Late morning on a bustling pavement in one of Manhattan’s artier districts this week, a rake-thin man ambled along, a serene presence amid his frenetic surroundings.
Wearing a flat cap, wraparound sunglasses, a tatty, grey hooded top and carrying his lunch in a paper bag, he went largely unnoticed by the moneyed shoppers browsing the windows of the art galleries that line the street. It is an anonymity that David Bowie has increasingly come to love.
While it is six years since his last public performance, the once prolific star has apparently not written a song since 2003. Even more surprising, perhaps, his wife, Somali-born model Iman, recently let slip that Bowie has quietly dropped his famous adopted stage name in favour of the one he was born with…plain David Jones.
Increasingly reclusive and consumed by a fear of flying that was only made worse by the 9/11 attacks on New York, the London-born singer now rarely leaves his adopted home city.
His days revolve around the $6 million loft apartment in the trendy SoHo district, with its secure ‘panic room’ where his family can lock themselves should intruders break in.
Bowie spends his time painting, drawing and reading, and other than when he’s walking his 11-year-old daughter, Alexandria, to her nearby school, emerges only infrequently.
He turned down a plea to appear at the Olympics Closing Ceremony this year, despite his song Heroes becoming the Games’ unofficial anthem.
Last month he made a rare public comment via Facebook to deny involvement in a retrospective of his clothes and memorabilia for a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London next spring.
Bowie has offered the museum more than 60 iconic stage outfits, but curators of the much-vaunted show admit they have not even met him.
Increasingly, he will leave his flat only to search for 20th-century art in local galleries, or browse the shelves of the nearby fashionable bookshop McNally Jackson.
Little wonder his closest associates now openly say Bowie has retired for good from a music world that still fetes him as one of its greatest and most individual talents.
When the singer turned 65 in January, fans including Boy George and comedian David Baddiel joined an online forum begging him to make a long-awaited return. So far, the silence from Bowie has been deafening.
The blog he once wrote on his personal website has not been updated since 2006. He was notably absent in March when a plaque was erected in London to honour Ziggy Stardust, his one-time musical alter ego.
It marked 40 years since Bowie had posed outside 23 Heddon Street in Mayfair for the cover of his seminal concept album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.
Bowie turned down an offer to attend the ceremony, and it was left to another of his celebrity fans, Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, to do the unveiling.
Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka told me: ‘Although my heart tells me David will be back, my head tells me he won’t, and I don’t think we will see him tour again. None of the musicians David worked with have heard from him. He feels he’s made his mark and he’s content with that.’
Others in the know agree. Recently, his long-time tour promoter John Giddings admitted he, too, believes Bowie will not make a return.
Instead, Bowie…whose last album, Reality, came out nine years ago…seems to be content to see out his years in self-imposed obscurity.
His exile, say those close to him, is to a large extent the result of his heart attack in Germany during his last tour in 2004. As he was rushed to hospital for emergency angioplasty, the tour was cancelled and another, planned for 2007, scrapped.
Until his brush with death, Bowie, a long-time heavy smoker, insisted on a full English fry-up every weekend.
Now his wife of 20 years, Iman, prepares him a fat-free Sunday brunch of egg-white omelette with shiitake mushrooms and steamed asparagus.
And she told followers on Twitter earlier this year that she has replaced his favourite mashed potatoes with healthy…if less appetizing…pureed cauliflower with non-fat sour cream.
Naturally, he wants to be around to see his daughter, known as Lexi, grow up. Indeed, Iman paints an idyllic picture of their life at home in Manhattan and at their sprawling country estate in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
While she cooks, David jams on keyboards and drums with Lexi, helps his daughter with her homework and insists she reads for at least two hours every evening.
Of course, a therapist might put Bowie’s all-consuming approach to fatherhood down to the mess he made of parenting his only other child, his son Zowie, from his volatile first marriage to Angie Barnett.
Angie was often consumed with jealous rages over his infidelities during their ‘open marriage’. They divorced in 1980, with the singer winning custody of Zowie. Single again, Bowie gradually turned into a skeletal junkie existing on a milk and cocaine diet.
Increasingly paranoid because of his drug addiction, he began moving around the world…from Japan and Australia to Germany in a bid to escape his demons, often with his son in tow. In the early Eighties, he decamped to a house in Switzerland in an ultimately successful attempt to get clean…and had the number one hit Let’s Dance.
But it was only when his hairdresser introduced him to the twice-divorced Iman that he was finally able to settle down.
After their first date in Los Angeles, Bowie had her Paris hotel room filled with her favourite gardenias.
They married in Switzerland in April 1992, and later moved to New York, from where Iman, now 57, runs a successful make-up and lifestyle company that turns over more than $20million a year.
Recently, she said: ‘I am not married to David Bowie…I am married to David Jones. They are two totally different people.’
David Buckley, author of a major Bowie biography, said, ‘Support from fans for a new tour would be huge, but maybe he feels he’s said it all. He missed out on Zowie’s life and wants to spend as much time as possible with Lexi.’
Bowie, it seems, is happy to spend his Golden Years far from the public gaze he once craved.
by Wallace McTavish