I’ve always seen idols as inanimate. A representation of something beautific and not the thing itself. The golden calf worshipped because of what it stood for, not because somebody spilled paint in the cow shed. I never saw the living as idols because idols can never die, they just go to sleep sometimes as fashions and beliefs evolve and mingle. You could even say that certainty and finality are key descriptors of what it means to be an idol; logically proving that any being still capable of further creation is disqualified from the label. An ending is what is needed to go from mere fame and success to that of a true idol. Something that can be worshipped in entirety with no room for unknowns and surprises. Curtains coming down on the show so we can pore over the whole of what we have experienced. The definitive stop that frees us to love fully and with authority. David Bowie has died.
Like many, I had only just had a moment to come to grips with his final release, Blackstar, before the confusing news came through. Like many, I had clearly set time and effort aside to laud the single greatest influence on my music and writing and was looking forward to today (Wednesday, when I post my little Appraisals) with happiness. Like many, I’m fighting the feeling of numbing inactivity. It actually feels a little silly, to be honest. But you know what? I set today aside to comment on this genuinely intriguing album so comment on it I shall. In light of what has happened it is nigh on impossible to talk about Blackstar without mentioning the (equally surprising) news that Bowie had been fighting cancer for 18 months. Many critics will no doubt read into all the imagery and lyrical tricksy-ness as Bowie writing his own eulogy (as in Lazarus) or somehow resigning himself to his fate through use of melancholy arrangements and sequences. While there is likely some truth in these ideas, we will frankly never know. To me one of the greatest album of his career came in 2002 with Heathen, an album with a far darker sound world and far bleaker lyrical content. Blackstar by comparison is positively upbeat! I also don’t see him as resigning himself to anything, but maybe that’s just the naïve fan in me, wanting my parent to come home.
I have to be honest, after The Next Day I really wasn’t expecting much from Bowie. He had gone into nostalgic mode with the David Bowie Is… exhibition dragging up his past and the album itself packed so full of past references that you could barely see the Bowie of now. However, Blackstar (the song) really, really intrigued me. It was still resolutely nostalgic for Bowie’s past (give 1.Outside a spin if you don’t believe me) but contained within it a hardened artistic purpose. You could even see the titular ‘Blackstar’ as a new, final persona; following the heels of Ziggy, Alladin etc. Though that said, his refusal to fit into any particular box (“I’m not a film star, I’m not a pop star” etc.) makes me think that for once the character of Bowie himself is stepping aside; allowing David Jones a moment to speak. I also have to be honest, I wasn’t taken with the jazz versions of ‘Tis a Pity She Was A Whore and Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime). Jazz was nothing new for Bowie (renowned Jazz pianist Mike Garson had been with him on and off since the 70s) and the singles seemed a wasted opportunity. Not so on Blackstar where he re-arranges them into fuller, thrusting moments that help accent the Brechtian delivery of his text. Because it is a text and not lyrics. Crafted words designed to take us on a journey and not lazily support the music. Lazarus as noted is a sad song that is likely about his cancer (“Look up here, I’m in heaven”), but musically it wouldn’t be out of place on Heathen.
This is the remarkable thing about these two final albums, you could transplant the songs into his earlier albums quite happily and nobody would be any the wiser. ‘Sue’ would fit on 1.Outside, ‘Tis A Pity’ on Black Tie, White Noise and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ even has the harmonica from Never Let Me Down. I see it that Bowie must have been trying to capture the essence of what it was to write and record these earlier albums. Wanting to feel how he had in his youth before he went. But this is where Blackstar differs from the Next Day; it is far more assertive with it’s personality. At least to me. It’s not a particularly difficult listen if you survived the 90s (which I implore you to go and listen to now) but it has focus and restraint, something lacking in it’s predecessor. It’s a truly great album. Not quite Scary Monsters, Low or Heathen (or for me 1.Outside) but definitely top 5.
To say he was one of the most inspirational artists is a given. To say that we are lost without him is foolhardy. There are untold amounts we can learn from the full career of David Jones now we can study it’s end. What we do now that he has finally become the incarnate idol he set out to be is up to us. I, for one, see it as a starting gun. A call to create the means to tear down the barriers which have worryingly crept up again. A call to be unique. A call to be something more.
You’ve all heard Blackstar. So let me know your thoughts, and by all means like and follow if you’ve enjoyed this ramble. Normal service will resume next week. Until then.