Of all the bad ways to start 2016 the death of David Bowie, just a few days after the release of the fabulous “Blackstar” album, was simply shattering. Comparable in its wider public impact only to the shock of John Lennon’s 1980 assassination, some three weeks after his passing half of the UK top 10 album chart still comprised Bowie records with “Blackstar” at the summit. At the time of writing there remain notable shrines in key London locations such as Heddon Street, site of the Ziggy cover, and the Brixton “Aladdin Sane” mural coupled with a palpable sense of disbelief. As ever there were the naysayers, sneering at the collective grief, just as there were the clueless charlatans who discovered a lifelong devotion to Bowie’s music somewhere between the first confirmatory tweet from Duncan Jones and the opening celebrity eulogies.
Still better a late conversion, however questionable, than troll hostility and if nothing else the need to fake it is confirmation of the cultural significance of the man. For those of us who grew up in the 70s and early 80s Bowie was the centre of all the many, usually antagonistic, youth tribes. While these tribes could find little to agree on most could point to something that he had done that they grudgingly approved of – rockers claimed him on the basis of say “Width of a Circle”, “Rebel Rebel” or “Moonage Daydream”, the soul boys “Young Americans” or “Golden Years” or the art school end of punk anything from “Low”, “Heroes” or “Scary Monsters”. Even jazz heads could look to Mike Garson’s extraordinary solo on “Aladdin Sane”or the cover version of “Wild is the Wind”- if Bowie wasn’t quite all things to all men, then he was certainly at the point on the venn diagram where the cults intersected and, remarkably, it was a position he held for a decade.
Initial expectations when copies of Blackstar dropped onto doormats on Friday 8 January 2016, were of a further stylistic shift – this time in a jazz direction. The speculation was fuelled by the collaboration with the Maria Schneider Orchestra on “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)”and “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” for the autumn 2014 10” single released in parallel to the “Nothing Has Changed” compilation. Both of these songs are reprised in new versions here with a new band of jazz heavyweights, that includes Donny McCaslin, Mark Giuliana and ECM artist Ben Monder. What emerged was somewhat different – the musicians’ contribution was not to graft a patina of jazz onto Bowie’s music, rather to interpret it in unexpected ways. So while the 2014 version of “Sue” was great, the energy cascading in multiple directions from Schneider’s arrangement, the one on “Blackstar” is more immediate, more focussed, retaining the core of the song but channelling the energy into a thumping rhythm. Its not that the new version is necessarily better, just different, and crucially less jazz. In the case of “Tis a Pity…” the improvements are mainly the much clearer mix that allows the elements of a punchy left-field rocker to emerge.
But on that first weekend the early impressions of the album were merely positive, of good songs creatively performed by great musicians. While there was some disquiet at the odd lyrical fragment, it’s not as if death was a new theme for Bowie – from the Brel cover “My Death” to “Heathen” his work was riddled with it. It was too soon for detailed scrutiny of the lyrics, more a time to absorb the feel of the music, but instinctively it felt that the more doomy lyrics would probably turn out to be a metaphor for the death of a persona or way of working. Maybe Bowie was telling us that the new band would signify some kind of creative rebirth into a new identity – just as he had on so many occasions before? But then he died.
Yet amongst the shock it was impossible not to marvel at how Bowie somehow turned even his last days into great art. To be treated for cancer is one of the most debilitating, exhausting and stressful experiences anyone can go through – to find the energy to make an album while enduring something that would leave most of us struggling to tie our shoelaces is remarkable, to make one final masterpiece is extraordinary. With the context of his untimely death, the tone of “Blackstar” made sense, yet the specifics still inspired debate. The title itself could be some, or all of, the name of a breast cancer lesion, a hidden planet that will collide with the Earth, a term in physics for the transitional state between a collapsed star and a singularity (a state of infinite value), or even an obscure old Elvis song. All of these possibilities have some potential, a degree of resonance that adds to the richness of the imagery even, but could just as easily be mis-direction or coincidence like the ‘Villa of Ormen’ tumblr account that emerged shortly before the video for “Lazarus” in December. Seems like Bowie never lost that ability to be the centre of that “venn diagram” – even in death it seems we find in his public persona a non-judgmental confirmation of whatever we seek.
Yet the clues were all there in the “Lazarus” video had we known. For example quite aside from the grim field hospital ambience (reminiscent perhaps of the “Lodger” sleeve), the section where Bowie emerges from a wardrobe wearing the jumpsuit from the ‘Station to Station’ era, somehow more disturbing than camp, referencing a well-known picture of him in the same outfit, sketching the pattern of the Kabbalistic ‘Tree of Life’. Bowie is reputed to have considered the tree a talismanic protection, which he linked to the stations of the cross. According to Nicholas Pegg’s invaluable reference book, Bowie was interested in the potential for the transmutation between divine and mortal states of being at the opposite ends of the tree from the divine sphere of Kether to the physical kingdom of Malkuth. Pegg suggests that Bowie was influenced by the book “The Kabbalah Unveiled” by S.L. MacGregor Mathers, that was apparently “foremost among Bowie’s reading in the summer of 1975”. So it seems that in the “Lazarus” video Bowie was giving us a clue to his passing, although had the video not been so disturbing, it might still have been tempting to view it as a reference to his withdrawal from the well documented narcotic excess of the ‘Thin White Duke’ persona.
“Blackstar” the track reinforces this with its abrupt shift at the halfway point, again similar to “Station to Station”. It starts like a late period Scott Walker vocal, building tension to the release of the “Something happened on the day he died…” section. This fits the interpretation of a black star as a transitional phase – Bowie has at a physical level collapsed but believes himself to be moving to a higher state. The core is the hope and love of the “In the centre of it all, Your eyes…” lines. When this is coupled to interview references to the joy Bowie took in fatherhood and the line about being “born upside down”, we can only hope that it signifies the peace he found through his family in his last years.
It is perhaps “Blackstar”’s final two tracks “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, that confirm its greatness. The former sums Bowie up in a couplet “Push their backs against the grain, And fool them all again and again” reminiscent of the quote from when he and Eno last collaborated on “1. Outside” in 1995 “Brian is someone who will take things from low art and elevate them into high art, whereas… I’ll take things from high art and demean them down to the street level”. Is it also too fanciful to suggest the “I’m dying to” could have been “I’m dying too”? The lyric sheet suggests otherwise, of course, but it would be a worthy ambiguity. Another killer track is “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – does he mean not revealing the performer’s artifice or the more mundane worldly goods? We’ll probably never know, but there is a lovely reference to Robert Fripp’s sound on “Heroes” in Ben Monder’s guitar at the close that is both a fitting and poignant end to the last track on the last Bowie album.
For now it’s that finality that is so hard to grasp, a little like “Everyone Says Hi” on “Heathen” when Bowie sang of his difficulty in accepting his father’s death, just as he stood on the brink of his 1970s mega-stardom. That feeling of disbelief, feeling that the departed will just check in on our lives again without warning, is what made that song so emotional – the rational side of us knows that they cannot return, but the emotional side feels that there was much unfinished business in this world. The only way to deal with the absence of hope, and our inability to accept it, is in the superficially cheery outlook of the lyric that makes the loss all the more heart-rending.
“If the money is lousy,
You can always come home,
We can do the old things…”
Rest in peace.