Signal to Noise: A Tribute to BLACKSTAR and David Bowie

bowie lazarusIt is impossible to listen to Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album, without thinking of his death, and this, it seems, is as Bowie had intended. The album is shot through with death, not only in obvious ways as in the song “Lazarus,” whose title alone suggests death, even while implying its transcendence, the opening lyrics, slyly, given the timing of the video’s release only days before Bowie’s death, announcing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”

Or the album’s title track “Blackstar,” a black star not only a dead star—making the lines “I’m a blackstar/I’m not a filmstar/I’m a blackstar/I’m not a popstar” especially resonant—but also, as philosopher Simon Critchley, author of 2014’s Bowie, suggests, the connection between Bowie’s song and an unreleased Elvis Presley track called “Black Star,” whose lyrics are indeed evocative:

Every man has a black star
A black star over his shoulder
And when a man sees his black star
He knows his time, his time has come

Black star don’t shine on me, black star
Black star keep behind me, black star
There’s a lot of livin’ I gotta do
Give me time to make a few dreams come true, black star

Then there are other, less direct, implications of death’s imminence, such as the labored breathing at the opening of “‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore,” or the lyric in the ballad “Dollar Days”:

I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to

When sung, we hear, momentarily, before the remainder of the lyric comes tumbling out, “I’m dying, too … / I’m trying, too …”, a testament, it appears in retrospect, of the making of Bowie’s swan song.

bowie blackstarRegardless, it would be reductive to experience this album solely through knowledge of Bowie’s death. It would rob the songs of their adventurousness and haunting obscurity. Just what is the song “Blackstar” about? Supposedly, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose jazz ensemble contributes much to the success of the album, said that, before recording it, Bowie had mentioned ISIS (the Islamic State) in connection to the song, though according to Spencer Kornhaber, staff writer at The Atlantic, neither drummer Mark Guiliana nor producer Tony Visconti were aware of that association. In fact, Kornhaber goes on to say, “the villa of Ormen,” the setting at the opening of “Blackstar” is a Norse village, hardly the bailiwick of the Islamic State. The whole album Blackstar is as mysteriously compelling and searching as the opening track and should be met in that spirit.

It was Bowie’s propensity for experimentation while being a bona fide superstar that made him, and still makes him, such an anomaly. I marvel that Bowie was as huge as he was. Songs like “Neuköln” on “Heroes” or “Warszawa” on Low are hardly Top 40 fare. Of course, there are the Bowies songs that are comfortable in the Top 40, or at least were in heavy rotation on radio stations like WAPL, the album rock station I listened to in junior high and high school, songs we’re all familiar with, like “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel, Rebel,” “Fame,” and “Ashes to Ashes,” to name the most ubiquitous.

bowie ziggyIt was those songs and the sense that he was up to something, not the usual rock star swagger but something more peculiar and, to me, seductive—as in his SNL appearance in 1979—that led me to buy my first Bowie album my freshman year in college. Probably because it contained “Suffragette City,” and for no other reason, the first David Bowie album I bought was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Even before I played it, as I tore the plastic from the cover, I knew I was going to like it when I saw the directive: “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” It’s a great album, so it wasn’t long afterward that I bought Aladdin Sane and then the brand new, swaggering Let’s Dance.

By that time, Bowie had released so many albums that I didn’t know where to go next, especially given how little money I had to spend on books and music. It was Tonight, which came out the year after Let’s Dance, that finally brought me to a grinding halt. Clearly this was not up to snuff, and by this point I’d started hearing rumblings that Bowie was an uneven artist (what I now think is an unfair assessment, given how many great albums he released and how strong a run he had from Station to Station until Let’s Dance, six really good-to-excellent albums in seven years), so I gave up buying his records until I had a better sense of his career.

It was in those years, while I was still an undergraduate in college, when Bowie’s career seemed to have fallen into confused disarray as he careened from one dubious album to another, scrambling to find his voice again but never quite succeeding, chasing after trends instead of setting them as he once had, that, in friends’ record collections, I discovered what have become my favorite Bowie albums. It began with my friend, and huge Bowie fan, Sarah Taylor’s copy of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). I knew “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion,” but I wasn’t prepared for the exquisitely noisy art pop of the album opener “It’s No Game (No. 1).”

The album was attuned to my strange ears that were, at the time, gravitating toward other art pop artists like Peter Gabriel (Melt and Security), Discipline-era King Crimson, and even Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits, stuff that was off-putting to many of my friends and acquaintances but that seemed to have come not from outside of me but from the depths of my unconscious, much like the feeling I had when I first heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Thelonious Monk. I knew this music, and it knew me, long before I’d ever heard it.

bowie lodger 2And so began my slow fall into the Berlin trilogy and Station to Station, albums that are just bent enough that I was amused but not surprised by a story related by Adrian Belew to Newsweek reporter Zach Schonfeld about his experience recording Lodger with Bowie:

Belew recalls working in a Switzerland studio that he compares to a bunker. He and the rest of the musicians were on a separate floor from Bowie, who had access to a one-way camera—he and collaborator Brian Eno could see the musicians, who could not see them. Things got weirder from there.

“The first thing that Brian [Eno] and David said to me was ‘We think we’re calling this record Planned Accidents, and we want to get your accidental responses to the music,'” Belew says. So the pair had him put on headphones and play along with tracks he’d never heard before. When he asked what key it was in, they’d refuse to answer.

“I would try to figure out as it’s going,” Belew says. “I would get maybe two or three tries. But usually by the third try I would know something. That’s not what they were listening for. Then they would take their tracks, and they would make a composite of their favorite moments of me trying to figure out how to play along with the song.”

It thrills me that an artist who would do that would be mourned by so many, for whom Bowie’s flirtations with surrealism and aleatoric music might be their only exposure to artistic approaches they might otherwise dismiss as nonsense.

bowie finalThat Bowie, the adventurer, stepping into uncharted lands in a blindfold (with buttons sewn on it), encouraging McCaslin and his band to take the music wherever they felt it needed to go, Bowie jumping right in, finding his place, searching, searching, lyrics not always completed even, but standing there in the middle of the band, against standard recording practices of separating the singer for a cleaner vocal track, and singing, digging deep, his energy charging the band, the lyrics, some finally, coming in and refracting, splitting the difference, cutting to the stone of the fruit: “Ride the train I’m far from home/In a season of crime none need atone/I kissed your face.”

This is the gift David Bowie left for us, multifaceted as the diamonds the narrator of “Blackstar” wants in his eyes like those found in the baroque filigree of a sugar skull.

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