With Blackstar, David Bowie Transformed Death Into Art (VIDEO)
Much like Bowie’s death, Blackstar was unexpected. It came out of nowhere.
David Bowie is dead. This is not breaking news. He passed on January 10th, two days after his 69th birthday, surrounded by friends and family. It has taken me some time to get to the point where I could actually write about him. It is, perhaps, strange to be so shaken by the death of a celebrity, someone whom I had never met or interacted with in any fashion. But shaken I was. I hadn’t been expecting this. Yes, I knew that Bowie was getting up there in years, but news of his death came, seemingly, without warning. Except for one thing, that only became obvious in hindsight: his final album, Blackstar.
Much like Bowie’s death, Blackstar was unexpected. It came out of nowhere. But the reviews were intriguing enough that I purchased it the day it was released. Then I sat and listened, feeling a mix of joy and confusion. It was a good album, I thought on first listen, perhaps even a great one. But it was sharply different than his recent work. It is filled with free jazz saxophone squawks, skittering drums, and burbling keyboards. There is nary a vocal hook to be found and the lyrics are, even for Bowie, enigmatic. Over the weekend, I replayed it several times, always enjoying it, always confused. And then, in the wee hours of the morning on January 11th, I woke up and found my news-feed awash in stories of Bowie’s passing. I put my headphones on and gave Blackstar another listen.
And what should have been thumpingly obvious from the beginning came together in a flash. Bowie managed to create an album about his own death and absolutely nail it. From the bleak and unsettling tone that pervades the album to the opaque lyrics that, in hindsight, are perfectly clear, every element of Blackstar comes together and serves a single purpose. Take “Lazarus,” adapted from the off-Broadway show of the same name:
“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
Oh I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me”
Or view the videos for both “Lazarus” and the title track. Disturbing imagery that, in context, makes perfect sense. Bowie accomplished many things with this album. At the most basic level, this is the work of an (paradoxically, given his larger than life persona) intensely private man saying goodbye to his friends and fans. Consider the words of Brian Eno, who produced some of Bowie’s greatest works, and enjoyed a close, if long-distance, friendship with him over the years:
“I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’. I realise now he was saying goodbye.”
Bowie was as elliptical with a close friend as he was with his fans. He was saying goodbye to us all, though we didn’t realize it until after the fact.
But there is more going on here. Yes, Blackstar is a great album (personally, I’d rank as his best work since the Berlin Trilogy of the late 70s). And yes, it is, for all the glowing reviews, a very difficult album. And yes, it is about Bowie’s impending death. And, again yes, it is a beautiful farewell to friends and family and fans. It is also something more, which is why the thing has gotten so very far under my skin over the past days, and why it has taken me so long to write about it. Bowie has been a musical and performing chameleon over the years. From Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to the somewhat regrettable Thin White Duke, Bowie’s public persona has been defined most by its endless state of flux. Similarly, his music has gone from folk to glam excess to plastic funk to Krautrock to jungle and beyond. While Bowie is always recognizable as Bowie, he is (was) always in a state of change.
How fitting then, that his final musical statement accomplishes a final metamorphosis. While Blackstar is instantly recognizable as Bowie, it is also something new, something beautiful, and something harrowing. As I listen to it, I am struck by its beauty, but torn by its sadness. On Blackstar Bowie has taken on his final persona: the departed. And in doing so, he somehow managed to bring his life and career to a close, simultaneously, in the most perfect possible way. Bowie was one of the few with the courage and the talent to pull off such a trick. For the rest of us, all we can do is listen to his final statement in mute wonder and appreciation.
Watch the video for “Lazarus:”