bowing to maestro Bowie (part 2)

“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me…”

I was interested to discover a couple of years ago that David Bowie had briefly studied with Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama whose writings have probably made the single greatest impact on me of any buddhist teacher. Bowie had made the trek up to Samye Ling in Scotland in the late ’60s, before Rinpoche had migrated to the United States. And just today a brief article was posted quoting Bowie on his time there: “I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk,” he said. It was 1967, he was 20 years old and already a recording musician — this would have been either just before or just after the release of his first LP, David Bowie.

He was conflicted about whether or not to stay at the centre and asked Trungpa about this, who told him to carry on being a musician. So now we have another thing to thank that man for…

The last two songs on Blackstar are the most direct leave-takings. They’re really hard to listen to today. Dollar Days with its wailing sax from Donny McCaslin and final repeated alternations, “I’m trying to, I’m dying to, I’m trying to, I’m dying to…” is wrenching. Both phrases had appeared in a different context earlier: “I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again/I’m trying to.” And: “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.”

And finally the last one on the album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” where he kind of sums it all up:

“Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes: this is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent”

He was one of the most endlessly innovative artists of our time, and one of the most complete artists, because his mind was attuned to music, art, design, film, and dance in almost equal measure. He influenced nearly everybody across two generations to one degree or another — and he’s not done yet.

What more to say? Blessings, Mr. B. Please come back as something equally amazing.


bowing to maestro Bowie…

… for making his entire life (and now, we realize, death too) into a work of art.

Blackstar — what a gift to leave as the last one. To know it would be the last and to go out as innovative and protean and inspired as ever. That breathtaking title track: one of the most astounding things he ever did. I have watched the video of it multiple times today, along with listening to the rest of the album (released three days ago on his 69th birthday). Filled with moments of brilliance and unforgettable images: the astronaut concealing a skull laden with jewels; the juxtapositions of glowing cosmos, stylized Middle Eastern towns, shadowy loft, gyrating figures; a skeleton flying towards an eclipse… The refrain with its fragment of medieval chant, the driving breakbeat, and that sax…

“in the centre of it all, in the centre of it all…”

And then (as if you thought that was it!): a big hush. What on earth is next? It’s an image almost indescribably perfect: the camera panning Bowie holding a leather-bound book reminiscent both of a Bible and a Communist catechism (but note his left arm against hip…), its cover bearing only the eponymous black star; the previously gyrating figures (one white, one black, one female) staring with him in the direction the book/star is pointing; the sun comes out. The lighting and tableau remind me of that opening slow-motion shot in Blue Velvet somehow in its sense of wonder, innocence and the technicolor quality of the blue painted sky alternating with ground level shots of vegetation.

And then … we are back in the loft, and Bowie is clasping his hands, as if in prayer. He sings, and his falsetto is as gorgeous as ever, the voice childlike at first: “Something happened on the day he died…” Followed by — what genius — gazing back on his whole life, he makes a kind of declaration, but more about what he’s never been rather than what he “is.” The backing singers provide this (as far as it goes and in wonderfully murky harmony): “I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.” But he thumbs his nose at the line “you’re a flash in the pan,” and his dancing — 68 at the time, and very ill — is still elegant. You want to bow.

“I see right so white, so open-heart it’s pain/I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes/(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)”

And the trio of scarecrows, lined up as the Crucifixion: what startling composition and colors in that frame, and the subtle slow-motion swiveling hips of them, fantastic…

“at the centre of it all, your eyes, your eyes…”

Evidently part of what the song (and video) are about, according to someone who spoke to Bowie, is the Islamic State. In the latter part of the video we see a group of women reacting instantly to the jeweled skull, which has reappeared: whenever it is held in front of them they gyrate, hop, or raise their fists (I found myself remembering that ceremonial scene in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut also). And the opening music returns, but this time without the breakbeats. It has followed on from the middle section so seamlessly that you hardly notice. But the song is about much more than that, and I could keep going on about it, but I’d rather just let it speak for itself.

And Lazarus… Few words. It’s too raw. No one has ever put out anything like this before: Bowie sings from, as it were, his very deathbed, and he sings about what it feels like to die.

And then he stands, and even makes a dance move or two, and gets inspired, and writes, and finally fades into the wardrobe. Is it a Narnian wardrobe? Where is he going? None of us can say, and that is what he gives us as our final image of him.

Apparently Bowie was often too ill to attend rehearsals for his musical Lazarus (his other final project), but according to the director, Ivo van Hove: “Bowie was still writing on his deathbed, you could say. I saw a man fighting. He fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all. I had incredible respect for that.”

(More in the next post.)