Something happened on the day he diedSomeone, somewhere has experienced true insight (the "solitary candle"), but he has passed and now all we have are preening, false prophets: "You’re a flash in the pan / I’m the Great I Am."
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
But in the context of the album the track felt out of left field. For good reason, it turns out, since most of the tracks were written for different things. "Blackstar" was written as an intro for Johan Renck's crime miniseries The Last Panthers, which premiered in October. (The opening credits sequence is trying very hard to be True Detective.) "Sue (or In a Season of Crime)" and "'Tis Pity She' Was a Whore" both came out in 2014, in different arrangements (a larger orchestra previously, just the McCaslin quintet on the album). "Sue" is a retelling of John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore, while "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" is a WWI story. Confusing, yes. "Lazarus" was written for the play at NYTW. "Look up here, I'm in heaven." The play has been sold out the whole time I've known about it, though briefly a few $1,000+ benefit tickets were available. I have friends who've seen it, but not close enough friends that I could ask them about it without getting jealous. "Lazarus" was being worked on after his diagnosis, so the claims that it is his swan song are well-founded, if a little overstated. Is it a song for Thomas Jerome Newton first and David Bowie second? Or typical line-blurring between persona and person?
That leaves the final three tracks, "Girl Loves Me," "Dollar Days," and "I Can't Give Everything Away" as written directly for this album. "Girl Loves Me" is written in a mix of Nadsat and Polari. It seems like pure fun, but now it's hard to read "Where the fuck did Monday go? / I'm cold to this pig and pug show / Where the fuck did Monday go?" without tearing up a little. Similarly, the lines in "Dollar Days": "Don't believe for one second I'm forgetting you / I'm trying to / I'm dying to." McCaslin, who had no inkling of the diagnosis, says "Dollar Days" was written entirely in the studio. "If I'll never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see."
It's hard not to read all of these songs now in the new context. "I Can't Give Everything Away" can be read no other way, really. The musical nods are to the early 2000's, Hours..., his mature 50s, still pop but not trying very hard to be current, holding on to synths way past them being fashionable. The lyrics are slightly trickier than you'd expect.
So do we have to read the title track now as autobiography? It is, after all, like many things Bowie, about death. It's hard to tell with Bowie whether there is hope in death. It's always an adventure; it's never boring. "Lazarus" has a self the dying man creates to escape this imprisonment in the mortal body, a "bluebird" who is free but also artificial (his movements in the video like a mime or a marionette). "Blackstar" is also about selves, and contains its own little funeral were a new version takes the place of the passed, where the musical shift connotes that this new self is untrustworthy. But then the original theme is repeated, about the solitary candle at the center of it all (which are your eyes). Something about the authentic survives, perhaps.
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout hearts, the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I can't give everything
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That's the message that I sent
The genre of the work of an artist written on the occasion of their own death. Sepulchre songs?
The alarm went off Monday morning to talk radio and the news woke me up enough to find my phone and confirm it before going back to sleep. I had dreams about it, I remember. I'm not sure what. Was I trying to find him? I remember a big house.
I spent the day thinking about it. At dinner at the diner she saw I was getting more sad than usual and told me that we don't have to mourn for celebrities. I'm not mourning him, I said, I'm mourning myself. That's what artists do, remind you of your own humanity. Two years ago with Robin Williams and others, it was hard because I was trying to hold together a production.
Because I can't figure out quite what is was about him that was lasting. Some musicians give you what you want, some do the opposite; Bowie was a mix. He was musically au courant but the writing and the fashion was all defamiliarizing. You always expected him to come back because you never quite knew what he was. Why did we adore him?
My album was Outside. A story of a dystopian murder mystery, ritual sacrifice of children as art, the millenium. Non-linear, cut-up, hypertext. What's not to love. It got pretty poor reviews at the time.