10th January 2017 marks a year since David Bowie passed away. Much has been written, interpretations taken, and tears cried over arguably THE British musical icon.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement in the early hours of the 11th that he had passed away due to terminal liver cancer, there was a mass outpouring of grief across the world – most notably in Brixton, South London (where Bowie was born David Jones in 1947) which saw an almost spontaneous street party in front of the Ritz cinema where thousands sang, danced, and cried over the passing of a legend.
Almost immediately, people began seeing the lyrics on the then 2 days old ‘Blackstar’ in a different light – most notably ‘Look up here / I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen’ as well as ‘This way or no way / you know, I’ll be free / Just like that Bluebird’, both on ‘Lazarus’. It seemed this was a man tortured by his illness – although when recording, Bowie was unaware that his cancer was terminal, this revelation only coming in November 2015 during the filming of the ‘Lazarus’ video.
Indeed, the album is littered with thoughts of his impending death – but it’s not just for that alone why ‘Blackstar’ should be considered a masterpiece. Even without the events that immediately followed, the album received critical acclaim and was cited as some of Bowie’s “oddest work yet”. The album was recorded with a New York jazz group – producer Tony Visconti said that he and Bowie had deliberately tried to avoid rock – and it gives way to wonderfully free flowing and at times poignant songs such as ‘Dollar Days’ dripping with melancholy. It’s on ‘Dollar Days’ in which Bowie seems at his most vulnerable yearning to “push their backs against the grains / and fool them all again and again” with the repeated line “I’m dying to” turning the song from the frustrations of an old man yearning for his youth into a man grappling with his own impending doom - which is a theme carried on into album closer ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ which opens with “I know something’s very wrong”.
‘Blackstar’ is, quite remarkably for a man 50 years into his musical career, Bowie’s greatest work. His parting gift to his fans – which is even more ridiculous when you think about the critical acclaim he’s received throughout his career. The release of the ‘Lazarus’ soundtrack in November 2016 saw Bowie’s final 3 recordings filter through to the public – outcasts from the ‘Blackstar’ sessions which would have bloated the album somewhat but in their own way every single bit as important as the songs which became ‘Blackstar’.
It’s been said that Bowie worked up until the very end, with his co-writer on the ‘Lazarus’ musical saying that after the opening night just over a month before his death, Bowie said to him “let’s get started on the next one”. Tony Visconti even revealed that Bowie had written and demoed five songs for a follow-up to ‘Blackstar’, it seems as if the man just ran out of time – again, a concept explored in ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’. We don’t know if we’ll ever hear those final songs – it’s unlikely considering Bowie’s preposition towards absolute perfection in the final product – but does it matter in the end? From the opening chords of ‘Blackstar’ through to the dying notes of ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, at 7 songs long, ‘Blackstar’ is nothing short of genius.
The whole of Bowie’s career is littered with it – from his first band in 1962 right through to the very end.
R.I.P. David. You are sorely missed.