Death steals goodbyes. Of the
people we lose, we have all longed for another day, one last interaction, a
final word. A few weeks have passed since we lost David Bowie, but unlike most
deaths, he left behind an interactive conversation. Blackstar, his
newest and final album, is a set of answers to our own existential questions:
What is life like at the end? Were you content? What happens next, after death?
came out on Bowie’s 69th birthday, just two
days before he died. He recorded the songs earlier in 2015 with the knowledge
that his imminent death would be inevitably, but dishearteningly, trivialized
by those seeking to profit from the publicity. The album is morbidly fascinating,
but Bowie censures—or rather censors— the
martyrdom he knew would stem from his death. On “Lazarus” he sings from beyond the grave, “Look up here […] I’m in danger” and “everybody
knows me now.” This is
not the bloviation of a power-drunk legend, but his sobering last testament.
He’s right in his self-assessment: Bowie is ubiquitous.
Our history together is regretfully short, however, as I’ve only been following his music for about a year. He
was always there in my periphery while I was growing up, but for some reason I
had never experienced full exposure to his career. I owe our introduction to my
younger sister and a last-minute trip to Chicago.
my Freshman year, the exhibition David Bowie Is was making its way through
six different countries, and had stopped only once in the United States for a
few months at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
When my weeklong fall break came, I realized too late that I had not planned or
thought of anything outside of my first semester of college. Somehow my younger
sister Katie had heard of David Bowie Is, and was dead-set on
experiencing it. Our mother was opposed to the idea of sending of a 15-year-old
alone across the country, so I accompanied her on a 10-hour bus ride from
Memphis to the Midwest.
was not yet old enough to drive, but had developed a much finer taste in Bowie
than I had. While I spent my middle school years listening to cheesy Christian
bands, she had already been listening to The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
and Heroes (1977), along with the movie Labyrinth (1986)—which has always been one of
her favorite movies. I hated it whenever I watched with her because of that
terrifying trash lady scene, but she made me watch until the end so she could
point out Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. My only experiences with David Bowie
when we entered the Museum of Contemporary Art had been through Jareth and
just a handful of his biggest songs.
exhibit was a chronological walkthrough of Bowie’s
entire life, and I could barely digest it. By the ’70s he was inventing styles
and sounds that would define generations of sub-cultures and counter-cultures
for years to come. The walls were painted with decade after decade of Bowie’s signature peculiarity. He was an emerging hero for gender equality on an international
scale in the ’70s, through his use of alien and universal personas. While in
character, he was often genderless and was even openly gay for a period in the
80s. Ubiquity inhabits all of Bowie's identities, in every era of his
music-making. Hearing Blackstar now, I can remember how vividly I
experienced his life while walking through David Bowie Is. He too
must have been reminiscing on his own 69 years when he was writing his final
sister and I made it to the ’90s and my head started spinning; how could I have
missed out on an important legacy? When we left the exhibit I tried my hardest
in the following months to listen through his discography, but he had released 24
albums by then. Blackstar is both the first Bowie record whose release I
awaited and the last to ever occur.
sounds on Blackstar are extraordinarily human, and you can hear the toll
of death’s inevitability in his voice. What could anyone be
expected to write on such a harrowing deadline? “It’s nothing to me,” sings
Bowie about his fate on the penultimate track. Anyone could have guessed his
last album would have been sad; however, this is album is not “sad” by any conventional
definition. Songs like “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days” are somber, but not despairing. Bowie isn’t questioning his mortality, but defeating it.
Hearing the question when the news broke on that Monday was like a punch in the gut.
track “Blackstar” opens
the album and initiates the unease that dominates the album. The melodies are
eerie, the instrumentation is erratic, Bowie is restless. This restlessness
carries throughout the seven-song, comparably short LP, peaking on “Girl Loves Me.” At the
beginning of “Girl Loves Me,” the
lyrics are foreign, creepy, and seemingly incoherent until a rhetorical
question: “Where the fuck did Monday go?” The release of the album coincided with Bowie’s 69th birthday on Saturday, January 9, and the lyric
initially seemed inconsequential… until
Bowie died late that Sunday night.
is rife on all of these songs, if not always directly mentioned. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” closes the album, and Bowie is wrestling with his last testament. He has
always been a giver, and Blackstar is a gift. David Bowie wasn’t questioning his mortality, but you and I are. This album is for
everyone—we’re all dying. Bowie sings “If
I never reach the English evergreens I’m
running to, it’s nothing to me,” dissuading every one of my fears about the end. His fate is no different
than anyone else’s, and he does not dread it because the end
offers him freedom. “Lazarus” is
Bowie risen from the dead, on tape and immortalized, “Just like that bluebird, I’ll
The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.