“This week dragged past me so slowly / The days fell on their knees.”
—Bowie fans, everywhere
by Chris Roberts, January 14th, 2016
He was born David Jones but he died David Bowie and by the end the transformation was complete. Chris Roberts reflects on heaven, hell and mortality in forty years of Bowie magick
I’m still finding the ‘Lazarus’ video unsettling. The way he shakes and trembles (deliberately, I know) as he walks backwards into the cupboard, into perhaps heaven/danger/freedom, into perhaps an anti-Narnia, a nothingness.
I’m still glancing suspiciously at my own cupboard now and again.
I may admire his courage but I don’t actively enjoy seeing a man once so handsome and electrically charismatic looking so frail and papery, even if he does retain the flair to also mock this turn of events with a shimmy and a pose. For many listeners, the Blackstar album proves he’d come to terms with death and tells us not to fear it. But, you ask this coward, death remains fearsome. The extinguishing of pride, vanity, narcissism; the loss of all communication. Presumably pain. Art can transcend and survive that, but it can’t nullify it in its moment. It has to go through it. It can’t go around it like water flowing around rocks, which is one way David Bowie used to change unchangeable things.
SOMETHING KIND OF HIT ME TODAY
“I guess I am what the greatest number of people think I am”, Bowie told me in 1999. “And I have no control over that at all. The lot on Bowienet are quite funny and sarcastic – they’re not, like, goths, all serious and heavy. They do a lot of sending-up, referencing The Laughing Gnome and that, which I like. Am I OK with that? Oh God yeah! I had to get over that a long time ago. But then, as we all know, history is revisionism. One makes one’s own history.”
He famously, indisputably, always looked magically younger than his years. Having three times stared at him for an hour or two across a table, or across a hotel room, I can vouch that it was uncanny. Of course he had a completely different hairstyle and dress sense each time, never looked like his most recent photos, but that was one of his things, among his many things. And he’d be so animated and articulate and brimming with ideas that years would have fallen away anyway. Even when you spoke with him on the phone, he’d convey the impression it was an exciting, stimulating, conversation. I know, I know, showbiz charm offensive and all that, but I’ve interviewed scores of A-list movie stars who’ve turned their beams up to ten in a hotel suite for an hour and still not matched Bowie for being present, vital. The force was strong, the lightning was long. Preposterous and corny to say there really was something time-leaping and space-shifting and benignly alien about that one, and yet… so rich with the speed of life.
Valerie Singleton, 1979: “Does the media’s tendency to view rock stars as a bit thick bother you?” David Bowie: “Not at all, I’m very thick.”
As Tony Visconti has said, Blackstar is “a parting gift”. “His death was no different from his life – a work of art”. It’s shudder-inducing to imagine Bowie conceiving and writing and singing these songs knowing they were his last (though it’s said there are a few more on file, secrets still to be told). What a bold and brilliant way to go, constructing a monument which never stands still. Evidently aware of the impact his death would have, and trying to assist/guide/direct our reactions to it (here be scary monsters). Not through egotism, because the big secret was kept. Incredibly, in our age, it was kept. How did we miss it? How we will miss him. On Friday, his 69th birthday, we all celebrated, jovially posted favoured Bowie tracks and dug into Blackstar. Has a record ever changed its colours and dimensions as profoundly as Blackstar has since then? After a career of big reveals and killing off of personae, the biggest reveal of all.
Throughout the album, the clues are there. Either we were all too dense to spot them or he knew precisely that his established lyrical techniques of “illogic” and cut-ups would obfuscate just enough to veil the truth for long enough. Because now of course it all seems so blatant. The videos all but spell it out. Yet his is a body of work which consistently seemed to speak in tongues, then gradually coalesced into perfect sense. Why were a generation of teenagers so captivated by a bisexual alien in a green jumpsuit? How did his plastic soul then switch that same generation of white kids onto black music? Why do the fragmentary experimental sketches of the ‘Berlin trilogy’ (mostly recorded in Paris) resonate so fully with something in our psyche? How did he come back from being the much-insulted stadium-pop star of the 80s to be again the most revered and mythologised figure in music? None of that follows the rules, sticks to the three-act structure, makes sense.
