For the past week, I’ve been trying to gain some perspective on David Bowie’s death.
Which really means I’ve been trying to gain some perspective on his life. I’ve been reading essays and remembrances and think pieces almost non-stop, and I certainly won’t be able to match the heartfelt and witty words that have been written about the man since he left us last Sunday. As I said last week, Bowie has been a constant musical presence in my life, but if I wasn’t aware before, it’s now crystal clear how much he has meant to so many, not just as a musician but as an advocate for the unorthodox, the beautifully weird.
I’ve also been doing something Bowie never did: looking back. I’ve been revisiting his catalog in order, and rediscovering some gems I had forgotten about. The first of them was “An Occasional Dream,” an absolutely lovely song buried on side two of his 1969 self-titled record (often called Space Oddity). But there were countless others. I even rekindled my love for Tin Machine, Bowie’s raucous rock band with Reeves Gabrels, and reminded myself just how awesome Earthling is.
And of course, I’ve been thinking about how widespread Bowie’s influence has been on the music I love. I can see it everywhere, from the obvious (Beck, Gaga, Arcade Fire) to the more obscure (Eric Clayton of Saviour Machine, Jimmy Brown of Deliverance). Bowie even guested on an album by people I know – the long-overlooked Portland, Maine rock band Rustic Overtones. Any artist from the last 30 years who seems to jump styles and identities album to album owes a debt to Bowie. He was the one who pioneered the idea that one could make one’s life a work of art, and one’s musical catalog just a part of that work.
But mostly, I’ve been listening to Blackstar.
Bowie’s 25th and final album was released on his 69th birthday, just two days before he died, and at first, I’m sure most people thought that a coincidence. But according to the people who helped him make the record, including longtime producer and friend Tony Visconti, Bowie had planned Blackstar (and its two videos) as a last grand statement, and timed it with his impending death. The album was meant as a farewell gift, his death as much a part of his art as his life had been.
That revelation, to me, makes Blackstar far more than just a last record from a legend. I can’t fathom the depth of commitment it takes to create a work of art around and about one’s own death, never mind make that death the centerpiece. The album and the haunting video for “Lazarus” play completely differently now than they did just nine days ago, and that was Bowie’s intention. It’s a stunning declaration of the man’s will – he lived and died on his own terms, and made the most beautiful art he could up until the very last day he was able to.
This means that what was, just nine days ago, a strange and wonderful collection of songs is now one of the most painful and powerful records I own. Blackstar was captivating even before its author passed on, but it has taken on new dimensions now that I know that it was consciously the last music of Bowie’s life. I will not be able to adequately explain what listening to Blackstar does to me now. I can’t even imagine what it does to those who invested more of their lives into Bowie’s music than I have.
The reason, I think, is that this is not an album made by someone who is accepting of his own death. It is a record full of turmoil and darkness, roiling with struggle and pain. It is perhaps the darkest of Bowie’s records – he teamed with a group of well-known jazz-influenced musicians, including saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Tim LeFebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, and the resulting sound is like tumbling underwater into the black. There’s a sense of motion to these tracks, and a sense of fighting to stay where you are.
No song exemplifies that more than the 10-minute title track that opens Blackstar. Shrouded in occult imagery, and centered on the symbol of a candle burning in the darkness, “Blackstar” slithers forward on its belly, its pitter-patter drum beat writhing against the long, drawn-out soundscapes beneath it, Bowie doing a compelling Scott Walker impression. The middle section sounds more like floating in space, which is fitting for a song whose video depicts Major Tom drifting off to his own death. Over that middle section, Bowie declares himself a blackstar, “not a film star, not a pop star,” the first of many lines that seem to predict his own demise.
It is track three, the spacey “Lazarus,” that has drawn the most attention, at least partially because of that video, in which an aging Bowie moves from his sickbed into a cabinet that resembles a coffin. “Lazarus” is absolutely about his death and how he faced it. Its first lines: “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,” are chilling in retrospect. Bowie kept his 18-month battle with cancer, which left him with invisible scars, a secret from the public. Blackstar is his drama that can’t be stolen, but he knew the secret would be out after his death. At song’s end he dreams of being “free, just like that bluebird.”
The two most raucous tracks on Blackstar are ones we’ve heard before – “Sue (In a Season of Crime)” and “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” from the 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed. Here they are absolutely awesome, big and chaotic, anchored only by Bowie’s tortured voice. Both songs reference John Ford’s play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, in which many men bring themselves to ruin while blaming the woman of their affections. Bowie could very well be talking about his own fame here, about chasing any number of things until they bring him low. “’Tis a Pity” also references, in Bowie’s words, the “shocking rawness of the First World War.” The song features McCaslin’s most unhinged sax work, underpinning lyrics both crude and mysterious.
Nothing here is more inscrutable than “Girl Loves Me,” a song that is largely sung in Nadsat, the slang language from A Clockwork Orange: “Cheena so sound, so titi up this malcheck, say, party up moodge, nanti vellocet round on Tuesday…” Translated, it describes a dark and debauched future, full of drugs, illicit sex and blackouts. (“Where the fuck did Monday go” is a repeated refrain.) Bowie whips out a Peter Gabriel-esque yodel-howl to punctuate these lines, and the string section only adds to the hazy grime. While Bowie has rarely cared what the reaction to his work will be, “Girl Loves Me” is further proof that on this album, he spared not a single thought for those who wouldn’t get it.
And then he ends his final record with two of his most beautiful ballads, upending that impression. “Dollar Days” is heartrending, Bowie dismissing thoughts of an afterlife: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see…” He spares a thought in the middle for the fans he has been keeping in the dark, telling them, “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you.” But the song is, now, very clearly about the force of will it took to create Blackstar and stay alive just long enough to see it released. “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain, and fool them all again and again,” he sings, telling us, his fans, how much he wants to keep going, keep on with the show. And he tries: “It’s all gone wrong, but on and on…”
“I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the last song on Bowie’s last record, and though its tone is very different – Bowie’s is an almost danceable major-key ditty featuring the harmonica part from his 1977 song “A New Career in a New Town” – it reminds me of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On.” It’s about keeping his cards close, even to the last, about continuing to make his life his art even as that life slips away. It also calls for us to look beyond the characters, the makeup, the artifice and see that Bowie has been truly putting his heart on his sleeve the entire time: “Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes, that’s all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent…”
Like Freddie Mercury, Bowie took on his illness privately, and faced death on his own terms, refusing to give everything away. His gift to us has always been his art, his life a show he’d been performing for 50 years, right up until his last breath. Blackstar is the final piece of that gift, and it’s difficult and dark and painful and extraordinary. I have always felt like we never knew David Bowie, like his theatrical nature and his tendency to slip characters and identities like robes kept us at arm’s length. But perhaps we did. Perhaps, in not giving everything away, he showed us more about himself than we thought.
Blackstar hurts, in ways I will not be able to explain. But like all important and painful experiences, it is also crushingly beautiful, a testament to an artist and a man like no other. I’m not sure what else to say. I’m not sure what else needs to be said. So I’m going to go back to what I’ve been doing for a week now – listening to David Bowie.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.