Real Life Rock and Roll

The Bowie Blackstar in All of Us

Celebrity deaths don’t usually move me since my connection with any famous artist that I admire is primarily through their art, which survives their death. The death of David Bowie, however, has had an effect on me that is as unusual and unique as the man himself. I can’t help but think this has every bit to do with the way he died – a process he transformed into a work of art itself – as it does with the undeniable effect his music has had on me over the years. Everybody by now is aware of the circumstances behind the recording and release of his final album, Blackstar. The fact that an album recorded so late in his musical career can be held up to any of his best albums is an astonishing feat in itself, but that he made the album while knowing, after being diagnosed with cancer, he had only eighteen months left to live is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Listening to Blackstar now in light of his death is a profound experience, riddled as it is with references to his imminent demise and irresolvable feelings about leaving behind the extraordinary life he lived, the revolutionary music that he made, and the family, friends and fans who sustained him throughout his earthly journey. We should be grateful that he left us, his fans, with what he envisioned all along, according to Tony Visconti, his friend and producer, as a “parting gift,” but we should never assume he made the album solely for us. Whatever his reasons, they have given the album an inscrutability that has often been a hallmark of Bowie’s work. After all, the man did love to confound and challenge his audience, infecting them with the same sense of unease and alienation that he himself felt, as well as portrayed through his many artistic guises, for the majority of his life. Just as on an earlier album he assured his legions of alienated and outcast fans they were not alone, he offers in Blackstar a message of comfort and guidance regarding the ultimate alienation of self that is the death we will all one day face.

Bowie’s death came less than two weeks after the death of another of my rock and roll heroes. Two days after his 70th birthday and mere days following his own fatal cancer diagnosis, that inveterate, hard-living embodiment of the genre itself, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, passed away. By channeling an eternally youthful and defiant energy, rock and roll has always challenged death, or at least flipped a finger at its inescapable presence, but no rocker has yet to strike the secret chord that would conquer it. Lemmy put it best himself when he barked (his voice being an acquired taste), “You know I’m born to lose, and gamblin’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t want to live forever!” The music of Bowie and Lemmy, two legends who seemed larger than life and, therefore, immortal until they weren’t, had been what I reached for to pull me through many a rough patch. Now, their passing tends to evoke and get mixed in with all the death and human frailty I have experienced recently on a more personal level, not to mention the news of senseless death on a mass scale taking place every day here in our country and around the world. What do we make of all this? What do we do about it? Do our rock and roll heroes give us any clues on how to live in, and in spite of, the sometimes overwhelming presence of all this death, destruction and decay? Is that a faint echo I hear from Bowie’s past calling all of us to be heroes, if just for one day?

Aside from his extraordinary musical talent, Bowie was a master of creating the guises of any number of heroes who empowered him to transform the vicissitudes of life into a spectacle, particularly the hyper-real, chaotic and sometimes self-destructive life of a world-famous rock and roll star. He first gained attention as Major Tom, the Space Oddity, then he took turns variously from there to become Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and other lesser known identities. He even turned Major Tom into a junkie on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) in what may have been an attempt, after kicking a serious drug habit, to exorcise the Major and other personalities from his past. Until he posthumously scored his first US number one album with Blackstar, he even enjoyed a time as a stadium-filling, commercial pop star when he released Let’s Dance (1983), the album that was at the time his biggest commercial success. His public persona was so plastic and chameleonic that he was able to go about his daily life in New York City, his residence for the last two decades of his life, without being recognized. Bowie’s life, infused as all ours are with death, was an ever-ch-ch-ch-changing creation, a work of art that he crafted anew every day to hold the Big D at bay, knowing that until that time comes the possibilities within each moment are limitless chances to become our own heroes. It may be easy to see that now with the benefit of hindsight and the reading of so many career retrospectives, but it is an entirely different matter for us, the spectators of his art, to make the deliberate choice to absorb his example and live our lives the Bowie way as mutable creations, adapted to our worldly circumstances and emotional needs.