So we can probably forgive ourselves for reading Blackstar in erroneous ways at first. It’s not as if he was never one for misdirection and the symbolic deployment of potent imagery, and the Broadway musical Lazarus – how busy he was, tidying his legacy – also cleverly led us to interpret elements of Blackstar as a kind of fiction, the thoughts of Thomas Jerome Newton, instead of a kind of fact, the visions of David Bowie. Now though, we can see this one clearly, to the point where we almost wish we couldn’t.
I realise now that he talked to me about Heaven and Hell once, just before the turn of the century. Here’s what he said. This is how this pop star talked. “Everyone views everything – past, future and present – in a different way. So I’ve always been intimidated by this idea of absolutes. There can only be one person’s absolute, one person’s end result, one person’s history. Sir Thomas More, poor old thing, went to the block for his absolute belief in the Catholic church. Now I have great admiration for a man sticking to his guns, but on the other hand… he really shouldn’t have done that! ‘Have you thought about Buddhism, Mr. More? Protestantism? Same deal without the ritual?’
“I’m not saying we don’t have a moral duty, or should relinquish all responsibility. We are intelligent animals and we can quite simply see that it’s not right to hurt others. That comes through a consensus of behaviour and opinion, I guess. But we don’t have to feel that if we don’t do it right we’ll go to some strange place. At least it’s without flames now. Last week the Vatican issued a…whatever it is they issue… one of their issues… saying, hold the front page – there are no flames! There is no Hell! And likewise, there are no angels with white wings. Which is a brave step for them, after all this time.”
What changed their mind?
“An edict! That’s it – a Papal edict! That’s what they issued. Oh, um, I guess they feel all that might be a little dated. That image of Heaven and Hell in those figurative pictorial terms. Didn’t it work well for them though, eh? That got them right in the confessionals, giving up everything for that very well-run organisation. So anyway, poor fucking Thomas More, is like: wait, whaddya mean? There’s no Hell??”
HEAVEN’S ON THE PILLOW, ITS SILENCE COMPETES WITH HELL
Bowie’s retiring from interviews and exposition in recent years has fuelled his mystique but also allowed his work to flourish without the straitjacket of overt explanation. Blackstar itself, with sax player and band leader Donny McCaslin having further wrong-footed us by stating it was about ISIS (and maybe on some level it is; art is nothing if not open to interpretation), benefits from being implicit and somewhat indeterminate. The Norse village of Ormen is not commonly referenced in opening lines. In the video, people enact choreographed convulsions. Bowie broods of “the day of execution”, seems to fixate on “a solitary candle”, then, after those gospel chants, moves centrestage with magic multivalence. “Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place and bravely cried/ I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”. He demands to know how many times an angel falls and how many people lie instead of talking tall, before one of those classic Bowie call-and-semi-contradictory-response routines kicks in, making sure we know both that he’s a blackstar and that he is not – or will soon no longer be – a filmstar/popstar. There are wry jokes too (“I’m not a gangster”, “I’ve got game”, “I’m not a pornstar”), a reminder to take along his passport and shoes, and a line that could in one realm of the imagination be something Iman left on a note pinned to the fridge door – “And your sedatives, boo”.
Two evergreen antechambers of Bowie’s flow are also visited. We all want eagles in our daydreams, diamonds in our eyes, because we recall the billowing romance of ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ and ‘Wild Is The Wind’. And upon hearing “We were born upside down/ Born the wrong way ’round” we are all again the misfits, freaks and outsiders of Bowie’s charming army, reminded of how the leper messiah gave motivation and fortitude to the confused youth of the 70s. (Hard as it is to believe now, he appealed as an antidote to old busted flushes like the Beatles and Stones: we thought they’d be washed away like, say, Camel in the aftermath of punk). The winding, weaving fade of Blackstar is both an ebbing and a surge.
”Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ is a thunderous diversion, but ‘Lazarus’ is loaded with lacerations. “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”. (That drama he danced through the decades can never be stolen: he kept swinging. Everybody THINKS they know him now. And everyone knows a different Bowie, the one they saw in his hall of mirrors, depending on when they came in and from which direction.) He’s in danger, nothing left to lose…”high”, presumably on meds. But then there is gallows humour again – the dropping of the cell phone. And ultimately the flight of a bluebird, an image that’s been used before by Bukowski, as a bitter thing, and by McCartney, as a joyous thing. It’s one thing to enjoy the track, it’s a beauty, but another experience entirely to watch that video. I find it harrowing. Others, I’m assured, find his frankness therein – and heroic lack of vanity – reassuring. Either could be his intention. (There is a counterbalance in his defiantly cheerful last photographs, suited up as cool and elegant and dashing as you like).
The album contains other teasers (boy does that feel like the wrong word) and hints. “The clinic called, the X-ray’s fine” on Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime); “Where the fuck did Monday go?” on ‘Girl Loves Me’; the lushness of ‘Dollar Days’ tempered by “I’ll never see the English evergreens”, “I’m falling down” and that play-on-words (given 20/20 hindsight) of “I’m dying to…” And then the swansong of ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, which opens with “I know something is very wrong” and offers a cryptic critique of his modus operandi – “this is all I ever meant/ that’s the message that I sent”.
Yet any of these lines could have appeared on any Bowie album and fit right in. Dada, darkness and existentialism were as much part of his toolbox as arch-eyebrowed absurdity and wanton hip-wiggling. If ‘I Can’t Read’ by Tin Machine had debuted on this album, would we be wilfully mis-hearing “I can’t read shit any more” as “I can’t reach it any more”? Context is all. He knew that. He imposed that.
Neither is this his first album or video to embrace the macabre. The lyrical preoccupations of Outside were morbid and the video for ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ was packed with pagan mutilations and objets d’art. Bowie’s own abstract painting of Japanese author Mishima – who committed ritual suicide by seppuku – hung on his wall in Berlin.
Bowie has addressed themes of aging and mortality many times before. Time, that “sniper in the brain”, waits for no-one. His acknowledgement was always there. From the early “Don’t wanna stay alive when you’re 25” in ‘All The Young Dudes’ to the glum maturing of Major Tom in ‘Ashes To Ashes’: “Ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair”. On ‘Reality’, he sang, “And I’m never ever gonna get old”, adding “take care”. The refusal to get old in any predictable fashion found its most crystalline outlet in the keynote of ‘Young Americans’ – “We live for just these twenty years – do we have to die for the fifty more?” These are just the tip of the iceberg – there was also the early choice of Brel’s ‘My Death’, ‘Five Years’, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, ‘We Are The Dead’, ‘Golden Years’…
Bowie shared his birthday with Elvis Presley, and would have been well aware of Elvis’ song ‘Black Star’ (from a 1960 Western, the track was only released thirty years later). He surely relished, mischievously, the thought that we’d pick up on its lyrics by now. “Every man has a black star/ A black star over his shoulder/ And when a man sees his black star/ He knows his time, his time has come”. (By the by, January 8th was also the inception date of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, and Bowie read the “tears in the rain” monologue from Blade Runner at his brother’s funeral.)
