When the day finally came to say it, it felt impossible to say.
“David Bowie is dead.”
Two days before his death, I went to my local record store. It was David Bowie’s 69th birthday, and he was releasing a new album, Blackstar. It seemed like a good time to be a David Bowie fan. But it seems that fate, as well as Bowie himself, had different plans.
Now, it seems impossible to separate Blackstar from Bowie’s death. Its songs, such as the ominous 10-minute freakout of a title track or the painstakingly gorgeous “Lazarus,” are packed to the brim with mentions of Bowie’s imminent fate. As more information came out on his 18-month battle with cancer, the intentions behind Blackstar, along with its two chilling music videos came more and more into focus. David Bowie knew he was going to die, so he decided to give us one final statement to send him off back into the stars.
This felt like the perfect way to say goodbye.
Over his nearly five-decade career, David Bowie always felt like something special. He spoke to the freaks, the misfits, the uncool kids, the unloved lovers, and he made us feel like we had a hero who was there for us. In the final moments of “Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide,” he bombastically and triumphantly screams out:
Bowie was the uncool kid who harnessed all of his soul and channeled it into beautiful art; rising like some beautiful, irresistible alien who birthed his own type of cool. He was impossible to look away from. Even now, set in the pantheon of rock history as arguably one of the greatest rock stars of all time, it still feels liberating and just a tad devious to blast Bowie. But it makes you feel alive, because Bowie knew how to stir your soul with a swivel of his hips, a nod and a smile, or a turn of phrase.
But above all the flash in the presentation, above the charm, above the drugs, above the sex, was the music. With every new fashion sense came a new sound, and with every new sound came a new revelation, and a new set of ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Over the course of a decade, from 1970 to 1980, David Bowie released 12 studio albums, each one sounding completely different from the rest. He challenged his audience at every turn, daring them to look deeper into the different parts of our imaginations as he looked for that one damn song that could make him break down and cry. We followed him everywhere on his musical journey, seeing where, how, and with whom he’d pop up next.
My favorite Bowie was Berlin Bowie, art-rock Bowie, the David Bowie who made Low, Heroes, and Lodger. After the spacey work of coked-out genius that is Station To Station, he was ready to get weird. He wanted to get back to Europe and make some truly out-there, challenging music that still felt like David Bowie, but a whole new David Bowie.
Which brings us back to Blackstar, released on January 8, only two short days before Bowie’s death. After 2013’s comeback album The Next Day was low on risks, the early reports that Blackstar would be among Bowie’s weirdest LPs showed nothing but promise.
In true Bowie form, Blackstar delivers. Its strange mix of synthesizer-based Krautrock, hyper-kinetic bizarro jazz, and apparent Kendrick Lamar influences truly feels like a contemporary Bowie that we’ve never quite heard before. The nearly 10-minute title track stands as one of Bowie’s most ambitious works, sounding mystical and frightening, like a chant. Four and a half minutes in, the track completely dissipates, giving way to an open, spacious display of Bowie’s pristine vocals, as well as a new haunting chant, “I’m a Blackstar.” The two pieces eventually fuse together to make an enticing soundscape of lavishness that fades off into the darkness of a darkened sun.
Of course, Bowie is in fine vocal form. He brings his usual vocal gusto to all of the tracks, including some truly wacky, theatrically exaggerated notes on “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore,” as well as hoots and hollers to the tense hip-hop beat of “Girl Loves Me.”
But true standout of the album is “Lazarus,” which shows Bowie at his grandest, musing on his own mortality over a brooding groove of distant saxophones and plunking bass. When the track opens up halfway through for the bridge, it feels like Bowie is making his final stand, staring into the void for one final moment, screaming that he’ll be free.
On January 8, “Lazarus” felt powerful, but on January 10, it felt overwhelmingly fitting. David Bowie knew he was on death’s door, so he intended to make his swan song as great as it could be, and “Lazarus” was the perfect way to say goodbye.
How is it possible that he had died? On an album that at one point poses the question “where the fuck did Monday go,” how did David Bowie not even make it to Monday? It seemed almost eerie how close Blackstar, an album consumed with death, would be to death itself.
But David Bowie did it. He devoted his life to his fans and his music, so he gave every ounce of his effort in his final months to give his fans one more labor of love. But he also gave his fans one more work of art– his death itself.
The first song I put on after I heard Bowie had died was “Oh! You Pretty Things,” because that’s the only song that felt right. In the face of death and the strangeness, he still wanted to tell us, with a bombastic chorus, that we were beautiful.
He was Major Tom. He was the Man Who Sold the World. He was Ziggy Stardust. He was a Young American. He was the Man Who Fell to Earth. He was the Thin White Duke. He was a Blackstar. He was a singer, a songwriter, an actor, a fashion icon, an artist. But more than anything, he was David Bowie.
It is time to say goodbye to David Bowie, but David Bowie will never truly be gone. He will live on in the hearts of all the freaks, the misfits, the uncool kids, and the unloved lovers. The ones that will listen to “Lady Stardust” or “Life On Mars?” or “Diamond Dogs” or “Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide” and feel once again that they’re not alone.
Goodbye. We can not thank you more for all the light you’ve brought into the world. The stars look very different today.