It was David Bowie’s half-brother Terry Burns who introduced him to contemporary jazz icons like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, inspiring Bowie to pick up the saxophone as his first instrument in 1961. Burns suffered serious mental health problems all his life. In 1985 he escaped from a mental hospital and laid down in front of an oncoming train. The saxophone has appeared periodically on songs throughout Bowie’s career and its presence infuses them with an unnerving madness and mystery, none more so than those of his new album Blackstar. This connection between Bowie’s music and personal life is nothing more than an educated guess. All we can do is infer from Bowie’s life-as-theatre, his music hinting at various meanings as he destroys one identity and constructs another. He leaves it all in the sound and vision and contradicts it again and again.
Bowie’s life was art, so why would his death be any different? On 10th January, his final album was utterly transformed. Many of the lyrics initially appeared to be a continuation of themes found in 2013’s The Next Day, of a man struggling with his art in an ageing body but with an eye to the future. The music felt like a return to those trailblazing years in the 70s when every album excavated the avant-garde into the mainstream. He had refused interviews and media attention in general for many years now, so the secrecy was nothing new. Now, it’s hard not to see a man raging against the dying of the light, burning and raving at close of day. On Blackstar, David Bowie stares into the abyss and shows us what he sees.
As bleak as that sounds, there is no hint of self-pity from Bowie. He pulls no punches with the opening title track, running for 10 minutes but feeling like half that. Gregorian chanting over breakbeat drums and that ominous saxophone turns to soul and synth and back again. Refusing to release the tension, Bowie shifts to experimental jazz with Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (reference for fellow English and Drama students), his voice straining over the frenzy of instruments whirling and colliding around him. Sue is similar in its breakneck pace and chaos but takes a darker, heavier tone, with closer allusion to his illness;
“Sue, the clinic called, the x-ray’s fine, I brought you home”
The song pairs with, Girl Loves Me, its biting lyrics in a strange dialect influenced by the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange. Side by side, they are the peak of the album’s conflict between nihilism and aesthetic beauty, Bowie cursing lost time, “where the f*** did Monday go?”.
On ‘Dollar Days’, beauty wins out and Bowie lets the mask slip in one of the most honest and vulnerable moments of his entire career. “I’m dying to”, only sung at the beginning and end of the chorus, exposed like an open wound, Bowie desperately reaches out to the listener; “don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”. The words are given crushing weight by the artist’s death, but the song builds to a blissful sigh of relief, acceptance and catharsis.
The closing track I Can’t Give Everything Away mercifully restores the distance between the man and the music. In creating this distance, Bowie inserts those myths and legends which have allowed him to reinvent himself so often. The public can never get a fix on what he is supposed to be and so he is free to choose with each album and this freedom, from everything except death, is what Bowie wrestles with on Blackstar‘s real beating black heart, Lazarus. The title refers to the Biblical figure brought back to life by Jesus four days after his death and this imagery becomes particularly poignant in the video, Bowie lying on a deathbed wrapped in sheets, blindfolded as he was in the Blackstar video. “Look at me, I’m in Heaven”, he floats above his bed, ascending. As he frenetically writes what might be a goodbye note, Bowie utters the defining lines of the album and his creative life;
Oh I’ll be free,
Just like that bluebird,
Oh I’ll be free,
Aint that just like me?
Four days after the release of the Lazarus video, the world awoke to the news that David Bowie had passed during the night. To us, Bowie was nothing more or less than what he gave to the world, and it will live even though he dies.