Two days ago, Ben Greenman got a post up on The New Yorker’s Web site: THE BEAUTIFUL MEANINGLESSNESS OF DAVID BOWIE, the headline read. “His new album, Blackstar, embraces nonsense, and that makes it prime Bowie.”
That was on Saturday. This morning, the meaning snapped into place like a bear trap: released on Friday—Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday—Blackstar is a threnody, composed by the artist himself.
“How many times does an angel fall,” Bowie sings on the title track.
“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to,” he sings, elsewhere on the album. “It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to me.” (“Dollar Days.”)
“Look up here, I’m in heaven.” (“Lazarus.”)
“Where the fuck did Monday go?” (“Girl Loves Me.”)
It was hard to turn around this morning without reading, or hearing about, Bowie’s death yesterday (Sunday). It followed a long negotiation with cancer, but because no one, outside of his intimates, knew, it came as a shock. Many of us had been woken up, in the wee hours, by a New York Times cell-phone alert. This was somehow fitting, half-sleep being as good a place as any to process the news. Since then, our Twitter and Facebook feeds have become ticker tapes dedicated, almost exclusively, to his memory. For thirty years now (I’m forty-three), I’ve known what Bowie’s meant to me. What I did not know, until this morning, is that he meant that much, or more, to everyone.
“I never wanted to be a rock star,” said Bowie. This was at the height of his fame, in 1974; two of his greatest albums, Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were a few years behind him. The Berlin Trilogy—Low, Heroes, and Lodger—was a few years ahead. But Bowie had been plugging away for a decade already. He’d recorded his first single, “Liza Jane,” in 1964, and toiled in near-total obscurity until the early seventies. (Though it was recorded in time for the 1969 moon landing, “Space Oddity” took several years to shed novelty status, and a few more to hit the number-one slot, which it finally did in 1975.) In the meanwhile, he mimed and he acted, shedding personas one after the other; a habit he never quite lost.
“I’m a person of diverse interests,” Bowie told Dick Cavett, also in 1974. “I glit from one thing to another, a lot.”
He never stopped glitting. Bowie was ever open to collaboration; discovery was his comfort zone. “By the time I got to New York / I was living like a king,” he sings on the new album. And yet, I remember turning around, at a Mission of Burma reunion show at the Bowery Ballroom, and seeing Bowie, alone, standing in the shadows, soaking the music in, slipping away before the last song. Friends in the city were always seeing him at shows—he might have been secretive, but Bowie was so distinctive, and so beautiful, he wasn’t easy to miss—and not at all the ones you’d have expected him to attend. It’s not a coincidence that, up to the moment of his passing, Bowie never stopped making interesting music or lost his relevance.
Bowie’s weird and, apparently, thrilling theater piece, Lazarus, is currently playing the New York City Theater. I haven’t seen it (as you’d expect, tickets are rather hard to come by), but from what I’ve heard it, too, is a sort of farewell. As with Blackstar, we didn’t quite understand this. But then, we’ve always been a few years behind Bowie. “Who knew?” Chris O’Leary asked me this morning, when I e-mailed him my condolences. After Bowie, and Bowie’s family, O’Leary was the first person I thought of; a writer and blogger who’d devoted years of his life to Bowie, and become something other, maybe more than, a biographer.
Bowie knew. “The past three years, he’s been planning for death like a Roman,” O’Leary told me. “What a last gesture.”
Alex Abramovich lives in New York.