R.I.P David Bowie
+ Blackstar (2016) Review
By Dilan Gunawardana
11th January, 2015
How did you feel when you found out about the sudden and untimely passing of one of the world's great artists, David Bowie? Was it shock? Sorrow? Nausea? Or an unusual combination of all three? If you know anything about music, fashion, design, or film, then I imagine you'd be feeling pretty darn shit. He was truly one of a kind, and his impact on art and culture cannot be understated.
The news first came to me after work via Facebook on a train platform.
That morning, I had handed my car over for repairs, which meant that I wasn't able to sing along loudly and poorly to obscure 90's songs on Spotify in the soundproof bubble of my Mazda as usual. Sadly, I wasn't able have a teary moment, pulled into a sidestreet, hunched over the steering wheel, listening to Letter to Hermione (1969). Instead, I sat in the corner of a near-empty carriage and just let the tears well up in my eyelids, hoping that no-one would see. Thankfully nobody did. Glancing around, I could see the shock on people's faces as they too found out. One middle-aged woman, clutched her mouth and exclaimed 'Oh no'. One twenty-something office worker was on the phone to his girlfriend or a pig: 'Did you hear the news, babe? Yeah I know, it's pretty sad ...' One girl silently dabbed at her red eyes. And a bunch of Indian students talked about cricket.
Whatever your own reaction, it is difficult to deny that this was a rough one, partly because it was so ludicrously unexpected (in fact some people on social media were adamant that it was a hoax, until his son, Duncan Jones, confirmed the horrible truth), but also because he was almost universally respected, and widely loved.
Of course, David Bowie was great.
No doubt there already exists a thousand articles by better, and more
knowledgeable writers than I, describing how he helped shape music and fashion in one fell swoop by co-pioneering the 'glam rock' sub-grenre, alongside Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, and T-Rex in the early 70's.
You will read how he challenged prevailing notions of identity, first during his dress-wearing, flaxen haired Hunky Dory (1971) days, his more well-known 'Ziggy Stardust persona, and subsequently through unwelcome rumours and innuendo regarding his ambiguous sexuality.
You will also likely read about the musicians he inspired, including Kate Bush, Joy Division, Bjork, Marilyn Manson, The Smiths, Blur, Radiohead ... the list goes on (in fact, the full list is here), as well as a broad spectrum of creative types, from Hayao Miyazaki to Ricky Gervais.
So we'll leave the more in-depth analysis of the man, and his legacy to the experts for now.
David Bowie's swansong, Blackstar was released on the 8th of January, 2016, and recieved almost universal critical acclaim only days before his death on the 10th. I downloaded the album on the 9th, and was fortunate enough to play it through twice in a row, and absorb it, before its profound significance was revealed (more on that later).
Before learning the news, I came to the conclusion that the album was designed to compliment his previous one, The Next Day (2013). Both are mature pieces of work, characteristic of an artist at ease with himself, and unafraid to keep pushing out at whatever boundaries are left in this world.
Whereas The Next Day is an easy and nostalgic transition from a 10-year abscence, with trademark hints of glam and rock (To paraphrase Basil Fawlty: 'don't mention the Tin Machine, I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it), Blackstar is a darker beast, its seven tracks, more brooding and jazzy, and utterly magnificent in parts.
The album opens with its title track, 'Blackstar', a shifting, richly layered, ten-minute epic, that carries shades of Massive Attack's 'Heligoland' (2010), namely the tracks, 'Atlas Air' and 'Splitting the Atom', but with more gravitas. In the creepy, yet downright awesome video clip, we are introduced to his final persona, 'The Blind Prophet', a creature reminiscent of the Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and an all-female satanic/pagan ritual involving the jewel-encrusted skull of Major Tom (perhaps?).
The following track, 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore', with its energetic drum and calamitous horns, begins with a deep breath, as though the singer is contemplating whether or not to begin his tale of humiliation at the hands of a callous lover (we've all been there, eh?). 'Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)' a poem, that skilfully chronicles a doomed affair:
Why too dark to speak the words?
For I know that you have a son
Oh, folly, Sue
Ride the train I’m far from home
In a season of crime none need atone
I kissed your face
Each track on Blackstar carries it's own clues to Bowie's deteriorating health and his concurrent fear and acceptance of death, whether it be through the varied, plaintive notes of jazz, or the deeply revelatory lyrics, such as from the hauntingly beautiful, Lazarus:
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
The final track, 'I Can't Give Everything Away', repeats its title frequently, and carries a double meaning: he can't give away the secret, and he is reluctant to give it all away (life).
Throughout the album, there's the sense that Bowie understands the magnitude of his legacy, and he can rest easy knowing that his greatest act of artistry (not divulging his terminal cancer diagnosis) came off without a hitch. In his final days, he wasn't subjected to cloying sympathy from his observers and fans, but instead, was lauded as the evergreen genius he was, leaving behind a short-lived mystery for us to unravel in Blackstar.
To the casual reader of this website, it's pretty apparent that I absolutely love wierdos and outsiders (see my Bjork Vulnicura (2015) review, and my Leonard Nimoy obituary). These are the people who made you feel like your unusual behaviour and nebulous thoughts would one day amount to something.
In David Bowie, I found a new dimension of cool to aspire to. His languidity, his aloof charm, his cheeky drawl, his literary mind, and his fearlessness are all traits I've desperately tried to emulate throughout my adult years with varying degrees of success (mostly failure). In short, I loved him.
As I finish the closing lines of this piece at 11pm on the 12th of January, I cease feeling sad for a moment when I remind myself of this: as long as his music can be heard and played in whatever form, his passing from this material world will be nothing but a triviality. To me and to countless others, he will forever live on between the lines of Moonage Daydream, Cat People, Valentine's Day, Ziggy Stardust, Wild is the Wind, Suffragette City, Soul Love, Slow Burn, Letter to Hermione, Sound and Vision, Changes, We Could be Heroes, John, I'm Only Dancing, Fashion, China Girl, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Rebel Rebel, Space Oddity, Starman, The Jean Genie, The Man Who Sold the World...