Blackstar – The Beauty of David Bowie
David Bowie died on January 10th. For me, he leaves behind him a mixed, but wondrous legacy; the work of a man who was in a state of perpetual growth and change. He adopted personas and pursued the latest trends, shaping the language of pop with a casual, almost dismissive air. He was beloved by many as the king of glam and one of the greatest musical stars who ever lived, but his life went so much further than that; touching on film, theater, and literature. But Bowie’s output was always just a little dark—as though the message was somewhere just beyond the rainbow glitz, the casual swagger, and the harmonic wail we all loved. After all, we could only appreciate the show. The man behind the words and the music was hidden from us. And now that he’s passed, we look back with a certain wonder at the strange plethora of artifacts that he left behind.
The last of these is an album called Blackstar. And as is always the case when commemorating a life, it’s bittersweet. The title track, and indeed, the album was Bowie’s final effort to tell us something about the man behind those haunting eyes. And I am humbled at this final gift—it is a fitting end to a complicated and wonderful story.
David Bowie never told us his name. He dropped the one he was given early on in order to avoid being confused with another musician, and went on to create identity after identity, pulling a fascinated public along behind him. We couldn’t help but love him because for Bowie himself, we weren’t adoring fans that needed him. Rather, he wanted to show us something, and something in him needed to know that we saw it too. So he tried again and again, each reinvention giving us some new object of fascination.
Everyone who cared loved something different about David Bowie, but often as an object of intense curiosity. My own story might sound familiar to some. I fell for Bowie with the release of his art/rock album Outside in 1995. I was young, and had been particularly compelled by the music video for “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.” It’s disturbing. I’ll wait.
I was going through a phase; I think Bowie was too. I bought the album, and settled into Bowie’s unique rhythm.
Looking back at it, I’d be hard pressed to actually recommend Outside to anyone I know today. It’s a hard thing to listen to—especially if you think that Bowie did his best work back with Cher or as Ziggy Stardust. The album was an experiment that combined a rather morbid short story with a set of strange and seldom toe-tapping soundscapes backing up its detached narrative. I was struck by this thing that I felt I almost could appreciate but not quite. It was probably the first memory I have of falling for something that I had to learn to like. It also started my relationship with Bowie. He was a pop star who suddenly, and for an experiment never repeated, interested me personally. I found myself wanting to know more. I wanted to see what he tried next.
In the meantime, I checked out his older stuff, but for the most part I remained detached. I had to accept that Ziggy wasn’t my thing. Nor I did I properly understand Space Oddity—it felt dated. I loved Earthling, even though more serious Bowie fans told me that I didn’t get him and should feel betrayed somehow. The next thing I remember was that Hours… felt tired no matter how much I adored “All the Pretty Things are Going to Hell.” I like it better now; in college I’m not sure that I understood I tired I would soon be. But after that, his work became a blur of bits and pieces.
After that, the internet came along and I started to follow Bowie as an important collaborator for other up-and-coming artists. I checked out the odd album of course, but nothing really caught me the same way. Still, I couldn’t help develop an enormous respect for his care and stunning energy. By the time his cancer took him, I was waiting patiently for a tour to bring him to my town and randomly checking up on him through Youtube. In other words, I understand that my fandom spiked during one of his brief experiments. Even when I didn’t feel it the same way, I always wanted to know what he was going to do next. So I stayed with him. I was under the same spell that he’d woven over countless others. He was a living experiment, a man who seemed to be searching for the perfect symbol of an ever-evolving self-expression. It was an absurd project, one that was by definition impossible, and I was a fan. So when he died, I had to hear his last words. And with them, David Bowie reminded me why I loved him.
The album Blackstar is a eulogy, an apology, and a moment of supreme gratitude. David Bowie has staged the perfect ending, with all the melancholy that brings. Bowie lived a life of incredible creative generosity, and no other artist I know has ever tried so hard or risked so much to give us something that we would love. Whoever else David Bowie was, Blackstar is the final act of a creative soul who met death in a state of deep self-awareness. And if he ever touched your life, you should listen—it will mean something to you, no matter when or why he caught your eye. As I sit here, gazing at the stunning array produced by David Robert Jones, later Ziggy Stardust, and ultimately David Bowie, I hope to make out the faintest outlines of that animating spirit – the black star that held everything else in place. Because it’s given us all that it can, for the rest we must look to ourselves.