It is an unusual artist who will take their own death and turn it into a performance piece. It’s an act of someone who is either unusually narcissistic, or very ruthless, and in David Bowie’s case I’m inclined to go with the latter.

The Guardian’s music editor cautiously asked last night whether Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, released on his birthday four days ago, possibly referenced his own impending death, which just goes to show that music critics are often as thick as they come. If a black star isn’t an obvious enough symbol of death (as well as a possible musical reference to the Clash’s strange track ‘Death is a Star’), then an album written and recorded by a man who was dying, released as close to the day of his death as he could manage, on what he knew would be his last birthday, is probably a clue.

The release of Blackstar is also evidence of a sense of humour as impish as it is mordant. Bowie released Blackstar knowing that we couldn’t possibly make full sense of it until after he died, again emphasising for me that he was a man who often seemed to be making jokes about jokes, in infinite regress, and who took the same attitude to his multiplying identities, each a comment on the other. David Bowie was nothing if not a hall of mirrors.

On the other hand, anyone who discovers the early Bowie albums when they are young knows that Bowie has the gift of speaking very directly and unambiguously to young people as though they are real actual persons. When punk arrived and bands like the Who and the Stones suddenly looked like the tedious, self-obsessed parodies they had been for some time, Bowie still had real cred. In my world that cred was upheld by my gay, lesbian and feminist punk friends – insane party animals, despised homeless outcasts and street intellectuals one and all – who insisted that Bowie was the real deal. He wasn’t full of shit. Not only was he smarter than everyone else, but he knew what was what, and that gender wasn’t the nailed-down binary bullshit script that was being peddled by everyone else. And if gender wasn’t, then neither was anything else.

Bowie announced his take-no-prisoners credentials on Hunky Dory I think with his ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ in which he sings:

here she comes again
the same old painted lady
from the brow of the superbrain

which is as brilliant a criticism of Dylan’s boring misogyny as you’ll ever hear, and even manages to out-Dylan Dylan with a classical reference to Aphrodite and Zeus. It is a taste of David Bowie’s ruthlessness, his own opinion of himself and his fanatical dedication to his work.

Station to Station is my favourite Bowie album. It is still a fantastic dance album, with superb songs and brilliant lyrics and performances, but written and delivered by a man then inhabiting frequent states of intense paranoid psychosis. It would take phenomenal – almost supernatural – drive and a bizarre dissociated awareness of one’s own paranoid state to turn out work under those conditions. And the man who can do that isn’t going to be fazed by the prospect of his own imminent death.

Still, as the decades went by, Bowie passed out the occasional conservative chestnut – for example, publicising his support for the ‘No’ vote for Scottish independence. He was a fan of A Country Practice and The Office, and in his latter years had English newspapers delivered to his house every day. Maybe it’s just the little reactionary weirdness we all play off with, especially as we get older: our love for The Biggest Loser or Game of Thrones or Who magazine. If I heard that Bowie had pie and chips for breakfast every day I wouldn’t be surprised. On the other hand, I can think of it as yet another Bowie identity – that of Dave the Dad, slippers on, Times in hand, cup of tea on the arm of his chair, giving his young daughter the appearance of a normal, unexceptional life, with a normal unexceptional dad.

Whatever. When my neighbour called out to me yesterday arvo that Bowie had died of cancer, I had a genuine sense of shock and loss, and a sudden memory of sitting in the back of a ute, an aeon ago, in a drive-in at a time of some crisis in my life with a woman I had an immense crush on, watching The Man Who Fell to Earth while working our way through a large number of spliffs. It was an experience of intense anxiety (my unremitting shyness being then, as now, an immoveable object), alienation, and just general weirdness: all states that Bowie knew intimately and wrote about incessantly, until his last breath, in fact. I also had to slap down a quip that began to poke its gurning head into my thoughts and wanted to be a smartarse about death and the side effects of the cocaine. Which just goes to show that when we are faced with some irretrievable loss – in my case, the past – some histrionic and hard-faced defence can often kick in.

