Look Up Here, I’m In Heaven
David Bowie's Phenomenal Farewell

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.

16 Reasons to Love 2016
Why This Will Be the Best Year Ever

Oh, hi! There you are. I’ve missed you.

Welcome to year sixteen of this silly music column. I’m not sure I’m ready to be on the downward slope toward two decades of this thing, but here we are. I was 26 when I started scribbling my musical thoughts down for the internet to read, and now I’m 41. I own a home, I have a good job, and I have a nice life, despite the fact that I still get depressed for no reason. But I’m working on that too. Life is very different than I thought it would be, but I’m in a good place, and I’m glad to be here.

And man, does 2016 look like a good year from where I sit. There are all kinds of life-related reasons I’m looking forward to the next 12 months, but I’ll stick to the entertainment-related ones here. I had some difficulty finding 15 reasons to love 2015 a year ago, but only two of those things didn’t end up panning out, and three of them wound up on my top 10 list. By contrast, I had no trouble coming up with 16 reasons to love 2016, and in fact I thought of more than I needed, and had to leave a couple off this list.

In short, it’s gonna be a good year. Here are 16 reasons why.

1. Megadeth, Dystopia.

Let’s start off with the albums I know are on their way. If you’d asked me back in high school whether Megadeth would still be going when I was over 40, I would have said… well, frankly, I would have said, “Of course they will.” But even my idealistic teenage metalhead self couldn’t have guessed that they would still be this good. Everything I’ve heard from album 15, Dystopia, is that classic blend of melodic and insanely heavy that Dave Mustaine does better than anyone. This one feels like a return to basics after the diverse Super Collider, but that’s OK. The basics are pretty awesome. Dystopia is out this week. (My inner teenage metalhead is also pretty excited about the new Anthrax, For All Kings – it’s their second since reuniting with singer Joey Belladonna, and it’s out Feb. 26.)

2. Shearwater, Jet Plane and Oxbow.

It’s been almost four years since Animal Joy, the last original album from Jonathan Meiburg and his band, and I’m excited to see where they go next. Shearwater has been on a purposeful journey from placid epics to more propulsive material, all of it powered by Meiburg’s unique, haunting voice. Jet Plane and Oxbow, out this week, promises a shift in sound to a more electronic palette, and though that sort of thing usually makes me wary, if any band can pull off that transition and make something extraordinary, it’s Shearwater.

3. Lush box set and new album.

So basically, every shoegaze band that was big when I was in high school and college is now back together and giving us new material. My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, Ride and Slowdive have all re-emerged, and now Lush is on the train. Next week, the tremendous British band will grant us a box set called Chorus that includes all of their albums and EPs, and sometime later this year, they’ll release a new record and tour behind it. I can’t wait.

4. Dream Theater, The Astonishing.

It’s been a while since I’ve breathlessly anticipated a Dream Theater album. But then, they’ve never made one like The Astonishing, a 130-minute sci-fi rock opera with a crazy backstory and a goofy power-of-music theme. The whole thing sounds totally ridiculous, which is exactly where Dream Theater lives. This is really their first major piece of work since Mike Portnoy left, and everything I hear about it makes me believe they all truly committed to it. Because if you’re gonna do a two-hour homage to 2112, you can’t half-ass it. This sounds… well, astonishing. It’s out next week.

5. The return of The X-Files.

Here’s a great way to round off January – six new episodes of the best paranoid sci-fi thriller ever. Helmed by creator Chris Carter and featuring some of the best writers of the original run (Darin Morgan!), this new X-Files mini-series will hopefully kickstart a renaissance. Or, at the very least, put a better capper on the show than the second movie did. Trust no one.

6. Kanye West, Swish.

So Yeezus wasn’t very good, and the songs I’ve heard from Swish have been a mixed bag, and I liked the previous, more humble title – So Help Me God – a lot better. Still, I’m quite looking forward to hearing Kanye’s seventh album. He’s one of the most talented record-makers in rap, and everything he’s done has been a grand departure from its predecessor. He’s spent a long time on this one, and I hope it’ll be worth it. Swish is out Feb. 11.

7. Nada Surf, You Know Who You Are.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Nada Surf’s debut, which featured their one and only hit (“Popular”). Frankly, it’s amazing that they recovered from that song at all, considering how little it sounds like the rest of their output, but it’s equally amazing that they’ve slowly transformed into one of the best pop-rock outfits around. You Know Who You Are, out on March 4, will be the band’s eighth, and if it’s even half as good as their last one, 2012’s The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, it’ll be very good indeed. I’m always happy to see one-hit wonders survive and thrive, and Nada Surf is one of the most deserving examples of that I can think of.

