Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside.
I listened to Blackstar twice on January 9, the day after it came out and a day before David Bowie died (it is still entirely surreal to type the words "Bowie died"). I listened to it a third time on January 11.
Between several songs on the album, there are little rustles of paper and breaths, high and close to the mic. During that third listen, those little noises became personal in a way that they weren't before. Yes, this was an album of songs that took on and remade the legacy of his 1990s records like Earthling, 1.Outside, Black Tie White Noise, and The Buddha of Suburbia, but it was also the sound of an artist burdened with the knowledge of his own end.
Those tiny movements of air now seem like Bowie letting us know that he was still back there, that he was still pulling the strings.
Fans have taken it up as a mantra, one that helps them understand why they have been personally affected by the death of someone they never met and grants them some solace: David Bowie hasn't died. David Robert Jones is dead. David Bowie will live a lot longer.
In 1999, at the age of 15, I bought my first new Bowie album, 'hours...' On its cover, a faux-hologrammatic image of 1999 Bowie--shoulder-length brown hair and wrinkle-free skin--cradles in his arms a prior incarnation of himself with spiky hair and a goatee. One Bowie dies so that another Bowie can live.
'hours...' is not a great album--it's just okay. But in 1999, Bowie debuted a newer, softer look, and, for the first time in nearly a decade, returned to "Life on Mars?" and "Starman." The famous baritone and the witty, affable persona that I saw on TV drew me in.
After reading a review of his reissued back catalog in Q magazine, I started working my way through the '70s albums, starting with Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Diamond Dogs, Low and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). What was in those records was a new musical and creative language, one of allusion and silliness, the language of the 20th century. Within a year, that century would be over, and I would have amassed almost all of golden age Bowie--the 13 studio albums released between 1969 and 1980.
Thirty years earlier, in 1969, David Jones released a new album under a new stage name: David Bowie. His adopted last name was a signifier of his fascination with a particular vision of America--not the geopolitical United States, but the literary, dreamlike vision of the New World, a wild west of freedom and individual determination.
In 2016, at the age of 69, David Bowie released his last album, Blackstar (or ★).
The final single from that album, both poignantly and dark-humorously titled "Lazarus," now seems pointedly literal. On first listen, I understood the lyrics to be impressionistic, since that is Bowie's way, but in light of his death, it is only barely abstracted from the truth. In the music video released on January 7, one Bowie writhes on a bed, singing:
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
Another Bowie emerges from a wardrobe, dressed in a costume that deliberately recalls a 1976 photo shoot. He scribbles madly like a character in a silent movie, before retreating to the armoire and closing the door.
It's not so figurative at all when you consider that David Jones the man knew how sick he was. One last time, he comes out of the closet before going back in (the infamous "I'm gay; no, wait! I'm not" moment); one last time, he reveals a new character in an old costume; one last time, he shuts both away together in a wardrobe--the place where costumes go when you take them off, the place where characters go when they die.
Don't let me know when you're opening the door,
Close me in the dark, let me disappear.
Soon there'll be nothing left of me,
Nothing left to release.
--"Bring Me the Disco King" (Reality, 2003)
"Lazarus" ends with a cycle of lines: "This way or no way,/You know I'll be free./Just like that bluebird,/Now ain't that just like me."
Bowie once said that the octave leap at the beginning of the chorus in "Starman" was stolen from Judy Garland's "someWHERE over the rainbow." When I heard "Lazarus," the image of the bluebird stood out: oddly romantic, somewhat music-hall, a callback to his days singing Jacques Brel covers. But maybe Bowie was thinking once again of Garland and the places that bluebirds are said to fly.
Leaving with as much performativity and drama as he arrived, David Bowie plays us all out with the suggestion of a comeback--Lazarus makes the ultimate comeback, after all--while acknowledging that, for David Jones, this is, as they say, it.
It's lazy but inevitable that the press will dwell on Bowie's "chameleonic" career and the cliché that he (ch-ch-)changed musically and sartorially across the years. But the truth is that his work is thematically consistent. Isolation and alienation, observing the world around you (or the world within you), forecasting what the world ahead of you will be, for better (Heathen's "A Better Future") or worse (Diamond Dogs' "Future Legend"), and pretending to be who you want to be until that is who you are (but also aren't).
I eventually completed my record collection. Stragglers were 1995's 1.Outside and 1997's Earthling--both favorites now--as well as the Tin Machine albums (curious, brilliant, and a little terrible), and the disowned Tonight (£3 in a bargain bin) and Never Let Me Down.
Slowly, Bowie's music and style, the way in which he wrote and created art, became something essential to me. It was and still is difficult to pin down exactly why. Were my interests in creating songs and stories, and my fascination with the connections between "high" and "low" culture, innate? Or were they spurred on--or even instigated--by Bowie?
