Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie, Iconographic Control, Blackstar, And Death

I knew there was a reason I couldn't sleep last night. 

For the past couple of days I've had a killer migraine--the keep one eye closed in order to see kind--and to say that my stomach has been upset is a major understatement. I used to have nasty migraines when I was young, but this is the first mega-migraine I've had in years. For some reason, around 5:30 this morning I randomly checked my Twitter--something I refuse to do before noon--and got gutted. 

David Bowie is dead. 

As I read the news that he'd been battling cancer for 18 months, all of a sudden a lightbulb went off in my head--and it was shaped like a Blackstar--the 10 minute jazz-pop fusion grotesque and yet enchanting title song/video of Bowie's last...album. If you haven't seen this video yet, you need to. 


Because it's David Bowie saying goodbye to David Bowie...and demanding that we do as well.

Blackstar and its followup piece Lazarus share similar themes/iconography/images, and now that the news has churned its way into my writer's soul, I realize that Bowie, the chameleon before Madonna ripped her first fishnets, had not only reinvented himself once again but had done so with his own imminent death in mind.  

This video is vintage Bowie...without being vintage. From the beginning image of what could very well be a crash-landed and long dead Major Tom, through the bejewelled skull of the Thin White Duke to the blind prophet with button eyes (and I never thought button eyes could get creepier than in Gaiman's Coraline) to the three scarecrows being crucified as the sacrifice to a vicious and hungry entity--but particularly in Bowie's pronounced emaciation and the jerky, spasmodic movements of his acolytes the viewer is simultaneously horrified and entranced by the sheer artistic beauty and macabre power of Bowie's always haunting voice. 

From the day of execution
From the day of execution
Only women kneel and smile
At the centre of it all 
At the centre of it all
--your eyes
--your eyes

Bowie's acolytes--or are they his murderers?--repetitively engage in their stop-motion dance of death, and the song suddenly changes:

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)
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, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster)

And when you follow that up with the video for Lazarus--

--the button-eyed prophet is now in a hospital bed, from which he rises to resurrect--literally--that thin white duke, jumpsuit, high heels and all. And then the lyrics--

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

Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below

Ain’t that just like me

By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass

This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me

My God. It hits you like a punch in the gut. David Bowie, who has had such an incredible influence over six decades of music, wrote his own Requiem. He starred in his own Passion Play--The Passion of Ziggy Stardust is encapsulated in these two songs and particularly in the videos for them. He not only creates his death iconography, but he demands that we accept his version of events as his reality because he leaves us no choice. But he is not the scarecrow on the cross of martyrdom waiting for his monster to consumer him, he is instead a visionary without vision--a priest without any religion save the religion of self-command, and he compels us to cede our control to him as well. 

All of this is merely speculation. As much as I would love to channel Bowie, I would never presume to say that i know what he was thinking when he came up with this. I can only speculate, as a lifelong fan of Bowie's who has spent literally decades trying to decipher the workings of his brilliant yet tortured artistic muse. But this morning, when the news that David Bowie was dead at 69 filtered into my sleep deprived brain, all of the deciphering I've done over the past few weeks of Blackstar and then a few days ago Lazarus slammed into my mind with the completion one usually feels when the last piece of the puzzle slides inevitably into its proper place. 

Two life events we, as human beings, are absolutely incapable of influencing--our births and our deaths. Only with the latter can we find a way to reconcile ourselves to the inescapable finality of our final hours. But an artist like Bowie, beloved by legions of people aged 70 to 7, has another opportunity to impact those unknowns who loved them--and that is the artist's individual perception not only of death, but their own death. Just as Mozart spent his last hours feverishly fingering orchestration for his great final masterpiece Requiem, so did Bowie spend his last year of life masterminding the iconography of his final masterpiece. For believe me--Blackstar is Bowie's Requiem, his farewell to all his incarnations, his fans, and, at the end, himself. 

I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)

It is, at the end, both a curse and a gift. A curse against the inevitability of time and disease, and a gift of a true artist's last, brilliant self-image. Whatever happened, David Bowie didn't die cringing and weeping for his fate. He screamed defiantly into the night, and soared beyond all the petty fears that drive so many of us when facing our own mortality. 

Godspeed, David Bowie, to whatever distant star is your Blackstar. 

@all lyrics-- David Bowie, Blackstar (2016) VEVO Music