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  1. Of course it wasn’t just another “Juke Box musical”, this one was by Bowie ! Juke Box Musical has become a catch all term for musicals written around the music of a single artist and that is what “Lazarus” is, but…Bowie was involved from this ones inception and made his final public appearance at the New York premiere on 7th December 2015.

    I haven’t seen “Lazarus” but the story is a continuation of that of Thomas Jerome Newton set after the events of “The Man Who Fell To Earth”. Based around 13 songs from Bowie’s career, an excerpt from “Sound And Vision” plus 4 new songs ("Lazarus" (at the time “Blackstar” had yet to be released so it was a new song), "No Plan", "Killing A Little Time" and "When I Met You”. Versions of these songs by Bowie were included on the Original Cast recording album) the story is loosely that Newton is a man trapped on earth, he cannot die, but then meets another person who may bring all that to an end. I’ve also read that the case of the murder of Baby Grace Blue from “1. Outside…” is resolved.

    Included in the show are songs from right across Bowie’s career from “The Man Who Sold The World” right up to “Blackstar”. The cast recording was made on on 11th January 2016, the day after Bowie’s passing, and the cast were told as they arrived at the studio. It’s interesting to hear the songs sung by others in a different setting. The versions of “Life On Mars ?” and “All The Young Dudes” stand out, but it’s far from essential listening, apart from the new songs, and it really doesn’t throw any light on the story the songs are used to support. 

    The three new songs were recorded as part of the “Blackstar” sessions with the band of Donny McCaslin’s quartet and Ben Monder on guitar. Very much in the style of that album the stand out is “When I Met You”. They were the last new music we would ever hear from David Bowie.

    When I Met You - https://youtu.be/5fDy-mRGFkw

  2. Monday the 11th of January 2016 was a big day for me. After 53 years on this planet I was finally booked in for my driving test. I had a plan for the day. No distractions, clear my mind and concentrate on the task ahead. Turn off my phone, no TV or news to wind me up. The previous Friday Bowie had released another new album he had recorded in secret, “Blackstar”, (remind me yet again all you internet era pop singers WHO leaked your new album online ???) so I was going to download that, listen and then head off for my driving test. As I reached over for my phone to turn it off a text message notification from an old friend flashed up on the screen “Terrible news about Bowie mate”.

    Of course I had to go and find out what he was on about. And that’s how I found out that David Bowie had left us. 

    I don’t usually get affected or upset by the passing of people I don’t know. But this time it got me. I guess if you’ve read what I’ve had to say here about him you have an idea of what he and his art (and make no mistake, what Bowie did was art not just music) have meant to me. But in typical Bowie style he went out on his own terms. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer 18 months earlier but kept it from all except those closest to him. The musicians and engineers working on “Blackstar” had again signed non-disclosure agreements to prevent them talking about the album or Bowie’s medical situation. He threw himself into new work, producing one of his greatest and boldest records.

    The opening song “Blackstar” is one of his most challenging, brilliant, dense, dark and at the same time beautiful creations. It’s a song in 3 movements. The opening section is like music from somewhere else, equal parts the culmination of the musical framework he’d been building since 1993, a knowing nod to the influence of the later work of his friend Scott Walker and the work of a master craftsman of song. It’s unsettling, not quite in the framework of music as we expect it, off kilter ? Then suddenly what starts as a jarring, otherworldly piece lacking in melody breaks out into just that, a beautiful tune emerges sung in that fragile voice from “Where Are We Now” before the song brilliantly morphs back to its opening but this time in more expected time signatures and yet more melody is revealed from that jarring start. It’s an incredible song and just the thought that in the last days of his time with us he had the creative urge to produce music this forward reaching and flat out wonderful with everything he had already achieved and all that was happening to him brings a lump to my throat and, at the same time, a smile to my face. The importance of this song in Bowie’s catalogue cannot be undersold and the fact that he created this as the opening song on what he knew would be his final record takes a lot of comprehending. 

