When news of David Bowie’s demise broke this week, it was hard not to think of it in artistic terms. And that’s not even taking into account the whole aspect of Bowie’s onstage persona as a being not of this world, therefore not subject to normal rules of humanity.
The past week has seen an incredible series of events, starting with Bowie’s release of an album called “Blackstar” (ISO/Columbia), filled with dark musings about mortality – on his 69th birthday, no less. Then seemingly out of nowhere, his death from cancer was announced two days later.
One “Blackstar” song is called “Lazarus” and has a video showing the singer blindfolded on his deathbed, declaring himself “in heaven” with “scars that can’t be seen.” Funny thing, “black star” is medical terminology for a cancer lesion.
“Lazarus” is also the title of the recently opened off-Broadway musical co-written by Bowie as an update of his 1976 star vehicle “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” It stars Raleigh native Michael C. Hall as a latter-day version of Bowie’s Thomas Jermone Newton character, a man trapped because he cannot die.
Given the Biblical legend of Lazarus, who Jesus restored to life, it’s tempting to ask: How could this not be Bowie’s latest and greatest transformation? Surely he’ll be coming back to life any minute now.
Alas, here’s where art comes up against reality. Even though crackpot conspiracy theories are flying, there’s no reason to believe Bowie didn’t die.
But in the fanfare that always accompanies the death of such mega-celebrities in the modern age, Bowie has never been more present than he has in the past week. Both mainstream and social media have pretty much been a non-stop Bowie highlight reel since word of his death got out.
“I’m really happy to see this outpouring,” dB’s co-founder Peter Holsapple said on Monday. “Facebook has been unbelievable, there’s almost no post that isn’t about David Bowie. But it’s wonderful for people to celebrate him this way. I’m going into the studio today to start a record, and thinking about this certainly plays into my plan to try to do something musical this year because I can. I want to do this until I can’t. It’s obvious that that’s what Bowie did, and we’re all the richer for it.”
The face of strange
Death always wins in the end, but Bowie probably came as close as any mortal ever will to controlling his own life-to-death narrative. You’d expect nothing less from someone who has been a master of reinvention for half a century, cycling through one guise after another – earnest folkie, glam-rock alien, Philly soul man, chilly technocrat, electronic elder statesman and beyond.
“Turn and face the strange,” Bowie declared in his 1971 statement of purpose “Changes,” and he made himself the face of strange.
Through all his phases and stages, the one constant was Bowie’s own self-assured confidence that he could conjure up worlds and make them inviting enough for others to want to go there. Even his failed records (and he had a few among his 25-album catalog) never suffered from tentativeness.
“Whenever you think you’re being revolutionary, chances are David Bowie or Grace Jones has already done it,” said Anne-Claire Niver, a 25-year-old singer from Greensboro. “He was one of the first people who embodied what ‘fabulous’ was for me – the act of performance, being 200 percent of some version of yourself. It will be weird and some things might not go over the way you want. But he seemed to be in a world all his own, not giving a lick what others thought.”
Bowie was inspirational to multiple generations of artists following in his wake, especially Madonna (who is impossible to imagine without his influence) and Nine Inch Nails. But he also left an equally strong mark about how to win by staying true to oneself.
“He was the guy who did impossible things in front of us all, an experimentalist who was also accepted by the proverbial masses,” said John Custer, Grammy-nominated producer for Corrosion of Conformity, Cry of Love and many others. “Growing up around Cary when I did was like a Klan meeting without the hoods, everybody listening to ‘both kindsa music, AC/DC and Skynyrd.’ Listening to Bowie or Queen was like declaring one’s homosexuality. But if you were at a pool hall, all those guys somehow knew when to yell wham bam thank you m’am when ‘Suffragette City’ came up on the jukebox. Everybody loved David Bowie whether they’d admit it or not.”
Bowie’s last word
Given the way the record industry operates, there will probably be troves of unreleased music from Bowie on the way soon. Nevertheless, “Blackstar” deserves its place as Bowie’s own last word, an album that manages to sound both comfortable and doomy at the same time.
“Blackstar” is basically Bowie ghosting on us, a goodbye no one knew was farewell until after he was gone. The music is typically idiosyncratic, melding electronic textures with experimental jazz. Donny McCaslin’s wildly squawking saxophones and flutes flutter around the periphery, sounding almost panicky. But the calming, pulsing heartbeat at the center holds it all together.
The lyrics and videos to the title track and “Lazarus” are getting most of the attention, given their obvious allusions to Bowie’s impending death. But they come at the beginning of the album. Go to the last song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which has a gliding arrangement that sounds brighter and more upbeat than anything else on “Blackstar.”
And of course, Bowie himself delivers the only benediction he’ll ever need.
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
I can’t give everything