Bowie had a wide and idiosyncratic knowledge of literature and I also imagine that Lacan would have made an interesting fit with his intellectual preoccupations. Bowie and Borromean rings seem like natural buddies. It was one of the things about being a semi-homeless outcast with pretensions to literature and a love of Bowie: you felt you had to know about everything, because Bowie obviously did; Noh theatre, anti-psychiatry, German expressionism, astrology. When in a frenzied chemical-induced epiphany I worked out that Jean Genie was actually a reference to Jean Genet, I knew that Bowie and I were both – at the bottom of our grubby thieving hypocritical freakish depraved Genet-loving souls – kindred spirits.

That was hogwash, of course. There’s a saying that you know you are getting old when you go into a major supermarket and think the music they are playing is really great. My local village supermarket is more likely to – and does – tend to play the Dead Kennedys, so possibly my life isn’t yet as moribund as it often appears. Though even David Bowie’s artistic ruthlessness and integrity won’t preserve him from the voracious, savage brutality of the neoliberal surveillance state, which is quite capable of tipping all of us, however freakish or weird we feel, into a state of permanent desperate precarity, to a soundtrack of Station to Station or Aladdin Sane.

And it’s a good time for me to bail out too. This is my very last piece for Overland, so with a weak joke that the suburban Englishman in Bowie would undoubtedly remember and understand: it’s goodnight from him, and it’s goodnight from me.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. “Bowie has the gift of speaking very directly and unambiguously to young people as though they are real actual persons”. A most lovely and apt use of the present tense there.

    Thank you for your writings, Stephen. It’s been a true pleasure to read you on these pages over the past few years.

  2. Sad to see you sign off from these pages. I have loved your writing over the years. From one suburban Englishman to another, thank you and good night.

  3. I agree that Bowie spoke to young people, clearly and in a way that was engaging and not patronising. As befits his roots in the emerging UK teen culture of the 1960s, he embodied the notion of youth as something radical and liberating.

    There is another aspect to Bowie’s reach – the nature of our culture in the 1970s & 80s, the period when he achieved real global fame and critical acclaim. It was a time when shared mass cultural experiences were still possible. With few exceptions culture now is so fragmented and niche, but back then most young people were touched in some way by Bowie & his music. It was mass. You really couldn’t avoid it. And its influence was correspondingly huge.

    Bowie’s passing is significant not just because he was such an incredible influence in music, film and fashion but, arguably, because he was one of the last of those genuine mass music stars. Who else is left? Maybe only the Rolling Stones and, by and large, they reinforced instead of challenging dominant modes of social interaction.

  4. Agreed. But I can’t imagine the forthcoming deaths of Jagger, or Richards or Townshend or even McCartney or Dylan having the same impact. Bowie was a one-off and makes his peers look like the tired macho rock n roll plutocrats they are.

  5. Of course, Bowie isn’t exempt from criticism (who is?). You have to wonder about some of his 90s stuff, the incipient fascism of China Girl, for example: “Visions of swastikas in my head / Plans for everyone / It’s in the whites of my eyes … I’ll give you the man who wants to rule the world …”

    1. I’d read Bowie’s ‘fascist’ statements this way.
      1st, there’s anything said under the influence of a drug-fuelled psychosis, which we can safely file and leave there.
      2nd, is stuff that’s been overstated by the media, eg: the famous ‘fascist salute’ photo.
      3rd, is what I’d see as Bowie genuinely struggling with the sense of insane power that being a rock and roll God evokes, in the way that most rock icons – who are almost always male – don’t. I think there is a lot of unexamined fascism in rock and roll, and as Bowie has pointed out, stadium rock certainly has the trappings of the mass rallies the Nazis pioneered. In the film on Radiohead, Meeting People is Easy, Thom Yorke encounters mass adulation for the 1st time, and he says that it is ‘Not a human feeling’. I think that is a statement worth thinking on, one that rock and roll tends to slide over.
      I may be missing something in Bowie’s behaviour – and perhaps there are Bowie experts out there who have more info – but if I were to conjure up an image of a rock and roll fascist, I’m more likely to think of Jagger, or even Townshend.

      1. Sure, there are far worse rock etc. examples than Bowie. With the sort of adulation and imprisonment of body and mind that comes with fame, how couldn’t anyone go insane. I realized that myself with just a very minor touch of adulation, and gave up the fame path very quickly. Cheers (to ordinariness)!

