David Bowie’s Blackstar is a strange, mystical journey. Released on his 69th birthday, two days before his death, the album mixes futuristic jazz with new wave and folk, all underpinned by Bowie’s pained yet mellifluous voice. In retrospect, it’s clear that the record, as its producer put it, is “his parting gift”. It’s no surprise to find that many of the tracks, ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’ included, suggest both lyrically and structurally that Blackstar is Bowie’s loving, playful attempt at an elegy for himself. Say what you will about artists imagining their own funerals, but it makes sense that Bowie, with his inherently theatrical career, would stage and enact how he’d best like his audience to say goodbye to him, while also saying goodbye to them. Over the years, he repeatedly reinvented not just his sound, but his appearance, the rules of genre, gender, and performance, each time emerging in an almost unrecognizable reincarnation. And it’s precisely this sort of dissociative, fragmented Bowie stunt that so many have grown to love.
Blackstar appropriates all the typical elements of an elegy – lament, praise, and solace – and builds a haunting tension in the relationship between the subject and the speaker. In the final line, Bowie intimates that the speaker and subject are one and the same (“I can’t give everything away”). The mysterious dignity of Blackstar is that it offers the listener a glimpse into Bowie’s personal process of accepting death right down to the very last note. As the elegy typically functions to provide a collective experience of loss, Blackstar does so by letting the listener in, saying they are part of it, and inviting them to sing along in the midst of sorrow.
As a form, the elegy began in ancient Greece, and was usually written in response to the death of a person or a group of people. Different from the eulogy (written in prose) and the ode (almost always praising in tone), the speaker in an elegy traditionally begins with grief, then praises the recently dead, and finishes with words of consolation. In Blackstar, Bowie loosely follows this pattern. The title track, ‘Blackstar,’ begins the record with the image of a ‘Solitary candle / In the centre of it all.” One doesn’t have to reach far to hear an echo of Macbeth’s last speech before his death, where he compares existence to a ‘brief candle’ and mourns the fragile way in which life – like a candle’s flame – can be extinguished so quickly.
But where Macbeth brought death on himself, Bowie’s death followed a battle with cancer. His lyrics depict the harrowing experience of the illness’ seemingly random and cruel assault. He states: “I can’t say why (I’m a blackstar).” ‘Black star’, it has been noted, is a term used by radiologists to refer to for a cancerous lesion. Bowie goes on to depict the suffering subject: “Someone else took his place, and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar.” Here, cancer is presented as an identity thief, trading human life for itself – a poignant illustration coming from a man who made a living out of forming new, increasingly more complicated identities. But Bowie’s lament is most striking in its irony. He includes a careful inventory of his career, yet denies each success (“I’m not a film star,” “I’m not a popstar,” “I’m not a marvelstar”). Instead, he repeats over and over: “I’m a blackstar.”
Rather than celebrating his curated, multifarious selves, Bowie is fixated on his final self – his singular, shrinking self – and his acknowledgement of this last identity feels not so much like a forfeit but a very agonizing admission. In his voice, we hear something similar to the speaker in the first of Rainer Marie Rilke’s Duino Elegies, who describes approaching death as “no place where we can remain”. The annihilation both Bowie and Rilke portray is one of the bleakest features of a typical elegy. But the sombre beginning is always the background from which relief can eventually spring forth.
And as much as Blackstar is elegiac in its tone and its trimmings, it is still a Bowie record: crass, hilarious, and unpredictable. Songs like ‘’Tis a Pity She was a Whore’ and ‘Girl Loves Me’ venture into bar-lounge and back alley banter with lines like “Man, she punched me like a dude,” or the jabberwocky, nonsense scat of “You viddy at the cheena.” It’s a romp with avant-garde jazz arrangements and experimentation that suggest Bowie was mirroring musically what was happening to him physically and existentially. One must play extemporaneously, by ear, and without any guidebook or knowing what the next notes will be, where the song will go.
Where Blackstar returns to the elegy’s basic structure is in the spiritually bizarre and captivating ‘Lazarus’. The song begins: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” A muted, steady beat of lulling drums and hazy saxophones stutters along like a minimal, post-rock outfit. The speaker in the song is Newton, a homesick alien played by Bowie in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. The video begins with a shot of a wooden wardrobe in a shadowy room, then focuses on the bandaged face of David Bowie in a hospital bed, writhing and stretching his hands out as though reaching out for the viewer. Though the song is thematically stark, there is a subtle shift in the overall tone of the record that we find in ‘Lazarus,’ indicating that Blackstar as an elegy is moving toward praise.
The allusion in the title to the man who miraculously rises from the dead at Jesus’ command connotes hope, even in the physical certainty of death. Bowie sings: “You know, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now ain’t that just like me.” Whether or not this line is a direct reference to Charles Bukowksi’s poem ‘Bluebird‘ is unknown, but the connection between the two is notable. In the poem, Bukowski courts the vulnerable, fragile part of himself and envisions this child-like element as a bluebird. The speaker knows that the bird “wants to get out” but states: “I’m too clever, I only let him out / At night sometimes.” Bukowski goes on to confess his reluctance regarding the bluebird and admits that he hasn’t “quite let him die” yet. Both Newton in ‘Lazarus’ and Bukowski’s speaker are holding on to very end, even as both recognise that ultimate freedom lies in letting go.
Bowie is different from Bukowski, though, in that he is resigned to give in. In fact, he is preparing for it. When he repeats “I’ll be free,” there is a hymn-like, sacrificial quality to his words. Bowie’s voice lingers over fuzzy instrumentation like a prayer layered with devotion and blessing. He’s not necessarily self-admiring, as the tribute that Bowie pays seems to be not just to himself, but to all those who are or will be approaching death. Blackstar as an elegy is inclusive, while also a distinct expression of Bowie’s individual understanding of his own last days.
If ‘Blackstar’ marks the start of the elegy, and ‘Lazarus’ the middle, then the final movement toward solace and peace is best captured in the closing track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away.’ Bowie repeats the title phrase over characteristic synthesisers and simmering new wave rhythms. He sings with a mix of sprawling, spirited shouts and deep, brooding, Nick Cave-esque abandon. There is no bitterness in his delivery, no anger: the song is almost cheerful, toying with us like a Cheshire Cat grinning very nearly from the other side. It’s surprisingly celebratory, and why not? Blackstar is a stunning achievement, not just musically, but as an elegy that reaches out to us and communicates a portrait of a creative life that strives to make of death a triumphant, artistic finale.
We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook
I’d heard of the cancerous lesion reference, but didn’t reaaly understand its application until I read this article – fascinating; thank you