David Bowie’s eyes and the hero in the sky…

Published July 16, 2021


If eyes are windows to the soul, fate gifted David Bowie his first stunning disguise.

An androgynous popstar who gave the impression that two souls were staring out at you.

A former mime artist who conjured strange characters to take the stage (in his place).

A shy songwriter whose early twin goals were to become:

1. Instantly recognizable.
2. Completely invisible.

And who succeeded on both counts.

So it’s not a leap to say that Bowie is bound by contradictions.

Or that the reasons will be dark, tragic, and unsettling.

For a body of work that stands today as breath-taking, legendary, inspiring.

Let’s look into those eyes.

David Bowie in "Aladdin Sane" makeup.

1. Ziggy played guitar (David played ukulele)

Bowie was born two years after World War II finally quit demolishing London with bombing raids.

Home was a nice house on a nice street in Brixton, in the south of the city. The old world meeting the new, in every sense.

Although Bowie’s father had risen to the cushy level of promotion’s officer at children’s charity Barnardo’s, David Jones belonged to a family of missing and half-missing people.

Possibly from a different kind of war.

Three aunts on his mother’s side had suffered mental issues. One died in her thirties, after years spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals.

A second was a diagnosed schizophrenic. A third aunt was treated for ‘bad nerves’ by being given a lobotomy. 

Another of the sisters was Peggy, David’s mother, who also, apparently, exhibited signs of ‘borderline schizophrenia’.

Still, labels of schizophrenia and lobotomies were handed out liberally then, projecting often unwarranted fear of hereditary illness into the future.

Which may or may not be the case here.

David’s mother had two children before marrying David’s father. One, a sister, long gone – given up for adoption – the other, Terry Burns, unwanted but always turning up.

And a hero.

At least to David.

At least for the duration of the one shake of the dice life gave him.

A decade older than David and discharged from the RAF, where he had been a keen boxer, Terry knew he wasn’t wanted. And he could easily have resented his ‘legitimate’ and molly-coddled brother.

Especially when David’s doting dad took him to meet and greet stars backstage at Barnardo’s benefit gigs. 

Showbiz, self-promotion, glitter and glam, ambition over benevolence, seduction over sense.

Watching as he won praise at his all-boys’ tech school as a performer and dancer, with teachers gushing about his “vividly artistic interpretations” and “astonishing” poise.

Listening as David played tea-chest bass, saxophone, and ukulele to skiffle and, later, the rock ‘n roll that changed his world; and then to his group, the ‘Konrads’.

Instead, the older half-brother became a true brother by taking the sensitive boy under his wing, opening up an even stranger world of American culture, jazz music, and beat poetry.

Along with tales of adventures, fights, and exotic, magical experiences in distant, foreign lands.

Expanding Rock ‘n Roll into potent new areas of art, entertainment, and mystery. All a magical mashup in the mind of young David Jones.

Terry came from worlds others didn’t know. Terry was a hero.

Unless he didn’t show up for a while, replaced instead by whispers about “seizures” that saw him gone for short periods.

Missed only by David.

Before returning, every bit as hip as before, smiling and larger than life.

So together they let the good times…

Leaving a Cream concert after becoming dizzy, Terry changed.

Seeing the street splitting open and spewing fire, he dropped to his knees.

Screamed at David that he was about to be lifted up into the sky.

David watched as Terry grasped at fiery cracks that weren’t there.

Desperately trying to stay; to avoid falling away forever.

Schizophrenia claiming his brother.

With no way to force it back. Or to help.

To stop the sky stealing a hero and leaving a shell.

Artistic stage image of a costumed dummy, with images of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust projected behind it.
Bowie as a blank canvas projecting otherworldly images.

2. Snubbing the alien

In 1962, regular life had reared its head with a fight over a girl and a punch in the face.

The scrap resulted in four months of hospital treatment for David; and a permanently diluted pupil, giving a strong – and wrong – impression of differently colored eyes.

An alien look to some.

Two people staring out from one pretty face.

Either way, it added to that unearthly aura he later exuded.

Even more unearthly was the news David announced as he ended school, still friends with the person who’d punched him in the eye years before.

He planned to be a popstar.

After a stint in advertising, David landed a management contract leading to his first single: ‘Liza Jane’, credited to ‘Davie Jones with the King Bees’.

