How David Bowie’s “Blackstar” Taught Us How to Die

Four years ago on January 8, David Bowie gave us a majestic gift on his own birthday: Blackstar, his 25th and final studio album. I believe Blackstar is the most significant work of popular music in the 21st Century. For with Blackstar, David Bowie taught us how to die.

Death is an excruciatingly difficult topic for most of us to come to terms with — and yet death will happen to all of us. We often associate aging and death with images of our bodies and minds crumbling away in nursing homes and hospital beds. Perhaps author Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up our widespread apprehensions best in his utterly depressing 2014 Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” In the essay, he wallows in all our worst fears about growing older and descending ever closer to death — the weakening of our spirits, erosion of creativity, and withering away of our bodies.

But with Blackstar, David Bowie gave us a new perspective on death and dying. He recorded Blackstar as he was suffering from liver cancer although few people knew of his condition at the time. When Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday, in 2016, the album made an immediate impact. The album announced its bold intent with a sprawling 10-minute title track that meandered its way into our earbuds and demanded our attention in an age when most listeners are conditioned by Spotify to treat songs like little snippets of white noise. The lead-off song was rife with references to mortality and death, as when he sang:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

“Blackstar” recast our journey toward death as a strange, wondrous exploration of another world, a vibe that is even more striking in the song’s surreal video. The video is far from comforting, but it exudes movement and adventure, not the decay we associate with growing older:

On the album’s centerpiece, the reflective and moody “Lazarus,” Bowie embraced the specter of death more directly and powerfully, especially in the song’s video, where he cast himself as a dying man about to release his spirit.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Here, he assumed the voice of a narrator whose impending death gives him a more powerful and cogent self-awareness that perhaps he lacked when he was younger and careless:

Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
There I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass

Although those two songs made the strongest impression on me when I first heard them on the day the album was released, I found Blackstar as a whole to be a uniformly grand, intensely personal statement. The songs were infused with improvisational jazz overtones owing to Bowie choosing to collaborate with musicians such as saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Throughout the entire album, Bowie’s keen understanding of mortality — and his desire to create art from that understanding — was an underlying thread, down to the final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” in which he sang:

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal songs
With blackout hearts, with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes

On David Bowie’s 69th birthday, I, like many others, celebrated Blackstar as the triumph of a man who was creating vibrant art as he was knocking on the door of 70 — and a challenge to give music our full attention instead of treating songs like digital background noise while we exercise and clean the house. As Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in a pre-release review January 6, 2016:

Instability and ambiguity are the only constants on David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album he releases this week on his 69th birthday. It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans.

Then, on January 10, everyone who had heard Blackstar saw the new album in a new light, when it was announced that David Bowie had died of liver cancer. Our joy at Bowie’s triumph turned to shock — and then wonder as we considered the album’s exploration of mortality in a new context.

As news of Bowie’s death reverberated, we now saw Blackstar for what it really was: his farewell gift. We listened to every song again and re-watched the videos, which took on a new poignance when the stories about Blackstar emerged — such as Bowie, deciding to end his cancer treatment and accept death even as he was filming the “Lazarus” video. His producer, Tony Visconti, talked openly about Bowie’s commitment to creating art even as Bowie was battling cancer. On Facebook, Visconti wrote of Bowie’s death:

He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.

The richness of that gift manifested itself again and again when I listened to the album with the knowledge of his passing. “Lazarus” sounded like a more personal reckoning with death from a man who knew what was coming, down to the images of Bowie in a hospital bed, and the enigmatic line, “Just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free.” Even the album artwork was a parting gift as fascinating and strange Bowie himself, thanks to designer Jonathan Barnbrook. It took time for fans to realize this, but if you removed the album from the sleeve, the black paper behind the cut-out revealed a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve was held up to a light source.

Blackstar becomes more meaningful as its listeners experience the album year after year amid the passage of time. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24, 44, or 74: aging and dying are inevitabilities. But David Bowie taught us that it’s possible to face aging and dying with vibrancy, dignity, and grace.

As NPR’s music critic Ann Powers said later in 2016, “There’s no doubt that Bowie was aware of how very, very sick he was. But he also kept the dire nature of his illness from his collaborators and insisted that he would be able to continue on. So, does it feel like a dying man’s gasp? No, it doesn’t — it feels so eloquent, yet it offers this view into that experience that is useful to all of us, even as it’s so sad to listen to.”

Blackstar was more than a gift. David Bowie challenged us to consider the gifts we’ll leave for the world.

When Strangers Mourn

RickmanBowie

Facebook elevates the loss public figure into a global events for widespread mourning. When David Bowie and Alan Rickman died the week of January 10, we posted our favorite video clips of Bowie singing and Rickman acting. On our Facebook walls, we wrote mini-essays about their impacts on our lives. We wondered aloud how two beloved people could have had died of cancer at age 69 within only a few days of each other. We said many other things, too, and shared visual icons (some of us changing our Facebook profile photos to honor one of them).

The mourning occurred on other social spaces, too, but nowhere was the sense of loss felt so heavily as on Facebook, where each time we checked our newsfeeds, a Facebook friend was sharing another memory.

I think Facebook mourning is good. Facebook gave me a place to discuss my reaction to David Bowie’s death and reach out to others who were touched by his passing. Facebook also helped me appreciate the magnitude of Alan Rickman’s loss. I had always appreciated Rickman’s acting talents and was personally inspired by his portrayal of Snape in the Harry Potter movies, but I did not appreciate his widespread impact until my Facebook friends posted their own reactions as well as reflections written by those who knew him personally. Good for Facebook and for those who were moved to share.

But on January 14, something happened that underscored how personal a public death can become: I participated in a face-to-face conversation about David Bowie among strangers. I’m talking about the type of sharing that forces you to look someone in the eye, take a risk and make a statement, wait for a reply, and build upon the other person’s words with your own additional insight.

I was a music resale shop near my home southwest of Chicago. I asked an employee about how customers were reacting to Bowie’s death. He confirmed what I expected, which was that sales of all things David Bowie had skyrocketed throughout the week.

Then he added, “It’s a shame about his death.”

I replied, “But what a way to leave the world, turning your mortality into art.”

I had in mind Bowie’s newly released album Blackstar, especially the song and video “Lazarus,” which contains clear references to his death, which he knew was coming when he wrote the song.

The employee smiled. I hadn’t mentioned Blackstar by name, but he knew what I was talking about.

“I love Blackstar,” he said. “Isn’t it ironic that one of his more avant-garde albums is Number One on the charts?”

A young 20-something guy thumbing through vinyl records jumped into the conversation. He volunteered that he first learned about Bowie not through his music but his visual style.

“You make your first impression from what you see right in front of you,” he said.

The employee and I both agreed and began comparing our favorite David Bowie personas with the 20-something guy, such as the glam-rock Ziggy Stardust and the elegantly wasted Thin White Duke.

Our conversation continued with other customers sharing their favorite Bowie songs and memories, including a man who had seen Bowie four times in concert. He remembered how surprised he was when, during his 1974 tour, Bowie began to introduce songs from an album (Young Americans) that Bowie would not even get around to releasing until 1975. The fans had come for hits, and instead they got songs they didn’t know. Typical David Bowie: not afraid to challenge, even confuse, his audience.

The irony was not lost on me: I was sharing memories about someone I had never met with people I had never met.

As the conversation wound down, no one vowed to exchange Facebook contact information. We didn’t even share our names. We just shared the moment.

I relate this story not to belittle the conversations that occur on social media, especially Facebook. After David Bowie died, you better believe I was posting my reactions on social spaces such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and I am grateful to others who have done the same.

But the strongest gauge of an event’s impact is something we cannot measure effectively: the number of people who are moved to share their reactions with strangers face to face. It takes more guts, and more effort, to open up in person, especially with someone you don’t know. You can’t post a remark on someone’s Facebook wall and return to binge watch Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. You have to take a chance that your remark will be met with stony silence and perhaps a bemused “And just who the hell are you?” look.

Occasionally a news event sparks this kind of public sharing among strangers. Shocking disruptions such as 9/11 have that kind of impact, and sports milestones do as well (the latter usually more so on a local level.) But how many times have you seen the loss of a public figure inspire the experience I had in that resale record shop? I would love to hear your stories.

David Bowie’s Challenge to Us: Create

DavisBowieAladdinSane

I went to bed Sunday night thinking through the blog post I was going to write about David Bowie’s new album, Blackstar, released the day David Bowie turned 69. Here was an adventurous, challenging, and rewarding body of work from a man who had nothing left to prove — which is exactly why I was so blown away by the album and the eerie videos that Bowie had been dropping on us in recent days and weeks.

After I had posted a video of his single “Lazarus” on my Facebook wall January 8, a chorus of Facebook friends weighed in with their reactions, ranging from fascination to repulsion. I was inspired: if David Bowie could continue pushing boundaries and sparking conversations at retirement age, I should be challenging myself to grow and create.

The next morning, I learned he was dead.

Realizing now that Blackstar was a parting gesture from a man who had been battling cancer inspires me even more. Not only did he continue creating art up to his last days, but he drew upon his mortality, as is evident in the recently released song and video, “Lazarus,” in which Bowie is seen levitating over a hospital bed. He sings,

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

Instead of blogging about Blackstar this morning, I talked with my wife, Jan, and daughter, Marion, about Bowie and his music. We remembered how on Christmas Eve 2014, we visited the “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This was a time of creative growth and new possibilities for us. Jan was writing her first novel. Marion was coming into her own as an actress, writer, and musician. I had launched my own business several months earlier and started acting in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Visiting a retrospective on the career of such a creative genius as Bowie felt right. I figured we would see some memorable art and stroll down memory lane with his music for an hour or two before heading back home for some hot chocolate and a Christmas movie.

We ended up being immersed for hours.

10676248_10154897449260618_2739134771357068572_n

The exhibit was more than a career retrospective. It was a celebration of creativity. Many lessons revealed themselves among the rich collection of songs, costumes, artwork, and video, but the one that stays with me is how artists draw upon everything around them, past and present, the popular and the obscure, to create.

Rediscovering a video for “Space Oddity” in the exhibit taught me how artists can draw upon contemporary culture to create something deeply personal, as Bowie did by using our fascination with space exploration to create art that expresses individual longing and loneliness. I have heard “Space Oddity” countless times, but watching a video of the song in a dark corner of the exhibit drew me into a different world — where I could be with Major Tom but somehow never help him.

I learned how Bowie slyly drew upon the past to generate curiosity. A video clip of him singing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live in 1979 at first seemed eccentric, with Bowie wearing a large, boxy cardboard tuxedo so awkwardly constructed he had to be carried to the microphone.

He was also accompanied by a strange-looking back-up singer dressed in heavy makeup and a belted kimono. By 1979, “The Man Who Sold the World” was already an established rock classic. Why was he singing the song dressed in such weird garb, and who was the artist singing with him? Was he tired of singing the same song and wanted to mix things up a bit?

But the caption alongside the video display explained that Bowie’s attire was inspired by costumes from a 1923 German production of the Dadaist play “Gas Heart.”

The back-up singer was a German singer, Klaus Nomi. As it turned out, by the time David Bowie appeared on SNL in 1979, he had been profoundly inspired by a productive period of recording in Berlin, a time during which he recorded Low, Heroes, and Lodger, and also recovered from drug addiction. Through the SNL performance, he was giving us clues about his life, and paying homage to a place and culture where he had experienced a creative renewal, but leaving it up to us to figure it out.

I left “David Bowie Is” determined to return to writing short stories and poems, which I had once done with great passion. David Bowie created great art and some misfires, too, but he never stopped drawing upon his life to create. I was challenged to do the same. Months later I had written one new poem and was working on two short stories with the encouragement of Jan and Marion. Thank you, David Bowie.

As Jan, Marion, and I were reflecting on Bowie this morning, Marion commented, “David Bowie is one of those people who you think will never die, you know?”

She is right. David Bowie will never die.