    Two tracks from “Blackstar” had been released previously but were re-recorded for the album. “'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” had been the b-side of a single release of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” in November 2014. Bowie had approached arranger, composer, and big-band leader Maria Schneider about recording together. She in turn recommended Bowie seek out Donny McCaslin and his band which Bowie did and went to see them with Tony Visconti at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. They were suitably impressed and it is McCaslin on Sax and the rest of his quartet, bass player Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Guiliana and pianist Jason Lindner who make up the core band on “★ (Blackstar)”. I’ve no idea what “'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is about, it has been suggested it concerns slavery, I really don’t know. “Sue…”, which opens Side 2, tells of a couple and joy leading to sorrow via infidelity and murder. The musical setting of both is like almost nothing Bowie had created before.

    Side 1 closes out with another song of great import, “Lazarus”. The references to the dying man rising from the dead or going to hell, whichever Bible story you choose, are obvious. But it clearly held great importance for its creator as he made the albums 2nd cryptic video for the track. He also titled his “juke box musical” after the song and it was the opening song in that musical. The lyric has been picked apart for portents of impending departure (“Look up here, I'm in heaven”, “Oh, I'll be free, Just like that bluebird”), I’m not going to do that. Again it’s an incredible song and like much on this album reveals more of itself with repeated listenings.

    “Girl Loves Me” was worked up from a demo created by Bowie alone and the first verse, which sounds like nonsense, is sung in a mash up of Nadsat (the gang language of “A Clockwork Orange”) and Polari (the secret language of the gay community in London for over 100 years). The languages of the underground, gangs, youth and possibly criminals harking back to Ziggy Stardust, the gangs of “Diamond Dogs” Hunger City, the Dirty Boys of “The Next Day” and the made up lyrics he sang on “Low”. What we hear first is

    Cheena so sound, so titty up this malchick, say

    Party up mood, naddy vellocet round on Tuesday

    Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday

    Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday

    No I don’t know either but seemingly more reflection on a life past and clues to what he’s been telling us all this time.

    “Blackstar” is a very dark and brooding record. There’s not a lot of soaring, joyous melody here until you get to the closing pair of “Dollar Days” and “I Can't Give Everything Away”. The first of those is quite lovely, hung around the lyric “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to”. Reflection, from a man who knows his journey is close to an end, thinking of going home but knowing he’ll never see home again.

    The album finishes with “I Can't Give Everything Away” and is that in itself a challenge to his audience to decipher what he’s been telling us here ? It seems so from the lyrics

    Seeing more and feeling less

    Saying no but meaning yes

    This is all I ever meant

    That's the message that I sent

    The musical settings for “Blackstar” are sparse, intimate and very different to almost everything that went before. The idea that a man who knew he was dying threw himself into the creation of this masterpiece is remarkable. And make no mistake, “Blackstar” stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best Bowie ever gave us. I’ve described him more than once during this series of write ups as “the greatest Rock Star of our lifetimes” and he held that up right until the end, it leaves a hole that we will never hear new music from him again but what a way to bow out (star) man.

    “Blackstar” - https://youtu.be/kszLwBaC4Sw

    P.S. In case you were wondering, I failed my driving test

  3. Since “Heathen” Bowie had released “Reality” in 2003 (another I don’t currently own in the popular vinyl format), had a heart attack, retired from live performance and was living the life of a happily married man in New York City with his wife and daughter. To all appearances he had quietly “retired”. 

    Then one morning in January 2013, ten years since we’d heard a peep from him musically, he released a new single and there was news of a new album. The greatest Rock star of our lifetimes had recorded a new album, in the heart of New York City and NOBODY KNEW !!! (remind me again all you internet era pop singers WHO leaked your new album online ???).

    The album was recorded under a cloak of secrecy. Musicians, studios, studio staff were told to keep schtum and asked to sign Non Disclosure Agreements. The first studio booked leaked the news to a photographer and the booking was immediately cancelled (way to go guys !). Those involved were people Bowie had worked with before and he trusted, Tony Visconti, drummers Sterling Campbell and Zachary Alford, guitarists Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick. 

