Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Prettiest Star


This is one of the hardest things I've ever had to write. I'm not sure if I'll be able to put into words the huge loss that we've suffered this week, to do justice to one of the greatest innovators of my lifetime without just rehashing what has been said a million times before. This is, without doubt, the biggest celebrity death that I've experienced. I was nine when Lennon died. I had only just started listening to the Beatles, I was too young to understand his significance. But Bowie is something else entirely. He is, I believe, the only musician in my collection who has been active for the whole of my life and whose music I've continued to buy throughout that time. (I'm now expecting a flood of comments suggesting others who fall into that category…)

Bowie was one of the first artists I discovered for myself. My introduction to music was through my dad's record collection. This mainly consisted of the Beatles, ELO and Johnny Cash. I'm not saying that my dad didn't like Bowie but surprisingly there were none of his records in our house. I first noticed him on "Top Of The Pops" around the time of "Scary Monsters" and began taping his songs from the radio. It wasn't until 1985 that I owned one of his albums.  On the strength of "Life On Mars?" - a radio staple at the time - I bought "Hunky Dory". I remember saving up the change from my dinner money and sneaking out of school one lunchtime to a newsagent that had a small selection of records - the only place you could get music without making an epic bus journey into Bath or Bristol. 30 years later, it remains one of my favourite albums.

It seems pointless for me to say that Bowie was "an icon" or "a chameleon", that he made it OK to be different, to be yourself. Anyone who hasn't heard all of that before is unlikely to be reading this blog. I've never subscribed to the cult of celebrity but Bowie is one of the few people that I think of as a star and yet still feel a connection to. Having said that, although I've never worried about "fitting in", I always felt that I could never be David Bowie. Writing this now, I feel a sense of regret that I never took him literally when he said that "we can be heroes", that I didn't take more inspiration from him. Perhaps I could have done something creative with my life.

I got hold of  (or "Blackstar" if you prefer) on its release day. I immediately started to notice recurrent images running through the songs and began to plan a review. Of course, my plans changed once I became aware that this was a farewell album in the most final sense of the word. The theme of stars has cropped up time and again throughout his recorded work - from the "Ziggy Stardust" period of course, through "New Killer Star" at the start of this century, up to "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" more recently. To Ziggy, stardom was all that mattered but here we see a man assessing his own career and questioning what it means to be a star. The stars do indeed look very different today. When he sings "I'm not a pop star... I'm not a film star" on the title track, is he just belittling commercial aspirations and defending the right to follow whichever creative path you choose? I hoped that was the case despite a nagging suspicion that there was something else going on. I started to wonder if he was about to announce his retirement. If only I'd known how close I was to the truth.

I'm grateful for the three days I had when I was able to listen to these songs with no prior knowledge, to develop my own meanings. There are listeners who will never get that experience. I obviously won't see the album the same way again and it will be a while before I'm fully comfortable listening to it in its entirety. However, I hope that in years to come I will look back on  as an album that has many memories, some happy, some sad, attached to it.

Bowie has always surrounded himself with other great talents - Eno, Visconti, Ronson. The mark of a true genius is knowing your own limits and seeking assistance rather than trying to take all the credit. Here he is joined by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and several others whom I believe to be experts in their field but I have to admit that jazz is an area where I am totally ignorant. Although the screeching saxes could be off-putting to many listeners, the way Bowie's voice seems to battle against them is fitting in the circumstances. In fact, his voice is stronger than ever. This is not the sound of a man suffering from a terminal illness.

Bowie is never predictable and the avant-garde jazz approach comes as something of a surprise, but elsewhere we see elements of familiarity. Once the dissonance on side 1 subsides, the much mellower sax on side 2 is reminiscent of David Sanborn's contributions to 1975's "Young Americans" album. Other songs hint at "Low"/"Heroes" but for me the overall feel is of something that could have been recorded around the time of "Scary Monsters". This could almost be considered a career retrospective, with the only missing style being the stomping guitar riffs of the glam era. But no one would expect a return of those guitars; even those who associate him most with that sound will be aware that it makes up a tiny fragment of his universe and those rock star dreams were abandoned long ago.

Much has been made of Tony Visconti's revelation that the album was planned from the start as a "parting gift". The die-hard fans could have asked for nothing better than to go out on such a high note, but this is also a gift to those who have only dipped their toes into the waters of Bowie. Death inevitably leads to a renewed interest in an artist's work, and those "greatest hits" fans familiar with just "Ziggy", "Space Oddity", "Let's Dance" etc. will no doubt be intrigued by the mythology that already surrounds this final work. This in turn could be a stepping stone to both the "Berlin trilogy" and what I think of as the "recent" works - basically everything from the mid-90s onwards. If  leads just one person to 1995's "Outside" then I consider it a success.

When the recipient means something special to you, a great deal of love and care goes into wrapping a gift. I pity those who only got the download as the packaging is an important part of this release. It's the only Bowie album where he does not feature on the cover. (I'm aware that on "The Next Day" his face is obscured by a huge white square but he's still there.)  In contrast to the detailed pictures on pretty much every one of his releases, the stark, minimal design of  is possibly the blackest record packaging I've ever seen. And there is an awful lot of black in my collection. The glossy black text on matt black background makes it difficult to read the sleeve notes and lyrics, unless held at a very precise angle. This represents the nature of a lot of Bowie's later music. You need to persevere to get the most out of it. Most noticeable is the die-cut star in the sleeve of the vinyl version. Through the star-shaped hole, the record is visible. We can take some comfort in this - although the star is no longer there, we still have access to the music.

As I attempt to face the album again for the first time since hearing the news, one thing I realise is that Bowie has never been one to show bitterness or anger, although in this case it would have been understandable. The only hint of rage is on "Tis A Pity She Was A Whore", where he sings "Man, she punched me like a dude" - perhaps a reference to the disease eating away at him. Even his well-documented use of a profanity (although it's not the first time - see also "Time" and "Quicksand") is not done in anger. On "Girl Loves Me", the question "Where the fuck did Monday go?" suggests the last 40-odd years condensed into a single day, a reminder that we should make the most of the limited time available to us. He has managed to turn his illness into something creative and for that he should be admired as much as for everything else he's done. When future generations are taught the legend of Bowie this is one of the first things they should be made aware of, even if they don't listen to this album first.

So this is not a display of resentment, it is a record full of reflection, acceptance and perhaps even apology. The album comes to a close with "I Can't Give Everything Away", partly an explanation for why he kept his suffering secret for the past 18 months but also sorrow that after this, he will have no more music to give us. No need to feel bad about that, David. You've already given us more than any other artist in living memory. Wherever you are, I hope you're smiling now. Smiling through this darkness. All I have to give is guilt for dreaming.


tania_nexust said...

A very moving read.

Tess said...


Martin Smith said...

Steve ... I read this last year and i was probably to numb to feel anything as i was still very raw about his death , I've just read it again as i was talking to Debi about it so i looked it up ...
I have dealt with his death as best I can , realising even Bowie was mortal , unbelievable I know ...
I have just had a good old cry reading this , wonderfully written thank you .. now how do i share it ?
Martin .. x

Steve said...

Thanks, Martin. If you want to share it then just use the link:
You can paste that into an email or a Facebook post or wherever else you want to share it.