In a 1937 novel, a modest history writer starts nightmaring that pretty much everyone younger than him – including his own wife and baby – are alien plants designed, from the genes on up, to replace normal stodgy humans like himself. After a long paranoid muse, where he takes every sparkling, wondermaking word or action from his family as a sign of doom, he comes to a joyous – if equally bizarre – conclusion: maybe the Martians have inserted shiny aliens into human society, but it happened before his own birth. He’s one of the new race, destined for mind-blowing greatness.
I theorize that H.G. Wells’ Star Begotten was the inspiration for David Bowie’s ‘Oh, You Pretty Things,’ and a little bit of that notion – we’re possessed by aliens, no, wait, we ARE aliens – also informs this:
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)
Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Blackstar (2016)
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Nonexistent
Three-Word Review: ponderous, droning, moving
Naturally, the first question one asks about Blackstar is at what point its creator knew he was dying. The director of the album’s title video says that Bowie wasn’t told his cancer was terminal until after everything was finished and scheduled. That came as a surprise to all my friends who listened to the album the day it came out, then found Bowie’s death notice an obvious, though tragic, sequel.
But you know, the guy had been sick in some form for years, though he clearly had long good periods during his last decade. And he was almost 70. That his final album is suffused with closure isn’t surprising even before you take his actual death into account. Besides, I’d say he’d been kicking around aging and dying at least since …hours…. That’s not to call his work morbid – only to call it memento mori.
At right here: supposedly the last candid photo of Bowie, taken while he worked on Blackstar. I love his hands. Might that be a shirt from Julian Lennon’s White Feather Foundation he’s wearing?
At the same time he was secretly prepping his swan song, Bowie was around many edges of the Off-Broadway musical Lazarus. I’m sorry that I didn’t take the opportunity to see Lazarus in its original run, but to my credit, I thought then that we might get ten more years of off-the-wall Bowie projects and I should save my pennies until the man himself toured again. He had just been bragging “Here I am/not quite dying,” after all.
Other than seeing it live, I heard the Lazarus music in the best possible circumstances: lying in bed in semi-darkness, having kept the tracklist a secret from myself so each one came as a delicious surprise, in a radically new arrangement or just being sung by different voices. On repeated listening, I gravitate most toward everything sung by women, especially ‘Life on Mars‘ and the new song ‘When I Met You.’ It may be partly just the fresh keys, though the cast is outstanding as well. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the plot, but then I’m not sure I would if I’d seen it either.
I particularly enjoy the Lazarus a capella start to ‘Absolute Beginners‘ and the especially quirky setting of ‘Changes,‘ starting out girl-group-doo-woppily and then plunging suddenly into the classic driving tempo, demanding ever more fervently that we “turn and face the strange.” And isn’t that song, with its “warm impermance,” itself a statement about mortality?
The song ‘Lazarus’ is a microcosm of the musical in its redigestion of earlier references, particularly when you include the video for the Blackstar album version.
The black suit with white streaks is, of course, the one Bowie wore back in the 70s when he was drawing something awful on the carpet. Here he seems to be doing it with a fountain pen on parchment.
Can’t think of being free like the bluebird without ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ itself the most blatant source of 1972’s soaring ‘Starman.’
The person under the bed combined with the jerking man atop it recall similar flashes of the video for ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight.’
Bowie’s button-eyed character also reminds me unstoppably of the Other Parents from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (this image is from the film). “Someone else took his place, and bravely cried…”
A 2013 exhibition by the V&A in London prompted “David Bowie Is,” with the rest of the statement filled in by artists and thinkers along the lines of
…blowing our minds
…jumping from universe to universe
…gazing a gazely stare
…at any given moment in time a given moment in time
…intent on pulling everything into the present, where life is always beginning
…a joy forever
So I will declare in addition that
David Bowie Is Star Begotten
because surely if anyone was planted by aliens to hold a mirror up to the world and show us all our secret fabulousness, well.
It’s scientifically accurate, too.
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,”
said Carl Sagan. When a star explodes, it shoots energy and elements out into space. These elements disperse, and then come together again to form new stars, planets and everything else in the universe – including us.
The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”
Good night, sweet Starman. It’s been real. And also unreal.
Next and Last: The Part of Tens!