“I believe in a future revolution in
dispositions and ways of seeing that
will put all of the past to shame.”
- Friedrich Hölderlin
On the title track of Blackstar, released just a couple of days before his death, Bowie sings, “I’m not a pop star.” For me, and for his millions of fans, he was much more than that. He was someone who simply made us feel alive. This is what makes his death so hard to take.
As the years passed, Bowie’s survival became more and more important to me. He continued. He endured. He kept going. He kept making his art. Bowie exerted a massive aesthetic discipline, created and survived. Indeed, survival became a theme of his art. Bowie’s death just feels wrong. How can we go on without him?
Bowie incarnated a world of unknown pleasures and sparkling intelligence. He offered an escape route from the suburban hellholes that we inhabited. Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the weirdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, reaching each of us individually, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story. A love story that, in my case, has lasted about forty-four years.
After hearing the news of Bowie’s death, I listened to him sing “nothing remains” – the opening words of “Sunday,” the languid first track on the 2002 album Heathen. The song seems now like a lamentation, a prayer or a psalm for the dead. Of course, it is extremely tempting to interpret these words in the light of Bowie’s death in the obvious way. Nothing remains for us after his death. All is lost.
But this would be a huge mistake.
As we’ve seen in this little book, the word “nothing” peppers and punctuates Bowie’s entire body of work, from the “hold on to nothing” of “After All”, from The Man Who Sold the World, through the scintillating, dystopian visions of Diamond Dogs and the refrain “We’re nothing and nothing can help us” from “‘Heroes’” and onward all the way to the triumph that is Blackstar, which might just be his best record in thirty years. Nothing is everywhere in Bowie. Its valences flit through so many of his songs.
Does that mean that Bowie was some sort of nihilist? Does it mean that his music, from the cultural disintegration of Diamond Dogs, through the depressive languor of Low, on to the apparent melancholia of “Lazarus”, is some sort of message of gloom and doom?
On the contrary. Let’s take Blackstar, the album that now has to be seen as a message to his fans from beyond the grave, which I and so many others listened to compulsively after its release on January 8th and then with different ears since the news of his death was announced in New York at 1.30 a.m. on Monday 11th January 2016. In the final track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, whose title is a response to the demand for meaning Bowie’s listeners kept making over the decades, he sings,
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent.
Within Bowie’s negativity, beneath his apparent naysaying and gloom, one can hear a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all of its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight. For Bowie, I think, it is only when we clear away all the fakery of social convention, the property, and jiggery-pokery of organized religion and the compulsory happiness that plagues our culture, that we can hear the Yes that resounds across his music.
At the core of Bowie’s music and his apparent negativity is a profound yearning for connection and, most of all, for love.
What was being negated by Bowie was all the nonsense, the falsity, the accrued social meanings, traditions and morass of identity that shackled us, especially in relation to gender and class. His songs revealed how fragile all these meanings were and gave us the capacity for reinvention. They gave us the belief that our capacity for changes was, like his, seemingly limitless.
Of course, as I said earlier, there are limits, obviously mortal limits, to how far we can reshape ourselves – even for Bowie, who seemed eternal. But when I listen to Bowie’s songs I hear an extraordinary hope for transformation. And I don’t think I am alone in this.
The core of this hope, which gives it a visceral register that touches the deepest level of our desire is the sense that, as he sings in “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide,” “On no, love, you’re not alone”, the sense that we can be heroes, just for a day, and that we can be us just for a day, with some new sense of what it means to be us. This also has a political meaning. Bowie was often wrongly seen, particularly back in the 1970s, as some kind of right-wing nationalist (I note, with some pleasure, that Bowie, unlike Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, turned down the offer of a knighthood from the Queen in 2003).
There’s another line from Blackstar, on “Dollar Days”, that is particularly powerful. Bowie sings,
If I never see the English evergreens
I’m running to
It’s nothing to me
It's nothing to see
Bowie will now never see those evergreens. But this is not just wistful nostalgia on his part, for they are nothing to him and nothing to see. Concealed in Bowie’s often dystopian words is an appeal to utopia, to the possible transformation not just of who we are, but of where we are. Bowie, for me, belongs to the best of a utopian aesthetic tradition that longs for a “yes” within the cramped, petty relentless “no” of Englishness. What his music yearned for and allowed us to imagine were new forms of being together, new intensities of desire and love in keener visions and sharper sounds. In my imaginings at least, this is how I choose to hear the quotation from the poet Hölderlin that begins this chapter. Bowie’s music permits us to imagine a future revolution in dispositions and ways of seeing. In hearing differently, we might be able to behave and see in a way that puts the past to shame.
Bowie’s music offers us an outstretched hand and leads us to the darkest places, the loneliest places, but also the most tender places, the places where we need love and where desire is deeply felt. His music is not cold. It is the polar opposite of cold.
