The Secret Jewish History of David Bowie

Shapeshifting Artist Was Influenced by Dylan and Kabbalah

Loving the Alien: David Bowie is one of few major international rock stars — especially English ones, who have performed in Israel.
Getty Images
Loving the Alien: David Bowie is one of few major international rock stars — especially English ones, who have performed in Israel.

By Seth Rogovoy

Published April 16, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

False information floating around the Internet claims that Bowie’s mother, the very Irish Peggy Burns, was part Jewish, undoubtedly owing to the fact that Bowie’s older half-brother, Terry Burns, was the spawn of an illegitimate relationship between his mother and Jack Isaac Rosenberg, the son of a Jewish furrier. When Peggy Burns married Bowie’s father, Haywood Stenton Jones, it was under the condition that he would raise the then-10-year-old Terry (and their son, David, who was 8 months old on their wedding day) — whose biological father had abandoned him and his mother before he was born — as his own.

As much as Bowie is a singular visionary — as a visual artist, actor, celebrity, cultural theorist and musician (not necessarily in that order) — he has fed on give-and-take with other artists. Two of his greatest early influences were Jewish rockers Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. The chameleon-like Bowie went through an early, hippie/flower-power period, playing acoustic guitar and modeling himself, in some ways, after Dylan, to whom he paid tribute in “Song for Bob Dylan” on his 1971 album, “Hunky Dory.”

Although Bowie went on to morph into a glam-rocker (after the model of his longtime friend and nemesis, Marc Bolan — ne Feld — of T. Rex), among several other guises, he never lost his Dylan connection. The new album has no fewer than three Dylan references, including a mention of “love and theft,” the title of Dylan’s 2001 album; the lyric “Van Ronk says to Bobby, she’s the next real thing,” a reference to Dylan’s mentor, the folk-blues legend Dave Van Ronk, and a song that borrows the basic chord structure of Dylan’s song “Lay Lady Lay.”

As for Reed, Bowie’s early music pays heed in large part to his work with the Velvet Underground; when Bowie first came to the United States, he sought out Reed and his mentor, Andy Warhol; he sang about the latter in the tune “Andy Warhol”; he played Warhol in the 1996 film “Basquiat,” and he produced Reed’s solo album, “Transformer.” In the late 1980s, Bowie reinvented himself as a member of the band Tin Machine, joining forces with guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the rhythm section of Tony and Hunt Sales, sons of Jewish comedian Soupy Sales. Tin Machine’s biggest hit, “Under the God,” was an anti-skinhead protest song. The group even gave its 1992 live album the self-consciously Jewish title, “Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby” — presumably a humorous if somewhat pointed nod to U2’s use of German on its 1991 album, “Achtung Baby.”

At age 66, Bowie seems creatively reinvigorated. The new album looks back with wistfulness at his “Berlin period”: He sought refuge there from Los Angeles and cocaine in the late 1970s, during which time he reached his creative peak on a trio of albums. He also tackles such topics as mortality, celebrity and, of course, outer space, a perennial concern since he first gained international recognition with “Space Oddity.”

But it’s inner space that has always primarily moved Bowie, and as much as “The Next Day” is a great listen, what we’re really looking forward to is Bowie’s day after the next.

A frequent Forward contributor, Seth Rogovoy has mined the hidden Jewish stories behind James Bond, Alfred Hitchcock and “The Hobbit” in these pages.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.