Ev'ry 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
Black star, don't shine on me, black star
Black star, keep behind me, black star
There's a lot of livin' I've got to do
Give me time to make a few dreams come true
--Elvis Presley, born January 8, 1935
(song written by Sherman Edwards and Sid Wayne)
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:
I'm a blackstar, I'm a blackstar
--David Bowie, born January 8, 1947
For a reminder of your own mortality, there's nothing like waking up on the morning of your birthday (the way I did) and the first thing you do is go online and see that David Bowie is dead.
Just the day before I'd been thinking of him too, and actually even hearing him: I was listening to tracks by 3 Chairs – that Detroit supergroup made up of Theo Parrish, Moodymann, Rick Wilhite, and Marcellus Pittman. On their first compilation,
in a couple of places those wiseguys sample the first two lines from Bowie's "I'm Deranged" that go:
"Funny how secrets travel / I'd start to believe, if I were to bleed…"
You can hear it yourself if you go here:
and stream the track entitled "Untitled".
MEANWHILE, hours after Bowie gave up the ghost, that "newspaper of record", the New York Times, published an article that began by declaring, "It's a good time to be David Bowie." (Funny, how secrets travel…)
On the one hand, this really restores your faith in Journalism and Big Media. On the other hand, it confirms your faith in art, and artists, and genius: to wit:
What a goddam classy exit: On his final birthday the man releases his final album, which all but announces his death and contains an embedded allusion to an immortal precursor who shares the same birthday, and he finishes off by leaving the New York Times looking like a bunch of uninformed jerks.
I myself am now left pondering a few mysteries.
When I went off to study in Europe at age 27, I was in a program with people generally 4 to 9 years younger than me. For me, notwithstanding American Bandstand (which I'd been watching when I was 3 years old) and Bill Haley and Elvis, awareness of pop music began with the Beatles. This wasn't because of my own preferences, but that of all the girls in my 2nd grade class, and all the girls in the audience of the Ed Sullivan show, and the ensuing media uproar and all the subsequent merchandising. In 1984, however, I discovered that for virtually anyone younger than I was, awareness of pop music began with David Bowie.
I still can't quite fathom this, because it means that an age difference of as little as 5 years meant skipping Motown, the Stones, the Who, Sly & the Family Stone, Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, et bloody alia. And why is this place occupied by David Bowie, and not, say, Elton John, or Bryan Ferry, or Queen, or anyone else?
Was it because Bowie was ahead of his time, or simply a product of it? Sun Ra had adopted the outer-space trope over a decade before Bowie did (and even several years before NASA was established); and as for the gender thing, the Stonewall riots occurred the year before Bowie released "The Man Who Sold the World" with its cover photo displaying him in drag.
And then there's people's selective memory of Bowie and his recorded work. Sarah Larson's piece in the New Yorker
is certainly not an isolated case. By and large, the majority of reminiscences begin with "Space Oddity" (1969) and except for the single, "Let's Dance" (1983), pretty much end with "Heroes" (1977). So for most people out there, the significant part of his career spans less than a decade.
On the one hand, for years I'd seen reports of Bowie pop up in places like The Guardian that clearly accord him the status of elder statesman of pop. On the other hand, in all the tributes I don't see anyone fondly recalling moments like
on "Black Tie White Noise" (1993) where he writes a tune called "Looking for Lester", and David Bowie gets Lester Bowie to play a guest spot on trumpet
on "Earthling" (1997) where in "Little Wonder", 30 years after "Space Oddity", he continues the outer-space theme but updates it (tongue in cheek?) by seizing on then-au-courant drum 'n bass beats (And by the way, similarly, with all the talk of the jazz influence on "Blackstar", I'm waiting for it to dawn on someone that, while the song begins with what sounds like parade-marching snare drum, by 1:00 into the tune, (presumably) live drummer Mark Giuliana is playing dubstep rhythms derived from 2-step garage)
on "Outside" (1995), the above mentioned "I'm Deranged", which I insist is one of his 5 best compositions ever, one of his greatest vocal performances, and the song I'd most like to pull off successfully at karaoke
his 1977 television performance with Bing Crosby where, with both of them in character, the scripted dialogue lead-up to "Little Drummer Boy" has them pretending that neither one has ever heard of the other.
There's a further parallel with the Beatles: maybe the public's and media's selective memory of Bowie's career is analogous to the protracted and perpetual Beatlemania, which has less to do with any historical-musical timeline or aesthetic value, and more with nostalgia for one's own adolescence and childhood.
Bowie himself had pointed out the link between himself and the Beatles. In 1999 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music. In his commencement address he reveals a sense of humor that I never realized he had:
"I've got a message here for the administration from my sometime-collaborator and fellow musician Reeves Gabrels, ex-alumni. It says here, 'I haven't forgotten that $900 I owe from my last semester. I should point out that this has been owed since the spring of 1980. I read recently in Allegro that they are holding an unclaimed check for me backdating from my days with Tin Machine.'
"Well, that should wipe out about 30 dollars' worth right there!"
Anyway, a few moments later Bowie goes on to say:
"It's impossible for me to talk about popular music without mentioning probably my greatest mentor, John Lennon. I guess he defined for me, at any rate, how one could twist and turn the fabric of pop and imbue it with elements from other artforms, often producing something extremely beautiful, very powerful and imbued with strangeness. […] Whenever the two of us got together it started to resemble Beavis and Butthead on 'Crossfire.'"
[PLEASE, by all means, go to Berklee's website, where they offer not only a transcript of his speech, but an embedded clip of it. It's more informative and intellectually richer than anything that's been written about him since his death.
He continues by observing that even though the age difference between Lennon and him was just a few years, "In rock and roll, that's a generation." So I suppose this explains the Beatles-to-Bowie phenomenon that I've long puzzled over.
A few months ago I was telling some people about that BBC-produced arrangement of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day":
And I said that of all the stars in the video, my favorite performance is Bowie's second appearance (at 2:00), when he sings, "You made me forget myself", because of the way he manages to pack so much pathos into that one line.
Well apart from some of the drug episodes, I doubt that Bowie ever really managed to forget himself, at least in his music. And rather than his being in tune with any aerospace-and-genderbending zeitgeist, this inability to forget himself is probably the key to why he was the first pop star that so many people were aware of — so much of the lyrical content of his music was transmitted first-person-singular via whatever persona he had adopted that year, and in doing so he continually expressed emotions that people directly related to.
Lastly, you really need to watch this 3-minute video on YouTube that shows how Bowie, Eno, and Tony Visconti developed the track "Warszawa" which appeared on the "Low" album:
Anyway, in the end it wouldn't at all surprise me if people soon began reporting sightings of David Bowie the way they've done of Elvis.