You don’t know which deaths are going to affect you the most. When I was 11, John Lennon died. I didn’t know too much about The Beatles – maybe She Loves You and Yellow Submarine. I had never heard Imagine or All You Need Is Love or Strawberry Fields Forever. But it seems that I knew enough about him to be utterly startled by the news. I loved his current single (Just Like) Starting Over. I still love it now. It sounded to me like what falling in love might feel like, should it ever happen to me. And after I fell in love, it still sounded like that.
So, on that December morning, when the clock-radio woke me up and, on Radio 1, Mike Read broke the news, there was an immediate sadness. If someone had told me my sadness wasn’t real, I would have been hurt and bewildered. If that had been the peak of the news coverage, my day might have settled into some sort of normality. But the live feeds from New York; the tearful televised vigils; the newspapers the following day – all of these continued to impact upon me. Other people’s reactions seeped into my own. I don’t think I cried. I don’t think I even spoke about it too much. But what I do remember was thinking and thinking and thinking about it. What it meant to die. What had suddenly and violently been thwarted outside the Dakota building. Now I see my children reacting to their parents’ reaction to David Bowie’s death, and I see something similar taking root in their thoughts.
I can’t stop thinking about it. Most of my friends can’t stop thinking about it. Contrary to what some commentators have taken it upon themselves to insist, grief doesn’t always correlate to how well you knew that person. I wasn’t an obsessive Bowie fan. I’ve grieved less for the passing of musicians I actually counted as friends. My love for his music extended to all the albums and a handful of books. I wasn’t alive when his first album appeared, on the same day as Sgt Pepper. I don’t exactly know how it would have felt to be a teenager alone in their bedroom in 1972 and hear Bowie yowling, “You’re not alone” for the first time in Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide. I think it maybe felt a bit like my own teenage pop epiphanies, listening to The Doors and Dexys over and over again while I carefully wrote their lyrics on my school exercise books.
I don’t entirely understand why I can’t stop thinking about his death; why I expected Tuesday to be better than Monday; and why I thought today might be better than the previous two days. But I’m going to have a go.
Even when our idols are alive and well, our relationship to them isn’t rational. In the early 90s, shortly after I moved to London, I interviewed Prince. A friend of mine who was perpetually besotted with him and his music was so excited about my encounter with his hero that he came over to my flat holding an enormous carrier bag. “Don’t laugh,” he said, “but I’ve brought all my Prince records with me.” He laid them out on my carpet and we both just sort of sat there looking at them. I totally understood. From time to time, I do the same thing with my favourite artists. In fact, on Monday evening, I finally did it with all my Bowie records. We collect these things and we make monuments with them, because once the needle is on the record, we don’t really know what else to do. We turn their music up as loud as we can in our headphones because we want to crawl inside the songs and live inside them. We’re not rational with our idols when they’re alive, so why should we suddenly become rational when they die? Shouldn’t we be more irrational? After all, why on earth is there to rationally comprehend about death?
Which brings us to Blackstar.
Death eludes us when we try and get near to its essence. In that chasm between knowing exactly what awaits us and not knowing at all what awaits us, great art happens. Has any record enveloped us in that chasm as arrestingly as Blackstar? It’s too early to say. Emotions run high. But right now, I can’t think of another one.
When I first heard the song Blackstar, I got the idea into my head that it depicted the final thoughts of a suicide bomber as he neared the act that would give both meaning to and end his existence. It sounded like the end of the world because that’s what suicide is. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “The man who kills a man kills a man. The man who kills himself kills all men. As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.” Those repeated verses in the first half of the song, with their wordless codas, sounded to me, as they do now, like a stuttering, suffocating liturgy.
About a fortnight after I first heard Blackstar, I was granted an early audience with the rest of the album. In an empty West End boardroom on a rainy Thursday morning, I bashed out some first impressions of the remaining songs as they were playing. Today, I happened upon those notes. Because I knew the title track by that point, I didn’t make any notes for it. But this is what I wrote – mistakes and all – for Lazarus:
Languorous sax ebbs over a studied downtempo intro. “Look out here, I’m in heaven” [tremelo-wanging punctuation “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen Everybody knows me now”…. “I’ve got nothing left to lose/I’m so high it makes my brain whirl”…. “Hey, they’re just like me [???] By the time I got to NY/I was living like a king/There I used up all my money/I was looking for your house”…. sense of tying up loose ends in the twilight, of imminent ascension or something…settling your account with your maker… in the eye of a vast cosmic delusion… “Just like that bluebird/I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me”….
It didn’t occur to me at any point that David Bowie might be writing about his own death – and every music writer I’ve spoken to – many of them reviewers who had to parade their own interpretations – has said the same thing. Reading my notes back, it’s as though I’ve stumbled across a strange creature with the head of a chicken and the body of a chicken and decided it must be some sort of fish. I felt far more comfortable with the suicide bomber interpretation.
Then last night, I read that a black star was the name sometimes given to a form of cancer: a "proliferative breast legion... described as long and thin with radiating radiolucent linear structures, which against a radiolucent fat background gives a black star or dark star appearance”.
In an odd way, I don’t feel like the two interpretations are mutually exclusive. In fact, they made a strange sort of sense. I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for the modern religious death cult than a black star. Its end goal is to colonise its host so utterly that its host perishes, in the process killing the very organism on which its own life depends. Do I think that was Bowie’s intent with Blackstar and Lazarus? Probably not. Possibly not. It doesn’t matter. If Bowie had made a record which invited you to anticipate his own death in more literal terms, he wouldn’t be David Bowie.
Contrast this against the final recordings of Johnny Cash – albums which, in their way, also anticipated their creator’s end, and indeed invited us to pull up a seat and do the same. A slow fade to an inevitable conclusion. Cash’s American Recordings records seem like elderly emo records by comparison. Blackstar sounds like the work of someone both peering over to try and describe – whilst at the same time bitterly resenting – the weir into nothingness. This isn’t Five Years. This is five seconds.
In his absence, all we can do is play the record, play all the previous records and think and talk and talk and think about him. Some of the things we’ll say about him will be stupid and overwrought. Like so much human language, once reduced to its bare fundaments, it’s tantamount to grunting really. But, like a dog returning to the last place it saw its owner, these are the best ideas we’ve come up with. We’ll watch the same old video clips for the umpteenth time. We’ll lay his records out side by side, gather them all up, and lay them out again. We’ll stand in the same place together and make those monuments. Like David Bowie, we’re trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. We may be some time.