8. A new Marillion album and tour.

There are few phrases that get me more excited than “a new Marillion album,” but one of them is “a new Marillion album and tour.” Marillion is one of my very favorite bands, and that they’ve remained incredibly creative and self-sufficient for as long as they have is completely remarkable. Their new, as-yet-untitled album will be their 18th – yes, 18th – and reports from the studio are encouraging. (Three epics!) The band funded this one through PledgeMusic, remaining their own bosses, and once it’s out this spring, they’ll be launching a world tour. They’ll be in Chicago for the first time in four years in October, and nothing will keep me away.

9. Bryan Scary’s Birds.

Speaking of independent musicians working through PledgeMusic, there’s Bryan Scary. He’s an absolute genius, having penned some of my favorite pop records of the past decade. Last year, he concentrated on his wonderful new band, Evil Arrows, issuing five terrific EPs before diving into Birds, his first new album in four years. I’ve pre-ordered, but I have no idea what to expect, other than brilliance.

10. The Nice Guys.

Seriously, have you seen that trailer?

11. A new Nine Inch Nails album.

Believe me, I’m beyond overjoyed that Trent Reznor has found a second career as an Oscar-winning composer. His film scores are dark and moody wonders, and I’ve often enjoyed them more than the films themselves. But nothing beats a new Nine Inch Nails record, and Reznor has promised one for 2016. This will be the follow-up to 2013’s Hesitation Marks, which updated and expanded the NIN sound nicely. Reznor’s body of work is remarkably consistent – more so than I would have expected 20 years ago – and I’m looking forward to where he goes next.

12. Circle of Dust reissues and new album.

Speaking of ‘90s industrial bands, here’s your chance to hear one of the best and most overlooked of them. Like NIN, Circle of Dust was a one-man project, and that one man now creates full-color electronic wonders under the name Celldweller. Circle of Dust made three albums, and all three of those, plus remix project Metamorphosis and side effort Argyle Park, will be released on Klayton’s own label with hours and hours of bonus material. I’m excited to see this chapter of industrial music’s history get the treatment it deserves. And he’s hinted at a new Circle of Dust record to accompany all the old stuff, which would just be marvelous.

13. James Blake, Radio Silence.

I feel like we’ve known the title of James Blake’s third album for years now. It’s been a long wait, but Blake is always worth it. He has a voice like no one else, and a minimalist sensibility that somehow finds the perfect almost-there backdrops for that voice. Evidently Kanye West is somehow involved with this one, which makes it even more intriguing… and makes waiting for it even more difficult.

14. Radiohead’s ninth album.

It’s been five long years since the relatively underwhelming The King of Limbs, and Radiohead has never taken this much time between albums. The stars are aligning, though, and they’re saying that the band’s ninth effort isn’t far off. I expect another surprise self-released effort, but what the music will sound like I have no idea. Will it be closer to the warm pop of In Rainbows or to the colder, more exacting jigsaw of Limbs? As usual, the band is telling us nothing.

15. U2, Songs of Experience.

Yes, this was on the list last year – it was one of the two predictions that didn’t pan out. (The other involved the Cure.) I’m hopeful, though, that the follow-up to the excellent Songs of Innocence will be with us this year. The fact that I’ve included this two years running should tell you how psyched I am for it. I hope we get to hear it in 2016.

16. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’ll close this list the same way I closed last year’s: with a new Star Wars movie. I enjoyed The Force Awakens at least as much as I expected I would – I have problems with it, but then I have problems with all of them, and this movie kickstarted the franchise in style. That’s what Star Wars is now, for better or worse – a franchise – and Rogue One should make that clear. The first movie set between episodes, this will be the story of the brave band of rebels that stole the plans for the original Death Star and got them to Princess Leia before the start of Episode IV. That’s a great idea for a movie, but even if it doesn’t work out, Episode VIII will be out five months later. We will soon double the number of existing Star Wars movies, and that thought thrills and chills me in equal measure. Like my other obsession, Doctor Who, Star Wars is going to outlive me, but I’m going to enjoy what I get to see.

And we’re off and running. Next week, I will review the first great album of 2016, and I bet you can guess what it is. Thanks to everyone taking this journey with me. Year sixteen! Hey ho, let’s go. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.