Late on Sunday evening, I played Blackstar again. I also did something I rarely do these days. I played music in the living room in front of my mother. She was born in January 1947 – the same month as David Bowie. I asked her if she knew who this was. At first, she struggled. Saying only that the opening track (Blackstar) was ‘very strange’. (She had yet to see the video). After about thirty seconds, something told her it was Bowie. Maybe the voice, I don’t know.
Just short of halfway through this ten-minute opener, the middle eight section kicks in with “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside…” I think it’s only at this point that many people would clearly recognise this as Bowie’s work.
I’d played the album a few times since Friday, having received an MP3 download in advance of the ordered CD. I first heard Bowie songs like Jean Genie, Rebel Rebel or Space Oddity on the radio, when I was barely out of nappies. Yet, forty odd years later, this is the only artist I can think of whose music I would anticipate hearing, and buying, on the day of its release.
The CD dropped through the door on Monday morning, about half an hour after I read of his death, on the internet. I opened up the box to find a funereal black sleeve with a recent looking photo of Bowie, alongside an image of stars glowing in the cosmos. What the fuck? Bowie is able to surprise and freak you out even when he’s gone.
I used to be a fan of 1970’s Bowie. I say ‘used to be’, because for many years I thought his career had gone downhill after Scary Monsters (1980). I often said that to people. But I was wrong. There was a bit of a lull in the mid to late 80’s. I am not overly fond of the Let’s Dance album (1983), although there were a few good singles on it. The same goes for the follow up, Tonight, which is a weak album by his standards.
After that came Tin Machine. I didn’t like them either at the time. I do now. In fact, over the last few years, I’ve radically revised my opinion about his music, post Scary Monsters. Reflecting on this point just 24 hours after his death, I’m glad I’ve taken the time to do that.
It’s a journey that I expect many more people will make now. I’m ‘old school’ in the sense that I like to listen to music in the album format. I tend to think of, and measure, the quality of music that way. So my Bowie highlights of the last 20 years include Outside, Heathen, Reality, and his parting shots The Next Day and Blackstar. Yes I know, that’s most of the albums.
I came to realise that David Bowie was so much more than Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke, frozen in a colourful 70’s time warp. Like all great artists, he was forever looking forward to his next project. Amazingly, he was able to release a fresh and modern sounding album (and a couple of very radical videos), while on his death bed.
There may have been some time to prepare, but seriously, who else could achieve that? Of course, all this is just my opinion. Anyone who has known me for any length of time will know that I’m biased – Bowie has long been my favourite musical artist, bar none.
I always feel, when a new Bowie album comes out, that it takes time to digest whether it is really that great or not. Right now, Blackstar seems very good indeed. Really innovative and multi-genre. It’s absolutely light years ahead of the kind of stuff his contemporaries like Bob Dylan or Rod Stewart are doing now. In fact, it sounds groundbreaking. My favourite tracks are probably Lazarus and Dollar Days. I like all the songs but find most of the title track pretty disturbing.
Time will tell if this album is one of his best. At the moment, I’m still trying to take in that there won’t be the anticipation of another new Bowie studio album to look forward to.