Swinging Modern Sounds #69: Meaning Yes


I know personally two people who are as preoccupied with David Bowie as I have been over the years. One of them is Simon Critchley, who wrote a book on the subject (and with whom I once publicly debated the merits of the album called Lodger), and the other is Wayne Gladstone. Wayne is a novelist (author of the Internet Apocalypse trilogy from Thomas Dunne Books, the final installment of which, Reports on the Internet Apocalypse, will be published in 2016), and contributor and/or columnist at such publications such as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Cracked.com, as well as having contributed to The Onion, Slate, and Time Out New York, etc. He co-hosts The Styks and Stones Podcast. He writes frequently about music. However, none of these public accomplishments suggests the depth of his obsession with the Bowie oeuvre.

Bowie’s death, the sudden eruption of acute pain associated with it for all who cared about the man’s work, would naturally therefore have a profound impact on Wayne. As I was trying to figure out what I thought, I felt a need to talk to Wayne some. This exchange took place over 72 hours (last Monday through Wednesday), sometimes late at night, sometimes first thing in the morning, and in trying to contextualize loss, of the peculiar kind one might feel for an artist about whom one knows nothing intimate at all, we ultimately narrowed our focus and looked deeply into the murky crystal ball of Bowie’s final release Blackstar.

As someone who really loved the prior comeback album, The Next Day (see my Rumpus column on the subject here), I was very excited about Blackstar and long suspected it would come. And yet I could not have predicted how radical the transformation would be in the case of the subsequent recordings. The first song to emerge after The Next Day was the Maria Schneider Orchestra recording of “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime),” an intensely sophisticated experimental big band reading of a song that is given more of a rock sound on Blackstar. It was (and is) a miraculously dense and ambitious thing, sort of like Sun Ra with a dash of Anthony Braxton and Frank Sinatra. Nothing could have impressed me more. And this is just what I would expect from an artist who trafficked in the unexpectable so unerringly. Blackstar doesn’t quite go as far musically as the first “Sue,” but with its deeply unsettling, even terrifying, videos, it goes thematically into an area where rock and roll has infrequently gone, if at all. It’s already becoming hard to talk about the album without talking about Bowie’s illness, but here Wayne Gladstone and I try to find a way. When in need of comfort, it’s always worth trying close reading.


The Rumpus: I went to bed really early last night, trying to avoid the Golden Globes, and woke at 5 a.m. or thereabouts to the update from the New York Times about Bowie’s death. Somehow I’d suspected since the heart attack that he wasn’t totally well. Maybe he would have toured after The Next Day if he were well, because it would have been too much fun. But on the other hand I was shocked, and am shocked still. There are certain artists the loss of whom is too much, as if they have a responsibility to stay alive. I felt that way about Lennon and Harrison both; I felt that way about Ornette Coleman, John Cage, Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain to some extent. On the other hand, I think The Next Day was much about mortality, and I think Blackstar, even more so. Hard not to think that “Lazarus” was written by a man who knew he was ill. But I felt the same way about “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” by George Harrison, that it was premonitory and that turned out to be about spiritual experience, or something approximating that, and written long before his final relapse and metastasis. Everything has to do with context.

Obviously, then, we’re both here on the first day of trying to figure out what all of this means, and it will probably be a long while before it gets figured out, but I thought maybe we could talk a little bit about Blackstar, in the context of loss, and what it means to people who really spent a lot of time with the work of David Bowie.

So where are you today, and can we talk a little bit about the album?

Wayne Gladstone: I was almost the same. I avoided the Golden Globes and went to bed early. I woke to news that had already been broken, and it struck me as funny that for the first time I wasn’t the first to hear news about Bowie. Right or wrong, I always found something false and distasteful about crying for celebrities you don’t personally know, but I did shed a tear before choking it back.

I thought about how, seemingly through force of will, he’d kept himself alive for his 69th birthday and last album release. And, then I thought how of course that’s foolish. How if he had that ability, I’m sure he would have used it to see his daughter fully grow.

Although your Next Day piece shows your alacrity with deciphering Bowie’s lyrics, I’m always unsure. He was a man of self-possession and control, and I never fully trusted what he was showing—or at least I was never confident it was a reveal. Obviously, “Lazurus” can certainly be seen in a new light, and yet, I don’t recall him ever having financial concerns (as indicated in the song) post ’83 and I don’t know whose ass he’d be looking for. (To point out less obviously autobiographical lines.)

Despite all the decay and mortality of the last two albums lyrically, I would say with no hyperbole, that with a nod to 1997’s Earthling, these works were his most vital, exciting, and energy-packed since 1980. That makes me very happy. And then sadder still.

