15 Fascinating Facts About David Bowie

BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

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 15 things you might not have known about David Bowie, on what would have been his 72nd birthday.

1. He changed his name so he wouldn't be confused with Davy Jones of The Monkees.

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.”

2. No, his eyes WERE not two different colors.

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.

3. That wasn't the only time Bowie's eye took a beating.

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.

4. He was boyhood friends with Peter Frampton.

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.

5. Bowie and Elton John were pals as teens, too.

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.”

6. As a teen, Bowie founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men.

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.”

7. His first hit, "Space Oddity," was perfectly timed.

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.

8. His brother was a major inspiration for his music.

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.”

9. Being Ziggy Stardust led him to question his sanity.

3rd July 1973: David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London. The concert later became known as the Retirement Gig
Express/Getty Images

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."

10. For a time, he feared a wizard might steal his urine.

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.”

11. He was a bit of a futurist.

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.”

12. He was a pioneer of music streaming.

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.

13. He was a voracious reader.

May 1973: In a black and white horizontally striped jacket with wide lapels glam rock star David Bowie
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

14. His son created a book club in Bowie's honor.

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.

The club kicked off with Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.

15. A lock of his hair sold for $18,750.

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.)

License to Bird: Meet the Real James Bond

American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.
American ornithologist James Bond, circa 1974.

On January 4, 1900, a child was born in Philadelphia. His name was Bond. James Bond. He would not grow up to be a globe-trotting, license-to-kill-carrying playboy spy like the other James Bond. Instead, he became an ornithologist, and lived a fairly quiet, normal life—until someone borrowed his name.  

Bond lived in New Hampshire and England while growing up, and developed an accent that a colleague described [PDF] as an “amalgam of New England, British, and upper-class Philadelphian.” After graduating from Cambridge, Bond returned to the U.S. to work as a banker, but his childhood interests in science and natural history spurred him to quit soon after and join an expedition to the Amazon to collect biological specimens for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

After that, and with no formal training in the field, he started working as an ornithologist at the Academy, and was “among the last of a traditional museum breed, the independently wealthy, nonsalaried curator, who lacked advanced university degrees.” Working at the museum, Bond became an authority on the bird species of the Caribbean, and his 1936 book, Birds of the West Indies, was considered the definitive guide to the region’s birds at the time. 

Despite his many scientific accomplishments—which included dozens of papers about Caribbean and New England birds, more books and field guides, numerous medals and awards and other researchers using the term “Bond’s Line” to refer to the boundary that separates Caribbean fauna by their origin—that book would be what catapulted Bond, or at least his name, to international fame.

In 1961, Bond was reading a London newspaper’s review of the latest edition of his book and found eyebrow-raising references to handguns, kinky sex, and other elements of a life that sounded very unlike his. He and his wife Mary quickly learned that another James Bond was the hero of a series of novels by Ian Fleming, which were popular in the UK but just gaining notice in the U.S. Mary wrote to Fleming to jokingly chastise him for stealing her husband’s name for his “rascal” character. 

Fleming replied to explain himself: He was a birdwatcher and when he was living in Jamaica beginning work on his first spy novel, Birds of the West Indies was one of his bird “bibles.” He wanted his main character to have an ordinary, unassuming name, and when he was trying to drum one up, he remembered the author of the book he turned to so often. “It struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born,” Fleming wrote to Mary. (Fleming later called “James Bond” the “dullest name I’ve ever heard.”)

Fleming told Mary that he understood if they were angry at the theft of Bond’s name, and suggested a trade. “In return I can only offer your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit,” he wrote. “Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” 

He also invited the Bonds to his home in Jamaica, which they took him up on a few years later. During the Bonds’ visit, Fleming gave James a copy of his latest novel, You Only Live Twice, inscribed with the message “To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.”

For the next few decades, until his death at the age of 89, Bond’s famous namesake caused the ornithologist a few minor annoyances. Once, he was supposedly stopped at the airport because officials thought his passport was a fake, and the occasional bank teller would likewise think the same of his checks and refuse to cash them.

Young women would often prank call the Bond house late at night asking to speak to 007, to which Mary would reply: “Yes, James is here. But this is Pussy Galore and he's busy now."

Beyond Queen Elizabeth: 10 Fantastic Shows to Stream After The Crown

Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Olivia Colman stars in season 3 of The Crown.
Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

So you’ve already torn through the latest season of The Crown, which arrived on Netflix in mid-November. You’ve watched and evaluated the performances from the new cast, including Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. You’ve done your Google searches on the events depicted in season 3, from the Cambridge Five to the Aberfan disaster. You’ve played back every scene featuring a corgi. What are you going to do now?

