This isn’t really an obituary or a tribute per se. I’ve been battling with the idea of writing about David Bowie because I didn’t want to be just another of ‘those guys’ trying to sum up Bowie’s impact on a global level.
The point is that, as with any form of music and art, Bowie was personal, and so to string together some facts about the man as a formal goodbye just didn’t feel right. But I wanted to say something, and so I’m just going to talk about Blackstar.
As a millennial I came to Bowie through Labyrinth and then again after listening to Nirvana’s Unplugged album and their amazing cover of Man Who Sold the World. That got me digging into Bowie’s catalogue of work (both cinematic and musical) and revealed to me an artist who was capable of anything, because he could not be adhered to any one thing.
As someone who has been a musician and writer for many years, I couldn’t grasp how he had done it. He had freed himself from any style or genre, and just created for the love of art, embracing anything and everything to elevate his own work above a simple category and into a realm of untouchable ideas, which only a miniscule percentage of human history ever have.
I thought it impossible for him to reach any higher than my estimation of him as a man, entertainer and creator, and then came Blackstar.
When the title track was released before Christmas I sat and watched the 10 minute video on a loop for a long time. The combination of mystical, Sci-fi visuals which seemed to echo elements of his entire career (that city of light much like the Goblin City, the Spaceman now a jewel encrusted skeleton) paired with a song whose ambiguous lyrics swoop and soar over eastern influenced musicality, it was too much to absorb even after several listens.
At first there was speculation that Bowie was reacting to terrorist happenings around the globe, but as it would turn out it was the beginning of his farewell. There is somehow both aching melancholy and hopeful beauty in the lines “something happened on the day he died, his spirit rose a metre and stepped aside, somebody took his place and bravely cried I’m a Blackstar.” Is this a knowledge of his own eventual replacement by some wide eyed rebel spirit? I’d like to think so.
Then came Lazarus, just in time for the album’s release, and the video, featuring a suffering Bowie, desperate to write his last words but unable, followed by a bedridden image of himself who then crawls somewhat unwillingly and yet inexorably towards a coffin-like wardrobe in which he seals himself as the song closes.
It is the most haunting and heart-wrenching image of someone planning for their own death through art. It’s the only instance of this I have ever seen.
To try and get my mind around the idea of producing art of this level, in the knowledge it will be your last, is mind-blowing. That it is also amongst the greatest music I have ever heard can only be attributed to the absolute freedom Bowie must have felt in knowing he could do it all his way, no compromises.
Having spent the last few days listening to the album almost non-stop, now owning it on CD and Vinyl (because it is worth owning this piece of history in as many forms as possible) I feel safe declaring it amongst the most important works in my lifetime. That’s of course subjective, but to me it has a weight based on its own merits and the wider circumstances of its creation, which intersect to deliver a whole heap of emotions and appreciation.
There could be (and I’m sure will be) essays written about the finest details of Blackstar for years to come, even down to the fact that the use of saxophone throughout the album works not only as a traditional jazz noise in an ethereal sonic landscape, but also feels like a wondrous night coming to a close in some secret, sleazy-yet-starry Manhattan bar. It tells the story of a glitzy life fading into a hazy sleep. It feels like closure.
You’ve probably seen the last photo that was taken of Bowie before he died, stood outside a corrugated metal door with a sharp suit, smiling big and reeking of enjoyment. If I were to caption that image I’d just use the word ‘ready’.
Though we were unprepared, taken aback, knocked for at least six million, the star-man was ready, and that’s all that matters.
Now who dares take his place with a brave cry? They’d better be ready too.