deGrasse Tyson asked if some forms of creativity had to be generated by a space oddity who fell to the earth. And the aforementioned Hadfield cover of "Space Oddity"? It currently has about 42 million views on YouTube.
"Sound and Vision"
In addition to the Ziggy Stardust concert film/motion picture, David Bowie’s music video output (51 one of them) often touched on genre elements. The original "Space Oddity" video is a cosmic hippie mini-movie, and while not necessarily his best, it’s a surreal experiment. I still don’t understand the “Ashes to Ashes” music video -- and the purpose of the bulldozer remains a mystery to me -- but it feels like the whole song unfolds on an alien planet with an insane asylum run by Clive Barker. He tapped into horror in “Look Back in Anger,” where he’s creepily painting a portrait of himself, and becoming a painting himself. His final videos, “Blackstar” and “Lazarus,” are packed with science fiction and fantasy: The black Coraline button eyes, the monster under the bed, an eclipse, a girl with a tail, the mystical skull, writhing disciples, and an astronaut (Major Tom!). Blackstar producer Tony Visconti (and longtime Bowie collaborator) said the videos, specifically “Lazarus,” were meant to be parting gifts from the ailing Bowie to his fans. In a Facebook post, Visconti said, "His death was no different from his life - a work of Art … He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” By the way, Blackstar is Bowie’s 25th studio album, and the first that did not feature his face on the cover.
David Bowie died three years ago today.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Speaking to Newsnight in 1999, he predicted the internet was going to have "unimaginable" effects on society and "change the state of content" forever
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) January 10, 2019
"Oh! You Pretty Things"
Finally, Bowie also gave the world Duncan Jones, the director behind the excellent science fiction films Moon (based on his own story) and Source Code, as well as the Warcraft fantasy film. “Oh! You Pretty Things” was actually written shortly before Jones was born in 1971, and conveys the anxieties of becoming a parent for the first time through the lens of an alien invasion. Clearly Bowie passed along his love of genre to his son. And passed along his gift for seeing the potential of the future, based on the recently unearthed clip from 1999, where Bowie discusses the possibilities of the internet.
Before you go, check out my video retrospective of Labyrinth, which I wrote and did voiceover for, for Syfy.