  6. Thanks Stephen, I’ve appreciated your work over the years.

    Re. Bowie. I’m really struggling to think of another artist who was as big as Bowie in the first half of the 70s who actually extended their creativity and influence through the 77-83 period. Not only did Bowie have the ability to shape-shift, but he operated as a bridge between the innovation of 60s pop-rock and the new freedoms and experimentalism of post-punk.

  7. Thanks for all your outstanding work over the years, Stephen Wright. It’s been a pleasure to edit someone with such an insatiable appetite for literature and culture, and who joins the dots in the most unexpected of ways.

  8. I think what made Bowie an exceptional artist was the way he engaged with the contemporary and with possibility, whether that was experimenting with sound or medium or collaboration or technology.

    [I know no-one else posted clips, but] These are some of the songs that capture that for me:

  9. And as we are adding clips, I’ll give you this one, just because it is very underrated, and shows being Bowie as well as getting away with covering a song that nobody else could. And it is a song that has, in the past, almost brought me to tears.

    1. As if I’m going to tell anyone on a public comments thread. However, it has nothing to do with Overland who have always been a stalwart source of encouragement.

  10. I am as big a fan of classic Bowie as anyone. I’m even performing one of his earliest songs, ‘There Is a Happy Place’ (1967) in a couple of weeks at the Newstead Live Music Festival.
    But Blackstar has the worst collection of songlyrics I have seen in a long time. Of course, we can read into it that it is some kind of seer-like ‘gift’ to his fans, which no doubt it is, but as far as writing goes, it is woeful. His classic version of Jacques Brel’s ‘My Death’ is much closer to the mark and he did this decades ago. (Ironically, when Bowie asked Brel if he could record his song ‘Amsterdam Brel told him ‘I don’t give my songs to fags.’ Talk about an error of judgment. Bowie was destined for greatness – and he wasn’t a ‘fag.’ Well, Brel finally found an advocate in Rod McKuen so I guess everything worked out.)
    I found the music for Blackstar interesting but without the wonderful melodic sing-song durability of his greatest songs. He has retreated into the realm of ‘artsong’ which is fine – but not that unique.
    There are a lot of things that need to be said about David Bowie for a more complete understanding of who he was as an artist and a person but this is a time of eulogy and probably there will be a better time later for this kind of thing.
    But if anyone is curious about the dark side of David, I recomment Googling his ex-wife Angie, who was by his side through his ‘Golden’ period and has some brilliant insights to share. She also happens to be a current house member on Big Brother at the moment so that should give you a few clues. Vale David Bowie. One of the greats of pop music.

    1. We’ll have to just disagree on the quality of the lyric content of Blackstar. However, I’m not sure Bowie’s last album had any ‘seer-like’ qualities. I think it was a kind of parting joke, a gift; a man writing about his own imminent death in a way that could be only be understood after he had died. I think that’s real artistic chutzpah and some kind of artistic integrity. When I heard Bowie had died, my second response – after the ones I listed above – was ‘you clever bastard’ and genuine laughter of appreciation of his commitment to his work and to us, his listeners.
      As far as Bowie’s ‘dark side’ goes, I read a post the other day at the Daily Beast and another at Red Wedge that i was linked to by someone with greater wisdom than I, which gave excellent, if speculative, arguments on this topic. The writers argued that Bowie went to to some very bad places, and that his sexual opportunism, or even predations, during the ‘golden period’ and his psychotic flirtings with fascism are not things to find excuses for. However, it is very possible that Bowie eventually (around the time of Heroes) saw himself in a very dark mirror, didn’t like what he found and returned a changed man. I think there’s merit in that argument.
      T o be honest, I think it’s a realisation and a vision that more men could have.

      1. I agree with the maturity in the later years – a sustained relationship of 25 years with one person is nothing to sneeze at especially from someone with such a promiscuous start. Many of us can relate to that.
        Give me an example of any lyrics on this album that are worth considering seriously as stand alone statement – autonomous from the songs. Bowie was always a performance artist and not a poet-lyricist and this album is no different – it’s just not as memorable as his classic works.
        As regard a parting gift. Yes. A parting joke. No. I dont see any humour in it. Also chronicling one’s own death is not new Clive James is doing a much better and more poetic approach to this at the moment, and it has been done before by many artists.
        I don’t know if you have ever seen the ‘Hunger’ series that Bowie narrated, but he stars in the pilot as an artist who makes a final statement by amputation all of his limbs in a final ‘installation’. Grisly. But he has been flirting with this idea of a final statement for decades.