    The first anybody else heard was the release of “Where Are We Now”. Its video was released to the world at 5am GMT on Tuesday 8th January 2013, Bowie’s 66th birthday, via his website. There was also news that you could buy the track as a download and it would be followed by a new album. The media world went crazy, after 10 years Bowie was back. News programmes gave him the kind of coverage usually reserved for Royal or Presidential visits or births or weddings, or deaths. He did no promotion for the single, he didn’t have to. 

    “Where Are We Now” is beautiful, sung in a very fragile manner by an obviously older Bowie. He appears in the video for the most part as the face on the head of a doll and when he finally appears in the video in full, leaning against a wall wearing a t-shirt bearing the legend “…song of Norway” (the title of the film ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale scored a part in that caused her to leave him and inspire the song “Letter To Hermione” in the late 60’s trivia fans) it’s a shock to see this older man. On the surface the song is a reflection of his time in Berlin in the late 70’s. But it feels like more, a lament to something lost, something to lose. After the initial surprise of a new release it feels like exactly the sort of music an older David Bowie should be making, haunting, sedate and I’m sure the word ethereal got chucked about a lot in contemporary reviews. But it was a strange choice as a single as it’s not really representative of the whole album.

    As an album “The Next Day” is a quite uptempo, if doom laden, affair. The lyrics are dark and allude to death, violence, oppressive tyrants and carnage. Apart from maybe a couple of songs there’s nothing else as maudlin or downtempo as “Where Are We Now”. Other singles taken from the album were “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, title track “The Next Day”, the superb “Valentine’s Day” which has the feel of a sequel to “Absolute Beginners” with darker subject matter and “Love Is Lost”. Side 1 (“The Next Day” was issued in a number of different formats, the one we’re dealing with here is the 2xLP, 17 track DeLuxe Edition) is positively rollicking. The title track, which would have sat easily on “Low” or “Heroes”, is followed by the sleaze of “Dirty Boys” who could well have been inhabitants of Poachers Hill and LoveMe Avenue, the pop thrill of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “Love Is Lost” reportedly Bowie’s favourite on the album and a contender for its title. They leave you in no doubt Bowie is back with a lot to say.

    After “Where Are We Now ?” Side 2 gives us more pop wonder with “Valentine’s Day”, seemingly, a look inside the mind of a high school mass shooter, and then one of my favourites on the whole record “If You Can See Me”. It was originally at the dead centre of the initial 14 track release and harks back to the lyrical themes of “1. Outside”, sacrifice, serial killing and an old favourite, vengeful gods (see “Saviour Machine”). Side 2 comes to a close with the floaty “I’d Rather Be High” sung from the point of view of a young soldier at the battle front (a subject previously approached in “Running Gun Blues”).

    I’m not going to step-by-step you through every track, the second half of the album includes highlights like “The Boss Of Me” and “(You Will) Set the World On Fire”, if you are unfamiliar with it then I urge you to have a listen. If Bowie had just issued the first 8 tracks as an album after 10 years (asleep) it would have been more than we ever expected and a great return. The fact that he put together (in this case) a 17 track album which was followed by “The Next Day Extra EP” which had a further 5 new  songs (according to Tony Visconti there is more, another 7 “songs”, that didn’t get finished) points to the creative fountain that had poured out of him over the 2 years it took to record “The Next Day”.

    Even after the albums release Bowie kept quiet. He did no interviews leaving Visconti and the musicians involved to talk to the press about “The Next Day”. The closest he came to speaking about the record was responding to an e-mail request from author Rick Moody for a list of words to help explain the themes of the album, a thesaurus to guide you through the album if you like. Moody says he asked in hope, never really expecting a response. Bowie replied and supplied a list of 42 words by e-mail with no further explanation. You can see the list at https://www.bowiebible.com/albums/the-next-day/2/.

    There was a running joke with Bowie since the release of “Black Tie White Noise” in 1993 that journalists would describe each subsequent album as “his best since “Scary Monsters””. To me that was “Earthling” but “The Next Day” was definitely the best since “Earthling” and stands amongst his very best.

    If You Can See Me - https://youtu.be/hPsn5Y0Np8c