The Null Device
The buzz of my phone cut through the remnants of a fading dream this morning, a notification of something happening in the waking world. I picked up the handset and saw on its screen two items, from two different media outlets on opposite sides of the Atlantic, announcing the seemingly preposterous: two days after having released his new album (on his 69th birthday), David Bowie had suddenly died of cancer. Surely this cannot be the waking world?
It turned out to be real enough. In the minutes that followed, the trickle of incredulous queries turned into a torrential flood of mourning, commemoration and sombre celebration of an epic life. MetaFilter got its usual river of mournful .s. Facebook and Twitter were wall-to-wall Bowie all day. The Guardian ran a liveblog and a surfeit of articles and thinkpieces, with seemingly everybody other than George Monbiot giving their take on Bowie's significance. My Spotify sidebar was almost entirely Bowie (the sole outlier being someone in the habit of listening to their algorithmic playlists).
I had been meaning to listen to the new Bowie album, ★ (or Blackstar), today on Spotify, before probably buying a copy. It was officially a mere two days old, though had been completed months earlier. Much like his previous album, 2013's The Next Day, it had been made in secret, its release synchronised to Bowie's birthday. Though while The Next Day was perhaps necessarily backward-looking, from the Heroes-sampling artwork to its 1970s rock stylings, to the nostalgic melancholia of Where Are We Now?, Blackstar couldn't be more different. Recorded with entirely new musicians, from a jazz background, a shifting assemblage of sounds; a Middle Eastern scale here, some drum'n'bass-style beats there, the mood shifting between skilfully crafted pop and the ominous and unsettling; oblique references to executions, hospitals, being in heaven with invisible scars and never seeing the trees of England again, and a final track titled I Can't Give Everything Away. In the handful of days and weeks various people had to hear it before the truth came out, there was much speculation; was it a response to atrocities in the Middle East? Did it signify the dawn of a new late period of intense creativity on Bowie's part? If anybody had put the pieces together, they kept their mouth shut.
After the news got out, Bowie's long-time producer Tony Visconti, who had spent the past year working secretly on the album, revealed that it had been intended all along as a parting gift; Bowie, diagnosed with cancer and knowing that his time was limited, had recruited him and a few musicians and worked on it for a year. He had played fair, creating something that would be seen for what it is only in retrospect. David Bowie's final artistic work was the presentation of his death and transition to history. Even the title is a clue: in astrophysics, a black star may be a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity; and the artwork, being the only album to lack Bowie's image on its cover; perhaps alluding to his imminent absence from the world. (I wonder whether the designer, Jonathan Barnbrook, knew the full story behind his brief.)
I was a little too young for David Bowie's music have been directly part of my formative experiences (my adolescence coinciding with the forgettable Tin Machine, rather than his liberatingly transgressive Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane era, the monochromatic artistic explorations of his Berlin period, or even his early-1980s pop breakthrough), but Bowie was in the background, directly and indirectly. His big hit Let's Dance, angular and night-coloured, is a fixed memory, overheard in fragments hundreds of times in my childhood—in my fragmentary child's-eye perceptions, its staccato horns and woodblocks merge with punk plumage and rudeboy checks into a tapestry of edgy, transgressive early-1980s youth counterculture, vaguely forbidden with admonitions about drugs and criminality—and immediately taking me back (a honour it shares with Roxy Music's More Than This); other songs, from Rebel Rebel to Ashes To Ashes, also were familiar before I ever knew whom they were by. I would pick up the thread many years later, with the 1969-1974 singles compilation. I went to parties where his 1970s albums played in the background, put on by people who were older than me or who had inherited older siblings' record collections. (The influence of David Bowie was a constant in Melbourne from the late 1970s onward; see also: Dogs In Space.) The music I would end up listening to myself (and the first record I ever bought was a New Order 7") was influenced by him, (even though it generally emerged on the other side of that notional Year Zero known as punk; in reality, there is no such thing as Year Zero). With Bowie gone, the memories his music brings up suddenly feel a lot more distant, as if a thread holding them closer had snapped.
My feelings at the moment are a roughly equal mixture of shock (and reflection on the passing of time and the inevitable end of everything) and admiration for a person who died as he lived, using his own imminent death as art material. This week, I will stop by at Rough Trade and pick up a copy of Blackstar. For one, they are donating the proceeds from their sales of David Bowie records to Cancer Research this month.