The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.—David Bowie
I was eight years old. The music teacher in our school, whom we only saw once a week, wore a young, pretty face though her name didn’t stay with me past the end of the year. I was naive about the world of music, but curious. She was determined to teach us from a contemporary perspective. So, we’re sitting in her classroom one Thursday, with the lights off for some reason, and she puts on a brand new album she had just purchased. The album was Space Oddity. She mispronounced “Bowie.” The rest of the semester, though, we all used the phrase, “Ground control to Major Tom” as often as we possibly could, even when it made no sense.
This past Wednesday, January 6, received an email notice that David Bowie had released a new album, his 29th, called Blackstar. Other concerns were drumming my head at the moment so I made a note to listen to the album later and went on about my business. I find myself now regretting that decision if for no other reason than to have not experienced it first in a posthumous sense.
Perhaps I shouldn’t look at Facebook before I get out of bed in the morning, but I did today. There was only one theme throughout my newsfeed and I didn’t like what it was saying. Enough that this is a Monday and that temperatures are so horribly cold. Enough that the draft from the window left my old bones aching, not wanting to move. Seeing the news that David Bowie died was like being stabbed through the heart with a giant icicle that chilled to my soul. I’d heard that Bowie had been fighting cancer, but I wasn’t expecting this. Not right now.
Get dressed, shove everyone else out the door for the day, I search for and find that damn email with the link to the album. I click. I listen. I cry.
Blackstar is, much like Bowie’s life, full of improvisation. The title track is just short of being ten minutes long and fuses together two very disparate melody lines using some of the most complicated and beautiful jazz riffs ever devised. I will not be surprised if, at some point in the future, someone refers to this simply as his jazz album, because what Bowie does here is, once again, completely different from the 28 previous albums in his discography. Danny McCaslin’s searing saxophone chases Bowie’s vocals to the stars and back as though his very life depends upon it. Rather than singing in isolation, as vocals are most often done in contemporary studios, Bowie stood in the middle of McCaslin’s band, recording every track live. One can feel the interaction between them, even on pieces he’s done before, such as Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).
If I were reviewing this album under different circumstances, I would talk in esoteric terms about transitions and phases and how that, once again, David Bowie had managed to not merely remain contemporary, but a couple of steps ahead of contemporary. Blackstar leads us in a new direction today just as surely as Space Oddity did in 1969. Such is the legacy of the artist, mapping out where we expected him to go, then showing us a very different and unexpected way of getting there.
As I sat here listening, I read through a few hundred different memories that fans and other musicians had of Bowie. Many mention The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972) and nearly everyone of a certain younger generation mentions Labyrinth in some form. There are articles about his impact on fashion and how his showmanship changed what we expected from a live performance.
What I find missing from all those tributes, however, are two pieces where Bowie stepped totally out of the character of a rock star. One came in 1977 when the ultra-hip, gender-bending rock star was asked to sing The Little Drummer Boy with legendary crooner Bing Crosby for a television Christmas special. Bowie didn’t want to do the song. He hated the song. So, as writer Buz Kohan later told PBS, he (Kohan) and partner Larry Grossman came up with the now famous counter melody for Bowie to sing. The result was an instant holiday classic that you almost certainly hear 20,000 times each December.
The second, also recorded in December of 1977, was when RCA convinced the singer to narrate Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Allegedly, Bowie was RCA’s third choice, with actors Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness having both turned down the opportunity. Bowie said he did the album as a Christmas present for his son, Duncan, who was then seven years old. The timbre and phrasing Bowie gives to the piece is, like everything else he did, quite unique and different than anything Ustinov or Guinness might have done and it is his version I chose to play for my boys when they were of sufficient age.
He was married to the incredible supermodel Iman. He had children, a boy, Duncan, and a girl, Alexandria, who used their father’s more common surname, Jones. His most recent work was a musical, Lazarus, which is currently in an Off-Broadway run at New York Theater Workshop on East 46th street, starring Michael C. Hall. The musical was originally scheduled to run through January 20, but I wonder now if perhaps the engagement might be extended. That would be nice, since the initial run sold out almost the moment it was announced.
The Internet has exploded this morning with stories and articles. Many will be longer and full of greater insight than mine, but I could not let this pass without comment. Bowie was so much more than any one album or performance, or even all of them put together. I find it very fitting that the last track on Blackstar is titled, I Can’t Give Everything Away, a song that starts out sounding familiar, like the Bowie we think we knew, then navigates itself into something very different. Perhaps this was his way of saying goodbye. Or maybe, just maybe, he wanted to show there is still more than we can imagine.
Ziggy Stardust has left the planet. Godspeed, Mr. Jones. You are already well missed.