For The Record: Blackstar

By Devin McGrath-Conwell

Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, Nikola Tesla and a Goblin King. These are a mere glimpse of the faces and bodies with which David Bowie entranced the world. From the moment he fell to earth until he rocketed beyond all of us last week, he had the courage to be anyone he imagined. We all fantasize of dressing ourselves up in the essence of our dreams, and Bowie cloaked himself in his. He was the physical embodiment of that stardust that fuels dreamers everywhere, and to this stardust he has now returned.

The man, David Robert Jones, was born on Jan. 8, 1947 in Brixton, England. He learned how to play the saxophone, and had his own band by the age of 15. As he began his ascension to fame, he found that he needed to change his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones, the lead singer of the Monkees. He chose Tom Jones, but this turned out to be equally entangling. From this, David Bowie was born, a name inspired by Jim Bowie, the American frontiersman. It is fitting that Bowie found inspiration for his name in the history of a frontiersman, for a pioneer he became.

His eponymous debut album was released in 1967. An amalgamation of genres and themes that refused to blend in with the folk rock of the day, his debut showed all the signs of a musical innovator. However, it was not until his second album, 1969’s Space Oddity, that Bowie went interstellar. The title track was released just days before the Apollo 11 mission launched. It was no mistake that Space Oddity tapped into the upward gaze of the world, embodying what may be the defining principle of Bowie’s music: he constantly created a feeling that reflected, through his collection of kaleidoscopic key changes and harmonies, the transformative property of his time period.

A series of astonishing albums elevated Bowie’s popularity throughout the 1970’s. First came The Man Who Sold the World in 1970, and then 1971’s Hunky Dory, with which Bowie scored his mega-hit “Changes.” However, it was not until 1972 that the world truly saw what he was capable of. That year, he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Decked out in glitter and the occasional eye patch, topped with a shocking red mullet, the character Ziggy Stardust ushered in the glam rock image that would secure Bowie a spot as a certified superstar. Nonetheless, Bowie was not satisfied being stagnant, and with his next album, 1973’s Aladdin Sane, he discarded Ziggy for Aladdin to once again find an identity eagerly waiting for him. This practice continued through everything world was privileged enough to hear.

Alongside this musical success, Bowie began playing characters on screen in earnest, with 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, followed by 1978’s Just A Gigolo. The man of so many faces was perfectly suited for movies, and so his enchanting aura enterd a new medium.
In 1986, a perfect synthesis emerged in the form of Jim Henson’s musical, Labyrinth. Bowie plays Jareth the Goblin King, who lures teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) into his labyrinth by fulfilling her wish to take away her baby brother, a wish she realizes she deeply regrets. In Labyrinth, Bowie is given a world of puppets and fantasy to dance and sing in, crafting an equally seductive and disquieting performance that stands tall in his career.

After decades of such creative overflow, from the glam rock and funk of the 70’s, to his 80’s new wave and pop forays making way for electronic orchestrations in the 90’s, it is astounding to imagine that Bowie could sustain such output, but somehow he always did.
Then, he reached 2004. It seemed that maybe the man had attained a well-deserved retirement after health problems took him out of the studio. For nearly ten years, Bowie maintained relative radio silence. Without warning, he released The Next Day in 2013. The album revealed a virtuosity still capable of inspiring craftsmanship, a fact supported further by the release of his 27th studio album, Blackstar, on January 8th, the day of his 69th birthday, and two days before he succumbed to liver cancer.

Blackstar, elevated by the context of Bowie’s newly-revealed battle with cancer, displays a level of experimentation on par with his best. Bowie revisits the jazz influences that inspired him to first pick up his saxophone, and deepens it with a set of seven songs that embody a tone of contemplation. It opens with the nine-minute-long “Blackstar,” a musical saga of discovery tied together by a branching saxophone solo. This is followed by “Tis’ a Pity She’s a Whore” which feeds into many of the same jazz influences in terms of instrumentation, but the song feels like it would have been right at home alongside “Changes” on Hunky Dory.

With the news of his death, the third song on the album, “Lazarus,” becomes mesmerizing. Bowie sings of his career, his life and his musical journey. The song is moody, with soft horns and a driving drum beat, leaving plenty of space for his voice to take center stage. Equal parts pained and hopeful, the lyrics state, “Oh I’ll be free / Just like a bluebird / Oh I’ll be free” after reminding us that he has “scars that can’t be seen.”

We now know were at least a few of those scars came from, and after what must have been a painful battle, he has become as free as his bluebird. When we play his music and watch his movies, he will forever rise from the dead as Lazarus. Wherever you may be, Ziggy, give the best to Major Tom from all of us sitting down here at Ground Control.

Rest in peace, David Bowie.