After it flopped, David moved quickly through several groups, more flops, and began making threats to throw it all away and become a mime artist.

That’ll learn ya!

But not only was the world snubbing the strange-looking and sensitive artist, it was increasingly confusing him with a Monkee – Davy Jones.

An insult too great for even a mime to take.

So he changed his name to David Bowie.

David Robert Jones wouldn’t have fit on that anyway.

3. Gnome alone – Bowie lost in gnome man’s land

By 1967, Bowie’s broad artistic influences, and possibly his need to stay hidden in an image, saw him training in mime under Marcel Marceau protege, Lindsay Kemp.

And releasing his little gnome, sorry, little known, single: ‘The Laughing Gnome’.

Considered a matter of ignomey, sorry ignominy, to some, other critics applauded the original way it combined a song for children with a long list of ‘gnome’ puns and upbeat fun.

Either way, it flopped – and most pop fans were gnome the wiser, sorry, none the wiser.

Bowie’s broad range came into play – no pun intended – with his debut album ‘David Bowie’. Its broad mix of folk, rock, and vaudeville – and many other elements – left most baffled.

“I didn’t know if I was Elvis Presley or Max Miller.” — David Bowie

Bowie knew where he wanted to get, he just didn’t know who he was; and it was causing problems. Some critics noted the problem; one biographer later calling the album:

“The vinyl equivalent of the madwoman in the attic.”

And its release coincided with the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.

David… who?

At this point, only Bowie himself knew enough to ask the question.

By 1969, he was supporting his already successful friend, Marc Bolan, by performing mime at Tyrannosaurus Rex concerts.

David… boo!

And wasn’t appreciated. 

Then he found himself being lifted into the sky.

The movie ‘A Space Odyssey‘ inspired a character he could hide inside; and a song his new record company could release right on time for the moon landing.

A Space Oddity‘ saw David Bowie rise up the charts, staring at the stars, for the first time.

Then reenter the atmosphere – hard.

Although peaking at a lowly #124 in the US, it hit #5 in the UK – despite the BBC’s refusal to play it until after the Apollo crew had returned safely to earth.

It was a hit, a future hit, and a classic – actually inspired by his recently lost love, Hermione Farthingale, with whom he’d seen the movie – but dismissed by many as a moon landing novelty.

Nothing more than another ‘laughing gnome’ from a writer of novelties.

Bowie was chained to the earth again.

A cheeky gold gnome ornament gives 'the finger'.
No gold record for Mr Gnome, no pot of gold for us. Oh, well.

4. Bowie in satin dress, Janine and John Wayne

Bowie’s first album was such a flop that his second was essentially a restart, eponymously titled, as the first had been (although released as ‘Space Oddity’ in the US).

But something was changing.

Musically, the album tipped its hat to the hip sounds of the day, with elements of folk-rock, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, and even country in places.

Box checking over inspiration in some cases.

Lyrically, Bowie was coming into his own.

With songs about the recent death of his father and a public ‘Letter to Hermione’, Bowie’s dark side was rising in a way that would soon be more glamorously disguised, then more powerfully expressed.

Here, the theme of fractured identity, or split personality, was stark.

“Janine, you’d like to know me well,
But I’ve got things inside my head,
That even I can’t face.

“Janine, you’d like to crash my walls,
But if you take an axe to me,
You’d kill another man,
Not me at all.”

– Janine; David Bowie

Although the album included ‘Space Oddity’, it was released to mixed reviews and didn’t sell.

His next album: ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ demonstrated its schizoid tendencies by having a US cover with a cartoon drawing of a John Wayne-based character, toting a gun, standing in front of a Victorian-era asylum.

Much like the place Terry now spent most of his time.

The UK version presented a photo of Bowie with shoulder-length bleached blonde hair, reclining on a chaise lounge, wearing a flowing satin dress and knee-high black boots. 

He appears to be scratching his head. (As many did.)

Musically, Bowie headed straight into previously unchartered hard rock territory. According to music critic Marc Spitz, it was a heavy blues album “worthy of Cream”.

Perhaps a strange place for Bowie to revisit. Or perhaps not.

Journalist Peter Doggett highlighted themes of “madness, alienation, violence, confusion of identity, power, darkness and sexual possession.”

“Day after day,
They send my friends away,
To mansions cold and grey,
To the far side of town.”

