Last night at 11:06pm, I was walking home from rehearsal, on Harvard between Pike and Union, listening to Blackstar on headphones—song three, “Lazarus,” wouldn’t you just know—when I got a text with the news that David Bowie was dead.
It was, at a minimum, the 20th time I had listened to the album in the past week. The only reason I'm not listening to it right now is so that I can type this.
It was, at a maximum, 10 minutes after I had been telling the people I’d been rehearsing with that they had to go get this incredible record, that it was such a thrill to hear Bowie, at 69, not only still trying to make vital, beautiful, enigmatic, baffling art, but succeeding commandingly.
It was a few hours after I’d texted my friend Dave, the quintessential Bowie obsessive, to ask him how he would characterize the difference between Blackstar and the only Bowie album he’d said it vaguely reminded him of, the underrated 1993 Black Tie, White Noise, and a day since I had pulled my own copy of the album out of the box where the CDs I can’t bring myself to discard and given it a listen. (I can sort of hear similarities, mostly in terms of the relentless groove, but the albums are as different as the ‘90s were from the ‘70s.) I didn’t make it all the way through the album, because by the time his cover of Scott Walker’s “Night Flights” came up, I found myself longing to return to Blackstar, so I did.
It was two days after I’d waited in the parking lot for the Silver Platters on 1st Ave S. to open at 10am so I could buy Blackstar on vinyl, then spent hours at work poring over the glorious die-cut sleeve, holding the black-ink-on-black-glossy paper booklet up to the light at different angles in an effort to see the lyrics plain, marveling at how fantastically gorgeous both he and the whole package was, as if anything he ever did could have been anything less than exquisitely imagined and rigorously executed. I got home late that night and played both sides of the record before bed, then got up the next morning and did it again.
I couldn’t stop listening to, talking about, and thinking about how good, how interesting, how powerful, and how powerfully strange the album is, how long it had been since a record had burrowed under my skin in this particular way, and how even longer it had been since it had been a new David Bowie record under there. Which obviously led me to consider how the parameters of records physically entering your system, changing your body and mind while you hear them and forever after, had been defined by the degree to which David Bowie records had done just that.
My particular affinity for side two of Lodger, both because of the songs themselves—a gamut that stretches between the noisy relative pop of “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” (both singles!), the far weirder stomp of “Red Money” and “Repetition,” and the dark majesty of “Look Back in Anger”—was forged by disjunction (everyone I played it for when I was a kid thought it was baffling garbage, nothing like “Changes” or “Modern Love”), and fortified by the conviction that the only thing baffling was how right all that wailing sounded.
That quality—being the exemplar of an outré style, sound, sympathy, school while maintaining the charismatic pop magnetism that made even his most perverse gestures suitable for the mainstage—was Bowie’s métier. To those who still decry his ‘80s period, I can only say three things: 1) The singles, which were the point, were every bit as fantastic as any and everything else he’d done before. 2) His bigness was the gateway drug for MANY people who had the otherwise bad fortune of having been born in the '70s, into the way-more-interesting world of pop art. And 3) Though it may not impossible to make the stadium stage into an interesting vehicle for artistic expression, is there another artist in the history of popular music to whom you would give better odds of making it happen?
It was just under 33 years (32 years, 7 months, 12 days) since Memorial Day of 1983, when I’d attended my first rock concert, David Bowie headlining day three of the US Festival in Santa Ana, CA. It was a truncated version of the Serious Moonlight tour. My uncle, who brought me to the show, saw how much I loved Bowie but was concerned that I only knew "Let’s Dance," loaned me his vinyl copies of Hunky Dory and Pin-Ups. The following Christmas, a different uncle (who pronounced "Bowie" as "Buoy"), similarly concerned (because he’d overheard heard me listening to a cassette of Tonight) at Thanksgiving, gave me the CD of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Two years later, I got a CD player.
It was just under 29 years (28 years, 5 months, 3 days) since I’d seen the Glass Spider tour in Anaheim, CA, with Siouxsee and the Banshees opening. I remember nothing about that show other than how loud it was, but I still have the t-shirt.
