I’ve had a long time to process David Bowie’s death now. During my break at work, I was skimming through Facebook when I saw a RIP status, and I thought it was some joke, and then I frantically checked the news and saw that it was true. I had never cried at a celebrity’s passing before, but I went home and I cried for an hour with this music playing. I knew that Blackstar was something special from when the title track was released, and I listened to it more than fifty times during the month of December. Like, The Next Day was good, but this was on another level. I mentioned in my review for the Next Day that timing is everything. That applies even more to Blackstar, because the event of his death is woven into the narrative.
What does David Bowie mean to me? That’s the question that popped up a lot while listening to all of his music from beginning to end. He wasn’t just another musician that I liked, and it’s not the naive thought that he would live forever and my reality was shattered. It’s not that. David Bowie was special to me, because he made me feel comfortable. Listening to him in high school, I was caught by how weird he was. I didn’t realize it then, but he helped me come to my self-identity. He was feminine when everywhere masculinity was valued, and I think that his gender-bending and sexual identity was important in creating the foundation for my beliefs today.
I know everybody has their own story or feelings, but I think what’s important and notable above all else is that Bowie lived his own myth. From day one to the last day, to the next and another day. Blackstar was an art project. He was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half before releasing Blackstar, and it was an impetus for him to get everything out of his head before he couldn’t anymore. You could argue that Bowie was at his most effective when he dug the music out from inside of himself, Low being the best example. He combined the inside and the outside so effectively, and Blackstar continues that method, taking Bowie’s inner feelings about dying, commenting on it at times like a nonchalant outsider.
I started thinking about the five stages of grief a while ago while listening to this. It doesn’t fit neatly, but I think there are elements of it here. Denial in the title track, anger in Girl Loves Me, a little bit of bargaining and depression in Dollar Days, and acceptance throughout the whole album but most strongly in I Can’t Give Everything Away.
It’s notable that the two most aggressive songs are the two that were first created with his impending death guiding them. Tis a Pity She Was a Whore and Sue were both released in very different, very rough forms in 2014. They ostensibly songs about being made a fool by love, but I have the nagging impression that Sue isn’t a story about a woman having spurned him. It’s much looser, much jazzier in its original version, nearing seven and a half minutes long, building on a jazzy brass section. I think he was still coming to terms with his diagnosis, Sue being the personification of death perhaps. In the middle of the original version, he builds to a climactic screaming “goodbye” followed by the brass section spitting out low burps before the final verse. The most telling moment is in the second verse, “Sue, the clinic called. The x-ray’s fine.” If that’s a coincidence, it’s a mighty big one. The song then peters out on the snare. The album version is shorter and given a much more bossy and energetic tone, exploding with a great low end, tightened up considerably.
Tis a Pity is also rough in its original version. I love how muted the vocals are, like he’s being smothered. It opens with sounds similar to maybe Tom Waits’ Hoist That Rag or something else on Real Gone, and the whole song has a similar production quality that works astoundingly well. The band comes in wheezing and puffing out of sync. It pounds you in the gut as Bowie wails in tortured falsetto with the cacophony all around him. It may not be directly about his condition, but it certainly has that feeling of helplessness that might come with the knowledge of it, especially the line “tis my curse, I suppose” that’s drowned out. In the end, he’s eaten up by the noise. On the album, it’s a lot cleaner and a whole lot less cacophonous, but it has a similar energy. I like the deep breath that it sounds like Bowie takes in the beginning and the breathing you can hear throughout the first minute of the song.
I like the story behind these two songs. Bowie went to a little jazz club to watch the players would become his band for this album, and little by little people began to notice that David Bowie was there. After the band finished, he left without speaking to the band, but later sent them an email asking them to play with him on these two songs in 2014 and later the Blackstar album. I think it’s a cute story and plays into the mystery of David Bowie, the one that he unintentionally cultivated over the ten years he settled into his neat little domestic life.
The rest of the songs are more direct, with the title track functioning as an introduction to this weird new world, combining dark, dense atmosphere with sexy pop from a 69 year old man in a leotard. I love the call-and-response lyrics during that part, where he repeatedly denies the previous title, pressing that “I’m a blackstar.” From the beginning of his career, he was creating the identity that he was a star. I read a quote from Andy Warhol that a superstar is someone who convinces others that he or she is a star, and Bowie was doing that even before he was an actual star. Now he’s creating his own star again.
Lazarus, released just before the album dropped, is the most poignant song on the album. I don’t know how much time he knew he had left, because based on Tony Visconti’s account, the end must have come more quickly than imagined, but there must have been some idea that this might have been the last goodbye, as he directly references that he’s in heaven. The saxophone is both mournful and a little frantic, clinging to life but finally doused out in the end. It’s not the only time that Bowie references death so on the nose. In Dollar Days, admitting that he’s okay if he doesn’t see his green pastures again, he cuts each verse with, “I’m dying to” / “I’m dying, too”. This and he closing track are have a totally different feel to them than the rest of the album. He sounds tired, old. Pitchfork compared it to Five Years or Ashes to Ashes, all songs where Bowie is luxuriating in sadness and turning loss into triumph.
I Can’t Give Everything Away is the most heartbreaking for me. Sampling the harmonica from Low’s A New Career in a New Town, it’s his final trip. I love the way he holds it in, “I can’t give everything…. away” and the way that his pronunciation of “give” sometimes sounds like “keep”. It touches on Bowie’s legacy, his music and his art. He can’t give everything he wanted, but he gave the most he could.
In Pitchfork’s afterword on Bowie, they wrote one line that really made an impression on me. “David Bowie’s greatest albums always opened us up to new worlds; Blackstar leads to the most mysterious, frightening, and unknowable of all.” It’s amazing how Bowie set this up, like one last wink from beyond the grave, knowing the very real possibility that he would die before it was released, and narrating like a spectator of his own death.
In his final two songs, he can barely finish his thoughts, because really there is no end. He can’t give everything away. Like Lazarus coming back to life, he’s dying to fool us all again and again. It’s just a new career in a new town, and he’s trying to, he’s dying to…