– All the Madmen; David Bowie

Despite wowing growing numbers of critics, it didn’t sell. Bowie was in a dark place; but he was coming from a dark place. And if anybody asked, everything was “hunky dory.”

Which was about to become the official story.

Hand holding several a choice of subway cards containing images of David Bowie.
Suffering and not selling. But Bowie was going through changes.

5. Bowie finds himself, hides himself, and returns to the sky

Hunky Dory was a commercial flop, huge critical hit, and glorious pop masterpiece.

The mad mime had found his voice and was going through changes fast.

“He has the genius to be to the ‘70s what Lennon, McCartney, Jagger and Dylan were to the ‘60s.” – Rock magazine.

Bowie had become so confident and relaxed at this point that he even wrote the quirky and beautiful song ‘Kooks’ for his newborn son Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, child of David and Angela Bowie.

However, some of the songs were barely disguised cries into the abyss:

“I look out my window, what do I see?
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me,
All the nightmares came today […]
All the strangers came today.”

– Oh! You Pretty Things; David Bowie

At the time of recording the album’s final track, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, Bowie asked producer Ken Scott not to listen to the words, because “they don’t mean anything.”

Author Nicholas Pegg describes the track as “probably the most cryptic, mysterious, unfathomable and downright frightening Bowie recording in existence.”

“Now my brother lays upon the rocks,
He could be dead, He could be not,
He could be you.
He’s Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature,
Shooting up Pie-in-the-Sky. […]

“Leave my shoes,
And door unlocked,
I might just slip away,
Just for the day…”

– The Bewlay Brothers; David Bowie

The songs were about Terry. And with them, Bowie returned to the sky.

Rows of vinyl record covers, with Bowie's 'Changes One' album in the center.
Bowie the deep-thinking genius prepares to rock the world.

6. Ziggy came from worlds others didn’t know…

Ziggy was a hero.

Ziggy Stardust came from the sky, a hero with a message of hope given to the kids through the TV and radio.

Themes of impending doom, of having only a short time before our lives as we know them are suddenly gone, are strong.

Bowie’s previously stark take on madness, fractured personality and fear of insanity, appears to be more or less hidden behind dramatic images, concepts, broader themes of destruction, and play-on-word obscurity.

And because of this, they couldn’t be clearer.

“I always got the sense that he couldn’t quite work out the Terry element of his life. I’ve often wondered if the whole alien thing didn’t come from that.”
– Hanif Kureishi

Although inspired by a slew of people and influences, most notable is rocker Vince Taylor, who, at the time Bowie met him, was having a breakdown and saw himself as a god or an alien.

It isn’t hard to understand the impact on Bowie.

The album itself ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ was his commercial breakthrough.

‘Circus’ magazine called it “a stunning work of genius” and others had similar feelings.

So did the public.

Conversion to Bowie, anything he did, and whatever planet he came from, happened for millions in the UK when he appeared on hit show Top of the Pops on July 5, 1972.

“The first time I saw him, he was singing ‘Starman’ on television. It was like a creature falling from the sky.” – Bono

Ziggy was a star.

'David Bowie is Here' poster in a New York subway; showing character 'Ziggy Stardust'.
Ziggy Stardust: there, not there, and everywhere.

7. A superstar shell in hell… and on drugs

Living in the pressure cooker of fame, where the world wants to know everything about you, isn’t good if you want to live in the sky.

Hiding from yourself and from reality.

And your dark-side-of-the-moon muse. Your brother.

So… drugs then, anyone?

Bowie’s fears for his sanity were almost certainly real; his need to create a hero from the sky, filled with wisdom and larger than life, came from deep in his conscious, or subconscious, mind.

Ironically, self-medicating his fears away meant drugs; the one evil capable of driving him spiraling into a psychotic abyss.

Except LSD – which horrified him for obvious reasons.

But he increasingly needed escape – or oblivion – when the masks came off.

When David was all that was left.

“One puts oneself through such psychological damage trying to avoid the threat of insanity, you start to approach the very thing that you’re scared of.” – David Bowie

Terry had married a fellow patient at Cane Hill psychiatric hospital. They moved in together, but it didn’t work out, causing Terry’s condition to deteriorate.

At one point, David and Angie brought Terry to live with them, but the obligations of stardom, combined with Terry’s reluctance to take his much-needed medication and resulting chaos, soon ended that.