If you’re looking for something else that’s historical, royal, or just vaguely British, give one of these shows a try. They’re all available on a major streaming service (Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime) and they all feature the same whispered bombshells and meaningful glances that make The Crown such a quietly devastating—and highly addicting—drama.

1. Victoria

Like The Crown, Victoria opens with a young queen ascending the throne after a death in the family. Only in this case, the queen is 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria, who would rule Great Britain and Ireland for an astonishing 63 years. This costume drama hasn’t even covered a third of that reign, but it’s packed plenty of royal scandal, real-world politics, and dramatic gowns into its three seasons. There’s no official word on when fans can expect the next batch of episodes, but writer Daisy Goodwin has promised “an absolute humdinger” of a fourth season.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

2. The Tudors

Henry VIII famously had a problem with commitment. He married six women, more than one of whom he had executed, making his life prime material for a soapy drama. Showtime delivered just that with The Tudors, which aired its final episode in 2010. The show covered each of Henry’s marriages and various international affairs in between, casting now famous British actors in some of their earliest roles. Henry Cavill appears in all four seasons as the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, and Natalie Dormer (aka Margaery Tyrell) dominates the first two seasons as Henry’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Outlander

Take all of the historical intrigue of The Crown, add in some time travel and a lot more sex scenes, and you have Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series, this Starz original centers on Claire Randall, a nurse living in post-WWII Britain who is sent back in time to 1740s Scotland. Her travels don’t end there. Over the course of the show, Claire schmoozes with the French royal court in Paris and gets shipwrecked off the coast of the American colonies. She also falls in love with a Highlander named Jamie, even as she attempts to reunite with her husband Frank in the present day.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. Call The Midwife

Drawing on the diaries of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s, this BBC show follows young women in medical training as they travel in and out of the homes of expectant Brits. By focusing on a working class neighborhood, Call the Midwife paints a picture of the London outside Queen Elizabeth’s palace walls, exploring in particular the stories of mothers in a post-baby boom, pre-contraceptive pill world.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Upstairs Downstairs

The first Upstairs, Downstairs aired in the 1970s—and when it ended, the tony Bellamy family had just been devastated by the stock market crash of 1929. The reboot (note the lack of comma in the title) picks up in 1936, with one of the original series' housekeepers serving a new family. Just like the original, it shows the very different lives of the “upstairs” aristocrats and their “downstairs” domestic staff, while nodding at current events that would’ve affected them both. A special treat for fans of The Crown: Claire Foy playing the frequently misbehaved Lady Persephone Towyn.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

6. Versailles

Ever wondered what it was like to party in the Hall of Mirrors? Versailles takes you inside the grand French palace of the same name, fictionalizing the lives of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and his court in the mid-1600s. Versailles isn’t quite as critically adored as The Crown and its cohorts—many reviewers have written it off as a slighter historical series—but it’s got all the requisite melodrama and the jaw-dropping sets we’ve come to expect from these costume epics.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Poldark

When war breaks out between the Brits and American colonists, Ross Poldark leaves his hometown of Cornwall to fight for King George III. After eight years of battles, the redcoats lose, sending Poldark back across the ocean, where he finds that everything has changed: His father is dead, his estate is in ruins, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin. This is where Poldark, the BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s eponymous novels, picks up. While Ross Poldark is a fictional character, the show incorporates lots of real history, from the aftermath of the Revolutionary War to the subsequent revolution in France. Amazon Prime has the first four seasons, but you’ll have to head over to PBS Masterpiece for the fifth and final season, which just wrapped its run a few weeks ago.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. The Borgias

Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia were extremely influential nobles in 15th and 16th century Italy. In 1492, Rodrigo claimed the papacy, and with it, control of the Roman Catholic Church. That basically meant he and his children ruled the country: as long as Rodrigo was Pope Alexander VI, the Borgias could get anything they wanted. Showtime dramatized their power plays, betrayals, and rumored incest over three seasons of The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons in the lead role as Rodrigo.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Downton Abbey

If you missed out on the Downton Abbey craze in 2010, now is the perfect time to catch up. The entire series—which concerns the uppercrust Crawley family and their many servants—is available on Amazon Prime, and the movie, which premiered earlier this fall, is still playing in select theaters (and is quickly making its way to on demand). Though the story is primarily set in the 1910s and 1920s, Maggie Smith’s withering insults are timeless.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. Coronation Street

If you want to understand the royals, you have to watch their favorite shows—and Coronation Street has long been rumored to be Queen Elizabeth’s preferred soap. (Prince Charles is also a fan; he appeared on the show’s live 2000 special.) Airing on ITV since 1960, Coronation Street follows several working-class families in the fictional town of Weatherfield.

Where to watch it: Hulu

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