Bowie, ‘Blackstar,’ and a Thank You

Saying more and meaning less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent.
—David Bowie, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

“Something happened the day he died,” sings one character in David Bowie’s longest single, “Blackstar,” which was released as a video in November 2015. At the moment he sings that line in the video, Bowie is a preacher holding aloft a religious book with a black star on its cover. He holds his hands prayerfully and sings earnestly, in the earnest way that signals that lies, or at least complicated truths, are about to be spoken.

Until today, the video and song were simply complex, a piling-on of images and references (the album is also called “Blackstar,” but the album cover only has a black star on it, not the word itself, along with portions of diamond shapes that spell out “BOWIE”), each of which was winking at the other and at past Bowie images and references. (Is the bejeweled skull in the video Major Tom?)

Reviewers and David Bowie experts were just starting to tuck into the multi-layered music and video meal that he had laid out this winter with two videos totaling 15 minutes and a seven-song album released on his birthday, which was Friday. But today is the day David Bowie died, though, or the day the news came out, and for a day at least, every one of the many available interpretations his music and recent work may fire up in one’s mind is filtered through that sad fact. We now know that he recorded the album and the videos knowing that this work was to be his epitaph and not a signal of future directions that his musical interests might take him.

Bowie was an artist for whom public image was one more tool in his expansive repertoire. A personal exit as artistic statement? In a life of many triumphs, this is one more, one last triumph. It is a selfish thing to say that one wishes an artist who produced so much—more than 25 albums, hundreds of songs, memorable acting performances on Broadway and in films and in his videos, an early Internet presence—would not leave us wanting more. But there you have it. I do. Sixty-nine is too young.

* * * *
When I was a teen, I knew one thing about my existence and I was certain that I was successfully keeping it a secret: I hated being a teen (sometimes hated being, period), and felt like life as a human being was something you adults were forcing on me. More than any other rock star, David Bowie intimidated me because his message, in guise after guise, appeared to be that one does not need to “be” anything, that one can be anything and sometimes everything, as long as one is. Thus, he seemed to know my secret, and that was intimidating.

I wanted to be an alien, but that was supposed to be my secret. I felt alienated, and that feeling does not allow one to notice that we all feel alienated. Besides, he really seemed to be an alien.

Also, he was damn prolific, in both musical output and images. Which David Bowie was going to hold my attention? Which David Bowie was holding his own attention?

As a result, I did not start listening to and absorbing Bowie (other than the dozen or so songs every “classic rock” FM station played) until the 1990s, when he was one more canonized Rock ‘n’ Roll saint in the Hall of Fame and safely under glass and officially understood and understandable. And then he vanished.

In 2004 he had a heart attack or nearly had one (I’ve seen it reported both ways) and abruptly ended the touring portion of his career and stopped releasing new music. He was a father to a young daughter with his second wife, Iman, and he had earned a retirement.

In 2013, he abruptly ended the retirement. A video for a new song, “Where Are We Now?” was released without publicity on his January birthday that year and a new album followed. He released several more videos, including one that earned some religious controversy (“The Next Day”) and one, “Love Is Lost,” that he wrote, recorded, and edited himself in his New York City apartment and bragged on his website that he made it for only $12.99, the cost of the flash drive he bought in a Duane Reade and used to store it. (Revolutionaries are sometimes proudly conservative.)

I spent this weekend listening to David Bowie’s brand-new album on Spotify and inwardly debated the merits of writing about it here. I was not going to, as I am no musician and I am not an informed critic, so my thoughts about music and performance (and literature and poetry) are always those of a naive fan.

Let this stand as the sound of two hands clapping and one man’s expression of gratitude that we shared time on a planet that he made seem a little less strange once I noticed that we all feel like aliens.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 11 asks, “Who did you idolize as a teenager? Did you go crazy for the Beatles? Ga-ga over Duran Duran? In love with Justin Bieber? Did you think Elvis was the livin’ end?”

* * * *
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  1. LRose · January 11, 2016

    Very thoughtful Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sonya · January 11, 2016

    Lovely tribute, the last paragraph especially.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Capt Jill · January 12, 2016

    very nice writeup, I loved David Bowie too, he was fantastic! I will miss him

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: January 8 in History | The Gad About Town

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