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