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British Musician David Bowie Dies After Battling Cancer


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Should have took a picture, something I could keep.

GREENE: That is David Bowie singing about losing someone close. And that's the feeling many of his fans have this morning. Bowie lost a battle with cancer. He died at the age of 69.


BOWIE: (Singing) Don't stay in a sad place where they don't care how you are.

GREENE: David Bowie chatted with my colleague, Renee Montagne, in 2002 about this song.


BOWIE: The genesis of that was actually my thoughts on how one copes with a friend or somebody near, or a relation, dying. And I suppose it's - for me, my point of reference for me personally was my own father. When he died in the late '60s, there was an overriding feeling in my mind that in fact that he'd just merely gone away and that he'd be - I don't know. I was half expecting that he'd come back again. So I really took - I really took it from there. So it's a lot sadder than it seems, I think.

GREENE: The loss of David Bowie is drawing reaction from around the world this morning - actually from beyond the world. Tim Peake, a British astronaut aboard the International Space Station tweeted that he was saddened about Bowie's death and that the musician was an inspiration to many people. Now, another astronaut, Canadian Chris Hadfield, actually did a performance of Bowie's song "Space Oddity" in outer space a couple years ago. And that video has gotten tens of millions of hits.


CHRIS HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom...


BOWIE: (Singing) Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.


HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom...

GREENE: And let's remember the musician with Simon Warner. He is an author and teaches popular music at the University of Leeds in England. Professor, welcome to the program.

SIMON WARNER: Hello, David.

GREENE: Did you see that video from the International Space Station a couple years ago?

WARNER: Yes, I did. It was extraordinary. And it was - it was witty. It was funny. It was astonishing to have work by that British artist being performed in space. It was wonderful.

GREENE: Witty, astonishing, some words that could probably describe David Bowie, I would imagine.

WARNER: Absolutely. I mean, we have this artist who, for the last 40 years, has surprised us, has changed shape, has changed approach, has changed the kind of artistic life he leads in terms of the genre he plays in. He's just surprised us over and over again.

GREENE: Did you - did you know that he was battling cancer?

WARNER: I did not. I was well aware that he had a fascinating, well-received new album called "Blackstar" out. But he seemed to have kept the secret of his ill health well and truly hidden.


WARNER: Just hold on, please, been a lot of calls like this today.

GREENE: Yeah, no, it's no problem at all. Let me just - you know, you were describing his album. Let me just - that new album, it was actually a collaboration with a jazz quintet. I mean, was that a new thing, and it tells us that he was still evolving as a musician or still trying to change?

WARNER: He was still continuing to take on new challenges. I believe he walked into a bar or a club in New York, probably sometime last year, and just decided to work with musicians who he'd never worked with before. They were jazz musicians, an indication that he wasn't going to let the grass grow under his feet. He was continuing to explore new areas. And he's done this with all of his artistic life.

GREENE: You know, one thing I've read about him is that he was particularly an inspiration to people who feel different or sort of feel that they live on the outside. Can you talk about that a little bit and why he would be an appeal in that way?

WARNER: I think that is absolutely the case. You know, if we think about the world of show business or the arts or popular music, for decades - probably for centuries - these areas have been peopled (ph) by those who had different sexual identities to the mainstream. They had to hide their gayness or their sexual ambiguity. At the start of the 1970s, when David Bowie - and I say Bowie. You say (pronouncing it differently) Bowie.

GREENE: You say Bowie in Britain. That's good to know.

WARNER: That's right. It's an interesting distinction that the name seems to be pronounced in different ways. At the start of the 1970s, Bowie stood up and suggested he may be bisexual or he may be a gay man. We weren't absolutely sure whether he was or not. But he opened up the door, the possibility, the debate about people with different sexual orientations. And I honestly do believe that 40 years on, unless David Bowie had done that, it would be much harder for those operating in those areas of androgyny to talk about their lives. And I think Bowie opened up those possibilities.

GREENE: Before I let you go, favorite song?

WARNER: My favorite song by this great singer is definitely "Life On Mars," from the "Hunky Dory" album.


BOWIE: (Singing) Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy. Oh, man, wonder if he'll ever know he's in the best-selling show. Is there life on Mars?

GREENE: We've been speaking with Simon Warner. He is an author and teaches popular music at the University of Leeds in England. Thanks so much for talking to us about David Bowie. We appreciate it.

WARNER: OK, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.