It is with astonishment as well as sadness that we have to comprehend the death of David Bowie. Like a great showman making his exit, a supreme magician vanishing amid his last great illusion, Bowie’s final act appears as masterfully and mysteriously staged as everything else in his extraordinary career.
“Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside,” he sings on Blackstar, the long, strange, elegiac title track of what he must have always known was going to be his final album, released on Friday, on his 69th birthday.
The surreal, funereal, long-form video opens with an image of a dead astronaut on an alien planet beneath an eclipsed sun, a smiley face pinned to his space suit. How we marvelled at it this teasing image of the final resting place of Major Tom, and wondered at the strange ritual of death and rebirth the video presented, as Bowie sang what now sounds like a cryptic, defiant farewell: “How many times must an angel fall?” he wonders. Is this his own epigraph: “He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud in the crowd: I’m a blackstar.”
What could he possibly mean? The lost Starman is a metaphor Bowie played with throughout a career in which he tangled with popular music with all the fascination and invention of an alien looking in from the outside. He was Ziggy Stardust and The Man Who Fell to Earth, the latter a character he revived for his final single and baffling off-Broadway musical, entitled (without explanation) after Lazarus, the Biblical character raised from the dead. “You know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird,” he sang in the wild, freefalling coda. Bowie must have surely known what was coming, as he wrote these songs and planned his final act.
Blackstar is a gorgeously strange album reaching back to Bowie’s first instrument, the saxophone, and rooted in his first musical love, free jazz, while pushing forwards, as he always did, into the unfathomable unknown. He recorded it in conditions of extreme secrecy, planned everything meticulously, from the simple, graphic cover art to the richly weird long-form video, and insisted it be released on his 69th birthday.
And what do we hear now when we play it? On the mournful ballad Dollar Days, he twists and repeats the phrase “I’m dying to” until it sounds like “I’m dying too”, and offers the sad refrain: “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me.” On the final track, he holds tight to his inner mystery as another man might cling to his last breath, repeating the title over and over: “I can’t give everything away.” There is no other way to listen to this now than as Bowie’s farewell. As such, it will rightly come to be regarded as among his greatest works.
It marks the end of one of the supreme careers in popular music, art and culture of the 20th century. “I’m a star’s star,” Bowie boldly proclaims on Blackstar, and that he certainly was. He had periods of big-selling rock and pop stardom, notably during his glam rock phase of the early 70s and the slick pomp of the early 80s, and always managed to craft a hit record when he most needed it, but Bowie was never really the kind of global multi-million selling superstar that his talent warranted.
Everyone in pop music admired Bowie, and every music fan probably owned something by him, but he was too inventive, too mercurial, too strange for all but his most devoted fans to keep up with. His music and often his image changed almost beyond recognition every few years, as he pressed forward on his own artistic adventure, just ahead of the pop curve.
From his first proper success with the cosmically audacious Space Oddity in 1969, it was as if he comprehended the whole pop game deeper and faster than anyone else. His output of 12 albums between 1970 and 1980 is unarguably among the greatest hot streaks in pop history, from the weird proto metal of The Man Who Sold the World (1970), through the quirky, kooky singer-songwriting of Hunky Dory (1971), the glam rock extravaganzas of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane and covers album Pin Ups (both 1973) and the slightly awkward Diamond Dogs (1974), the soulful warped disco grooves of Young Americans (1975) and Station to Station (1976), the alienated electronica of the Berlin trilogy of Low and Heroes (both 1977) and The Lodger (1979) to the richly weird and wondrous blend of world music, electronica and art rock of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980), there is music there of a depth and invention, wit and emotion that fans will be investigating until time immemorial.
You can play any of those albums today and they will sound as fresh and full of surprises as the day they were made. Bowie was on such a hot streak in the Seventies that he even produced Lou Reed’s finest album, Transformer, and produced and co-wrote both of Iggy Pop’s greatest albums, Lust for Life and The Idiot.
There was a long period after the worldwide pop smash of Let’s Dance in 1983 (concocted with Nile Rodgers because Bowie realised he needed a proper hit) when Bowie seemed to lose his sense of purpose and direction. There are wonderful singles from that time but few fully realised albums.
Yet his work in the 90s bears re-investigation as he found common ground with the new dance electronica grooves of drum and bass and the rich depths of the jazz music that first inspired him. What you always hear is an artist reaching deep inside and outside of himself for inspiration, never content to rest on his laurels and repeat himself ad infinitum.
As the fantastic V&A exhibition of 2013 demonstrated, Bowie was an omnivorous multi-faceted artist whose restless imagination incorporated the visual influences of fashion, film and painting, alongside the literary influences of beat poetry and a ground-breaking fascination with the technological.
He was a one-man melting pot of ideas, and in his synthesis of all the modern popular art forms into the most direct of all, pop music, he stood head and shoulders above anyone else in his field, if, indeed, there is anyone in his field.
His retirement, after a heart attack in 2004, was a sad loss to pop, but at least the man himself seemed content, enjoying a quiet family life with second wife Iman and their daughter Lexi in New York. Most of us never thought we would hear from him again.
His return in 2013 with The Next Day, somehow staged in complete secrecy, was arguably the greatest, most surprising and most welcome comeback in pop history. Bowie sounded invigorated and on top of his game with a rocky, swaggering album that drew on his past without being parodic.
It sounded like a grand parade of his extraordinary talents, a reminder of everything we missed and a hint of what was to come. We can only speculate now whether this was the first stage of a planned exit.
Last year he gave us Nothing Has Changed, his beautifully curated career-spanning retrospective. And now the follow-up, Blackstar, seems an undeniable farewell, a final grand gesture, in which the great star addresses his audience on the mysteries of life and death with some of the richest, strangest music of his entire career, and then disappears from the stage forever.
Bowie played his cards tight to his chest. Not even long-serving allies such as his publicist Alan Edwards at the Outside organisation or producer Tony Visconti were kept apprised of all his plans. It is unlikely that any but his closest personal friends and family were fully aware of the extent of his health issues.
Yet Visconti has described Blackstar as Bowie’s “parting gift”, there had been persistent unverified rumours about health problems within the music industry, and I suspect there must have been some in the higher echelons of his record company who had been allowed at least an intimation of what was coming, because they have been preparing for the release of what is actually a very strange, weird and complex record as if it is a sure-fire million-seller.
Which, under the circumstances, it is sure to be. Will Lazarus climb the charts to give Bowie a final hit single? How odd would that be, his passing commemorated in a song named after a man who came back from the dead? Or will we see the rise, once again, of his beautiful everyman epic, Heroes? “There’s nothing will keep us together/ We can steal time, just for one day…” Or perhaps a last outing for Space Oddity: “Planet earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do …” Or the message from Major Tom that underpinned Ashes to Ashes: “I’m happy, I hope you’re happy too…” There will be a lot of David Bowie music playing today, and all of it wrapped in a new sadness.
Bowie’s career is beyond fictionalisation, it has been the kind of mix of wild life and deep art that lends itself to myth. Like his great creation, Major Tom, we can imagine him spinning off into eternity, a lonely explorer on an endless mission into the vast unknown. “I think my spaceship knows which way to go…” It is hard to believe we have really heard the last of him, but the music he has left behind has such depths and mysteries we may never get to the bottom of it.