In an interview given in 2002, Bowie said, “As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” Well, we now know exactly what Bowie did with the time he had left, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. Though we may all know in our bones that no one here gets out alive, we spend a lifetime in denial. Even Bowie believed after the completion of Blackstar that he had time to make another record and had already recorded a handful of demos. We are so inextricably tied to the consciousness that forms our identity that we can’t conceive how this consciousness doesn’t persist beyond death. Perhaps Bowie, who, recognizing better than most the delusion of identity, deliberately tearing down his own to make way for new ones, was not immune to this desire. If so, it would only make him as human as the rest of us. The fact is, it requires consciousness to conjure the absence of consciousness, which seems a nearly impossible exercise for all but the most devoted of Buddhist monks.

“Knowledge comes with death’s release,” he sang in “Quicksand” (Hunky Dory, 1971), but we can’t know if upon his death he still believed that. At the time he composed “Lazarus” for the Blackstar album (and Broadway play of the same name), he writes from the perspective of one who has already crossed over and is reporting to us below on earth what he has found. “Look at me, man, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” One can imagine how Bowie, bruised and battered by radiation and chemo, as well as a number of unreported heart attacks, had grown weary of, and felt increasingly imprisoned by, his deteriorating body. However, if the Lazarus character has, indeed, returned or is speaking to us from the dead, he speaks with the disquiet of one who knows he has not yet reached his final destination. He knows this because even from his detached height and perspective above us, the world is still too much with him. With the lines “I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl/Dropped my cell phone down below,” we get the sense that he is – as indeed he was – in a twilight of life and death, one where the details of death come more into focus as those of the world recede into almost comical insignificance. Nevertheless, release, just as surely as another of his alter egos, will come. “This way or no way,” he declares, indicating a realization that death requires neither invitation nor effort to enter our lives, it just comes when it’s time, “You know I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now, ain’t that just like me?”

Spending time with Blackstar and contemplating Bowie’s life in music and art, one can’t help but intensely feel that desire to liberate oneself from constraining definitions, or guises, in one’s own life. I personally identify so strongly with Bowie’s fluid personas because my own stabs at a career, or knowing what I wanted to “do with my life,” have been just as fluid or undefined. My so-called career path has been anything but clear and well-marked, more like a bird-like lighting on one perch of interest after another. Because these “experiments” have not led me to the promised land of a vocation or culminated in any kind of calling is no reason to view them as a string of failures. With Bowie as my Beatrice to guide me through life’s circles of hell, I can choose to view my career steps (or missteps) instead as various guises and explorations of certain aspects of my talents, such as they are. I have a picture of Bowie and his gang of gender-fluid misfits, including Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, terrorizing the early 70s New York City art scene by flaunting their unique style of freakishness in a city already full of freaks, and it fills me with a Rimbaudian romanticism to view my contrariness as a powerful inoculation – a badge of honor, if you will – against today’s Powers That Be that demand loyalty and sacrifice to their failing institutions and death-machines of war and dehumanizing policies. Rather than view my toe-dip into the waters of middle age as a sunset on certain opportunities, I only need raise the same question Bowie posed to himself: “What do I do with the time I’ve got left?” And the answer? For starters, I will continue being a writer in search of my own unique voice (blogger – as in to “blah log” – is too temporal and constricting). Soon I will, along with my wife, be a building contractor and interior designer for a retreat house we are renovating. And if certain plans work out, I will be co-owner and operator of a business that will make a much-needed cultural contribution to our fair city. The question being open-ended with no right answer, it will be hunky dory whether these possibilities come to fruition or not.

Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, explains why we can’t ultimately answer such questions ourselves:

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Nobody lived the question quite like Bowie, and Blackstar represents his final artistic statement posed as a question as well. As intensely as he must have felt the nearness of death and the disintegration of the body, that dwelling place of the soul and mind that generates our identities according to the security we feel inside it, he still had no idea how his death was going to go, or what of himself, if anything, persisted beyond it. It should come as no surprise that he refused to leave us with a tidy summation of his thoughts on these matters, nor does he offer any cameos of former personas to give us closure with a final farewell. No doubt devoted followers will continue to seek out every scrap of sage wisdom, no matter how cryptically conveyed, he has revealed in his music, but as he tells us in “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the album’s final track, a final judgment is not his to give.