My first instinct upon hearing the news, was to turn to Blackstar and hear it as a work from a man who knew he was dying. But then, I shut the album off and turned on a live performance of “Starman” from ’72 instead. He was young, vibrant, happy—and that’s when the tears came for real. The lyric that sums up his death for me is on Ziggy, not Blackstar: “There’s a Starman waiting in the sky.”

Rumpus: I have the same attitude about the lyrics, that they are at once open and clear and completely mysterious and gnomic (although for the record, I believe he had some further money problems before the “Bowie Bond” period, which I think was 1997, right?), and I suppose it comes from the cut-up technique stuff. When I interviewed him, he copped to using the cut-up 25%-30% of the time. Admittedly, there are moments when this technique is more obvious (like all of Outside, let’s say), and then moments when I think the technique is more obscure. For example, I was listening to “Where Are We Now?” and I got to the line: “Just walking the dead.” Now, you could make a good case that he arrived at this line completely reasonably, and that he is referring to the citizens of Berlin, or is alluding to “We Are the Dead,” from Diamond Dogs. But I think he is disjunctive almost all the time, and that the really open passages (the end section of “Where Are We Now,” e.g., the open, romantic part) are almost always followed with something cryptic. I like this about him, because it means that he is mostly unsentimental, or only about sentiment when it is really warranted. But some of the time the cut-up technique is being employed, I think, and that means that self is being expressed, but just that it is not always Bowie’s self. (I’m sort of quoting Rob Fitterman, one of the exponents of found and collage forms in poetry).

So “Lazarus” may not be expressing Bowie’s thoughts about his mortality directly, or maybe they are some of the time. Sometimes Bowie is direct and sometimes he is not, and sometimes he seems to be creating some kind of parodistic mime-version of the expected narrative, but my take on it is that he’s always trying to get closer to the source, where real communication is taking place.

And so the “Lazarus” video seems to be about a David Bowie character in a hospital bed (and I can’t help thinking about the hands in the opening sequence! Bowie looks really mortal, and really much older than he ever did before, but it’s the hands that are the most mortal part of it), and an allegorical reading cannot be repelled: “look up here, I’m in heaven.” Indeed, it’s being invited. The additional layer for me, though, is the Lazarus part of the whole thing. It’s such an excellent part of the book of John, in the New Testament. The famous shortest sentence in the Bible is there: “Jesus wept.” Wept, I think, because he saw how hard death was for all the regular folks around him. Everyone tells Jesus that Lazarus is going to be really hard to resurrect, because he’s been dead for FOUR DAYS, and in the King James version, I think it actually says “he stinketh.” But then Jesus says “Lazarus come forth,” mainly because he wants the people to see that he can really do this particular miracle, and Lazarus comes forth, with the rags and bandages compassed all around him. Imagine being Lazarus coming forth from the grave! You assume that your time is up. And then you are back. It’s right after this in John that the people start plotting against Jesus.

People have made really good music about Lazarus before, like Nick Cave’s “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”. But that song is about futility and the impossibility of Lazarus really getting free of death. (Interestingly, Cave mentions NYC in the song, just like Bowie does in his song.) “I don’t know what it is, but there’s definitely something going on upstairs.” But more astonishing and spooky song, for me, is Terry Callier’s “Lazarus Man,” which is here. It makes a sort of a social justice allegory out of Lazarus, or a civil rights allegory, and it’s incredibly moving. He gets at how Lazarus must feel. What does Lazarus know that we don’t know?

Part of Bowie’s androgynous period was that he sort of knew about both genders, or we alleged that he knew about both genders. That’s the Tiresius part of the Bowie myth. In a way “Lazarus,” the song, does that. Except with the issue of death, instead of gender. Bowie survived a heart attack, and I for one believed that The Next Day was suffused with that experience. But “Lazarus” the song makes a great deal more out of this transit between the one plane and the other than The Next Day does. It’s numinous with some grim other-worldly knowledge that you don’t want to think about Bowie actually possessing, because it’s probably painful to possess it.

There’s something about the Parkinsonian trembly thing that Bowie does in both of the videos for Blackstar (the two so far) that reminds me a little bit of David Lynch, because they do something that Lynch does, too, which is to suggest what is out there beyond what we can get to with simple language, with the literary gesture. And maybe this is why the lyrics of these songs never say exactly what they might say. They say something else entirely. If you believe the Claude Levi-Strauss remarks on the subject, music can get to that material that words cannot always get to. The videos, by virtue of the music, and the performances, are so painful that they’re hard to watch, and his performances are so good that it will be hard now ever to hear the songs without thinking about the performance. If he’s a dying man, in the video, he’s a dying man who was given another life in order to perform in this way. He got up from his deathbed and sang.