Despite its massive and obvious sadness, Bowie’s was the best of deaths. If there was ever the “good” death of a major cultural figure, a dignified death, then this was it. If a death can be a work of art, a statement completely consistent with an artist’s aesthetic, then this is what happened on January 10th, 2016. Bowie turned death into an art and art into death. He didn’t die a dumb rock-star death at the age of twenty-seven. Nor did he fade out in a fog of addiction, decay and disgrace, leaving his fans to shore together the fragments of a ruined life. This was a noble death in the gift of privacy with all of his fans listening to his new album. Of course, Bowie’s work was about death from the get-go. In “Space Oddity”, Major Tom drifts off into space, lucidly aware of his reduction to the commodity form, and dies telling his wife he loves her. And so it goes, from Bowie’s Scott Walker-inflected cover of Jacques Brel’s “My Death”, through “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” to “We are the Dead” from Diamond Dogs and onwards up to a terrific late track like “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” from The Next Day, a love song of hatred, which ends with the words,
Oblivion shall own you
Death alone shall love you
I hope you feel so lonely
You could die
My initial reaction to Blackstar, between January 8th and 10th, was very simple: it sounded like a Bowie album. I remember thinking simply and stupidly, “this is really good”. Sure, it was jazzy, it was melancholic, it featured new players, but it was in no way a total break with the past. For the fan, Blackstar offered the mixture of novelty and continuity that is characteristic of many of Bowie’s best records.
I watched the video of the title track countless times after its release on November 19th, 2015. I knew some of the tracks on Blackstar already, like “Sue (In a Season of Crime)” and “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, albeit in different and, I think, inferior mixes (both these tracks are much more visceral and powerful on Blackstar). The harmonica part of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” was a clear nod back to “New Career in a New Town” from Low. “Dollar Days” put me in mind of “Thursday’s Child” from Hours…
So, what did the knowledge of Bowie’s death on Monday 11th January change? After dealing with the initial shock, and writing a piece for The New York Times, I spent the entire evening of that Monday alone, listening repeatedly to Blackstar. It simply sounded different, and (although this is obviously absurd) it sounded like Bowie was speaking directly to me. The address of Bowie’s voice seemed to have undergone a change of aspect; it sounded uncanny. The words that I had been listening to obsessively for the past three days suddenly had a different set of connotations.
This was most striking on “Dollar Days” and the searing and repeated lines,
Don’t believe for just one second
I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to I’m dying to
Suddenly, listening to the last words of the song, it was clear that “I’m dying to” also meant “I’m dying too.” The phrase at the beginning of the song, “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain”, resolves into the song’s final words “I’m dying to(o).” The words seemed to undergo a shift in meaning as I listened to them. He too knew that he was dying and he was telling us: “I’m falling down.” Bowie was also telling us that he wouldn’t forget us, his audience, his fans, those who had loved him.
I had spent a lot of the previous two days trying to decode the cocktail of Anthony Burgess’s invented language, Nadsat, from A Clockwork Orange and the Polari London gay 1960s slang on “Girl Loves Me”. But at the close of the day on Monday 11th January, the message of the song was simple and crystal clear: “Where the fuck did Monday go?” Nothing had changed in the music of Blackstar, but somehow everything had changed. Bowie’s art would sound different after his death.
This shift in meaning is perhaps clearest and most painful watching the video of “Lazarus”. It was released on January 7th and I watched it a number of times before his death. It was powerful. But after his death, the video became almost unbearable to look at. Bowie seems suddenly so old, his skin yellowed and wrinkled, sagging and loose under his chin. He seems so physically fragile. But, besides any tragedy, there is still so much self-deprecating humor on display: notice the cute little show-tune, song-and-dance step Bowie throws when he sings, “By the time I got to New York”, and the comedy of his jerkily shot body, writing, hunched like a Kafka character, over an old-fashioned writing desk.
What is he writing? A long suicide note? A shopping list? Thank-you notes for birthday presents? It is not clear. Although Bowie seems to be addressing us directly from beyond the grave (“Just like that bluebird / Oh I’ll be free”), he is also still ventriloquizing, still working indirectly, still speaking in character until the end. For example, Bowie sings, “I was looking for your ass.” I hate to break it you, but I doubt that David was looking for your, or anybody else’s, ass in his final months and weeks. He is speaking through the persona of Lazarus. The clue here is the repeated line, “Ain’t that just like me?” Sure, it is just like Bowie, but it is still not Bowie in some pure metaphysical essence. The strategy of his art is, until the very end, oblique. He just can’t give everything away.
Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. This essay is excerpted from Bowie (OR Books, 2016). All rights reserved.