Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
Blackstar

Today we remember David Bowie on what would have been his 72nd birthday with a look back at his final release, Blackstar.Ed.

David Bowie, rock’s most famous and talented changeling, is dead at age 69. I know, I can’t wrap my mind around it either. He played such an influential role in my teen years; if I was driving around in my brother’s Volkswagen Rabbit with my pals Dan, Ben, and Keith, we were no doubt passing a joint and listening to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Or Aladdin Sane. Or Hunky Dory. Or you get the idea.

Over the years Bowie took on new identities, going from glam rocker to soul man to experimental creator (thanks to the help of one Brian Eno) of expressionistic mood pieces. If he wasn’t setting a trend he was horning in on one, but he always maintained his status as an auteur and avant gardist. I remember it as if it were yesterday the shock I felt when I first heard Young Americans and Station to Station, soul rock moves he made in accordance with his uncanny ability to predict new trends and coldly abandon moribund ones (see glam).

I more or less wrote him off during the “Let’s Dance” period, and stopped listening. And I was appalled by his video with Mick Jagger, in which they fopped about like coked-up poofters to a fey version of “Dancing in the Street.” And let’s not even talk about Tin Machine. Besides, I was too busy listening to the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and too many other bands to pay the abominable “Modern Love” Bowie any attention. In short, I resigned my position of a lover of all things Bowie and moved on.

But I’m back, and blown away by his final LP, Blackstar, which long-time Bowie associate Tony Visconti described as a “parting gift” from the Thin White Duke, who fought a secret 18-month long battle with cancer. On Blackstar Bowie openly sings about his imminent death, making it perhaps the famously alienated fall-to-earthling’s most directly honest—and moving—statement of his long career. The LP—released on his birthday, only two days before his death—makes none of the concessions to pop stardom that disaffected me way back when he was singing, “put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” With nothing to lose he lets loose on his experimental side, which is not to say the LP is a difficult listen. It’s anything but.

While several of the tunes—most notably the long title track and the haunting “Lazarus”—are the dark statements of a man going into the final darkness—others, such as “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are less lugubrious musically, despite Bowie’s statement in the former song that “I’m dying too” and the final will and testament that is the latter song. Could he be any more direct and self-revealing? And this from a man who spent his entire life hiding behind one personae or another.

The title cut establishes the LP’s tone—lots of saxophone by Donny McCaslin, dark musical hues that bring back memories of Diamond Dogs, and Bowie utilizing that inimitable voice of his. “Blackstar” boasts several great sax solos, lots of odd beats, and a funereal tone that morphs in the middle of the tune to a symphonic and beautiful melody that has Bowie singing, “Something happened on the day he died,” before repeating “I’m a black star.” It may be Bowie’s most avant garde tune in years, and I can’t hear its cryptic lyrics (“We were born upside down/Born the wrong way round”) and eerie backing vocals and blurting horns without feeling that we have all lost something vital, something that made all of our lives better.

“’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”—he swiped the title from John Ford, a great 17th Century playwright, objects this former English major—opens on a hard rock note, then morphs into a frenetic sax- and percussion-dominated pop tune that includes the great lines, “Man she punched me like a dude” and the cryptic lines, “Black struck the kiss/She kept my cock.” Ouch. “Dollar Days” is elegiac and beautiful, with the sax riding atop Jason Lindner’s piano before the song picks up speed and falls into a great chorus, while “I Can’t Give It All Away” boasts a similarly catchy melody over which Bowie delivers a killer vocal performance. “This is all I ever meant/This is the message that I sent,” sings Bowie, and it seems to me that he’s singing about his famous detachment. He was separated from the rest of us by an impregnable wall of alienation—his very own Maginot Line—that kept him from giving himself away, and this is his confession.

“Girl Loves Me” is an oxymoron—a funky dirge characterized by lots of heavy echo on Bowie’s vocals and a bass as heavy as heaven. The chorus is string-dominated, Bowie keeps asking, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and Mark Guiliana is one hell of a drummer. “Sue (Or a Season in Crime)” is another funky number with one fathoms-deep bass, a tremendous sax, and more great drumming by Guiliana. “The x-ray’s fine” sings Bowie, referring to his cancer, then, “Sue, goodbye” as the song flits along, Guiliana slowly going berserk on drums.

“Lazarus” is the LP’s centerpiece, both literally and figuratively. It opens like a Joy Division song, before the song moves funkwards to the accompaniment of some downer saxophone. “Look up here I’m in Heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” sings Bowie, then Guiliana takes over on sax as Bowie sings, “By the time I’d got to New York/I was living like a king/There I used up all my money/I was looking for your ass.” I guess he was past sugarcoating things, as when he sings about his approaching demise, “Oh, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me.” Meanwhile the song drones onward, lovely and dark, as haunted as Robert Frost’s woods.

It’s impossible to sum up what the loss of David Bowie means to me and so many others. It’s sublimely ironic that his eloquent and detached vocals touched the outsider in all of us, granting us the great gift of connection, which is the best we can hope for in this life. It’s similarly ironic that Bowie, the ultimate shape-shifter, should have helped make so many of us who we are. If he never gave it all away, as he confesses on Blackstar’s final track, he gave more than enough. He understood, perhaps better than anyone, E.M. Cioran’s aphorism that “To be is to be cornered,” and he spent his entire career adroitly evading the expectations of his public through the trap door of his fathomless musical curiosity.

As E.M. Cioran also noted about great artists, Bowie was wise in his determination not to be understood; in the stutter rock classic “Changes” he wonders how others “must see this faker,” then adds, “I’m too fast to take that test.” He was an enigma, a changeling, a faker, and yet; when all is said and done he meant it when he said, “Look out all you rock’n’rollers,” because personae or no personae, and despite all the shifts in character, Bowie was a great rocker who rarely failed to deliver on the goods, and he leaves behind a legacy of music that I love almost as much I love the work of Bob Dylan, to whom Bowie once wrote a love song. But that’s that. Bowie is gone. So hang on to yourselves, people, because this ain’t no Moonage daydream. From here on in we’re on our own, because Bowie has officially arrived in Suffragette City, and we, for better or worse, can’t afford the ticket.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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