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Every week, we tell you about a new album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is David Bowie's Blackstar.
It always feels cheap to ascribe some poetic meaning to the timing of someone’s death—his family probably doesn’t care that he seemed to go out at a “perfect” time or a time that seemed to have a lot of meaning-- but it’s hard not to here. Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, came out on Friday, which was his 69th birthday. He apparently knew all along that he might not live long enough to see it released. His longtime collaborator Tony Visconti said this this morning:
Think about that for a moment. The guy made Blackstar as he was staring down cancer, and lived to see 69, and its release, before going out two days after it came out. He was an artist till the literal end. Who else of his cohort can claim that?
Here’s the part where I come clean. Till this morning I had no desire to listen to Blackstar. It was on some ageist bullshit—“why would I spend time with a David Bowie album in 2016 over something like Allan Kingdom?”--that I am making a New Year's Resolution to stop. People care what Bowie was doing 50 years on, and everyone doesn't care what I am doing five minutes from now. So part of me is wracked with guilt for picking this as the album of the week right here right now, but I swear this isn’t a grab for clicks. It would be disingenuous to claim like I’m going to listen to anything other than David Bowie this week. I’m not going to listen to anything new, or non-Bowie except Blackstar for the next 72 hours, at least. Respect must be paid. Late respect, but respect none the less.
I imagine, like a lot of you, if we’re all being honest, my spin through Blackstar this morning was my first, and I’m wrecked by the experience. Death hangs like a specter over the album. There’s a song called “Lazarus,” for god’s sake. In retrospect, this album isn't about aging, like some critics pegged it; it's about a man dealing with his imminent and scary death. "I've got scars that can't be seen," he sings here, knowing that it's cancer. Trying to make it through this thing without feeling sad to your core is now impossible.
But the song that wrecks me most is “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” A couple summers before my great aunt Ellen knew she was going to die—she acted like she knew it was coming soon, even if she was early-- she spent the whole summer giving away family artifacts, her stereo, her stuff to anyone who came to visit her at her cottage in Upper Michigan. When my mom told her to stop it, she said she was worried about having too much stuff. I’m at my desk thinking about David Bowie doing the same with Blackstar and my eyes are wet.
There are going to be a lot more eloquent eulogies than this one, but I think the thing that makes Bowie so lasting, so imitable, and why so many people are wrecked with this news today is that it’s impossible to pack everything the guy did into a 500 word remembrance. His life was too messy, and he did too much awesome stuff. He was in Labyrinth. He changed skins and personas for basically every album he ever made. He got passed a TV on the Radio album by his doorman, and he ended up singing on “Province” from Return to Cookie Mountain. He influenced literally all of music, and he’s directly responsible for inspiring Joy Division, Radiohead, and every Important rock band that’s released an album since 1972. He wrote the best Mott the Hoople song. He made Iggy Pop into a star. He played Nikola Tesla—Tesla!—in The Prestige. Luther Vandross was his backup singer. Even his kids are incredible.
And how do you even go about properly eulogizing his music? He was destined for immortality off his first hit single, “Space Oddity,” but that fact scared him so bad, he refused to make the same album twice. The same guy who made a semi-novelty record about space made “Changes,” made “Suffragette City,” made “The Jean Genie,” made “Rebel Rebel,” made “Sound and Vision,” made “Heroes” and made “Under Pressure.” The fact is that there is no artist who can even get near the stylistic breadth, the experimentation, the forever pushing, and the bolstering of other artists he loved that Bowie had for nearly 50 years. He’s easily the most foundational artist of rock music in the post-Beatles era. There isn’t even anyone else in the conversation.
This is going to sound weird, but when I woke up this morning and saw my Twitter feed exploding with outpourings of remembrances of Bowie and what he meant to all of us—some people only know him as makeup, and guys, now is not the time to shame them for that; he was a style icon as much as a musical one—the first thing I thought of was A Knight’s Tale. It’s a forgettable, almost entirely shitty movie about jousting starring Heath Ledger that came out in 2001. In a pivotal scene where Ledger must prove he belongs on court, he dances to “Golden Years” (this movie made no sense but that’s for another day):
And I probably still don’t. That’s the real experience of listening to David Bowie; you never knew what was coming next. And it’s sad that we’ll never get that feeling from him again. I end with this quote about Bowie from T. Rex’s Marc Bolan:
“Be strong and follow your own convictions. You can’t assume there is a lot of time to do what you like. This is what David Bowie is afraid of: that he will die before he gets a chance to make a real strong contribution.”
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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