Reflecting on David Bowie and Blackstar: One Year Later

I am standing in my hallway holding my copy of Rolling Stone magazine depicting David Bowie 1947-2016
Bart gave me his copy of Rolling Stone to keep.

I cannot decide if I feel terrible for all the people who unsuspectingly listened to the culmination of David Bowie’s artistic soul in Blackstar the day that it dropped, or if I am jealous of them. What must it have been like to listen to the haunting tones, colorful warbles, synthetic vibrations, and elegiac sax? I wouldn’t know. I was still operating under the impression the man was going to live forever, so while I purchased Blackstar on January 8, 2016, I hadn’t listened to it yet. I was still reeling on Ghost and powering my way through the Christmas aftermath. It was Hellish enough waking up at 5:00 am to my twin sister’s text message that David Bowie had died a mere two days after releasing his latest album. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to look back at Blackstar and realize he was giving his own eulogy. I also never imagined I would get to the point where I could talk about it without breaking down. I suppose I could have popped Blackstar on at any time over the summer, as I had moved on, a feeling I didn’t think I could ever possibly achieve back on January 10, 2016. But after a few months, probably six months exactly, I was at least stable when I talked about Bowie’s death and what it did to me, and the part of my soul that died with him.

After that day, I swore I would not listen to Blackstar until the anniversary of its release. I was true to my sworn oath. I swore I would make no attempt to speak on the subject until I could do so from a place of reason and stability, that way I could articulate every single feeling I couldn’t even name last year. I did not sit down to Blackstar until Sunday night, January 8, 2017.

Let’s talk about David Bowie.

When it comes to the Thin White Duke, there is absolutely nothing I can say that someone else has not already said, and they have already said it better. I can reiterate that he was more than a pop icon. I can restate all the ways he paved the way for artists like Arcade Fire, and I can pontificate on what his accomplishments to the gender nonconformists and artists of color meant for civil rights and pop culture, both at the height of his career and afterward. It won’t mean any more or any less than it did last year. What I can tell you is what he did for me, and even now, exactly twelve months later, I’m about to cry.

When I was six years old, our Prime Time administrators showed us Labyrinth and scared the Hell out of us. Bowie’s teeth were uncapped. He veritably towered, the dark, melancholy labyrinth loomed so black and forboding, and that baby just kept crying. To a six year old, that was the mental equivalent of child abuse. I was a sensitive kid, though. I also had a huge problem with The Secret Garden. Refused to watch it. Black Beauty was a waking nightmare. I don’t do well where babies, children, and horses are concerned.

Jareth, played by David Bowie, kneels beside Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) in this promotional image for the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth (1986).
David Bowie kneels beside Jennifer Connelly in this promotional capture for the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth.

When I was fourteen I rented Labyrinth and I fell in love. I fell in love with the story. I fell in love with the characters, and I fell in love with David Bowie. He was rock and roll. He was the vaunted king of goblins, but to me he was Oberon, Lord of the Fairies. He was timeless. He was unwholesome. He was between genders: long hair, big package. He was smirking and very adult. The story spoke of a woman’s awakening, and Sarah, the main character, was only a year older than I at the time. I picked Labyrinth apart with a fine-toothed comb. If I had back every cent I spent on Labyrinth books, pins, bags, shirts, and photos, I could probably pay off my credit card.

I hung several landscape photographs in my hallway, each of them depicting David Bowie from a scene in Labyrinth.. My boyfriend hung them in a staggered pattern.
I was able to frame and hang all of my Labyrinth photographs. Some of them are from press releases. Two of them are licensed lobby cards. I have had them for 15 years. Some of them are much older than that.
Two more pictures around the corner of my hallway. The one on the left is just a portrait of Bowie in black. I found it at a book fair. The other is an 8x10 of David Bowie from a press release for Labyrinth.
Black and white David Bowie. One of them is from a Labyrinth press release.

My parents hated him from the start. Of course, they both had known for fifteen years who David Bowie was, and none of it was to their liking. However, my mom, looking back on her borderline unhealthy devotion to Tom Jones, did very little to discourage myself and my sister from roaming the decades in search of the Starman.

The Fall of 1999 saw the release of hours. By then, we had already collected a pretty vast discography of his works: Earthling, Diamond Dogs, Let’s Dance, Station to Station, Heroes. While we were also rummaging through the CDs of the harbingers of pop of our time (my sister was into most boy bands. I was just discovering Nu Metal) we were also exploring songs about transcendence, tolerance, xenophobia, and the depths of addiction–though we would never, could never, have known it at the time. We were only kids, and we were trying to figure out why so many of the songs he sang involved both men and women.

On a white geometric field, David Bowie cradles the head of David Bowie from the early 90s and late 80s, the Bowie that defined Earthling and Outside. It represents yet another transition in David Bowie's personas.
Rolling Stone ran this image ahead of the release of David Bowie’s 1999 album hours.

hours was our time to shine. Here was an album we could get behind as members of contemporary society because he released it during our lifetime. I remember being completely satisfied with the album–which we pooled our weekend money working for my mom to afford, and the good lady drove us to Best Buy to pick it up from a freckle-faced autamaton who stared at us in dumbfounded dismay and half-snarled, “Who’s David Bowie?” But I also remember being confused. Why so melancholy? Why so…I would’t have the word for it until college: “elegiac”. hours was searching for something, and like David Bowie’s many personas, perhaps best illustrated by Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius, Bowie was searching for a lost self, an identity cultivated in the urban centers of New York and London.

As I laid in my room last night, knowing I would murder my boyfriend if he interrupted me during “Lazarus”, I asked myself that if David Bowie was searching for something in hours, then what was he doing with Blackstar?

Blackstar

By now you’ll have read the reviews that Blackstar was David Bowie trying to tell us “goodbye”. The utter confusion with which I greeted the titular song on the album must have been echoed in the minds of all of his fans as they listened to it. The listeners of Blackstar probably felt the same way I did about hours.

I believe that Bowie felt that even in his death, that someone would stand in his place and declare themselves his equal. In this respect David Bowie is a lot like Voldemort. There can be only one. It took a lot of arrogance to be David Bowie and do everything he did. In “Blackstar” Bowie asserts that someone will rise in the wake of his passing and take his place, declaring the place in which he stood a “Black Star”. He was going to die, but someone would take his place, but it would be an empty place, void and without meaning. Bowie illustrated what I felt in his passing: that a light had gone out of the world, that something would forever be missing, that the sun would shine without David Bowie, but it would be only a black star. Only David Bowie would feel the need to point that out in his own album, yet for all that David Bowie knew where he stood in the grand scheme of things, he also knew that his passing was going to hurt. It was going to hurt his family, and it was going to hurt the legions of underdogs who looked up to him. Bowie was always conscious of his impact. He was a force for change. He wanted to be an impact, and he set out to do that. He was not humble, and even in death he showed a particular audacity that has no rival.

In “Lazarus” David Bowie is his most reassuring even as the video is haunting. The video opens on a frightened-looking Bowie with sheets twisted in his hands, his eyes covered by a blindfold, with button eyes. Unfortunately, I can get no further than that. This is song is exactly what it is supposed to be: visiting Bowie on his deathbed. I feel like I am standing just outside the bedroom door as the family gathers around to pay their final respects while the man still draws breath. I can’t watch it. I’m terrified to watch it. Like taking his hand as he draws you down to sit beside him, the video is Bowie trying to comfort us. I am inconsolable. In fact, I would have been too much of a coward to even show up. Even then he looked so different than he had even just a couple of years ago. Watch the video if you can. I can’t. I don’t want to see him like that.

“Sue (Or the Season of Crime)” definitely sounds angry. It is a song about death, but it is also a song of murder. By the end of the song, it is clear the narrator is not just dealing with a loss, but a loss of his own making. Like “Blackstar”, “Sue” harkens back to a synthetic vibe found on Station to Station and in “Brilliant Adventures” on hours.

Violence and the passage of time are present in “Tis a Pity She’s a Whore” and “Dollar Days”. The sense of helplessness and confusion is felt in “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. Each stage of grief is present in the album: anger, denial, depression, acceptance, etc.

Vocally the album does not seem diminished by the ravages of age and time. The reverb and filters were a little heavy on this album, but in many ways this is characteristic of Bowie. I listened to a remastered version of “Man Who Sold the World” today that used easily as many filters as Blackstar, though perhaps not as heavily as Earthling. In terms of one’s ability to listen to it, the second time round is much more enjoyable. Though the clear message is still present, we get to explore a side of Bowie that is heretofore not been seen. Bowie has always been the beacon of hope, the bright light. What began with hours culminated in Blackstar, and we explore the deeper side of David Bowie. Bowie once commented on hours, “You are getting older as you listen to it.” I think with Blackstar, Bowie has achieved the musical equivalent of letting go of a parent or loved one. Bowie held our hand and guided us through, preparing us for the inevitable.

By now you’ll also have read that David Bowie may have known he had cancer three months before he died. The man had to have known a lot longer than that. Blackstar did not feel rushed, but there was definitely a sense of urgency. Little did we know, he had to get it out, to get it down on the track. The world had to know. Only David Bowie would have given us an album telling us “goodbye” only two days before his death. Only David Bowie could have orchestrated his own album going platinum after he ceased to exist. Only David Bowie could have strategically left enough material behind to drop an EP, No Plan, a year later. Many artists, like Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix, were worth more dead than alive. Only David Bowie could have capitalized on that, and long after he would cease to care about it. What this does is forever solidify the idea that David Bowie can never die. He is Lazarus. In death, David Bowie has been reborn.

What David Bowie Did For Me

David Bowie was for me what he was to many people: a role model–minus the drugs and sex with Mick Jagger. He was my voice.

I am sitting in my room in front of the poster of the Joker holding the CD case to the copy of Earthling my parents gave me as a Christmas gift in 1999.
My copy of Earthling from Christmas 1999. My favorite gift of all time.

When I was fourteen years old, I was struggling with what would now be called an identity crisis. I sat on the edge somewhere between female and male. These days one might refer to me as gender binary. Back then, I was just weird. I was bullied, even by my own family. Then, one night, our mom let us stay up to watch David Letterman (having seen in the TV guide that he was gonna be Letterman’s guest), as he performed and interviewed with Letterman to promote hours. This is by far the best way I’ll remember him, laying in front of our big, bulky, 1990 television as he performed “Pretty Things Are Going to Hell”.

We recorded it on for posterity. We wore out that vhs, “we wore it out but we wore it well”. I remember after this song he disappointed me a little, as I was hoping for “Thursday’s Child”. Instead, he sang “Rebel Rebel.”

But in my disappointment, my life was changed forever. He sang to me that, “they’re not sure if you’re a boy or a girl. Well hey babe, your hair’s all right. Hey babe, let’s stay out tonight.”

In that moment, David Bowie became my voice. I knew that he spoke for me, that he understood me, and he did not just create the most beautiful art. He did not just perform the first pop culture reforms. He was my voice. He gave me hope. Over the years, I had forgotten the hope that he gave me, until exactly one year ago today, when I felt every hope in the world crash, shattered as so many of my dreams had.

He will always sing “Rebel Rebel” to me on The Late Show. He will always say, “You remind me of the babe.” I will never think of him as he was on Blackstar. I will always remember “Golden Years” on the soundtrack to A Knight’s Tale. I will always remember him calling the walk-off on Zoolander. It’s so hard to believe that was sixteen years ago. We should have had him for a lot longer than 69 years.

Conclusion

Today, don’t sit down to Blackstar because you feel like you have to. Sit down to “Tis A Pity She’s a Whore” because you’ve never heard him say “cock” in a song before. Sit down to “Dollar Days” because it’s an amazing song. Don’t listen to “Space Oddity” and “Changes” because you feel like you should. You don’t do him justice that way. Sit down to Station to Station because “The Return of the Thin White Duke” reminds you of Elric. Sit down to hours because that was your childhood. Sit down to Earthling because it’s hard gritty. You don’t have to listen to “Seven Years in Tibet” if you don’t want to. Listen to “Modern Love” because it’s the only song your mom likes by Bowie and you make her admit it when it comes on. Don’t listen to “Heroes” on that album. Listen to “Sons of the Silent Age” and “Joe Lion” because that’s what came over the speakers while your tattoo artist worked on your sleeve. Watch Labyrinth because it’s the rarely-told story of a woman’s awakening and Jareth is everything wrong with fairy tales. Watch it just to see him smile, or smirk, or dance. Celebrate his life. Fall in love with him again. Salute the Starman.

David Bowie, you are loved. You are missed.

Here I have lit a candle beside a framed image of David Bowie taken out of a copy of Rollingstone. The magazine ran it as a promotion for Bowie's album, Blackstar, which dropped on his birthday, three days before his death.
My husband hung this picture up for me a week before his death. It is from Rolling Stone Magazine ahead of the release of Blackstar.
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