This is really happening.
On the 8th of January, 2016, David Bowie turned 69 years old and released his 27th studio album, entitled ★ (Blackstar). Two days later, the star had fallen and the world lost one of the most influential artists of our time. For his final bow, Bowie said goodbye to his fans with a seven track record, which at first was difficult to understand but now, given the context of Bowie’s 18-month battle with cancer, makes a world of sense. An artist in the flesh, he left us one last piece to dissect.
While every album he’s ever released has featured a photo of Bowie on the cover, the 2016 final record depicts a single black star. The title track explains: There “stands a solitary candle” and from it can light the world. The musical mood suddenly shifts from dark and satanic to light and beautiful, as the lyrics tell: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside.” The echoes of these lines leave us with a lingering thought, as he repeats, “I’m a blackstar,” and confirms, “I’m not a white star,” or anything else for that matter. The difference of what he is and what he is not certainly declares his irrefutable reputation as anything but common, a lone-standing black star, poignant to our eyes.
Perhaps the most chilling track from this farewell masterpiece is ‘Lazarus.’ “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” it begins, “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.” His untimely death came as a surprise to us all, having had no indicator that The Man Who Fell To Earth was knowingly going to return to the sky so soon. “This way or no way / You know I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now, ain’t that just like me?”. The fleet of a bird, reminiscent of a life to be liberated, carries the image of a freed Bowie.
The videos that accompany these two tracks are even more haunting. Though originally perceived as strange, without any public knowledge of his illness, the hospital bed themed dramatic series can now be understood as a representation of his final months of life. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer and long-time friend dating back to the 1960’s, shared that the artist knew his cancer was incurable for the last year, which explains why he’s been so artistically productive, and that Blackstar was his “parting gift.” He continues, “His death was no different from his life – a work of Art.”
These haunting images depict a struggling man, Bowie himself, blind with eyes of lifeless buttons, stepping out of a closet and into a dark hospital, soon to be confined to the nightmares of a hospital bed. The footage is drenched with symbolism, as a hand reaches out from under the bed and Bowie levitates above the mattress. A second Bowie appears and begins to dance around the room; this Bowie is clearly a liberated version of the singer. Sitting now behind a desk, he releases himself into a notebook, writing feverishly. The skull on the desk, a symbol for death. His need to express himself before he departs is evident.
Also included in the album are two previously released tracks from 2014, ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” to which he says “Good-bye” and ‘Tis a Pity She Was A Whore,’ which, according to his Facebook page, “acknowledges the shocking rawness of the First World War,” and gets its title from a play from the 1600s by John Ford.
Bowie continues his gender-fluid personality with the female-specific track name ‘Girl Loves Me’, which repeatedly poses the rhetorical question: “Where the fuck did Monday go?”, suggesting the fleeting quality of time ironically associated with today’s news of his passing. Elevated from this mess of today’s world, he sings, “I’m sittin’ in the chestnut tree / Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?”. After four tracks of experimental, strange music unlike anything else Bowie’s ever produced, this slightly poppier song brings us back to the glam rock icon’s roots. The rest of the lyrics in this song are difficult to interpret, as they are half Nadsat, the language used in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and half Polari, a slang language from gay clubs in 70s London (according to The New Yorker). This song makes less sense, but feels the most like Bowie on the album. For now, though, it’s something meaningfully meaningless just to enjoy.
The second to last song continues to send the messages he wishes the world to understand. ‘Dollar Days’ begins: “Cash girls suffer me, I’ve got no enemies”, perhaps eluding to his lifelong representation of the feminist activist and genderless attitude. In this war, he explains: “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again / I’m trying to / We bitches tear our magazines / Those Oligarchs with foaming mouths come now and then / Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you” and ends with the repeating phrase “I’m trying to, I’m dying to.” Bowie speaks, and people listen. His messages will never die.
By the time the last track begins, our fallen hearts look for one last thing to hold on to. ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ are his final words, though already he’s given so much. “Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant. That’s the message that I sent.” The musicality of this song provides feelings of drifting farewells. You can practically feel his soul rising to the sky, leaving Earth and returning to outer space. “I know something is very wrong. The pulse returns the prodigal sons. The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes.” Special, unique, a creature of his own kind, the man anticipates the departure of his own being and lets nobody know. Staging his death like a true rockstar, his passing becomes a message in itself – basically telling us I have nothing left to offer, he lends his final words, “I can’t give everything away.”
For so many, David Bowie was a hero. He defines “legend” in every possible way. The world was his stage and we were the guests of his museum of art. He stood up for many things, though perhaps the most defining representation was to be himself. The only thing I am left to wonder from his final performance in ‘Lazarus’ is, “How many times does an angel fall?”
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried”
Who could ever take his place?