Gladstone: You know, my whole life I’ve dissected Bowie’s lyrics and my whole life I’ve barely come across a song that didn’t have a lyric that seemed askew or counter-intuitive. Sometimes, I felt the failing was mine, sometimes Bowie’s, and sometimes I thought it best not ask as it seemed the wrong question. I do know some of his most straightforward lyrics tend to be his worst. I’m thinking “Fantastic Voyage,” “Under The God,” and “Amazing” (even though I love all those songs).

Regarding the “Lazurus” video, which gets harder to watch each time, that’s a very compelling read. Let me play devil’s advocate for a bit. It’s hard to avoid biblical interpretation with a title like “Lazurus,” but if we go down that road, what person may we to point to as a Jesus figure? I see the black-haired female figure that emerges from the armoire as a negative presence—not divine. I also do not see Bowie get out of bed, although he does rise inches off of it (perhaps a call back to “Blackstar” lyrics). Instead, I see two Bowies: the everyday Bowie dying in bed, and the creative Bowie feverishly trying to create before the bodily Bowie dies. The bodily Bowie remains in bed even as the creative Bowie writes and dances. While the writing ranges fearful to feverish, the dancing seems deliberately labored and painful. I believe that pain is part of a deliberate performance. It appears that while creative Bowie is still desperate to create, performing Bowie might have had enough.

Then the black-haired figure reaches out to bedded-Bowie (perhaps ending his life) and creative Bowie goes away as well. I take back what I said earlier, because I see the “Lazurus” video as increasingly bleak. Creative Bowie does not seem happy to be going into the armoire. As far as little details in the video that I can’t safely file away with certainty, on the eighth viewing I noticed the bedazzled astronaut skull from “Blackstar” is on Bowie’s writing desk. Also there’s a woman’s high heeled shoe on the floor.

But the thing is, despite all the attention “Lazurus” is getting on the day of Bowie’s death by journalists who tell us this song is meaningful even though they couldn’t begin to explain how and in what way aside from being death-themed, it’s not the song on Blackstar that jumps out at me as the most revealing and autobiographical. For that, I’d have to go with both the titular track, and the final track “I Can’t Give Everything Away”—both of which I’d love to discuss.

Rumpus: Let’s definitely talk about those other two (though of course in my drive always to talk about the hardest and least likely piece for interpretation I want to talk about “Girl Loves Me”), but I want to reiterate that while I was alleging that “Lazarus” has transparent shared material with the actual biblical story, and this shared material is not all that far from Bowie’s own autobiographical struggles since his heart attack in 2004, I in no way think that song is literally about that, nor that it should be reductively as such. I think the open-endedness of his lyrics makes superficial interpretation easy, and utterly forbids complete, air-tight renderings. So I’m not citing the Book of John to end the discussion, but rather just to chase down one thread that’s at hand.

So the title song goes a long way. I think it might be one of his very longest in the entire oeuvre (“Station to Station” just outweighs it at 10:14, “Warszawa” a mere 6:24). What’s of interest is that it has sort of three completely different songs in it (“Station to Station” is similarly suite-oriented). The mood shifts really dramatically. I have to say: it’s a deeply unsettling song to me.

My point of entry is that I really love and fear the weird harmonizer effect on Bowie’s voice. It’s one way, I think, that the album reads like jazz to me. I know it’s not jazz in the conventional sense at all (although there are some nicely improvised band passages, like at the end of “Lazarus,” e.g.). The songs are scored out. There’s not swing time. And there are even standby Bowie instruments like electric guitar and synth that are used in fairly traditional ways by Bowie standards. But then there are other aspects that seem jazzish, if not actually jazz-like: big wind ensembles, lots of off-the-beat drumming (more so than on anything since Earthling or Black Tie, White Noise). “Sue” and “‘Tis a Pity” are the most indebted to some kind of late ’50s or bebop jazz model, seems to me. But the harmonizer effect gives “Blackstar” this chromatic vibe that reminds me a lot of Jon Hassell (the world music post-Miles Davis guy whom Eno worked with quite a bit in the earlier ’80s), and which feels unearthly and strange.