Bowie’s followup to Ziggy, ‘Aladdin Sane’ was his most commercially successful album to date.

Inspiring Ron Ross of ‘Phonograph Record’ to call Bowie, “one of the most consistent and fast moving artists since the Beatles,” it helped match sales with critical acclaim.

Strongly – and openly – influenced by The Rolling Stones, the album was, on the surface, inspired by the ‘schizophrenic’ split between Bowie’s love of success and hatred of touring – to the point that each track was given the location of its composition or inspiration.

The cover features Bowie’s face, eyes closed, his face split down the middle by a bolt of lightning.

Beneath the surface, the title and image are easy to discern:


Bowie’s career now glittered just as he did; however, like Dylan or Lennon, he made no compromises, shedding the Ziggy character abruptly and moving in new directions.

His talent and risk-taking providing him with a legendary career.

When Terry later became a permanent resident at Cane Hill Psychiatric Hospital, Bowie became too upset, or just plain scared, to visit regularly, which he openly admitted more than once.

“Its the terror of knowing
What the world is about,
Watching some good friends scream
‘Let me out!’”

– Under Pressure; Queen and David Bowie

As David’s career sailed through the stratosphere, Terry’s life fell apart.

On January 16, 1985, Terry managed to slip out of the hospital unnoticed, wander through snow to a railway station, lay on the tracks in front of a London-bound train, and end his life.

“Leave my shoes,
And door unlocked,
I might just slip away,
Just for the day […]

“Now my brother lays upon the rocks,
He could be dead, He could be not –
He could be You.

Believing his presence would turn the family funeral into a media circus, Bowie didn’t attend; instead sending a wreath with words paraphrased from the movie ‘Blade Runner’:

“You’ve seen more things than we could imagine; but all these moments will be lost, like tears washed away by the rain. God bless you – David.”

Bowie album covers, with 'Aladdin Sane' at the center.
Aladdin Sane – the split Bowie never got over.

8. Aliens, heroes and brothers

Bowie’s preoccupation with souls beyond the sky continued throughout his career, to the end of his life. His personas also came and went quickly (feel free to add any missed):

Ziggy Stardust
Aladdin Sane
Halloween Jack
The Thin White Duke
The Blind Prophet

Throwing superstardom aside at the peak of his huge commercial success in concerts and recordings during the 1980s, Bowie didn’t want commercial success that came with critical failure.

So he did whatever he wanted instead.

Hoping to find himself once more.

Which he did.

In 1993, he released the song ‘Jump They Say’, dealing openly with his brother’s suicide and the pressures leading to it. Surprisingly to some, it became a Top 10 hit in the UK.

“I say he should watch his ass…
My friend, don’t listen to the crowd,
They say ‘jump!’”

– Jump They Say; David Bowie

The same year, he spoke openly about Terry:

“I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups.” – David Bowie

But David’s creative way of thinking didn’t change.

A character from one of Bowie’s last works, the musical ‘Lazarus’, is an alcoholic alien, who wants only to return to his home planet.

First performed shortly before his death, Bowie wrote the words and music, leaving it difficult to know if he’s thinking about himself or his brother.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven,
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen,
Everybody knows me now.”

– Lazarus; David Bowie

Bowie’s last album ‘Blackstar’ sidelines rock ‘n roll for jazz influences direct from Terry; along with art rock, experimental rock, and even hip hop.

Is it about death? A dying star? One thing is clear — it’s a work of art.

Released for his 69th birthday, Bowie left for the sky two days later.

This time for good. No more painful returns.

Not for David Bowie or Terry Burns.

A shy artist and a tortured shell, replaced by figures both heroic and mythical.

Job done, Starman.

Now shine on… forever and ever.

A shrine commemorating David Bowie's passing. Photo of Bowie at center with candles and flowers.
Hustler, Actor, Artist, Hero – David Bowie: January 8, 1947 – January 10, 2016.

Sources: The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg – published by Titan Books, 2016; The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett  – published by Harper Collins, 2012; David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones – published by Crown Archetype, 2017; Ground Control to Mental Health Justice by Dolores Sanchez – published by Mental Health Justice, 2016; Legends Series – Series 1, Episode 7 – produced by VH1, 1998; David Bowie’s early years revealed by Miranda Aldersley and Susie Coen – published by The Daily Mail, 2019.