SON, WE WANT YOU, BE ELUSIVE BUT DON’T WALK FAR
Let us blame Nikola Tesla for reality winning over fantasy. Let’s blame Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige, a good film, in which Bowie as Tesla looked almost his age onscreen for the first time. He now looked merely terrific. By then of course he’d hit health problems. Three years earlier, for the Reality album and tour, he’d remained a slinky, clock-defying showman. 2004 was seismic. In the middle of the highest-grossing tour of that year, a fan in Oslo (bathos alert) threw a lollipop at the stage, the stick of which hit the singer in the eye, causing much pain. A week later, 57-year-old Bowie felt severe chest pain while performing in Germany. This was at first misdiagnosed as a trapped shoulder nerve, but was an acutely blocked artery. An emergency angioplasty took place in Hamburg; tour cancelled. Since then, Bowie made only cameo appearances on stage or in the studio, until the apparent resurrection that was The Next Day.
Now came the quiet years, the “reclusive” years, the domestic years with Iman and Lexi. Away from “where things are hollow”. His mother, with whom he’d recently reconciled after decades of distance, had died in 2001, possibly impressing upon him an urge to connect with his family (he admitted he hadn’t always been there for Duncan).
As ever he ran interference with a mesh of scrambled signals, from TV comedy spots (Extras) to tweeting (in late 2011) that he was inspired to return to the studio by Lou Reed’s (much derided) collaboration with Metallica. Then in 2013 – out of the deep blue – came The Next Day, a comeback laden with dark religious imagery, the preoccupations of which feel different today than they did then. Its melancholy master-moment, the spectral, muted yearning and internal excavation of ‘Where Are We Now?’, sang of reflectively revisiting old haunts in Berlin and “just walking the dead”.
OH DRESS YOURSELF MY URCHIN ONE, FOR I HEAR THEM ON THE STAIRS
I asked him once, attempting a career retrospective, about his decades as a fluid icon. He said his memory had more holes than Swiss cheese. I had to be boring and focus him on the topic so I rattled on about Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Cracked Actor, Thin White Duke, Beep-beep Pierrot, crossroads-and-hamburgers mainstream bouffant crooner, bloke from Tin Machine, earthling, industrial cyber-seer, multi-millionaire…
“Hmm”, he mused, looking quizzically at his coffee. “Thirty odd years as an occasional front cover. Well, this gives me an opportunity to now go out and get a spoon.”
I said: a spoon?
“A spoon”, he said, suddenly looking very earnest, “might affect my performance”.
“All we dysfunctional people who feel that it’s important for more than three people to know our opinion, that’s why we’re in this ‘music biz’. All the painters, writers, all the anything else – it’s where all the nutcases go when they haven’t been locked up. They go into the arts. Because nobody in their right mind needs to tell hundreds or thousands of people what it is that they believe.”
I protested that this can-I-get-a-witness impulse was in everybody, to some degree, a cry for love…
“It is?” he deadpanned. “Oh. So I’m one of the sane ones, you’re saying?” David Bowie lives on, obviously. In our imaginations, our poetic footprint (we all have one). “I don’t feel bad if my work doesn’t serve any purpose”, he told me. “It could just be decorative. I don’t care, I just like doing the stuff.” I know there are people more positive than me who hope new Bowies will come along, inspired. In a time when music buyers and the media are content to find Adele and Sam Smith anything other than boring, I can’t see it. Nobody will be in those times and places again, pretending that nothing really means too much. There we were, one magical moment.
The man was one thing, but the mythology will resonate as long as the music. Wait, he wasn’t one thing, he was countless things, to countless people. A lifetime of reinvention – don’t call him a chameleon; as he pointed out often, a chameleon does everything it can to blend in, to not stand out – took him from David Jones, suburban dreamer, to David Bowie, Buddha of subterranean impulses. He faced imminent death head on, wrote about it, documenting the responses of his nerve endings. Looking at, if not loving, the ultimate alien. (Authentic enough? His fantasies were always more truthful than the realists.)
“My real ambition”, he told me, “is to feel I don’t waste my day when I get up. I do feel guilty if a day, or part of a day, goes down the drain.” He made the most of every second of his life. Blackstar will stay long in our memories, not just because it is the end of the tour but because it is the last show he’ll ever do.
You’re not alone. Somebody up there…