Again, as with The Next Day, I think lyrics are probably sampled and cut-up. They seem to have something to do with Vikings. That’s my guess, since Ormen Lange (“in the villa of Ormen”) was a Viking ship. The word is old Norse. I don’t really care what the lyric is about in any literal sense; I care about the feeling. Once we get to the first bridge section, the song shifts into some more recognizable pop terrain, with a really nice melody (of the sort that was in ample supply on the last album), for a brief spell, but then it goes into its “I’m a black star” refrain, which I have to say is my earworm of the moment, in a not entirely pleasant way. Sort of like seeing the outsider art that Bowie was much taken with at the time of Outside and not being able to get away from it.

When the song shifts back to the A section, I am feeling some dread about it, because there’s so much Jungian heaviness to the whole affair that it weighs on this listener. I love it, but I feel it somewhat overwhelming, and not just because he died this week. Because like you, I saw the video a month or so ago, and it freaked me out then too.

Did you see the Bowie/Nine Inch Nails tour? I saw that tour. It was not long after I wrote my profile about Bowie in 1996 or 1997? I can’t remember which. Anyway, I remember him saying when I interviewed him, “I really get Nine Inch Nails; that’s a band I really understand.” I remember wondering if it wasn’t sort of beneath him a little bit. I mean, I liked “Closer to God” for a minute or two, and “Head Like a Hole,” but I have never been preoccupied with that band. And the whole thing was a setup by Trent Reznor, the way I saw it, because there was no way that Bowie was going to prevail as a headliner on that tour. Trent would come out with his army of guitars and synths and sing “I’d rather die than give you control,” and then Bowie would come out and sing, you know, “Ashes to Ashes,” or “Young Americans,” and just seem, well, you know, a little too urbane. And that’s how it went the night I saw. I felt like there was no way Bowie was going to hold his own, and it depressed me. Nearly the entire audience was wearing Marilyn Manson t-shirts. (I bet none of them is still wearing his or her Marilyn Manson t-shirt now.)

But “Blackstar” is Bowie having the last laugh on Trent Reznor, because Bowie knows way more about dread and horror in that title song (and “Lazarus”) than Trent with all his Joel Peter Witkin footage. Trent is still, in a way, trying to look good and sound good, but Bowie has left all that behind to catalogue his visions of the beyond. Or that’s how I see it. The other thing is: I really admire that Visconti and Bowie were listening to Death Grips while making this album. Now that’s a band.

Gladstone: I am very eager to hear a “Girl Love’s Me” analysis, because I got nothing there, but lets dig into this 1995 NIN controversy! I was at that show and had a totally different read. First, let’s start with Trent. I’m not a huge fan, and I agree he is not David Bowie, but I don’t hold that against him. After all Trent’s from Earth, not Mars.

But my favorite thing about Trent is how respectfully he treated Bowie at every turn. Yes, at that point in time NIN was the bigger draw, but given the construct of the show, despite being blended, NIN opened for Bowie. In every interview they did together, he was always very deferential to Bowie, and I think Bowie knew exactly what he was in for and welcomed it. In fact, the night I saw that show in ’95 featured one of the bravest moments I’ve ever seen in art.

The audience was awash with fourteen-year-old girls in torn fishnets and black lipstick, and most of them were there to see NIN. When Trent left the stage, so did half the audience, some of them crying that they didn’t get enough Trent. Bowie “ruined the show” for them. So many people left that security let my friends and me fill the empty spot before the stage, and I watched the show literally ten feet from Bowie. I felt like the only person in the entire place who enjoyed it.

But step back a second, Rick. That’s not all that happened at my show, because my show was literally the day after Outside was released, and as you know, Outside is dense, difficult, and over seventy minutes long. Bowie played almost exclusively from that album. Accordingly, even the minority of the crowd who was there for Bowie did not know what the hell he was playing. Even I had only heard it all the way through a half-dozen times before the show.

The point is, Bowie played to one of the largest venues in New York (or was it New Jersey), went onstage with someone far more popular than he at that specific moment in time, and played to the other guy’s audience. Then he played only demanding music that his own audience did not know. Bowie knew he would tank. How could he not? He just didn’t care. He did what he wanted to do, able to withstand a stadium’s worth of undeserved antipathy and indifference. He put himself into the mix in the exact way he wanted, hoping to be appreciated, but not depending upon it. Not having his sense of self shaken. If i had to pick one reason he’s my artistic hero, it is because of that night.

