On Falling in Love with David Bowie and the Beauty of Blackstar

How does one even begin to describe David Bowie? Wikipedia labels him a, “singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, arranger, painter and actor.” That's a lot, but it still feels like an understatement. Bowie was a lot of things to a lot of people. His work was so vital - for so long, in so many different areas – that people seem to have fallen in love with him for dozens of different reasons. The outpouring of grief on social media today has been an astonishing tribute to his legacy. Bowie wasn't just an old rock star that a lot of people respected. This was something different. For a staggering number of people (myself included), this was one of those rare celebrity deaths that felt like a personal loss.

Bowie's music is so omnipresent in pop culture that it's probably impossible for most people my age to pinpoint the first time they heard him. However, I can tell you about the first time I remember him making an impression on me.

My family bought our first full-color PC in 1995, and one of the many programs included with the “starter kit” we received was an Encarta digital encyclopedia. One of the once-thrilling features of this program was that it included audio and video clips with certain entries. I was only ten years old at the time, and I hastily scoured the program for every nifty little audio or video clip I could find (one can only imagine how much time I would have wasted if YouTube had existed back then). One of the clips was particularly striking: an excerpt of David Bowie's “Changes,” featuring that insanely catchy chorus (“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!”). I played it over and over, and even made a terrible-sounding copy of it on a cassette recorder I owned so I could listen to it when I wasn't using the computer.

I wasn't really allowed to listen to artists like David Bowie at the time – I grew up in a deeply religious home, and there was a lengthy period where secular rock music was more or less verboten (thus providing a gateway to my obsession with film music – a story for another day) – but that clip always stuck with me. When I was in my teens (and had enough freedom to go out and purchase my own music), one of the first pop/rock albums I sought out was Bowie's Hunky Dory. I didn't know whether it was one of his better albums or what most of it sounded like; I just knew that it was the one that had “Changes” on it.

Naturally, I fell head-over-heels in love with the album, though the glam rock of the first half grabbed hold of my heart with greater speed than the folk-rock of the second half. The song that quickly replaced “Changes” as my favorite Bowie tune was “Life on Mars.” I didn't know what the lyrics meant, exactly, but the tune's stunning melody and sense of bewildered alienation resonated with me on a level I can't even explain. Whatever it was, I felt it. Maybe it was all a lot of silly teenage angst, but the music that best captures such angst often ends up being the music that works its way into your soul. Bowie had a way of connecting with anyone who felt like a weird outsider, no matter what variety of weird outsider you happened to be.

Over the years, I would explore the rest of Bowie's catalogue, discovering new treasures, falling in love with different periods (okay, so I never really warmed to the Tin Machine stuff) and finding new favorites. One of my “bucket list” goals was to see him in concert, but by the time I could afford things like that, he had stopped touring (a medical emergency in 2004 put a sudden halt to his Reality tour, and his public appearances became increasingly rare in the years that followed). I would often jokingly (but honestly) tell my wife that I was fully prepared to spend an obscene amount of money to see him in concert if he ever decided to tour again. He never did, though I was grateful (and surprised) that he actually released new music again after a decade of silence: the magnificent The Next Day (which seemingly drew inspiration from many chapters of Bowie's career) and the brief, experimental-but-gorgeous Blackstar (released a mere two days before Bowie's death).

Like a lot of other Bowie fans, I had spent much of the weekend listening to Blackstar, once again wrestling with the meaning of Bowie's ever-enigmatic lyrics and letting his music work its magic on me. “What do you think the album is about?” my wife asked me on Sunday afternoon. “Well, it's hard to be entirely certain with Bowie,” I said, “But a lot of it seems to be about ego and the fear of death.” At the time, I didn't really find anything particularly surprising about that. After all, he had explored similar subject matter on plenty of other occasions (his 2003 album Reality – which many thought would end up being his swan song – covered this territory in strikingly direct fashion). Then, a couple of hours after hearing the news, I listened to Blackstar again and was overwhelmed: while the album certainly can't be reduced to a single thing (nor can Bowie himself), it was clearly his way of saying goodbye.

And just like that, a stellar late-period Bowie album transformed into a heartbreaking, profoundly moving message from the musician to his fans; many of its seemingly cryptic lyrics laid bare by the revelation that Bowie had essentially recorded the album on his deathbed. A few excerpts...

From “Blackstar”:
“Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside,
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried,
(I'm a blackstar, I'm a blackstar)”

From “Lazarus”:
“Look up here, I'm in heaven,
I've got scars that can't be seen,
I've got drama, can't be stolen,
Everybody knows me now.”

From “Dollar Days”:
“I'm dying to,
Push their backs against the grain,
And fool them all again and again,
I'm trying to,
It's all gone wrong but on and on,
The bitter nerve ends never end,
I'm falling down,
Don't believe for just one second I'm forgetting you,
I'm trying to,
I'm dying to.”

From “I Can't Give Everything Away”:
“I know something is very wrong,
The pulse returns for prodigal sons,
The blackout hearts with flowered news,
With skull designs upon my shoes,
I can't give everything,
I can't give everything,

I had listened to the album a half-dozen times already, but suddenly I was actually hearing it. The news of Bowie's death might not have triggered an immediate flood of tears (for a while, I was half-convinced it was some sort of elaborate stunt – Bowie would be the one to pull something like that off), but hearing him address his own imminent death so directly certainly did. Even as I cried, I couldn't help but marvel at what he had pulled off: after decades of turning much of his public life into a form of performance art, Bowie had fused his own death with his art in extraordinarily elegant (and alarmingly well-timed) fashion. It's rare that the artists we love are able to craft a proper goodbye. It's almost unheard of for an artist to craft one this ingeniously heartbreaking. Touchingly, David Bowie has left us with precisely the thing we need to help us deal with the pain of losing him.