Published on January 13th, 2016 | by Troy Kehm-Goins1
David Bowie, musical messiah
“Heaven’s in here / among the twilight and stars / you’ll dance to my tongue / well dance on the sun.”
—from “Heaven’s in Here” as found on Tin Machine by Tin Machine
It took four Gospel writers, the letters of a fervent Pharisaic convert, and the dozen or so non-canonical and apocryphal books to attempt to capture the stories and tales and miracles and mission that surrounded a man of Nazareth named Jesus and his claims to be God in the flesh.
In the same way that everyone seems to have a different notion of who this Jesus was and is and what he represents, everyone seems to approach musician David Bowie from a different angle and through a different set of songs and albums.
My David Bowie, or rather my favorite David Bowie, is democratized and dwelling on life in the face of death.
I am less enamored with Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane and more in love with Bowie as one member (of four) of Tin Machine—his voice and lyrics as important as the guitar work of Reeves Gabrels, the bass lines of Tony Sales, and the drum beats of Hunt Sales, but really just another member/instrument of the band.
I am less interested in the late-1970s Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger) and more intrigued by 2016’s Blackstar, where once again, the art of the album is less about front man David Bowie and more about him working alongside and in collaboration with a quintet of jazz musicians with chops, as well as with long-time producer Tony Visconti.
I love the Bowie that is able to disappear into the group, even as he is obviously a leader within the same. I love the democratic-leaning Bowie who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and play and improvise with his fellow musicians. I love his groundedness, his earthiness, his ability to come down from the mountain and wade in the muck and mire with the rest of us.
My David Bowie is able to find the moments that make us alive, even as we slowly head toward our demise and end.
“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / we know Major Tom’s a junkie / strung out in heaven’s high / hitting an all-time low.”
—from “Ashes to Ashes” as found on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) by David Bowie
There are many joys of my adult life that feel as though they have always been present, even when I was a child, but which I was unable to fully appreciate until I was older and arguably more mature—classic literature such as Moby-Dick and the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne; the art of Goya; beer; the music of David Bowie.
I had read Melville and Hawthorne in high school and college, but didn’t really appreciate them until I was allowed to wander with them on my own terms. I had been attracted to the dark paintings and etchings of Goya even in my youth, but couldn’t relate to the death and disorder found on the canvases and plates until I had experienced some of the same in my own life. I knew the taste of Rainier Ale as a toddler and finished off many cases of Miller Genuine Draft and Corona before I could legally drink as a teen, but didn’t know the true pleasure (and flavor!) of craft beer until I worked my way through family members’ difficulties with alcoholism and figured out my own relation to alcohol. And the same was true of David Bowie and his music.
How could I escape the songs of David Bowie? Songs such as “Fame” and “Ashes to Ashes” and “Under Pressure” not only played on the radio, but would eventually make their way to Muzak in grocery stores and department stores. The video to “China Girl” played in heavy rotation on Friday Night Videos, which was my family’s solution to being unwilling (or unable) to pay for cable television and the MTV that I wanted. Major Tom was part of the soundtrack of the background music that played as I moved through the world.
But I had to find my own David Bowie. I had to claim the Bowie that spoke to me. I first really fell in love with him in 1989 as he lyrically tackled drug use and illiteracy and racism and death and the underbelly of the urban over the squall of noise that his Tin Machine collaborators provided.
“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.”
—from “Lazarus” as found on Blackstar by David Bowie
I fell in love with him again in November 2015. Sure, there had been other songs and singles and albums along the way. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” and Outside. “I’m Afraid of Americans” and Earthling. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight” and The Next Day.
On the day the “Blackstar” single was released, I listened to it as soon as I could. I sat in my office chair dazed andunable to breathe. I immediately played it again—all ten minutes of it. I let the music and Bowie’s voice wash over me. I had no idea how to explain what I heard so I had to listen to it again.
There was a song within a song. There were shifts. There was a stumbling drum track, sqwonking saxophone, lilting flute, and an electronic undercurrent. There were haunting layered vocals. There were strange opaque lyrics. There was obtuseness that bordered on being almost decipherable, but then once again fled. There was melancholy.
So on David Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday, after having listened to “Blackstar” easily more than one hundred times and the second single “Lazarus” around twenty-five times, I sat in the SODO Silver Platters parking lot waiting for the store to open so that I could get my copy of the Blackstar album and start listening to it in its entirety.
And the album absolutely exceeded my expectations. I listened to its saxophone-and-drum-drenched, jazz-infused, weirdo rock ‘n’ roll all the way through and immediately put it back on again. It was spectacular. Like Tin Machine, it was gritty and dark. It delved into mortality and morality, death and end things and farewells. This was pop eschatology. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was an artistic “last will and testament.”
“Something happened on the day he died / spirit rose a meter and then stepped aside / somebody else took his place and bravely cried: / ‘I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.’”
—from “Blackstar” as found on Blackstar by David Bowie
I had three days with the album before I learned that David Bowie was dead.
My heart is heavy in my chest. I’m sure this is how the disciples of Jesus felt as they sat cowering in a room after he was crucified by the Roman authorities. I imagine they kept repeating his words and sayings to themselves, fearful that their own death was coming for them.
I’ve had Blackstar playing on the turntable all day, just as I was doing prior to learning that David Bowie succumbed to liver cancer. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be feeling this low in the wake of the death of a celebrity. But David Bowie was more than a mere popstar. He was a childhood soundtrack, a teen soundtrack, an adult soundtrack that shifted and grew into a strange love of very specific songs and particular albums, which were couched in examinations of darkness and death. In some sense, as he claimed, he was a blackstar.
So we mourn. I mourn. I try to imagine what comes next, how I move on. How long do I continue to play and explore Blackstar? How long does Tin Machine accompany it before I place it back on the shelf?
And finally: WWBD?—“What would Bowie do?”