[Ed. note–My name is Ethan Freedman, and this is my first post for the Times of Israel. I’ll be writing this column “Life During Wartime” weekly, and will mostly cover music, politics and religion. The name of the blog is a rip-off of a Talking Heads song, and sounded pretty appropriate. My writing and photography has been featured in Ha’aretz, IPS News, Al Jazeera English—and now, the Times of Israel. I hope you’ll enjoy.]
The Fault in Our Stars
In 2011, Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer for poetry for “Life on Mars,” her meditation on life and death, the earth and the cosmos—and the spaceman himself, David Bowie. In poems such as “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” she uses David Bowie as a metaphor of something that is instantly familiar yet still mostly unknownst to you, a soundtrack to the infinite universe, half-heard through one ear bud:
“When a man his size can meet
Your eyes for just a blip of time
And send a thought like SHINE
SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:
Bowie is seen through fan-girl eyes, through Smith introduces Bowie in quite an unusual way: he seems completely normal. Tells jokes. Yet even his presence is enough to serve in the role of a muse, and his songs christen two Smith poems—The Man Who Sold the World’s “Saviour Machine,” and Hunky Dory’s “Life On Mars?”
Two days before his death, David Bowie released Blackstar, his spacey swan song, comparable to what turned out to be John Lennon’s final antemortem album, Double Fantasy—a catalyst that catapulted the album to critical acclaim, after initially lukewarm reviews, ultimately culminating in the 1981 Grammy for Album of the Year.
Blackstar is a death album as eerily coincidental as Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, but with In Utero’s oscillating tension and release, dissonance and melody. Even “Lazarus,” a track from the Bowie musical, is more Berlin than Broadway: it’s Low for the for the ‘Yo’ Generation.
If Bowie was plastic soul, Lennon was rubber soul. Perhaps that’s why Lennon comes to mind, as his music was rooted in utopian ideals—even the darker songs seem to be about his utopian ideals going to waste (e.g., “Nowhere Man,” “Yer Blues”). Behind the Briticisms and irony that lines their work, lie their own Edens, as perverse as they sometimes may be.
But Lennon’s album could not have been as premeditated as Bowie’s. Lennon’s death was a shocker—out of the blue at the hands of some loon with a .38 special and an obsession with the Catcher in the Rye; Bowie’s was released after a year-and-a-half bout with cancer.
Both Bowie’s and Lennon’s albums are vanity projects of sorts: Lennon released his only after David Geffen personally appealed to Yoko Ono, acquiescing to her equal time on the album with Lennon, in exchange for Lennon signing with his newly-formed Geffen Records; Bowie, a voracious reader, seemed to have the Merchant of Venice in mind—“Let music sound while he doth make his choice./Then if he lose he makes a swanlike end,/Fading in music.”
Perhaps it’s just the latest in a line of ‘mortality albums’—those albums from those veteran legends where they seem to contemplate and mock their own demise, albums like Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft and Modern Times, or Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What. (You could argue that Bruce Springsteen made his mortality album in 1982. Ditto Prince.)
Typically, these albums are cheekily delivered from a wheezy, weary and waggish first-person vantage point, like in Love and Theft’s “Bye and Bye”—“By-and-by,/I’m breathing a lover’s sigh./Well, I’m sitting on my watch,/so I can be on time./I’m singin’ love’s praises,/with sugar-coated rhyme.”
But Bowie is different kind of narrator, more sonic and experimental in nature than the folk-influenced Dylan or Simon, or the rock-influenced Springsteen and Prince. Then, for the musically investigational Blackstar at least, Brian Eno is a closer analogue to Bowie—Blackstar then mirrors Heroes more than Hunky Dory.
What has always set Bowie apart was his chameleon-like ability to blend into genres. He’s never stayed static or rooted in a few particular sounds, not to the extent that Dylan (folk, electric or otherwise) or Simon (folk and funk-folk) or Springsteen (rock) or Prince (funk) have. While each of these artists’ oeuvres has a diverse range of genre-hopping, these other artists were mostly tied to tradition, musically. Bowie’s music has always attempted to be futuristic, from Space Oddity to Blackstar. (Ignoring perhaps his first effort, a baroque thing eponymously named.)
It may be fitting that this week’s Torah reading is on the Exodus, the beginning of the journey to the Promised Land. Bowie’s death becomes poetic, because he’s always viewed himself and his art as symbolic and representative. (Ditto Prince.) The life and the art are inseparable from each other, because there could not be one without the other.
Then this exodus becomes a Rock ‘n Roll Suicide-redux, Bowie (or Ziggy) shedding his identity—now perhaps becoming the amorphous being he knew he always was. In Blackstar’s eponymous, occultist-sounding title track, he claims he’s nether a ‘gangstar,’ a film star, or a white star: He’s a black star. And that’s a lie, on par with any other lies he’s told previously about his identity. In his world, he can be anybody. Maybe now he’s Aladdin Sane, the Jean Genie, or the guy in Heroes by the wall, knowing that all of it would never last.
But there is nothing less futuristic than death; nothing kills quite like death. Still it serves as the catalyst behind these great works (and, when it comes down to it, perhaps behind religion itself.) In Blackstar, the religion is music, and god is the d.j. There are no attempts at slyly regurgitating commercial patterns; the music is worthy of more dignity than that. Bowie’s music is fitfully triumphant. Like in all good music, the artist seems to wink from beyond the grave; there’s no other reason to end everything with this: “I can’t give everything away.”
Knowing he can’t keep it, maybe that’s the secret: We basically take what we can get, even knowing that all music is is love and theft.
Even after all this time. Always.