As an aside, NIN’s “A Warm Place” is a note for note steal of “Crystal Japan” by Bowie. What’s great about that, is Bowie revealed this fact, kindly, in a dual interview with MTV’s Kennedy. Trent’s face turns white and he is deeply embarrassed saying he knew it was familiar and he re-listened to all of Low and Heroes to see what he was ripping off, even asking Flood. It wasn’t until the album came out that he discovered it was “Crystal Japan”—a bonus cut on the Ryko disc re-release of Scary Monsters. So, you know, for me, I always felt Bowie was in control of the NIN collaboration. And while I think of Trent as a mere mortal, I do think his remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” was an improvement.

Now onto all your other interesting points. I couldn’t agree with you more about “Blackstar.” It is an unnerving song, and the comparison to “Station to Station” is really strong. It hits me the same way musically as you, There is, at first, a very jarring coupling of the vaguely jungle, vaguely Middle Eastern opening and it’s fractured lyrics (which apparently contain Nordic references; thank you for that) followed by a drop dead gorgeous, killer chorus. It’s not just hooky. To my ears, that chorus is a throwback to a Tin Pan Alley showstopper, a “Singing in the Rain” number.

At first, I was surprised Bowie would paste two things together in such a seemingly sophomoric fashion. My next impression was that Bowie had this monster killer chorus—the kind of chorus that would cause Elton John to phone up Disney for some animated panda to sing it—and he just tosses it off, bookending it in weirdness. More of that nothing-to-prove bravery from ‘95.

But then, right in the middle of the chorus, we get the “I’m not a blackstar” vocal, which is jarring as you say. Even more jarringly, the vaguely dissonant part of the song becomes the hook when it follows a conventional part. My son (who I’m clearly raising right) pointed out to me that this chorus has a conventional bass and snare beat, and that once introduced, it continues for the rest of the song even over the less conventional music. The song blends the alien and familiar. If I were a hack, I’d say, it makes the listener “turn and face the strange,” but I don’t write obits for CNN.

Let’s talk about the lyrics!

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

This is seems incredibly revealing, but I’m not sure what it reveals. What is a blackstar? A dying star? A second coming star? Is the Blackstar Bowie those who will follow in his footsteps and take his place. Is the Bowie rising inches in the bed in Lazurus, the spirit that’s referenced in “Blackstar”? I just don’t know.

Rumpus: It’s interesting we saw the same tour and had such different reactions, but maybe that’s in the nature of a tour, that it make possible such different ideas depending on who you are, where in your life, when you saw the tour, and so on. I am perhaps a bit less certain about Trent’s motives than you are, but I also hate that I am so cynical about the entertainment business. So maybe you are right, and Trent recognized his debt to Bowie. Though I imagine he could recognize his debt and still want to wipe the floor with Bowie.

My point would be that I saw a much better gig, a year or so later, in Manhattan, at one of those mid-sized venues, I can’t remember which one now, just Bowie, and it was an incredibly great gig. He played old stuff, he played “O Superman,” he played new stuff. He had that amazing bass player Gail Ann Dorsey, and in a more modestly-sized venue he really reached the audience, really connected with the audience. I thought it was a great, loose, passionate, engaged performance. I just don’t think Bowie was good in a stadium. He’s not a stadium guy. I associate the Bowie of stadia with Let’s Dance and I have mixed feelings about that Bowie.

(And I would be lying if I did not say that I got to go backstage that night in Manhattan, and so I remember the gig in part because that was very unforgettable. I’m really only saying it now because I don’t want someone, years from now, to point out that I participated in this exchange and talked around the gig where Bowie had me backstage. There should be some obligation to be open about it. It’s true! I went backstage! We didn’t talk very long. He was very kind to me. It was a night I will tell my grandchildren about, if I live long enough to have them.)

All right, onto the question of lyrics in “Blackstar,” the song. You said:

This is seems incredibly revealing, but I’m not sure what it reveals. What is a blackstar? A dying star? A second coming star? Is the Blackstar Bowie those who will follow in his footsteps and take his place. Is the Bowie rising inches in the bed in Lazurus, the spirit that’s referenced in “Blackstar”? I just don’t know.

I agree I have come around to point of view that these videos (“Blackstar” and “Lazarus”) are not reductively about mortality. They just traffic in images of mortality, in a hit-and-run and slightly evasive way. I don’t think of this hit-and-run approach, this allusiveness, as opposed to elusiveness, as a bug. I think it’s a feature. And as a feature, it allows the audience to find ways to project into the song without getting bogged down in its particular meanings.

I talked this morning with Simon Critchley about the meanings of the videos—he’d just written a little bit about them and the album for the Times, and we were trying to come up with a more nuanced meaning of the Lazarus image. I keep thinking about Adorno, and his critique of enlightenment. But I want to try to stay on Blackstar, the album, and the effect of it, the emotional effect, because I think it is powerful, and that is at some variance with respect to the hard-to-decipher lyrics. (“Saying more, and meaning less.”)

