“My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life.”
Well, that quote’s as a good a starting point, and finishing point, as we could hope for from David Bowie. I heard Blackstar for the first time on Sunday evening. I was looking forward to getting the vinyl copy in a couple of days. Now, while I’m still looking forward to have the physical object in my hands, it won’t be the same without the physical presence of its maker on this planet. Jarvis Cocker said it best:
“Obviously it’s a sad day that he’s died, but the fact that he managed to stay in control of that image and make another artistic statement when he was obviously ill and knew that he was dying, I think that’s incredible and it makes me feel quite happy that he stayed creative right to the end of his life. I think that can only be inspirational.”
He was always inspirational. Bowie was a driven person. He killed off Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon without telling his band he was going to do it. Indeed he fired the Spiders a few months later, equally brutally, the moment they no longer fitted his planned new musical direction. He repeated that formula to the very end, dropping the players who had been with him for nearly twenty years and with whom he last played live and who also made 2013’s The Next Day. Instead, for this album, he hired a relatively unknown band he saw in a New York bar.
So, maybe he wasn’t a good employer in a lot of ways, but the musicians he worked with have remained intensely loyal to him. And he saved Iggy, Lou Reed and the band Mott the Hoople, when they were all at at their lowest ebb, though he couldn’t save his equally troubled brother Terry. Bowie was all about the personal, not the political.
So, as it’s fair to say he wasn’t a political person, there isn’t going to be much Marxist analysis of his motivations in this review. The nearest he came to a political statement was a brief, coke driven flirtation with the symbolism of the blackshirts that ended with an unfortunate press photograph that made a wave to fans at Victoria Station look like a Nazi salute. If he ever voted, I haven’t a clue who for. This won’t be that kind of review.
Now that we know what Bowie knew as he was making this album, it takes on new meaning. Some of the lyrical ambiguity is lost, but it’s replaced with joy that someone could face death and defy death and redefine death as art. For me, Blackstar isn’t just the last Bowie album, it’s the final David Jones record. Now that we know he knew he was dying, the ambiguity fades to become honesty.
Much has been made in the last few hours of the meaning of the words of the seven songs, but I also take a lot from the aural clues. There are hints and nods to previous songs and previous collaborators. There are guitar frills that could be Mick Ronson or Robert Fripp, bass lines that could be Gail Ann Dorsey. There’s drumming that could be a machine … but isn’t, and percussion that should be human … and isn’t. And boy, there is a lot of saxaphone; Bowie’s first instrument as a youth.
While it’s clearly jazz drenched, it’s not really a jazz record, anymore than Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was a jazz record. It’s informed and coloured by a kind of music that generally doesn’t use words. But this isn’t Bowie wearing a mask or taking on a new persona. There’s no time for vanity or pretence on a death bed. This is essentially an anti-pop work, a rejection of the music that made him famous. And it’s great.
The opening track, Blackstar, sets the tone. Atmospheric, even elegiac in places, the lyrics, according to the album’s saxophonist Donny McCaslin are about ISIS. Certainly, there are repeated references to the ‘day of execution’. However, there is something more personal and knowing in these lines:
‘Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried’
Those lyrics could have come from Memory of a Free Festival, 40 years ago.
The structure of the track Blackstar is also similar to his seventies songs Width of a Circle or Candidate, with distinctly different thematic parts. But it’s a delicate piece, rather than a rocker. It’s unsettling, but memorable.
Bowie then borrows a title from a 400 year old play (Tis a Pity She’s a Whore) and appears to be referring to the centenary of the First World War in some of the lyrics (That was patrol, this is the war). This is the nearest thing to a rock song on Blackstar, ending with a wailing sax that could have been from his obsession with the Philly sound on Young Americans.
The second single, Lazarus, is also soaked in jazz tinged sax and contains the line that we now know was Bowie winking at us:
‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’.
The weirdest lyrics come in Girl Loves Me. Bowie uses Polari to make a couple of couplets that might be straight from Clockwork Orange or his own Suffragette City:
‘Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday
Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday.’
Droogie, don’t crash here.
The album progresses through various themes, quoting alienation (‘English evergreens’) and death (‘I’m dying too’). There’s contempt for the greedy in Dollar Days ( ‘Push their backs against the grain / and fool them all again and again). That may well be about the record industry itself, a business model Bowie recognised early was going to be dealt to in the digital age.
Blackstar finishes with the glorious I Can’t Give Everything Away, which is the most lyrically direct track:
‘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 could easily have come from the Berlin trilogy. Indeed, it’s the album Low that this entire work most reminds me of. That’s no bad thing.
Blackstar is a wonderfully different album, the striking work of a man with nothing to lose and so much to offer. With so little time left, how could he give it all away?
So, should you buy Blackstar? Well, yeah, of course you should. If for no other reason to bookend your own love of Ziggy, or the Thin White Duke, or Thomas Jerome Newton. Or, indeed, David Robert Jones.
Whichever character first turned you on to Bowie, whichever song first sent shivers up your spine, you owe it to Bowie to get Blackstar, his last gift to you, his last wilful and testament.
You will be surprised, you will be challenged, but you won’t be disappointed.
And, please, buy the vinyl. You’ll get a digital download for free with it, but this album, this prettiest (black)star, deserves to have a tangible presence in your life. You’ll feel better for holding in your hands even if you never put the needle to the groove.
‘Hey babe, your hair’s alright
Hey babe, let’s go out tonight
You like me, and I like it all
We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they’re playing hard
You want more and you want it fast
They put you down, they say I’m wrong
You tacky thing, you put them on’