My History with David Bowie and the Existential Assertions of Blackstar

By: Berlin Howell

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?

Blackstar 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.                         

During 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.

Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Katie 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.               

The 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 album.

My 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.

The 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.

Title 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.

Death 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 be free.”    

Berlin Howell is a Sophomore Creative Writing major at Christian Brothers University, an avid music critic, and a staff writer for the Galleon.
Posted by Josh Colfer at 4:49 PM

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