Judging by the entertainment media frenzy accompanying the issue of David Bowie’s latest album “Blackstar” on the multimedia star’s 69th birthday (coincidentally also the birthday of Elvis Presley) the singer/songwriter/provocateur had released 2016’s equivalent of “Pet Sounds,” “Sgt. Pepper,” and “Exile on Main Street.” It’s good, but not that good.
In fact, it’s also not as good as Bowie’s landmark albums of the 1970s, but it’s a compelling album just the same, especially when listened to as the final chapter of Bowie’s recorded output.
That he died a mere two days after its release had writers scrambling to find Easter eggs in Bowie’s “Blackstar” lyrics. Yes, the album contains lyrical examinations of mortality alongside the flashes of creative wonderment that characterized the majority of his musical compositions. However, “Blackstar” is also at times bleak, a condition underscored by lyrical ambiguity and sometimes offensive imagery featured in the title track’s accompanying video.
I’ll return to all that after a brief prologue.
It’s All There on that Glorious Vinyl
It’s hard to imagine my experiences in the 1970s devoid of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. I recall hearing “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” and “Rebel, Rebel” on the radio; borrowing “Aladdin Sane” and “Pinups” from my older brother’s girlfriend; grooving on “Diamond Dogs” in a high-school classmate’s car while she smoked Marlboro Reds and shared with me several sips from a bottle of Annie Green Springs Berry Frost; snapping my fingers to “Young Americans” when Bowie performed it on “Soul Train;” missing my 45 of “TVC15”/“GoldenYears” when a younger sibling filched it to take to school; and buying “Heroes” the week it was released.
By the time Bowie hooked up with Soupy Sales’ kids in Tin Machine in the late 1980s, it had become apparent his once remarkable talent had gone fallow, perhaps never to return. Ever optimistic, I waited for its resurgence with much the same degree of anticipation as Vladimir and Estragon in some multi-decade, musical version of a Sam Beckett play.
Despite my youthful fascination with most things Bowie, his public persona seemed more a parody of hipster rock star rather than the real deal. His videos—for all the bizarreness, freaky costumes, and Luis Bunuel references—seemed mere Euro-trash, existentialist, avant-garde posturing, and not far from his coldly detached, ennui-laden performance in “The Hunger.” Seriously, has any other rock video star employed a prop cigarette with as much world-weary aplomb?
His music, for the most part, was only as good as his creative partnership with whatever guitarist he may have been working at the time, and the list extends from Mick Ronson and Carlos Alomar to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Fripp, and Adrian Belew. Of course, one cannot ignore the creative sparks ignited by further collaborations with Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and—lest we forget—Bing Crosby and Queen.
While all told it was a mixed-bag, my appreciation of Bowie could be summed up best by quoting Pete Townshend: “It’s all there on the vinyl.” Some of that vinyl was glorious indeed. Having hooked me in the 1970s, I checked in on Bowie from time to time to see what he was up to in subsequent decades.
Weird Prophetic Tone
What did Bowie do after nearly five decades and more than 20 studio albums into his career to recapture the attention of his core audience and win new fans to his oeuvre? Contrary to other reviews I’ve read thus far of “Blackstar,” he didn’t go full-throttle jazz, because if he did it wouldn’t reflect Bowie’s wide-ranging musical restlessness.
Bowie has always incorporated elements of jazz into his music, which made albums like “Low” prime fodder for other composers such as Philip Glass to adapt for their own purposes. On “Blackstar” Bowie went so far as to invent a new sub-genre, which I dub Apocalyptic Soundtrack Jazz.
Not that such a designation renders the album as a whole devoid of merit. After several hearings, the album sonically concocts a weird prophetic tone perfect for an evening of celebrating a world in the grips of spiritual entropy. The two videos released from the album thus far, for example, depict Bowie as a blindfolded prophet with buttons sewed over the singer’s covered eyes.
But this is where I take exception to the creative vision of Bowie (and his video director, John Renck) alluded to above. The video for the title track features discovery of a bejeweled astronaut skull (the remains of Major Tom?), Cthulu, twitching individuals engaged in dark ceremonies and, most disturbingly, three dancers erotically writhing on crucifixes and Bowie panning Anton LaVey’s “Satanic Bible” across the screen.
Substituting Blasphemy for Creativity
LaVey, founder of the Church of Satanism, exhibited a flair for dramatic exhibitionism by referring to himself as “the most evil man in the world.” To quote an email from my friend, Karl Nilsson, an advertising copywriter and graphic designer in southeast Michigan: “Whenever a pop star (or modern artist or filmmaker) runs out of ideas, they substitute blasphemy for creativity.” Referencing the science-fiction- and psychedelic-drug-inspired British rock band, Nilsson added: “I saw most of this claptrap at a Hawkwind concert decades ago.”
Left to viewers’ interpretation is whether Bowie believes in any of the “time is a flat circle” twaddle or is delving deeper into sinister cultural archetypes in order to depict our troubled times. According to “Blackstar” guitarist Ben Monder, Bowie told him the song ostensibly deals with ISIS, but longtime Bowie producer and collaborator Tony Visconti, for one, disputes that reading.
One thing’s for certain, however, and that is “Space Oddity” was Bowie’s breakthrough hit. It’s also the song that introduced Major Tom, who subsequently reappeared in “Ashes to Ashes.” The Major Tom persona, then, is the recurring alternate stage presence of Bowie’s career. He never returned to Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke thematically or visually, but those jewels embedded on the astronaut’s skull in the “Blackstar” video certainly point toward an identification of Major Tom with Bowie’s initial and subsequent commercial success. In the latter video, a woman retrieves the skull and uses it as an object of cultish veneration.
Venerating what, exactly? Listeners are told again and again by the narrator of “Blackstar” that he isn’t a film star, a pop star, a porn star, a gang star, or a marvel star, yet the Blackstar says:
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd …
I’m a blackstar, way up, on money, I’ve got game
I see right, so wide, so open-hearted pain
I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes….
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar).
Is Bowie singing in character as I Am, the Greek Eimi, or Jehovah, proclaiming he’s not a superhero? Or is he invoking a false prophet, an ISIS fighter—or could he deliberately be attempting to invert the Judeo-Christian God as the fallen angel Satan, hence the LaVey reference?
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 star’s star, I’m a blackstar)
The remainder of the album utilizes the band of saxophonist and bandleader Donny McCaslin, which includes drummer Mark Guiliana, keyboardist Jason Lindner, and bassist Tim Lefebvre, to great effect. “Lazarus,” written by Bowie for his Broadway stage production of the same name and sequel to the Nicholas Roeg 1976 cinematic mindbender “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” resembles the saxophone-drenched soundscape of “Sons of the Silent Age” from “Heroes.”
Ben Monder plays guitar on the album’s closing song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” and does a superb job of recreating Robert Fripp’s masterful work on Bowie’s classic late 1970s Berlin Trilogy albums, which included “Low,” “Heroes,” and “Lodger.” The harmonica heard in the background of the same song also hearkens back to “A New Career in a New Town” from “Low.” The song “Girl Loves Me” is a lyrical nod to Anthony Burgess’ “Clockwork Orange” married to mid-1970s London gay patois.
“Blackstar” is a step up from Bowie’s “comeback” album from 2013, “Next Day,” which was intriguing and kicked open the creative door for this swan song. “Blackstar” captures a terminal Bowie inching in a direction even more aesthetically satisfying and able to stand on its own musical and lyrical merits rather than trolling out occult props to provide edginess and relevance.