It was approximately 32 years since I’d been called a fag in elementary school when someone asked me what tape was in my Walkman and I answered Lodger by David Bowie. Though I was unusually sensitive to any and all name-calling then (uh, as now), my conviction about Bowie never wavered. It would be many years before I appreciated the vicissitudes of time, culture, and talent that allowed Bowie to have been available to me as a pre-teen idol more than a decade after he’d killed off Ziggy Stardust. And just as long before I understood, or began to, the depths of intentional subversion that lurked behind, beneath, below, and right on the surface of his most accessible work. They sound like rock songs, but rock was lucky to have them.
We all were.
I bought the cassette of Lodger at the Wherehouse at the Oaks Mall as my fandom gathered momentum in the weeks following seeing him in concert. I chose the album years before I had seen a video for “DJ,” in which Bowie is seen being kissed by a man and a woman and wears a peach-colored jumpsuit that I took for full drag. The clip stayed with me, unsettlingly, tantalizingly. When the video came on TV (and it had to be network TV because I was at my grandparents house, and they didn’t have cable, because cable TV was like a rumor in those days), I asked my Catholic grandmother why he was dressed like a woman, she said, “He’s not a transvestite. He sang with Bing Crosby!”
The song was far stranger than I had remembered. I loved it. I will love it forever. It was the song that introduced me to the idea that songs could be like pirate coves full of mysteries to explore (how the fuck does “Dan Dare Lies Down” feel?), treasures to claim (that dizzy groove), secrets to keep ("you think this is easy, realism?"). “I am what I play,” in-fucking-deed.
Bowie’s music and presentation calibrated my consciousness to look beyond the obvious, to expect layers, to get that there should be something to get.
My feeling for Bowie was never theoretical, as it is with a lot of artists I admire. It was love, though I didn’t ever believe that love was returned or acknowledged. Or needed. Which made it the correct response. Such was the power of his charisma, his talent, his utter commitment to the conception and performance of himself. What is not to love about the creation called David Bowie? In an age when the standing ovation has been devalued, it’s worth considering how few other artists have ever deserved one simply for existing so utterly for so long.
The beauty in his most beautiful songs—short, utterly inclomplete list: the transfigured novelty “Space Oddity,” its broken-spirited sequel “Ashes to Ashes,” “Life on Mars,” “Quicksand,” “Lady Stardust,” “Word On a Wing,” “Heroes,” and because it’s today, how about “As the World Falls Down”—is magnified and ennobled by the fact that the singer expects but neither demands nor needs our validation.
Which made the experience of giving it to him far richer.
Meanwhile, there I was, out in the cold night, furiously Googling to verify the news I’d been texted, though as soon as I’d read it, I knew it was true. Of course it was. Of course this was the answer to the riddle of Blackstar.
The mastery of the gesture began to swell in my ears as “Lazarus” ended and “Sue, or, In a Season of Crime” came on. I now wanted to be listening to all seven songs from this album at the same time. I wanted someone to appreciate the hilarious line “oh folly, Sue” along with me even as I began to consider all the morbid references on the album. “Something happened on the day he died,” and “how many times does an angel fall?” from “Blackstar.” “Look up here, I’m in heaven” from “Lazarus.” “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see,” and “I’m trying to/I’m dying to,” from “Dollar Days.” (Or was that “I’m trying to/I’m dying, too”?)
Even better, the closing song’s simultaneous confession and refusal to confess, as close to a unified field theory as Bowie has come since “Oh no, love, you’re not alone”: “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.”
He knew. Of course he did. A vital, enigmatic artist, quite literally, until the end.
Though I'm distraught by the prospect of a world without David Bowie, I'm consoled by the knowledge that there are enough layers in the work he left behind—not to mention just the last 20 years of underappreciated records—that we will have plenty to think and talk and sing about.
And by the joy I feel in his final magic trick having succeeded so beautifully.
I’m a tiny bit comforted by my belief that he would be pleased, if only in some tiny, wry way, by the image of a fan listening to his new record when they got the news of his death, and, rather than turning to the beloved old hits for succor in the face of this incalculable loss, going even deeper into Blackstar. The ingenious mischief, the crafty sincerity, the calculated openness behind the now undeniable fact that he knew he was writing and recording his own eulogy. Who better?
I’m a tiny bit comforted by the fact that whatever else had happened in the 50 years since he started making music, David Bowie at long last managed the rarest accomplishment that exists in the realm of pop: He refused to die until he had returned to his rightful place—at the center of it all. At the center of it all.