Shock as music icon David Bowie dies at 69

Shaun Tandon, with Naomi O'Leary and Ben Perry in London
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British singer David Bowie created an astonishing array of stage personas, from the sexually ambiguous Ziggy Stardust to the so-called Thin White Duke

British singer David Bowie created an astonishing array of stage personas, from the sexually ambiguous Ziggy Stardust to the so-called Thin White Duke (AFP Photo/Ralph Gatti)

New York (AFP) - Legions of fans and musicians voiced shock Monday as David Bowie died at 69 following a secret battle with cancer, in a surprise final chapter for one of the most influential artists of his time.

Bowie -- whose four-decade career spanned music, theater and fashion and pioneered glam rock -- died Sunday, two days after his birthday on which he released his 25th and last studio album, "Blackstar."

Even close friends did not know that Bowie was ill but a statement on social media said he died peacefully next to family "after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer."

Brian Eno, who worked with Bowie on his legendary Berlin Trilogy of albums, said that Bowie sent him an email a week ago that was typical for its wordplay and invented names.

"It ended with this sentence: 'Thank you for our good times, Brian. They will never rot.' And it was signed 'Dawn,'" Eno said in a statement to the BBC.

"I realize now he was saying goodbye."

Theater director Ivo van Hove, whose New York production of "Lazarus" features Bowie's music, said the rocker told him in confidence more than a year ago that he was suffering liver cancer.

After Bowie attended the play's premiere in November, "I knew when he got into the car that it might be the last time," van Hove told Dutch public radio NPO.

Fans -- including some in face paint inspired by his 1973 "Aladdin Sane" album cover -- left flowers beneath a mural of Bowie at his birthplace in Brixton, south London, while others gathered in tears outside his final home in New York's SoHo district.

Tributes even reached outer space as astronauts honored the artist fascinated with the extraterrestrial.

"And the stars look very different today," NASA wrote on Twitter, quoting Bowie's hit "Space Oddity."

- Wide tributes -

His death brings the curtain down on an extraordinary career that generated some 140 million record sales, spanned styles from glam rock to jazz, and took in stage personas from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke.

Britain's Official Charts Company said "Blackstar" was on course to open at number one, while streams of Bowie's work on Spotify were up more than 25 times the usual level.

Mick Jagger, who most famously collaborated with Bowie on the 1985 hit "Dancing in the Street," said the fellow British rock icon "was always an inspiration to me and a true original.

"He was wonderfully shameless in his work," Jagger wrote on Twitter.

Lenny Kravitz said of Bowie: "What he gave the world with his art is immeasurable."

"This man changed my life. I'd have to write a book to describe what he meant to me," Kravitz wrote on Instagram.

Peter Murphy of the gothic rockers Bauhaus wrote on Facebook that Bowie died "with such discretion that was never calculated but more quintessentially natural in this English gentleman."

- Master of re-invention -

Born David Jones, Bowie took his stage name in 1966 to avoid being mixed up with Davy Jones, lead singer with Beatles rivals The Monkees.

After "Space Oddity" in 1969, Bowie hit the big time in the 1970s with a string of shape-shifting albums such as "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," dazzling teenagers with a mix of glamour and escapism.

His ever-changing fashion sense was as groundbreaking as his music.

Among his most memorable outfits were a pair of huge, billowing trousers in black vinyl and white stripes from his "Aladdin Sane" period in 1973, inspired by Japanese kabuki theater.

The previous year, he appeared on primetime British chart show "Top of the Pops" with a look inspired by the ultra-violent dystopian movie "A Clockwork Orange."

Married twice, Bowie also became a hero to many in the LGBT community for rejecting one-size-fits-all labels such as gay and straight.

In the late 1970s, he switched musical gears once more, moving to Berlin, where he hung out with former Stooges frontman Iggy Pop and worked with Eno on the Berlin Trilogy -- "Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger."

Germany's government thanked Bowie for what it said was his role in helping topple the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller said that the song "Heroes" was "a hymn to our divided city and its longing for freedom."

- Flair for acting -

Bowie again reinvented his sound in the 1980s, winning over a new generation with the "Let's Dance" album.

He also pursued acting, an early love. Always fascinated with outer space, Bowie played a fallen alien who indulges in Earth's pleasures in the 1976 film "The Man Who Fell To Earth."

Bowie played a goblin king in Jim Henson's fantasy film "Labyrinth" (1986), a prisoner of war in Japan in "Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence" (1983) and inventor Nikola Tesla in "The Prestige" (2006).

After an absence of a decade, Bowie surprised the world on his 66th birthday in 2013 with the surprise single "Where Are We Now?" followed by the album "The Next Day."

- 'His parting gift' -

An innovator to the end, Bowie on Friday released his final album "Blackstar," whose lyrics take on new poignancy with news of his death.

The video for one song, "Lazarus," shows Bowie singing from a hospital bed, blindfolded, with buttons for his eyes.

Long-time collaborator Tony Visconti wrote on Facebook that he had known for a year what was coming.

"His death was no different from his life -- a work of art," Visconti wrote. "He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."

Bowie leaves behind second wife Iman, a Somali-born supermodel whom he married in 1992 and with whom he had a daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones.

He also had a son, film director Duncan Jones, with first wife Angie Bowie.

His ex-wife, though estranged, broke down in tears over his death.

"The stardust has gone," she said.