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BIRTH OF A BLACKSTAR: The void left by David Bowie

Words By: Samuel Bangs


 I’m still struggling to come to terms with the the concept that David Bowie is dead. The way in which it occurred seems so impossibly surreal, that I half expected some sort of beyond-the-grave message; some cryptic clue suggesting that this is all just another disappearance, a spell of absence, a retreat. The fact that death, claimed him so closely on the heels of an album that restored him to the forefront of the musical cutting edge, only serves to intensify the size and density of the void that so suddenly appeared in my life; in all of our lives; and in popular culture as a whole. In dying, Bowie became the Blackstar he foretold – but none of us could see it coming.

I will forever be grateful for the precious 3 days I got to spend with Blackstar, before the shadow of death changed the context of how it could be heard and perceived forever. It swept me up in a giddy rush of excitement, not unlike the previous new Bowie releases, except this time FELT different – it’s musical touchstones and references were less obvious than the past, and not only did it sound like nothing else in the Bowie canon, perhaps even more excitingly, it sounded peerlessly contemporary. It felt like Bowie, the pioneer, of the midtolate 70s. For a fan, an obsessive, an utter devotee, Blackstar felt hugely gratifying. 

Yet as I blissfully immersed myself in the record, my thoughts couldnt help but turn to the nature of the lyrics. There’s no shortage of allusions to mortality throughout Bowie’s body of work, but this one seemed particularly obsessed with the mythologising of life after death:

 

Something happened on the day that he died

Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Somebody else took his place and bravely cried

“I’m a blackstar… I’m a blackstar…”

(‘Blackstar’)

 

Look up here, I’m in heaven

I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen

Everybody knows me now…

 

This way or no way

You know I’ll be free

Just like that bluebird

Ain’t that just like me?

(‘Lazarus’)

 

If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to

It’s nothing to me

It’s nothing to see…

 

I’m dying to

Push their backs against the grain, and fool them all again and again

I’m trying to

It’s all gone wrong but on and on, the bitter nerve ends never end

I’m falling down

Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you

I’m trying to

I’m dying to

(‘Dollar Days’)

 

I know something’s very wrong

The pulse returns for prodigal sons

The blackout hearts with flowered news

With skull designs upon my shoes

 

I can’t give everything…

Away

(I Can’t Give Everything Away)

The key, I decided, was obviously in the last song on the record: ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’. And he never has. Fool be the man that takes Bowie’s lyrics at face value – it seemed more likely to me that it was just Bowie being Bowie. With my imagination ignited, my curiosity, eager and greedy fan I am, turned to wonder how on Earth does he follow up something as great and momentous as this? Then the thought occurred: maybe he doesn’t.

 

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How do you eulogise an artist that has already written his own epitaph? Perhaps only by measuring the outpouring of grief, that has continued in waves in the two weeks since his death. You probably only need to look as far as your Facebook feed to see that there’s still at least 2 or 3 posts referring to Bowie. In the immediate aftermath, my own social media feeds were jammed with nothing but – tributes, discoveries, memories, notes of gratitude, and notes of heartbreak. The moment will soon transcend into cultural folklore – where were you when David Bowie died? It’s a bit of a sick question to be honest, but it’s a way of connecting our grief, our shock, our disbelief, our despair.

It was Monday afternoon, just after 2:30pm. I was at my favourite cafe in Fremantle, taking a cigarette break after completing en especially vitriolic piece of writing no one will probably ever read. I’d been debating the merits of how high the drums had been mixed on Blackstar with my friend Stu only hours earlier, when he texted me to say Bowie had died. I immediately jumped on Facebook, and it was there in black and white, on the David Bowie (Official) page.

Shock and panic devolved instantaneously into inconsolable sobbing. My dear friend Karim at the cafe, whom I’d shared Blackstar with only the day before, tried to comfort me. Stu came down from the old record store I used to work at around the corner, convinced it was a hoax. And for a minute… hope. There WAS an article pointing to a spate of recent celebrity death hoaxes, as a result of hackings. But I still felt uneasy, something in my heart still knew. A friend in Melbourne at the ABC Facebooked me, saying they were trying to get confirmation. We continued to trawl social media.

Then… Duncan’s tweet

 

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I listened to nothing, no music at all, for nearly 3 days immediately after his death. When I did, I chose to confront Blackstar – knowing that it would break me, but also aware that it was the most likely place to find proper solace. At times, it sounded transcendent – like the voice of God, beamed down from above. But you could now also sense traces of fear and pain subtlety disguised in the brave and powerful voice, brutally hammering home the fact that our “hero” had suffered at the hands of fate we thought would never claim him: mortality. 

But is it the mortal David Bowie we are grieving? Or are we grieving our idea of the man? Because David Bowie did not exist, in as such as he was merely an extension of David Jones. And it was David Jones died, NOT David Bowie. Bowie can’t die, and most likely won’t, as he will continue to live where he always has – on record, in film, in our hearts, and minds, and memories. 

However the word Bowie means something altogether different now. Whereas before it generated the excitement in the potential of newness and greatness, it now reflects a closed loop. A closed loop where the mystery still looms large, but the history is no longer actively being made. Anything added to the mythology of Bowie from this point would be strictly revisionist. 

The joy of the new was gone. And for me, being a Bowie fan was always very much wondering what he was going to do next. Then devouring, dissecting and demystifying the smoke and mirrors in which each new work was cloaked in, and how it fitted the large context of booths his body of work and his overall mystique as an artist. The new, unknown Bowie was something we all craved, and while the devouring, dissecting and demystifying will continue, the excitement of a fresh curveball dictating the now has been eradicated. 

And for me, the joy and excitement in the idea of a new unheralded Bowie canvas on which to hitch my dreams, is perhaps what I’m really mourning – that’s what feels like losing a colour, a sense, an anchor point… Because he was never boring, never lapsed into autopilot, never painted with the same colours twice in the same way, could never be pigeonholed. And with his evolution into a Blackstar, he’s swallowed part of me, you, and the entire world, leaving a vacuum that can never be filled. There is no Bowie Now; theres now just Bowie. And we will never be the same.