His life, as reflected in his art, is now for us to summarize and make of as we will, to incorporate those lessons into our own lives as we see fit. “Something happened on the day he died,” he sings prophetically, almost plaintively, on Blackstar’s title track, “Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside/Somebody took his place, and bravely cried/I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar.” That brave cry stands in contrast and contradiction to other, more ephemeral and tawdry variations of the word star that appear both in the song and our culture: gangstar (as in “gangsta”), film star, pop star, porn star, marvel star, white star. Bowie’s Blackstar is a body that exists both in and out of this world. It represents the presence and possibility of all life as well as its absence, in the same way that black is both the absence and presence of all color.  It is both final and neverending, end and beginning, powerful enough to absorb and annihilate all his guises, including Starman, his most celestial (“I’m a star’s star”). It’d be fair to say the Blackstar, like death itself, exists inside each of us and in our lifetimes takes on whatever guise or meaning we choose to give it, if we are but brave enough to declare it. Then, when it is our turn to cross over, someone will take our place, raise the same brave cry for us and take our Blackstar into themselves.

Bowie’s defiance of his public’s expectations, along with his gender fluidness, showed us all how we might define, and thereby empower, ourselves, rather than being defined, and thereby diminished, by others. In this time of so-called opportunity exploration, it is all I can do to tune out the patriarchy’s deafening drumbeat that anyone not making a positive contribution to society is a worthless piece of shit, “positive contribution” being defined as whatever benefits their own enterprises. We live in a time of such intense focus on short-term, expendable outcomes, and the assumption that only the quantifiable has value, that we fail to see how life, hardly flowing according to such rigid dictates, is unquantifiable. Even if it pays the bills, puts a roof over your head and provides creature comforts, such a hand-to-mouth existence is not ultimately how meaning and purpose are derived. We get so caught up in the spell of immediate gratification that gives us, in turn, an illusion of permanence, that we lose sight of the fact that life itself consists of single moments in the here and now. Each moment is a gift, one that passes just as quickly as it occurs, never to return, and it is the sum total of these moments, when lived to the fullest, that shapes our deaths. The song “Dollar Days” beautifully expresses the mourning and futility in yearning for life’s lost moments. Bowie, dying in his adopted New York City, feels the emotional pull of his birthplace of England. “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see.” It doesn’t take a Buddhist monk to know that even if he were able to return to this place, he would be returning to something entirely different from his memory.

Bowie never said any of this was easy. He certainly never made things easy for his fans, or even himself, with his music, as immensely enjoyable as it was, and his transformation into so many alter egos must have enacted a great physical and psychic toll on him. Birth and death, in whatever form, come hard. I count myself as fortunate to have borne witness to these events on a number of occasions, and though they sometimes felt agonizing and interminable in their passage, both to me and the person going through them, I still would not give up for anything the new and deep layers of experience and meaning they left in their wake. We can only hope after the painful birth of Blackstar and the completion of his death journey that Bowie is now at peace in his final incarnation. We can’t know that for sure, but now that he’s become the Blackstar, it no longer matters. What matters is what we do with the time we all have left on this earth, with whomever we have to share it.

Buddhists say life is suffering. Bowie, a man far more sophisticated than his slumming in the rock and roll realm would suggest, says music and art are what make such suffering not only bearable but danceable. With his life in art, Bowie showed us there are no limits, that it is art that surmounts a culture that reduces death to a disposable commodity whenever it declares that some forms of life have value over others. Blackstar’s existence is a demonstration of the way art can prepare us for the acceptance our own deaths, just as Bowie has now left us this extraordinary album to help us come to grips with his. Until the Blackstar comes to swallow us all, may we dare to forge such bold, brash personas that would make not only Ziggy Stardust pale by comparison but also make the Powers That Be implode in their rage, as we live art as a question in our own lives and deaths.