By the way, I remembered another long Bowie composition, “Cygnet Committee,” from the first album. I confess I was never that big a fan of the stuff before Hunky Dory. That’s where I become interested.

Do you want to talk about “I Can’t Give Everything Away”? It’s the locus of slightly cheesy keyboard textures that we were talking about earlier. The harmonica solo at the beginning reminds me of that song on Low, “A New Career In Town,” which came on in the cafe I was in at lunch. “Everything” has a really excellent melody, and the vocal rendering is great. It’s funny how the whole story with The Next Day was that Bowie was alleged to be a less gifted singer because of his heart attack and the ravages of time, but instead, on The Next Day, he was a great singer. Making up for a slight brittleness with so much more emotional commitment. And Blackstar feels the same to me. The vocals are great. On, e.g., “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the vocals are great.

The drums do kind of sound like Bowie’s jungle period to me. His drum and bass period.

PS, you’re right about the “Hotel California” chord progression in the bridge on “Dollar Days.” Did you know that Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull claims that the Eagles borrowed the “Hotel California” chord progression from a Jethro Tull song?

Gladstone: What Tull Song? First off, great harmonica call with “New Career in a New Town.” I was also reminded of 1987’s far less impressive “Never Let Me Down.” I’m pretty sure that’s Bowie on harmonica on all three songs.

I’ve heard the Bowie vocal criticism, but, quite simply, I think they’re wrong. Bowie was never a great singer. He did not have a beautiful, natural instrument like Paul McCartney or Chris Cornell. But for my money, he was the smartest singer rock had ever seen. He used his voice in countless ways, fooling the listener. As a boy, I was positive he had the greatest range in music because I would have sworn he went from the lowest of notes possible to the peel-the-paint shrieking in “Sweet Thing.” As I got older and learned about music, I realized he’d just created the illusion of hitting high notes with a sort of head voice inflection. The high notes are in the meat of any tenor’s range. But that carefully constructed vocal performance is still one of my favorite vocals.

I see no evidence of the ’03 heart attack damaging his voice. For my money, Reality in 2003, pre-heart attack, features his laziest most uninspired vocals. And in truth, although I like 1995’s Outside very much, some of those songs needed gutsier vocals to be sold. Also, while I completely agree with you regarding some of the wonderfully tender frail vocals on The Next Day, I think he sounds great on “The Next Day” and “Valentines Day.” “The Next Day” has that real Scary Monsters grit that was so lacking on Outside. And “Valentine’s Day” might as well be a lost track from Aladdin Sane. He sounds like a boy. Those two performances are better than any vocals on Outside, Hours, or Reality. 

I still want your interpretation of “Girl Loves Me,” but let’s talk about “I Can’t Give It All Away.” Although like all songs on Blackstar and most Bowie songs in general, this song has a couple of obscure lyrics, it’s also the one song I take the strongest meaning from. For me, it is not a song about death so much as a song written in the shadow of death. A reflective song, and, seemingly, a song of regret, which makes it so hard for me to hear these days.

Although it starts provocatively about something being very wrong and pulses returning for prodigal sons, that is not the stanza that most illuminates for me. It’s this:

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

It’s tempting to read the the first two lines as describing how he’s behaving now in his final moments, but I think that’s wrong. As reticent as I am to ascribe unambiguous interpretation to Bowie’s work, I feel the subsequent two lines deliberately prohibit that interpretation. Bowie makes clear he’s referring to his whole life. That is the message that he sent. Past tense. Here, at the end of his life, he is admitting that he could not give fully of himself.

Bowie’s often made that admission regarding his art, explaining his need to create characters in place of relating directly to an audience. And perhaps that is what a blackstar is. Beautiful to mortals, but also somehow corrosive and parasitic in that it takes more than gives. That would certainly gibe with the lyrics from The Next Day‘s “The Stars Are Out Tonight” where he seems to have first used the blackstar metaphor:

They watch us from behind their shades
Brigitte, Jack and Kate and Brad
From behind their tinted window stretch
Gleaming like blackened sunshine
Stars are never sleeping
Dead ones and the living

Aside from “blackened sunshine” seeming very much like a blackstar, there’s that line about stars watching people from behind sunglasses. It resonates nicely for me with the lyric “seeing more and feeling less.” Observing but not engaging. Making use of what you see as I guess all artists do. I’m reminded of the Randy Newman lyric in “Miss You,” which goes, “I’d sell my soul, and your soul, for a song.”

