David Bowie died on my birthday, a few days after his own, last, birthday. The first significant celebrity death of 2016 came as a shock to many, given that Bowie had kept his diagnosis and treatment for cancer completely secret. He released his final album, Blackstar, on his birthday, before promptly leaving the planet. The immediate outpouring that followed then made explicit what many critics were scared to mention when he was still alive – that this album was Bowie saying goodbye.
As we are now just shy of being a week into 2017 – well done, everyone – I am bracing myself somewhat for the ‘year on’ retrospectives of the aforementioned 2016 celebrity deaths. Please excuse me whilst I take my place in the queue to do so in this instance…
When I heard about Bowie’s passing, there was a selfish twinge of understanding that, from this point onwards, my birthday was synonymous with his date of death. Though, throughout my life, having a birthday close to his made me feel instantly cooler by proxy, so I think that’s probably the definition of a fair trade or, at the very least, something vaguely karmic. I did the what was to become horribly regular expression of acknowledgement on social media, thought about my close friend for whom Bowie was a hero, then didn’t do much until Alan Rickman died – then I was really heartbroken.
I didn’t listen to Blackstar. I wasn’t that interested when it was released. I let it linger on a list, a low priority. Compared to the incredible impact that Bowie had on some of my friends’ lives, I didn’t feel that I had the right to consider myself a major fan, precisely because I wasn’t, but I had always enjoyed the occasional Bowie banger on the dance floor, as Let’s Dance became a herald of relief at various clubs in my early twenties. Bowie’s outright difference shone because he never hid it – quite the opposite – which made him a figurehead of pride and a beacon of hope for so many. Though he never did that specifically for me, I live in a very different world and take many things for granted that he had his influence in. But did I owe Bowie anything? In the wake of his devoted fans, understanding the massive effect he had on music, I felt like I couldn’t listen to Blackstar because I’d simply be rubbernecking, the worst kind of jumping on the bandwagon.
When I realised the synchronicity of beginning this project a year on from both the release of Blackstar and Bowie’s death, well, I couldn’t turn that down. So, I finally listened to it – and it made me think of the only other Bowie album I listened to in full, more than once. Low. A few years ago, when I had just moved to Scotland, I got a job working for a film producer. Bleak midwinter in the tiny Edinburgh office along with a hefty daily dose of stress took its toll on the both of us. My boss loved Bowie. The silence was heavy. Something about the strange mix of melancholy and dynamism in Low made it the perfect accompaniment to our working days. It sunk itself into my psyche, the record of an established artist revealing himself to be an uncertain man going through a troubled time. The vulnerability that pulses through Low made me feel less alone, whilst the strangled sounds and experimental noises encouraged me to take risks in my own writing. Show your working. Things don’t have to be perfect, your art doesn't have to be a certain kind of beautiful – they just have to be real.
Blackstar is a short album of a seven songs. I listened to it on Spotify but it’s undeniable that it feels like a record, the Side A and Side B etched into its very structure, a juxtaposition of Bowie being simultaneously of his era and yet always reaching forwards. It’s an album steeped in symbolism, both cosmic and cultural, like much of Bowie’s work. (This article breaks down the layers very well) The songs themselves have, simultaneously, guttural and transcendent qualities. Bowie’s voice has aged but it remains distinctive as ever, undeniably him. It is hard for me to say that I like Blackstar but I can’t deny that Bowie succeeded in doing what he set out to do, so in that sense it is a good album.
But the hardest thing for me about listening to this album is doing so with the shadow of the fact that Bowie statutorily raped a fifteen-year-old girl in the 70s. I discovered this information a couple of days after his death and immediately felt more than a little queasy. It doesn’t matter what era it was, children are children. It is on us if we decry sexual abuse during the 70s by cultural figures we find icky and do not do the same for those who we consider our critically lauded, artistically brilliant juggernauts. (This is an eloquent an important article to read on the subject) That I only found out about this, like many others, after he had died, what that said about the nature of abuse and who is protected in this world… I wanted to distance myself from what I had said a few days prior, scrub Low out of my ears and head, struggling to make peace with myself knowing that the man who sang that we could be heroes, just for one day, who was a hero himself to many of the disenfranchised, had turned out to be pretty problematic.
But I have to appreciate and be honest about how Bowie’s music has made me feel in my life, to not deny that I saw him in this pioneering light, that to see him in a pioneering light is to appreciate the reality of our culture. This as far as I have got in reconciling my thoughts on Bowie as an artist and as a man – and probably as far as I will go.