“Something happened on the day he died.”
“Blackstar” is huge: longer than “Cygnet Committee,” longer than the “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing” suite from Diamond Dogs, longer even than “Station to Station” if you edit out the fades at beginning and end. It contains multitudes. It’s elegiac, ominous, angry, funky, spooky, funny, then all of those things again in a different order.
There is a lot to say about it — O’Leary devotes the last 15 pages of Ashes to Ashes to it. But today my time is limited, as yours probably is too. So if all you have is ten minutes, spend them watching this.
If perchance you want something to read: After David died on this day back in 2016, I (eventually) wrote a hopeful thing called “Let the Thousand Bowies Bloom.” I liked it then and I like it now. This is a day to think about death… but life goes on.
There will now be a period of silence from this quarter. After posting something most days for several months, I find that I am tired of my own voice. Perhaps I am not alone in this. 2024 promises to be a weird and interesting year, and there will be things to discuss; but for now, adieu.
As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
—Henry David Thoreau
Here I am killing time between the 8th and 10th, the two significant dates on the Bowie calendar. As luck would have it today’s song is “Killing a Little Time,” another Lazarus number that David released his version of on the No Plan EP.
It’s a minor song, I suppose. Also a noisy one, sort of jazz-metal, apparently based in part on a song by Maria Schneider (David’s collaborator on “Sue”): (more…)
David Robert Jones a.k.a. Bowie would have turned 77 today. Still not all that old, really.
Of course you have to wonder what he would have done with those extra years. especially given the creative momentum he had when death so rudely interrupted. Apparently even before the release of Blackstar he was on the phone to Tony Visconti plotting his next album.
As it happens, next up in the chronology is “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which as the last song on the last album holds a special place in the canon. I’ve always taken that title to mean “I’m not telling you how I did it. That would ruin it for you.”
But he does tell us this:
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
David was not a sentimentalist. His first big hit was about an astronaut committing suicide. And by and large his oeuvre was pretty dark — that’s the no.
But there is affirmation in the simple act of creation. That’s the yes.
After a half-century’s work, he left behind a mystery that we will never get to the bottom of. Still there are surprises — for instance, this version of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” — it’s different from the album version, is it not?
As we all know, David shares a birthday with Elvis Aron Presley, born 1935. The King would be only 89! Also not all that old, all things considered.
This week news broke that a computer-generated Elvis hologram would be doing concerts soon. It seems inevitable that this will happen to David Bowie too. So far his estate has been pretty careful about protecting his legacy — for instance denying the use of his music to the disastrous Stardust movie — but sooner or later it seems likely to come to pass.
If done right, it could be entertaining. I’m not saying that I’ll go, but I’m not saying I won’t. I can’t give everything away.
Most of the songs on Blackstar were labored over — demoed, rehearsed, recorded, re-recorded. But apparently Bowie wrote “Dollar Days” one morning, played it for the band on acoustic guitar, and tracked it that afternoon. “I can’t even recall in my head what song that is,” one of the musicians later said.
It feels important though. Maybe it’s the line about “the English evergreens,” which conjures a bit of nostalgia for Dave’s native land that seems out of character. Maybe it’s the way he says
I’m dying to push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
This is Bowie the magician, the one who in the next song — the last one on the album — will tell us that he intends to take his secrets to the grave.
Or maybe it’s those three words, “I’m dying to.” When he repeats them out of context, they become “I’m dying, too.” So I guess he did tell us. (more…)
“Girl Loves Me” is a pretty straightforward title, but David’s song is a big, looping curveball with lyrics in three languages. One is English; the others are Polari (“a form of slang or cant used in Britain by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers, and, particularly, the gay subculture,” says Wikipedia) and Nadsat (“a fictional register or argot used by the teenage gang members in Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange”).
Bowie was familiar with both Polari and Nadsat from previous lives. Says Chris O’Leary:
He’d loved Clockwork Orange in the Ziggy Stardust days, with Stanley Kubrick’s film a sartorial guide for the Spiders From Mars, and Nadsat [is] heard in “Suffragette City” (“say droogie don’t crash here!”). “The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing — mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language… fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “It was like trying to anticipate a society that hadn’t happened.”
He’d picked up Polari from the mid-Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne and its Polari-fluent camp pair “Julian and Sandy.” And more directly, from being a young, beautiful man at the hub of Sixties British gay life — the London-based theater and music scenes — and the intimate of gay men like the mime Lindsay Kemp and the composer Lionel Bart.
“No Plan” is another song written specifically for Lazarus the musical — according to O’Leary, it is
one of the spotlight songs for [Sophia Anne] Caruso’s character, Marley, known mostly in the play as The Girl, a not-quite-dead murder victim who becomes the guardian angel of the exiled alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Singing “No Plan” is how she introduces herself, stating the terms of her confinement while Newton pours himself another drink.
The version from the play sounds very much like a show tune, not necessarily in a good way:
The lyrics of “No Plan” are pretty minimal, especially compared to the logorrhea of “When I Met You”: (more…)