        1. I guess we have different senses of humour, and humour and is always difficult to translate from one person to another. I’m not sure that I go to rock and roll for poetry, though when poetry happens it’s always a nice surprise. Rock and roll is full of what might otherwise be trite statements (‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’) that depend on so many other factors to turn them into something memorable.
          Perhaps one can ‘flirt’ with a final statement. But I think that when finality is upon you, making it is probably something else.

          1. Actually, I suggest that ‘In the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle’ is a pretty great lyric. First time I heard it, it riveted me to the kitchen floor where I was doing the washing up and freaked the hell out of me. Fabulous spooky, eerie and very moving song Blackstar, and it will take me sometime to get to the bottom of it.

  11. Planet earth is blue? In our beginnings are our ends? Our planet is dying. We are dying. It’s just that most of us don’t know it or won’t recognize such. Which was the point of Space Oddity all those years ago. Always already dead or dying. Hence Black Star. Classical Bowie economy of musical / lyrical expression, where he lead the pack and anticipated trends for so long, and was able to articulate exactly what he was doing.

    1. Don’t read too much nihilism into Bowie. I think that’s a big mistake and you’ll end up in all kinds of weird places and won’t be able to get out.

      Personally, I’d go with the lyrics of Under Pressure, an interesting song for these ruinous hyper-vigilant times:
      “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about…
      …Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
      And love dares you to care for
      The people on the edge of the night
      And love dares you to change our way of
      Caring about ourselves
      This is our last dance
      This is our last dance
      This is ourselves
      Under pressure
      Under pressure’.

  12. A more dialectical, life affirming Bowie?

    How many 17 year olds are interviewed on BBC about starting a Society For the Protection of Long Haired Men (or something like that).

    And closer to home, filming the video for his song Let’s Dance in Carinda, NSW, and elsewhere, to show that indigenous peoples can be depicted as more than spear carrying primitives, as garden statues and the cultural imperialism of the day would have it.

    1. Dialectics of various kinds I think. That’s Bowie all over. I reckon one could do an interesting feminist reading of Bowie, a Lacanian reading, a Winnicottian reading and (following his experiences in Scotland in 1967) a Buddhist reading. And they would all be interesting, revealing and show up all kinds of tensions and frictions. There’s probably quite a lot of PhDs in there. Or even better, incendiary and luminescent late night discussions with the Bowie freak of your choice. Maybe I should do that. If I can find a Bowie freak with a love of kombucha, cheesecake and repeated listenings of Blackstar, and a secret fascination with Labyrinth.

      1. A world “Be ‘Bowie’ For A Day” day would be interesting, to see what is thrown up and how the ‘Bowie’ concept might be extended.

          1. Unsurprisingly, corporate business is claiming its slice of ‘Bowie’ too (see the AFR this weekend), so they are already running with the concept. What too of your other interest – ‘Bowie’ playing James Bond – I’d like to see that!

  13. At the bottom is a link to a good article on a way to look at Bowie’s words that makes sense. Not as poetry, but as a kind of emotive surrealism.
    Also, the image of Blackstar has many overtone: a type of cancer lesion (eg. “…The spicules are described as long and thin with radiating radiolucent linear structures, which against a radiolucent fat background gives a black star or dark star appearance …”), and also thought to be a transitional phase between a star and a singularity.

    Bowie may even have been familiar with the unreleased Elvis song about death:

    ‘Every man has a black star
    A black star over his shoulder
    And when a man sees his black star
    He knows his time, his time has come.’

