By Bruce Sylvester
David Bowie‘s 69th birthday on Jan. 8 was marked by the release of his final album. Forgoing language, the master wordsmith titled it with a single simple symbol, a black star. “Blackstar,” we’re told, is the symbol’s pronunciation.
Two days later, Bowie died of liver cancer. For 18 months, he’d discreetly kept it a secret from his fans.
Laden with references to pending death, the CD (on ISO/Columbia) is a sterling farewell to us from the creative genius born David Jones, who repeatedly reinvented himself as David Bowie.
Bowie shows us no fear as he speaks of “the day of execution” on the title track. “Lazarus” – from his play of the same title – begins, “Look up here. I’m in Heaven,” and closes, “Just like that bluebird I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me.” “Sue (or a Season of Crime)” is written in the voice of a man speaking to a recently deceased woman he loved though her final letter to him revealed her faithlessness. “Dollar Days” closes on what we realize is a double entendre: “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you. I’m trying to. I’m dying to.”
Roots music – far more than rock – is replete with songs in the voice of someone about to leave this mortal coil. Take the Carter Family’s jubilant “Gospel Ship” and, of course, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” In the blues and country veins, there’s “A Mother’s Last Words to Her Daughter” (AKA “By and By I’m Going to See the King”): “I don’t mind dying. I’m a child of God.” From a very early Joan Baez album, “Sail Away Ladies” and “Don’t You Weep after Me,” like those others, accept or even welcome transitioning on to the next life. “Oh Death” (AKA “A Conversation with Death”) shows a view unlike those others, but it’s in the voice of a young person. “Gospel Ship”’s joyous “I’m gonna shout and sing until Heaven rings when I bid this world goodbye,” is matched by pain-wracked Hank Williams’ “I’ll have a new body. Praise the Lord, I’ll have a new life.” New Orleans funeral music is celebratory (“When the Saints Go Marching In”).
Bowie’s concept album where the artist stares his own death (not a fictitious song character’s) in the face is like none of those folk songs. How much is he revealing his true feelings to us in this song cycle that’s fiction yet, on some level, part autobiography?
For many artists, a single lyric becomes their swan song. The Thin White Duke has done much more here. In creating a CD inspired by his own imminent demise, he’s given us the most brilliant farewell I’ve ever encountered. As an artist making a final statement, he’s left as a hero.