David Bowie’s latest, and what turned out to be his last, album — Blackstar — was released merely two days before his death. Critics and reviewers were welcoming it as Bowie’s “comeback act”, the definitive return-to-form record of a musician who had been struggling to re-attain his lost magic for close to a decade.And then, all of sudden, everyone was made to see the new album in a completely different light. The comeback act was now being read as a “parting gift”, a “carefully calculated” valedictory performance by an artist who knew he was dying. Blackstar, we are now being told, is replete with Bowie’s farewell notes. One of the songs begins with the words, “Look up here, I am in heaven”; another goes, “Something happened on the day he died”.
On the day Bowie died, I happened to be listening to his new album while driving down to work. The songs of Blackstar, particularly the eponymous track, seem to me, right at the outset, to have that distinctively eerie quality — making them lodge permanently in memory — that Bowie’s early classics are known for. There’s something off-balance, something sonically asymmetrical about his music. The best of his songs — like Ashes to Ashes from his 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) or Sound and Vision from the 1977 album Low — evoke a sense of imbalance in the listener. Looking at an early Cubist painting, by Picasso or Braque, comes close to this experience. In Blackstar, we can hear (or see) all the skewed perspectives, the illusions of depth and idiosyncrasies of Bowie’s music when it was in his prime.
What many had earlier thought the new album to be lacking was one quality central to the Bowie oeuvre: theatre. The album cover of Blackstar became the first in Bowie’s career not to carry his photograph at all. Some pointed out that there were no alter-egos of the artist featured here — like Ziggy Stardust, say — forgetting that David Bowie itself was a stage persona assumed by this energetic working-class boy from Brixton named David Robert Jones, who had funny teeth and whose eyes, like his music, were curiously out of kilter.
These were some of the things running in my head when I arrived to work on the day he died. And then something happened. Bowie was dead, screamed newspaper headlines around the world. Social media went berserk. There were live Twitter updates on the event. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, had things to say about Bowie’s demise. As did the culture minister of the Vatican, quoting words from what could be Bowie’s most ungodly of songs, Space Oddity.
In some public tributes, Bowie was also being credited for changing people’s lives with some song or the other. He was being called a “secular saint”, an angel descended from heaven, or a “man who fell to earth”, as one of the films in which Bowie acted in the 1970s was called. Bowie’s death, in other words, injected a dose of spectacle, of theatre, in the event that had preceded it by two days: the release of Blackstar. The only thing more dramatic would have been for him to die on the very day his album came out. One can imagine the kind of response that would have elicited from the general public.
Bowie’s death injected a dose of spectacle, of theatre, in the event that had preceded it by two days: the release of Blackstar. The only thing more dramatic would have been for him to die on the very day his album came out.
If what actually happened wasn’t as dramatic, it was dramatic enough to establish that Bowie’s final alter-ego was to be that of a dead artist, in whose shadow his last work — and everything he did prior to that — is now going to be assessed. This poses a particular problem for me personally, since I have never listened to Bowie’s music, in all these years, with any attention paid to its much-vaunted theatrical qualities. And I suspect the reason Bowie became such a popular icon — not least after his death — has very little to do with his music, and very much to do with certain peripheral questions that his music is often supposed to be posing: questions concerning identity, personality, marginal lives and political change.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the city of Berlin was preoccupied with similar questions, and it therefore loomed large in Bowie’s imagination. Three of his best albums — Low, Heroes and Lodger — are today recognised as part of Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy”. Some of his most political lyrics are present in these. “I can remember,” he wrote in Heroes. “Standing by the Wall. And the guns shot over our heads. And we kissed, as though nothing could fall.” When Bowie was singing these words live one day in 1987, in West Berlin, a huge crowd had reportedly built up on the eastern side of the Wall. Bowie had begun the performance with the words, “We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall”. It was only a week after Bowie’s performance, and roughly from the same spot, that Ronald Reagan issued his famous statement to the leader of the Soviet Union: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.”
It counts for something that a day after Bowie’s death, the German Foreign Office had tweeted the following on its official handle: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are among the Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” Bowie had gone to Berlin, with the musician Iggy Pop, in search of a new form, a new creative spark. And by the time he left the city, after spending some three years there, he already had a good share of his best work behind him, and the reputation of an international celebrity tacked onto him.
He understood, or at least tried hard to understand, what fame can do to an artist. In his song Fame, which features John Lennon (another casualty of mass culture and global celebrity), Bowie sang: “Fame, puts you there where things are hollow.” If some of the obituaries and gushing tributes celebrating “the one Bowie song that forever changed my life” ring a little hollow today, one can derive solace from the fact that Bowie had already foreseen this. He had always known that personalities and personas of an artist will all be forgotten one day — hence he himself never stuck to any of his alter-egos and always strove for creative regeneration. Most importantly, he had known that the music, if it’s any good, shall live on, and that this is the closest an artist can ever come to true immortality. The rest, as the poet said, is silence.