Album of the Month: David Bowie - Blackstar
"[David Bowie] has hit old age by possibly opening a new golden era to a career that has given joy to music-lovers many times over already."
- Wine-Journal review of "A New Day" – February 2013
I had already written my review of "Blackstar" before news of Bowie's death caused a sharp intake of breath. Like all but a handful of confidantes I had no inkling of his health, ipso facto, I was writing about a cultural icon who by my calculation was taking his final breaths in New York. What did the review say?
Oh, nothing that other commentators haven't written: seven songs that are inspired, adventurous, cryptic, mesmerizing, breathtaking, eclectic and absorbing. I opined that Blackstar is Bowie's best work since the late 1970s. I shared the optimistic sentiments expressed on Pitchfork that it represented a harbinger of things to come from the artistically revitalized thin white duke, setting voyage on an unexpected creative surge, conjecturing upon the dazzling possibilities of what could follow his 25th album.
The following morning I was listening to BBC Radio 6. I heard the DJ utter the words "David Bowie is dead" and for a few moments, I assumed it was typical dark English humor. Then I detected grief in their enunciation, voice almost cracking and I experienced that terrible sinking feeling. Like many, I assumed he was immortal and conflated Bowie the inspiration-cum-figurehead with David Jones of Brixton, the mortal man. The former will continue for as long as millions find his music the touchstone of post-modern pop. The latter is no more.
That same day I was commencing a round of Burgundy tastings in London. I must admit that my mind kept wandering back to rue life without Bowie, which sounds totally ridiculous. I never knew him for God sake. He just created songs that meant a lot when I was growing up, even though I was too young to savor his imperial reign over the 1970s. My introduction was being scared to death by the eye-popping and slightly disturbing video for "Ashes to Ashes" then absolutely loving the groove and weirdness of "Fashion". Like anyone devoted to modern music, I spent my teenage years studying Bowie, working my way through each album, and quickly understood that his body of work towered above everything. Bowie penetrated deeper than even The Beatles. I know - blasphemous. But Bowie was the icon of my era, not for my parents who grew up sound-tracked by the Fab Four.
Life is all about seizing chances. When I was 19, my girlfriend and I heard news that Bowie was touring his classic songs to “retire” them from live performance. Thinking that it would be our last chance to hear "Changes" or "Heroes", we drove to London Docklands and swapped our weekly food budget for two tickets from a tout. Once inside we found that they weren't together so we were negotiated adjoining seats just in time to see the arena darken and from a black stage lit by a single spotlight, David Bowie entered strumming "Space Oddity". It beat eating for the rest of the week. And this love affair continued into my adulthood, through his comeback with "A New Day" and right up to "Blackstar".
I read one comment in the paper. The person wrote that they were glad to have listened to and appreciated Blackstar during the three-day window between its release and his death. I feel likewise. I could enjoy his genius, his rejuvenation, without the emotional baggage of knowing it was de facto his elegy, to quote producer Toni Visconti: "his parting gift to the world". Now that we are all aware of its funereal context the lyrics are loaded with profundity and aching sadness. That sadness is made more acute because they are written by a man that for many people, embodied life. It renders these songs heartbreaking in understanding that they come from a man coming to terms with the fact that his time is running out.
Bowie's silence since "A New Day", the total absence of interviews and dearth of public sightings, has taken his name to almost mythical status. Nobody really knew him. So we project our own fantasies upon Bowie. There he is doing the shopping, hanging out with Iggy, planning his video for "Lazarus" (almost impossible to watch now.) The timing of his death just three days after his 69th birthday and his final album can be interpreted as the final artistic act, the coup de grace of an unparalleled career spanning decades during which he never became irrelevant. Even during his 1980s nadir he still looked the coolest man on the planet.
The first word that Bowie ever sang was "well" on a 7-inch single under the name "Davie Jones with the King Bees" in 1964 and his last word he sang was "me" in 2016 on "I Can't Give Everything Away", a song whose skittering drum pattern seems to disappear into the heavens. In between those two words he changed music, spun culture on its axis and broke down boundaries, the effects of which will continue to ripple for many years.
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