But what makes “I Can’t Give Everything Away” so painful for me, is that the lyrics also strike me here as personal confession. He can’t give all of himself away. Something will always be withheld. And that seems true even in his death. He kept it a secret. He did not ask for our thoughts and prayers—just for our attention one last time before he left. And when he said goodbye we didn’t know he was leaving. He kept it for himself, true to who he was. Whether through evolving selves, secrets, or just inscrutable genius, Bowie always seemed to know something we did not.

And perhaps that’s part of what makes his death so painful. Knowing we will never really know him.

Rumpus: Did you see that today Michael Azerrad noted on Twitter that “black star” is actually occasionally used as a term in medicine for the presence of cancerous cells in an otherwise healthy organ? Here’s the link.

Again, it’s this situation where we can reductively look at it that way—as simply a reference to cancer—but it’s more interesting if it’s about cancer and related to the passage you are quoting from “The Stars Are Out Tonight.” From a certain vantage point, Bowie is always trafficking in extraterrestrial or astrophysical material. Or to put it another way, he’s like one of those speculative fiction guys, like Samuel Delany, who is always finding a way for the futuristic imagery to be very specifically related to life here, facts on the ground here. No matter how ornate and oblique his landscape is, he’s talking about us. And the same strikes me with respect to Bowie, which is why I too found that first passage you quote, so incredibly moving:

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

I would argue that the first line could be about illness. The easy interpretation of “seeing more and feeling less” is to see it as Thin White Duke-style immunology to the world of feelings, but I think it could also mean feeling less in the department of physical sensation, owing to painkillers (as in “I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl,” from “Lazarus”). But “Saying no but meaning yes” would seem to mean exactly what it seems to mean, and it does give the lie to all the Thin White Duke stuff. This does seem like direct commentary on the work, or, at least, direct commentary on indirectness. Which is nicely paradoxical and backward.

I keep forgetting to defend the lyrics of “Fantastic Voyage,” by the way, which I love. That whole period of lyrics that don’t, at all, fit into the available space, that don’t scan, don’t rhyme, don’t even seem like they belong in the same song as the other lyrics? That’s a period I really love. What could be a better couplet than: “We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression/And I don’t want to live with somebody’s depression.” That’s one of those faux-confessional passages, mixed in there with “But that’s no reason/To shoot some of those missiles.” The model is really an e. e. cummings model of word-as-object rather than as word. The affect only occasionally breaks through the implacable pile up of word/objects: “And the wrong words make you listen/In this criminal world.”

Of course the main thing about lyrics is how they sound sung, not how they look on the page. I think Bowie made up some melodies on the spot (this seems totally plausible on Blackstar), or altered them on the spot, and jammed words in exactly according to what his Word Salad app suggested, or according to his needs. That’s not to say that there aren’t songs totally written out, or fully demo’d, but I think words and ideas got sacrificed to the performances, which is what you were saying about how he worked as a vocalist (there’s a really good Robert Fripp monologue about watching Bowie work in the studio, and how perfect he was at gauging what was needed from a vocal performance). It’s his genius. And there are as many Bowie voices as there are songs. Compare “Changes” to “Wild Is the Wind” to “Jean Genie” to “China Girl.”

Anyway, this bring us all the way to “Girl Loves Me.” I’ll say the slightly controversial thing: it’s my favorite song on Blackstar right now. First, I love that loopy weird vocal at the beginning with the little yelp at the end. Two, I like the excesses of echo on the vocal, because that’s such a ’70s thing. Third, I really like the melody. Just brilliant. Four, the drumming is awesome (and gets me close to understanding how Death Grips could have been an influence). Five, I really love “Where the fuck did Monday go?” If I were writing a song, and I came up with that hook, I would consider my job well done. Fully achieved. Anything else in the song would be just extra nonsense. And in fact most of the rest of the lyric is impossible to penetrate. The generally understood meaning of the totality of “Girl Loves Me” is that it’s using Burgess’s drood lingo from A Clockwork Orange and that’s why it can’t be totally understood. Now, there’s one other Bowie reference that I know of to reference A Clockwork Orange, and that’s in “Suffragette City.”

Such an incredible song, “Suffragette City.” The only problem with it is that I’ve heard it too many tens of thousands of times. Well, and the additional problem is that it’s on an album with “Rock and Roll Suicide,” “Five Years,” “Moonage Daydream,” etc. It’s the dumb, fast rock song on an amazing album, just one/four the whole way, and I love that about it. And I’m going to say that “Girl Loves Me” mines similar material, some kind of mute, inarticulate celebration of the heterosexual impulse. Or maybe just the sexual impulse. Because who can ever tell how gender works in this body of work anyhow? Someone could come along and say that “Cheena,” the addressee, is an Indian goddess from the 5th century B.C.E., and I wouldn’t be surprised at all, but for me it’s really about “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and that great drum part.