There are some things I do know. If I hadn't become a Bowie fan:
- I would probably not have learned how to play the guitar as quickly as I did.
- I would probably not have suggested that we name a dog "Ziggy."
- I would probably have come much later if at all to: Christopher Isherwood, Orwell, the Velvet Underground, Warhol, Pixies, my passing but ever-present interests in style, design and clothes, Aleister Crowley, Jean Genet, A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Newley, T.Rex or Scott Walker, Iggy and the Stooges, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Baal and The Threepenny Opera, "Alabama Song," Hanif Kureishi, the Übermensch, Stranger in a Strange Land or William S. Burroughs.
- I would probably not have such a love of the "meta" and self-referentiality in literature, art, movies, and music.
- I would certainly not have used a Bowie reference as my first ever email password.
- I would certainly not have written a song in response to "Changes" called "Everything Stays the Same" or a short story called "Standing By The Wall."
- I would absolutely, certainly, not have created Warhol-style screen prints featuring repeated images of Bowie in secondary school art class.
- I would absolutely, certainly, definitely not have reconnected with a school friend after university, formed a short-lived David Bowie tribute band named Hot Tramp, then performed only Bowie songs at several open mic nights using guitars, harmonicas, and a children's glockenspiel.
And I know I wouldn't be quite the same person I am now intellectually or creatively.
In a way, Bowie helped me--helped us all--become. Creating is always becoming. You could reinvent yourself and become someone new; you could wear a skin-tight leotard or a shirt and waistcoat; you could be gay, queer, straight, it didn't matter; you could be glam, soul, ambient, pop, or industrial, and you were always becoming you. And he told you how: Emulate, steal, remodel, and synthesize.
"I Can't Give Everything Away," Blackstar's closing track, was a pretty, chant-like ballad on January 9, somewhat like the 1993 single "Miracle Goodnight" but with the harmonica burble from 1977's "A New Career in a New Town." On the eleventh, though, it had turned into a song that made me cry.
The song opens: "I know something's very wrong,/The pulse returns the prodigal son./The blackout hearts, the flowered news/With skull designs upon my shoes." The song ends with a trick of latter-day Bowie: a simple lyrical conceit where splitting a phrase multiplies its meanings as a whole and in parts.
I can't give everything,
I can't give everything,
I can't give everything
"Away:" the last recorded word from Bowie. However, he had been considering his mortality for quite a few albums. In 2002, in an interview with Der Spiegel, he asked: "Why, now, when I [finally] understand myself and others, should I die? What a shit game. Is there no one with whom you could revise the rules?"
And if you wanted to find meaning, you need only look for the obvious and ironic ("Never Get Old") or the more gnomic ramblings of 2002's Heathen. That record starts with the song "Sunday"--the day of the week on which Bowie died--telling us "nothing has changed/everything has changed." The album closes with the title track and the lines: "I can see it now/I can feel it die."
Performances of that song, "Heathen (The Rays)," still give me goose bumps. During a live show in Berlin in 2002, Bowie lifts his eyes upward and says "God bless us, please," before launching into a performance that is just the right side of histrionic. By the end of the song, the crowd unifies around a three-note snare drum hit--a heartbeat tattoo--and Bowie slowly proceeds offstage, one hand on the shoulder of his bass player, Gail Ann Dorsey, before disappearing from view.
There could be no better final performance than that, surely. Or, maybe every performance is the final one.
In the past week, I've been thinking a lot about firsts and lasts.
In 2003, I took a bus with two friends from Birmingham to Manchester to see David Bowie play live for the first and last time. Bowie himself didn't know it was also to be his last ever tour. I always thought, somewhere inside, that I'd see him play live again.
The first time I heard the song "Aladdin Sane" and Mike Garson's avant-garde piano solo kicked in, I thought, with a smile, "what the fuck?" As the solo bloomed, his hands chopped and jumped across the keyboard, sprinkling little scales and discordant voicings everywhere. Then, I thought it was gleeful, funny, and kind of perfect. I'll still think that the last time I ever listen to that song.
But for now, there will be no more first times, unless we are lucky enough to get a posthumous release of a few more songs or, even less likely, one last music video.
Bowie is gone. With his death, something personal and essential is, if not entirely gone, then vastly diminished. He didn't just teach me to play the guitar; through his music, his interviews, and his last 18 months alive, he taught us to be brave creatively but to laugh at yourself too; to ignore the linear and the literal because the impressionistic and figurative are truer; and to remember that the end might be the end, but it also isn't.
"Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do."
--David Bowie, July 3, 1973, at the Hammersmith Odeon, London