No one will ever again need to strain for an example of genius, for who else but a genius can so astonish us from The Other Side? Bowie rendered the preparation for Death into a thrilling art project — Lazarus the play, “Lazarus” the song and video released days before his death, virtually every word of the glorious Blackstar… It is all literally amazing, and distracts us from our grief even as it intensifies it.
When Joe Strummer died suddenly, Streetcore, his final album with the Mescaleros, was released posthumously as a sort of final word. It was fashioned out of accidental spare parts (snippets of his BBC radio shows, instrumentals, as well as full-on songs) into a beautiful elegy. But there is nothing accidental about Blackstar, including the double entendre title of the final song which references Bowie’s mysterious methods: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”
Those final 18 months will be studied as performance art, but let’s also give credit not to an artist but to a man who bravely finished up, without complaint or loss of dignity, in control, in a way,’til the end.
We have read much over the past 24 hours, some remembrances by those who knew and worked him, and a fair bit of earnest nonsense written by those who are, frankly, too young to have perspective. If you are of a certain age, and “Ashes to Ashes” is where you picked up the thread, it’s hard to even know you need to reference, somewhere, Diamond Dogs.
We are old enough to remember: how Bowie, T. Rex, and Mott The Hoople seemed to arrive on these shores all on the same boat, a palate cleanser after the Stones’ ’72 tour, and how when we first heard the New York Dolls in 1973, far from being a shock or mystifying, it all made sense. Likewise, how right Diamond Dogs seemed to be, as we played that dystopian masterpiece while reading daily about Richard Nixon’s impending resignation. How Young Americans was both the perfect soundtrack to our senior year in high school, and pointed to something far, far different than what the other giants of that year, the Stones and Led Zeppelin, were purveying on It’s Only Rock’n’Roll and Physical Graffiti.
And then the ride began: the Golden Age, as Station To Station overlapped with the release of The Man Who Fell To Earth, followed by the Berlin Trilogy with Eno. Low, Heroes, and the sublime Lodger — our favorite record, and we’re tempted to proclaim, his greatest work — arrived concurrently with the upheaval of punk, and alone among the establishment icons of rock’n’roll, Bowie strode above the landscape with little criticism or resentment, the one star who still produced awe, with no need to pander (as the Stones did with Some Girls) to what was happening in the streets. While Station To Station seemed to brilliantly close the chapter on those early ’70s incarnations, those next three albums rewrote the book even as Bowie, for perhaps the first time, seemed willing to be his own true self.
In most of the “10 Essential Songs By Bowie” lists made yesterday by 40-year olds trying to generate click bait, one eye on Wikipedia, the other on the clock, virtually no one referenced Bowie’s work with Fripp and Eno as the essential core. It made us realize there are some gifts to age, to having been alive, and awake, through Bowie’s prime. We didn’t have to pretend that Bowie was great on stage (he really wasn’t, he was no Mick Jagger…) We could think back to a time when Bowie towered above the land… before that long, 30-year span of relative silence that ended, surprisingly, with the release in 2013 of “Where Are We Now,” which of course harkens to the Berlin of the late ’70s.
Star imagery is one of the constants in Bowie’s work, his punning self-referencing finally culminating in Blackstar — the star lit no more. It is the most incredible thing that he left us yesterday grappling with new work, oddly refreshed, deeply saddened, reflecting on his life and ours, with joy and not nostalgia. It’s too late to be grateful, sang the Thin White Duke. But we are.