“News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying…
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”
– “Five Years”, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”
When I first heard the news, it didn’t make any sense. There was no way that the star at the center of my solar system could have blinked out of existence — so quickly, without warning. Without it’s gravitational pull, all of my planets flew out of orbit and asteroids collided with moons and made craters so deep that I don’t think they could ever be filled again.
And that’s when I started crying.
David Bowie had left us, late Sunday night, losing contact with ground control forever to drift into deep space and take his place among the stars.
The next day felt like how his heart-wrenching and tragic “Five Years” sounds: disillusioned, as if the end means that anything else that will ever be said or done will not matter, because what we once had has been lost.
“And the stars look very different today
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do”
– “Space Oddity”, David Bowie
I don’t know how long Bowie has been a part of me or how old I was when I first heard him, but my first conscious memory of listening to one of his songs is so vivd I could paint it. I was probably about seven or eight years old, sitting in the back seat of my parents’ 4Runner on the way home from some event that was not important enough for me to remember. We were waiting at an intersection (even though I did not know what cross streets were at the time, I now recognize the exact location of my first Bowie memory to be at Warner and Magnolia) listening to the radio when we all heard the first chords of “Space Oddity”. I remember my dad being so excited that he drove with his knees so he could strum his air guitar, pretending to be Mick Ronson, for the rest of the song.
“Because my love for you
Would break my heart in two”
– “Let’s Dance”, Heroes
When I started playing guitar somewhere between the ages of eight-and-a-half and nine years old, my dad made sure that I listened intently to “Let’s Dance”, which not only featured Bowie, one of the coolest artists of all time, but also Stevie Ray Vaughn, one of his and my favorite “guitar heroes”. “If not for Bowie,” my dad said, “we might never have heard of Stevie.” I hope that wherever they are now, they have overcome their differences (I am convinced that if Bowie had worked with Stevie after he had gone clean, they would have worked together beautifully), and are having a great jam session.
“John, I’m only dancing…
Won’t someone dance with me?”
– “John I’m Only Dancing”
Then I started getting a little older and slightly more certain of my identity. By eighth grade, music was a permanent part of my persona and everyone who knew me knew it. I was the weird kid who was both a nerd and a rocker. My wardrobe consisted of an odd mixture of t-shirts with either my rock icons or math puns on them. Everyday I braided feathers into my hair and wore at least four beaded or woven bracelets. And for almost an entire month, everyday I had an intense debate with my very sheltered friend, John, about how rock and roll isn’t just “loud noises”. I remember that David Bowie specifically was a major subject of controversy. “This David Bowie person,” he would say, “the way he dresses just isn’t classy”. And I would then go on and on about how he pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable and wrote some of the most beautiful and potent lyrics ever written. It didn’t matter who won or lost each day (although our English teacher backed me up on several occasions) because defending what I loved only made me love it more. There is still nothing to this day that John could ever say that will change my beliefs about Bowie.
“People stared at the makeup on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace”
– “Lady Stardust”, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
What always has and always will be Bowie’s greatest appeal is the fact that everything he did was because of himself and no one else. He wrote what he wanted, unafraid of the consequences. It didn’t matter that by painting his face and wearing clothes that seemed to be a cross between Japanese Kabuki and an intergalactic space suit most potential listeners could be scared away. It didn’t matter that his lyrics were often extreme for his time period and might offend people, because it was what he felt was in himself that needed to be expressed. It didn’t matter that his fan base could leave him if he made a complete 360 change to his look and style, because he felt the need to explore new creative worlds. His identity was completely his own and the only person with the power to change it was himself.
“Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent”
– “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, Blackstar
Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols said that there is something about Bowie’s music that, no matter how many times you’ve listened to a song or album, you never get tired of it. His music will always be a staple. In today’s world where most songs are about make-ups, break-ups, and partying, topics that are very consumer friendly and sellable to the masses, his songs have an even greater value to them. The songs that are popular today will be considered “old” in only a year or two, while Bowie’s repertoire from the 1970’s will still be considered classic. This is because the genius of his songs lies in the fact that they contain universal themes that are still relevant today. People are still in danger of being consumed by their fame and losing their identities, as Ziggy Stardust did. The commercial world is becoming an increasingly influential power over art and society, as predicted in “Life on Mars?” and the entire Diamond Dogs album. Even “China Girl”, outwardly a love song about the relationship between him and a Chinese woman, is also a statement on Western Imperialism. Every one of his songs was written with a purpose in mind and a message to send.
“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)”
- “Blackstar”, Blackstar
Everyone has been saying that listening to Blackstar before Bowie’s death and then listening to it afterwards gave the album a completely new meaning. It became apparent that it was a farewell album. But it wasn’t just “one last gift to his fans”, it was an acceptance of mortality, a summation of his life and career, and a prediction for the future of music. It brought the entirety of his life to the full “width of a circle” and ended with such an impactful and dramatic flair that not even an ancient Greek writer of tragic epics could have ended the story of David Bowie better.
Even though Blackstar has been compared most to Low for its experimentalism, if you really pick it apart there seems to be influences from every Bowie era as well as styles that we have never heard from him before. The slightly off sound in “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is reminiscent of “Aladdin Sane” and his cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” of the same album. When he sings “I can’t answer why, just go with me” in “Blackstar”, the sound of the song shifts to a more upbeat sound that reminds me of his funkier “Let’s Dance” phase.
Throughout all of his songs, there are references to his life, from the use of the fictional language of Nadstat from “The Clockwork Orange”, one of his favorite books, in “Girl Loves Me”, to the entire essence of his career in “Blackstar”. He says, “I’m not a filmstar”, “I’m not a popstar”, “I’m not a marvel star”, “I’m a blackstar”, suggesting that everything he did was not for fame or fortune, but for being his own unique and offbeat self: a blackstar.
But then, “something happened on the day he died, his spirit rose a metre and stepped aside”. Our blackstar, the artist that defined originality in the last era and who was upheld by some as even idol (like the cult that worships him and his bejeweled skull in the video), has left us. He is gone forever and never coming back.
But there is still hope.
Even though David Bowie is no longer with us, the idea of a “blackstar” is immortal. “Somebody else” will take “his place” and have the audacity to cry “I’m a blackstar” and defy society’s expectations. In the music video, there is a close up of the eyes of David Bowie and a young girl. Just based on their eye movements — Bowie’s rapid, frantic blinking, the way the corners of the girl’s eyes upturn as if she’s smiling, and the wink she gives him at the very end —they seem to pass an understanding between each other. It’s as if they acknowledge each other, feel a shared purpose, and both know what their futures have in store for them.
Any one of us can be blackstar, if we’re brave enough. We each have the potential to defy what is expected, make a statement, and change the world. While there will never be another David Bowie, each of us can learn from him, his message, and his music what it is to really live with yourself and embrace what that bizarre itch in the back of your mind that knows what you really want to be.
Thank you, David Bowie, for sharing yourself with us. It was a beautiful and truly special ride.