The other two songs I really, really love are “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” with that incredible opening with the horns going slowly out of phase, like in a Steve Reich piece. And then the kind of arch posh-Bowie accent. The singing is great on that one. And “Sue.” But I think I liked the other mix, the Maria Schneider version, better than the one on the album.

I want to say one more thing, and this is the grief-processing portion of this exchange for me. I loved this man’s work, loved it (I figured out that if I liked every album between Hunky Dory and Let’s Dance that I think he made twelve straight great albums! Twelve!), and liked him enormously when I met him, and I think he was a brilliant performance artist who just happened to work in the popular song. But the really important Bowie material is the work that I responded to personally, emotionally. That mattered to me emotionally. And I would say, at the end of the day, that if I had to pick one spot, it’s “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing,” from Diamond Dogs (although I love it on David Live too). And I can remember encountering it, somehow, even though I had heard it any number of times before, on the verge of graduating, when my girlfriend was going off to one college, and I was going off to another, and her parents hated me, and I was off on some delirium of drugs and alcohol (“We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, and jump in the river holding hands”), and the whole Diamond Dogs dystopia, with it’s impossible-to-parse lines like “There’s a shop on the corner selling papier mache,” etc., it was exactly how I wanted things to be in my desolate landscape of teenagerhood. The operatic singing (an octave plus, as you rightly point out), the upwardly mobile melody in the “Candidate” section, the wailing phase shifter’d guitar at the end (apparently played by the man himself). All perfect. And the words use the cut-up technique, borrowed manifestly from William S. Burroughs, in this case. I believed in the world, in the technique, in the vocal performance, all of it. And somehow it had a real impact on getting through that period.

Everybody says he sang for the outsiders, and for me I don’t know whether to say that I was that listener, or not. But I got something from that song, and from some others, too (“Station to Station,” “’Heroes,’” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Panic In Detroit,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” and so on), something redemptive, and it was personal, no matter how oblique the lyrics. I never told him this, because he probably heard this shit all the time, like every second person came into his office said “_______ got me through my teen years,” and what did it mean for him? He was probably tired of it, or inured. So I didn’t say it. And now I feel like it’s worth saying it. There were songs by the guy that kind of helped keep me alive, and I was pretty bent on drinking myself to some kind of early grave in those days. That he disappeared up to the Bowie astral plane so suddenly and kept it all so quiet seems like he missed out on this massive outpouring of love that has been so much in evidence this week, and if I had had a chance, knowing what I know now, I would have told him how much those songs meant to me, “Sweet Thing,” above all, “Hope, boys, it’s a cheap thing,” being in the category of “saying no and meaning yes.” What a loss!

Gladstone: It’s impossible to pick a favorite Bowie song, but when I narrow it to three, it’s “Life on Mars” (like many people); “Blackout” (like very few people), and “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” (like maybe only you and I). I say that because I always insist that those three songs are one song and think of them as one song, as you clearly do as well. “Sweet Thing” is one of the sexiest songs ever written. One of the greatest vocals ever. And the lyrics range from tangible to ambiguous to obscure but are always perfectly thematically evocative. There is something very special about Diamond Dogs, because Bowie plays lead guitar and I think more than any other album we are getting more David per square inch than normal. And the line that stays with me from that song fits very nicely into what we’ve been discussing here in his later work: “Isn’t that me, putting pain in a stranger.” Sure it’s sexy. In the context of a the song it’s almost orgasmic pain, but also, it seems one of the few Bowie lyrics that’s self-incriminating, as “I Can’t Give Everything Away” also feels. But I don’t want to end on this.

If Bowie was recording Blackstar immediately post chemo, completely bald as Tony Visconti says, then “Lazurus” takes on another meaning. You had postulated, and I believe correctly, that he’d already been through the heart scare, and this was a second life. The second life even heightened post chemo. Especially chemo that put him in temporary remission.

Oh, I’m so much happier today. He got cancer. Took action. Wasn’t in a hurry to leave. Wasn’t too vain to lose his hair. Was brave enough to show up to a studio post chemo. Got the time to do more great work. And then when the cancer returned, he didn’t have to live with doom too long and died knowing he put out one last great album. It’s not my place to question how anyone dies, but I’m much, much happier now.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →