Blackstar starts out hesitantly. The off kilter snare hits, the tremulous vocals. Bowie’s voice is delicate and crystalline, like the sax that plays around and intertwines with it. In the middle of the track, it changes tempo and tack, reminding me of Station to Station. The records seem similar in build, in design. Station to Station has many moments that hark at the angels, that extort God, that ask for his guidance. Blackstar has moments like that too. We know why, now. Death Narrative. Bowie knew he was not long for this plane.
Who among us is?
This was supposed to be a review of Blackstar, the latest and we now know final Bowie album. But it isn’t any more. It’s a eulogy, an obituary, a celebration of the late David Bowie, who passed away after an 18 month battle with liver cancer on January the 10th, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his last ever record.
The review was already going to be problematic. Not because the album isn’t terrific or beautiful or challenging or interesting or dark or light or all the things that it is, but because to try and apply some kind of criticism was to constrain it in some naff earthly bounds. How can I, ordinary hack, put my thoughts to Bowie’s work? We’re from different planets.
‘TIS A PITY SHE WAS A WHORE
At the start of the song, Bowie breathes heavily into the mic. Corporeal, actual, with breath in his lungs. Alive. The song has a pulsing insistence, the rhythm’s solidity anchoring the playful horns that swell upwards, and fizz above the song. The backing track bares the clear, concise production of ’80s Bowie. The slide of chords and backing vocals resonates like ‘Absolute Beginners’. Death narrative: Bowie collates the entire ’80s into one song, and admits he did it for the money. The ’80s is the whore.
Or not. Who can tell? To pore over the lyrics of a man who had software designed to randomise and cut up his musings for him seems obtuse, at least. But knowing what we know, we’ll see death around every corner.
Those who grew up and were impressionable during the early seventies have their Bowie. The appearance on Top Of The Pops when he and the Spiders (of whom Mick Woodmansey is now the only surviving (original) member) played ‘Starman’, dressed in lame and glitter and huge heels. Kids crossed over into a hitherto unseen vista of adulthood that night. People were transported to some other world, where the hair was vivid, the teeth a little crooked and the sway of those slim hips something neither male nor female. Something more. Something totally sex.
For years Generation Ziggy, who went on to grow through punk and post punk and quickly became the establishment, claimed ownership of Bowie. The received notion was that Bowie’s great work, his important work, was complete by 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. Sure, there were the odd tunes and ideas since, but nothing comes close to that body of work Bowie created between 1969’s The Man Who Sold The World and the aforementioned Scary Monsters. ’80s Pop Bowie was given short shrift. On the evidence of a couple of dud albums, there might be a point there. Tin Machine couldn’t buy a decent review. Then there was nostalgia Bowie. And so forth. The great minds that were once in thrall to the anti-establishment hummed and hawed over the proficiency of later Bowie. Sure, it was good, but it wasn’t transcendent. It wasn’t pre-emptive. It didn’t invent or reinvent. It didn’t manipulate pop or art. Basically, they grew up, and nothing was new or interesting anymore.
But with Blackstar it seemed that Bowie had re-found the ability to wow, to shock. To do the different. This was the moment he was braced upon the precipice of something, the album weighted with an ineffable sense of relevance, like all of Bowie’s greatest works. Even before his death was announced, the opinions were that this was a worthy work. His best in years. His best ever?
And then that text received on Monday morning, and this work is no longer the new Bowie. It is the last Bowie.
The start of the tune, with the understated and spaced out guitar, reminded me of the XX’s first album. But then the XX reminded me of The Cure, specifically Faith. And The Cure are total Bowie, men in make-up, dressed up, projecting personae. So in essence it’s Bowie referencing Bowie, parsed through the filter of 30 years of popular music. It’s essential Bowie. Distilled Bowie. Self referential Bowie.
Death Narrative: Lazarus is about death. As Bowie sings that he’s in Heaven now, with scars we cannot see, it seems clear he’s singing about his cancer, his imminent death. But Lazarus came back from the dead. That was his trick, a decent one to have. I prefer to read this as a triumphant note, Bowie claiming that death itself can’t contain him. He will come back. Because he’s still here, with me right now, just where I left him, in my head and in my speakers. Every time you or I or anyone on Earth puts on a Bowie record he will, Lazarus like, arise from the dead.
Bowie was born David Robert Jones in 1947 in London. Brixton, if you’re interested. His early years didn’t suggest that he was going to invent sex and drugs and space travel. That would come later. His most notable early achievement was getting his pupil paralysed in a scrap in the school yard. It looked cool. Also around this time he probably began to smoke cigarettes, which he also made look cool. He learnt a bit of saxophone, he worked on his quiff. He had yet to change the world.
After a few stints in some so-so combos, The Kon-Rads, The Lower Third and such, and a few singles that failed to fly out the door, David, still to change the world, got himself a new manager and changed his name from Jones to Bowie (so as not to be confused with Davy Jones of the Monkies) snagging a record deal with Deram. The manager was Tony Defries, who was a bit of a shit, and the record was okay, but not great. It did not chart. His first single as David Bowie, ‘The Laughing Gnome’ didn’t make it either. Thank god.
Bowie was unperturbed, unrepentant. He knew that time needed to catch up with him, not the other way around. He learned dance and mime, moved to Kent, became a folkie-hippy type and wore curtains. Then man landed on the moon and planet Earth decided that it needed an otherworldy alien type to look up to. Major Tom, Bowie’s first demagogue, arrived.
‘Space Oddity’ charted quite nicely. Bowie had bought himself some time. Presumably the record buying public were waiting around for more space-themed ditties about a cold lonely space-death, but Bowie, ever restless, wasn’t having it. He married Angie, had a son and met Mick Ronson and they put a band together, and from here on, it got interesting.
Breaking from the sex and drugs for a moment, Bowie and his band, Ronson, Tony Visconti who would also act as producer on bass, and Mick Woody Woodmansey tanning skins, recorded The Man Who Sold the World. It got decent reviews, but didn’t sell, and worse yet, it couldn’t be toured as there was no money in the coffers. No money for the band, that is. Bowie himself did America, hung out with Andy down the factory, swanned about like he’d invented cool. He came back armed with new songs, having honed his craft and sampled what the American audiences might be after. What followed was Hunky Dory, an album replete with marvellous pop tunes, from the wyrd and wordy (‘Quicksand’) to the baroquely dramatic (‘Life On Mars’) to spikily Reed-esque (‘Queen Bitch’). ‘Life on Mars’ did ok as a single, but the album wouldn’t shift. The band, and Bowie, remained in limbo.
In 1972 he introduced the Spiders From Mars to the world, featuring himself as Martian front man Ziggy Stardust. It was flamboyant and crazy, borrowing heavily from Bowie’s friend Marc Bolan and the Glam Rock prototype, but adding a brash, god-like alien into the mix which set it apart from everything else.
Then there was that moment on TOTP when everything changed. Everything. For ever. Bowie had now invented sex and rock and roll. He invented space travel. He transmogrified a generation of kids in an instant, the repercussions would be felt for decades.
Unprecedented success followed. The years blurred. So fecund was he during this time he was lending tunes to other people, resurrecting Mott The Hoople’s career with ‘All The Young Dudes’, adding his own sprinkle of bombast to the chorus, producing Lou Reed’s breakthrough Transformer, beautifully and adroitly sparkling on backing vocals on ‘Satellite of Love’, like gossamer baubles hung upon a thorny tree. Aladdin Sane followed The Rise and Fall, more hits fell out of that. The touring schedule was punishing, incessant. America, Japan, back to England.
Cracks began to show. Ziggy, the persona, had consumed Bowie the man. He needed to kill Ziggy. At the beginning of Ziggy’s short stay on this earth he warned that we had a mere Five Years before the earth was to be consumed and we were all to die. Ziggy didn’t make it long. By ’73 he was gone. Murdered on stage by Bowie himself as he announced that this was the last show The Spiders would ever do. ZIggy, or Bowie, had failed to let The Spiders know. Mick Woodmansey told me in an interview (read here) that in his shock and rage he threw a drumstick at Ziggy. Or Bowie. One of them anyway. He missed. Of course he missed. You cannot hit what is not there. The band played ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ and death was ruminated upon again. Real or metaphorical.
In the end, isn’t it all the same?