David Bowie knew this was coming. Of course he did. How could he not? Bowie was dealing with cancer for a year and a half before he died; he had plenty of time to make preparations. More than that, though, Bowie has been thinking about death — his and others’ — for his entire career. It’s always been as present in his music as sex and drugs, and those three things may have always been indivisible for him.
Bowie’s first iconic song was “Space Oddity,” released when he was 22 and written from the perspective of an astronaut who knows he’s about to die. Bowie’s Major Tom peacefully accepts that death. He finds stillness and wonder in it. There’s no longing in his voice, no regret. He accepts that death with a sort of zen calm, and he figures it out long before ground control does. His last lines: “I think my spaceship knows which way to go / Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” It’s only after he says that that ground control realizes that “something’s wrong.” That’s a literal interpretation, of course. The song was about heroin as much as anything, and Bowie made that connection concrete when he sang, “We know Major Tom’s a junkie” on “Ashes To Ashes” more than a decade later. But even with that in mind, it doesn’t change the song’s sweet embrace of oblivion, its resignation about things ending.
Bowie’s first iconic album was Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, and that album began with “Five Years,” another song about accepting the inevitable. In the song, for reasons unspecified, the world has learned that it has five years left before it ends. Civilization gets a good, long look at its impending death, and it freaks the fuck out: “A soldier with a broken arm fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac / A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that.” Bowie, or Ziggy, or whatever character whose perspective he’s using, doesn’t feel much better about it. His head hurts, he thinks about everything he wants to cram into his brain, he wants to get back to his mother. But one person seems completely at peace with the apocalypse, and that person is “you”: “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor, drinking milkshakes cold and long / Smiling and waving and looking so fine / Don’t think you knew you were in this song.” Even with the world falling apart around him, Bowie focuses on the one person who knows how to find peace in eternity, who doesn’t give a fuck.
Moments like these come back again and again over Bowie’s career. Sometimes, they’re explicit. Sometimes, they’re anything but. If so inclined, you could even hear something like “Warszawa,” the haunted near-instrumental that opens the second side of Low, as an example of Bowie staring hard into the void. He’s been doing this for forever, for longer than most of us have been alive. Back in 2012, rumors circulated that Bowie was at death’s door, that he could go at any minute. And for all we know, maybe he was. Bowie turned elusive and secretive in his final years. He stopped performing, and he stopped showing up to see every cool new band playing its first Bowery Ballroom show. He didn’t do interviews. For all we know, the cancer that finally killed him yesterday was a relapse of a cancer that almost killed him a few years ago. For a while there, I even entertained this weird fantasy that Bowie had already died and somehow kept it secret, that everything about The Next Day was some sort of beyond-the-grave transmission and Bowie had controlled the message by not letting his own death become a part of the narrative.
And all of that brings us to ? (Blackstar), the album that Bowie released only two days before he finally left us. To hear Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime producer, tell it, Bowie knew very well that he was about to die, and he knew the album would be his final statement: “His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be.” And so the album, which already sounded like a powerful statement when Bowie was still alive, takes on a totemic weight. It’s not just Bowie’s final statement. It’s Bowie’s statement on the finality of David Bowie.
We’re going to spend years figuring out what Bowie was telling us with this album. But certain things about Blackstar already seem stark and obvious in the wake of his passing. For one thing, the album’s catchiest song is named after Lazarus, the Biblical figure who rose from his grave. How could we not have seen that. Over a mournful fog of bass and brass, Bowie starts things off thus: “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.” Then, later: “You know, I’ll be free / Just like the bluebird / Ain’t that just like me?” Well, yes, I suppose it is. Bowie grabbed ahold of his impending end, and he twisted it into a vast question mark. What a powerful, courageous way to look at the inevitable.
That quizzical courage is there, too, in the album’s title track: “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside / Somebody else took his place and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar! I’m a blackstar!” Bowie isn’t just talking about his own death. He’s talking about what happens after, about the people who will come along and do other things with his spirit, who will go on their own adventures. For anyone else, that sort of statement might be presumptuous. For Bowie, if anything, it’s an understatement. Nobody else in music history did what he did. Nobody has followed a freaky muse to as many places or made so many other people think that they could do the same. There will be more blackstars, and we have Bowie to thank for that.
Eight years ago, I worked for a music website that never launched. We had corporate backing and an editor with a very clear idea of what he wanted to do, and so we’d spend long and lazy pre-launch afternoons sitting around and being told the way things were going to be. One of those lazy afternoons, our boss ran an exercise. David Bowie had hypothetically died, he said. And here was how we were going to react. One writer would write the definitive obituary. Another would post up outside Bowie’s New York apartment building and record the scene. Another would get on the phone and get quotes from as many of Bowie’s peers and admirers as possible. (This was the moment before they’d all just jump on Twitter and Instagram.) Given all that, I should be more ready for Bowie’s death. After all, I ran it like it was a drill. But still, I’m not ready. Only one person was really, truly ready. And that person was David Bowie.