    1. Yes, the internet got really busy on Blackstar quick smart, and I believe there are a few other musical ‘black star’ references he may have used. I think Bowie packs his lyrics with many many references, as many as Dylan. The difference is, that unlike Dylan, dredging them up isn’t really the point.
      I always think of Bowie’s lyrics as being an attempt to construct a logic of the unconscious. I think that’s more transgressive than any link with surrealism. It allows much more free association for the listener, so that you in effect can consciously build up your own meaning, and your own meshed metaphors and map them onto the the image (say the Jean Genie or the candle in Ormen) that Bowie has thrown at you. You in effect end up with your own song, that Bowie has written just for you, and it’s intensely meaningful. He’s a very very sophisticated writer.
      I think there’s a pretty good case for this as Bowie’s preferred method, but it’s a powerful one and not used enough. In fact Bowie is probably the only significant exponent of it in rock and roll, and did it it with unparalleled skill and attention to resonance, image, metaphor, and detail. It doesn’t really matter if he’d read Matte-Blanco, or obscurities like Amati-Mehler’s Babel of the Unconscious, but he may as well have done. He read quite a few strange books, the strangest of which is Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which is a must for all Bowie lovers.

      1. Stephen, you have a beautiful writing style and a creative and unique interpretation of Bowie’s method but to me it feels like an slightly artificial construct over something that is much more fragmented and jerry-rigged. I don’t think Bowie is that sophisticated a writer. A singer and performer par excellence. With a serious gift for music. But his lyricism is his weakest skill. In fact, the poor lyric writing – and poor songwriting in general – of Blackstar, will ultimately be the reason that it fades out of memory after this brief overwhelming commercial fascination with his death and his legacy. (eg The new Star Wars absolutely killed the box office but is now generally being viewed as the worst of the series.)

        I wouldn’t compare Bowie to Dylan, who is so cliche-ridden now as to be almost unintelligible, but perhaps more in the cut-and-paste style of Nick Cave.

        I’ve said before that most of Cave’s lyrics can be interchanged from one song to another and still make perfect sense (or nonsense, depending on your view. I prefer the latter. Faux-Americana I call it.) Another master dramatic performer who could make an IKEA catalogue mystical.

        The only thing in Bowie consistent, over his entire catalogue, that comes close to ‘constructing a logic of the unconscious’, as you put it, is his instrumental musical component -for which he has a true gift. He is always harmonically interesting.

        But it’s not in the lyrical component.

        My litmus test is take away the one and see if the other can stand. Music is the acknowledged true language of the unconscious anyway. And, of course, dreams. I think of Jung and dream analysis as the best way to find LOGIC in the unconsciousness, (which I find unnecessary, especially for poetry and certain kinds of songwriting) – not in Burroughs-style cut-and-paste lyric streams.

        On Blackstar, I attribute the fragmented and uneven style of the lyrics resulting more from the chronic pain Bowie must have been in. Difficult to concentrate with that kind of distraction. Some of the lines that jump out of those songs are so out of place that they hurt. He could have greatly benefited from an editor.

        Many of the songs on the album sound almost like death rattles, they are that uncomfortable to listen to. Like Lennon’s ‘Mother’, in his primal scream period. (He had to do it, but it’s hard yakka to listen to more than once or twice.) Compared to his best, which one never tires of.

        I understand what you are getting at when you say he allows us to build up our own metaphors and create our own song – but that’s what we all do anyway to all art. (Except maybe Hollywood blockbusters. That’s why most nod them suck.)

        We always project our own fantasies onto the screen of the great artist’s work.

        The danger is: adding things that are not there. And then becoming all fundamentalist about it.

        The most glaring example of this at its worst is quoting Bible scripture to justify any vile behaviour one feels like, or those prudish viewers who project sexuality, onto ordinary child photography – where it doesn’t exist, except in the myopic mind of the viewer eg. the controversy around Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’).

        Sir Christopher Ricks made this mistake when he tried to erect a religious scaffolding around the entire lifework of Dylan, in his book ‘Visions of Sin’. One of the worst books of criticism of a songwriter’s ‘method’, I have read (by a non-songwriter, naturally. No wonder Rick’s would never be able to write a lyric, much less a song. His conscious analytical mind is his worst enemy.). I shredded this academic abomination in my essay ‘Hey Mr Cowbellman’ which you might find entertaining if you haven’t seen it.

        Btw, this may not be the best forum for further discussion of this topic, as you are leaving Overland, and also we are starting to go beyond fan-appreciation, so feel free to message me on Facebook, or email if you want to go further down the wombat hole.

        1. Agreed on Ricks’ excruciatingly terrible book on Dylan, but can’t agree with anything else in your argument I’m afraid. And unfortunately I don’t do Facebook and give out my email address to people very very rarely and even then only under torture, but thanks for the invite.
          Cheers, adios.

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