January 27, 2016

TEST SPIN: David Bowie — Blackstar

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David Bowie was my hero.

Each one of us has our own personal pantheon of inspirational figures; some venerate sports stars or actors.

To simply say that the man inspired me seems insufficient, the written word incapable of grasping the impact he had upon me.

When Bowie returned from seclusion for 2013’s The Next Day, I was jubilant. “Here I am, not quite dying.” I took that to be an allusion to the story of Christ. Now I know that allusion extended to the author.

On January 8, I heard Blackstar. The macabre feel was foreign to me; even in Bowie’s most desperate works, there were glimmers of humanity. Even Diamond Dogs’ bleak future had “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock and Roll With Me” there was always esprit buried within the thinking man’s pop star and his weariness, but Blackstar was bereft of this ebullience.

The morning he passed away, I listened to it again. Amidst the global heartbreak — all channels deciphering the man’s final days — it became apparent that this album was intended as his goodbye. Even in death, Bowie innovated; he turned his passing into an artistic work — a brilliant eleventh-hour stroke. So now Blackstar is viewed in an entirely different light; the hopelessness computes.

In the opening song, Bowie bridges the haunting, Arabic tonality with the chorus by using a romantic bridge. “Something happened on the day he died,” he aches. “Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.” He presages those who shall follow in his artistic wake — “somebody else took his place and bravely cried, ‘I’m a Blackstar; I’m a Blackstar.’” (This became a trending hashtag — the man understood.) As the uplifting respite closes, this new entity proclaims what it isn’t — “I’m not a gangster, I’m not a porn star.” Are the new Blackstars that fall into the chasm Bowie leaves behind announcing that they won’t fit into tawdry celebrity categories? That they hope to be uncategorizable, as their primogenitor was?

“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” begins with the sound of breath, pulled laboriously through the nose and a pumping, futuristic bassline. Outside’s “I’m Deranged,” lays beneath the sordid tale of our contemporary decay in cross-gender relations. “Man, she punched me like a dude … she stole my purse, with rattling speed; that was the patrol … this is the war.”

In many ways, “Lazarus” is the penultimate song on the record, oddly positioned as the third track. Bowie’s voice is anguished and aged — you can hear it when he cries “danger,” says “king.” More intelligent writers than I noted that the line “I’m so high it makes my brain whirl / Drop my cellphone down below” refers not to illicit drug usage, but to the chemotherapy treatments he endured during his grievous 18-month battle with liver cancer. “The clinic called … the x-ray’s fine,” he sings in “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).” These continued allusions to medical treatment pepper the lyrics; of note is the fact that “Sue” was originally recorded for Bowie’s November 2014 compilation Nothing Has Changed, which means that those lyrics stem from that date also. He was telling us he was ill a year and a half ago.

Since the release of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Bowie had been transfixed by the dismal world inhabited by Alex and his droogs. With “Girl Loves Me,” the man finally encapsulated this fascination. The shrill, atonal melody is Nadsat, mixed with bits of the lost gay code, Polari. Bowie seems to be lamenting the fact that his death will take him away from his beloved, Iman — “cheena” means “woman” — and many brilliant listeners noted that the mantra “where the fuck did Monday go?” is hauntingly coincidental, given that Bowie passed away in the early morning hours of Sunday, January 10.

The opening chords of “Dollar Days” are heartbreaking, and the acoustic guitar make it the most tender song on a dark record. Amidst the chaos of a crumbling world, which now closely resembles Alex DeLarge’s, Bowie still holds the flame for the woman he will miss most. “Those oligarchs with foaming mouths come now and then… don’t believe for one second I’m forgetting you.” It reads like a final letter to a wife he doesn’t want to leave alone in a brutal, miserable dystopia.

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” closes the record, quoting the lush synthesizer tone of “Thursday’s Child” and the lonely harmonica of “A New Career in a New Town.” Many fans have found this to be one of the toughest songs to listen to. He fought so hard just to say a proper goodbye.

Blackstars inherit that challenge of tomorrow, with its promise of something hard to do. For the sake of misfits yet to be born, let’s hope that they pass the test.

David Bowie is my hero. He deserves nothing less.

Kurt Fritjofson is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at kf322@cornell.edu.

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