Bowie’s Last Tape

Thomas Jones

When, on his 69th birthday, David Bowie released Blackstar, arguably his best record for 35 or even 40 years, it looked for a moment as if he might be hitting his stride again. His previous album, The Next Day, which came out in January 2013 after ten years of near silence, had a few decent songs on it, but a fair bit of padding too, and for all its surface insistence on the future (‘and the next day and the next and another day’), it looked nostalgically back to the 1970s, from the palimpsest sleeve design, incompletely erasing the cover of Heroes, to the elegiac single ‘Where are we now?’, with its deceptively banal evocation of Bowie’s time in Berlin (‘Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz’). But the seven songs on Blackstar add up to a record as complete as, and more coherent than, Station to Station or Low.

When, three days after it came out, the news broke that Bowie was dead, 18 months after being diagnosed with cancer, Blackstar suddenly turned into something else, not his latest record but his last. He hadn’t been embarking on a new, late phase of his ‘career’, but approaching death – not exactly preparing for it (nothing that stoical) or trying to ward it off (nothing that deluded), maybe just getting through the days – as a musician, by making music.

The media’s obituary machine cranked into motion, with everybody – including me – feeling they had the need, and the right, to have their say. I couldn’t bear to watch or listen to or read most of it. (Like every star’s every fan, I think I’m special; I know I’m not.) Fifteen minutes on the News at Ten and a memorial pull-out in every paper was all it took for Bowie, not two days dead, to be resurrected as a national treasure. Never mind that he had turned down a knighthood, and refused to take part in the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony (‘Heroes’ echoed around the stadium as the British athletes paraded before the games, everyone apparently as oblivious as ever to the song’s far from subtle irony), and had lived in New York since 1992. Never mind that his most famous personas were a polymorphously perverse Martian and a cocaine-addled anorexic satanist. Or that when he wrapped himself in the union flag in 1997, it had been slashed and burned and soiled and made into a frock coat by Alexander McQueen, as patriotic as the Sex Pistols’ version of ‘God Save the Queen’. But now he was dead and couldn’t answer back. The cacophony of harmonious praise threatened to drown out the only thing that was halfway trustworthy, Bowie’s music. Nothing to do but plug in the headphones and play Blackstar on repeat.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t predicted the response to his death. ‘Something happened on the day he died,’ he sings in ‘Blackstar’. ‘His spirit rose a metre then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place.’ Or in ‘Dollar Days’: ‘If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see/I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain and fool them all again.’ The single he released the week before Christmas is called ‘Lazarus’: ‘Look up here I’m in heaven … Everybody knows me now.’ With hindsight, it should have been obvious he was about to die.

Then again, it’s easy to fall into the biographical trap of cherry-picking lyrics that fit the bare facts of the life. For one thing, Bowie hasn’t stopped singing about death since Major Tom drifted off into outer space in the late 1960s; ‘Here I am/Not quite dying’ goes the opening track on The Next Day. And what about the songs that don’t fit the facts? No one, as far as I’m aware, has suggested that ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ is a genuine confession. The nasty story it tells of jealousy and domestic violence is a murder ballad in the English folk tradition – ‘Sue/I pushed you down beneath the weeds’ – but the music owes more to Grooverider’s magnificently menacing 1998 drum and bass track ‘Where’s Jack the Ripper?’ The affinity is harder to hear in the version of ‘Sue’ Bowie released as a single in November 2014, performed with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, but I prefer it the way he re-recorded it for Blackstar; Bowie isn’t really a jazz singer.

And Blackstar isn’t a jazz record, though it has elements of jazz, most remarkably Donny McCaslin’s saxophone, which weaves through the music as the ideal counterpart to Bowie’s voice, the weft to the warp of the singing. Bowie himself started out as a sax player, and there aren’t many of his records on which you don’t hear him play at least a few bars on the horn. But two of the things that kept his music interesting across half a century were his ability to delegate and his enthusiasm for other musicians (in an interview with the New York Times in 1998, republished after he died, he said: ‘I always had such pleasure talking and being with John [Lennon] because there was nothing that didn’t interest him, you know? He had a real appetite. “What’s that, I love that! It’s red and it’s big and I want it!”’). And stepping aside, at the end, to make way for someone who really knows how to blow is a typical gesture, both generous and immeasurably good for the music he was making. (I suppose it needs to be said that Bowie’s generosity was matched by his ruthlessness in ditching collaborators he felt were holding him back.)

The album begins sombrely, with horror movie overtones of bogusly specific impending doom (‘In the villa of Ormen/stands a solitary candle’) that set the mood for most of the record. The last song, however, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, appears to promise some kind of resolution or resignation in the face of the end, as it opens with a lush synthesiser chord and a harmonica that recalls ‘A New Career in a New Town’, the last song on the first side of Low; but it fades ambiguously into the ether with squealing electric guitar harmonics. The rest is silence (no side two). But the sense of time slipping away is perhaps best expressed – with anger, despair, self-deflating bathos – in the refrain of ‘Girl Loves Me’: ‘Where the fuck did Monday go?’