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Thursday, March 02, 2017

Blackstar

I start my second annual listen to the "other" Grammys with Blackstar, winner of the Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Album. It's not really rock, but it is certainly alternative, especially to the relatively bland Adele, who won for Best Album, but for David Bowie to win four posthumous Grammys when he won only one when alive I guess is what we'll have to live with.

I bought Blackstar just after he died, as it came out only a few days before his death, but didn't get a chance to write about it until now. I think it's good I gave it over a year to think about and then listen to intensely again. It's really a masterpiece, especially the nearly ten-minute opening title track, which in that time takes the listener on a magic journey.

"Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)"

Clearly, Bowie knew he was dying when he wrote this record. A black star could be interpreted to be a black hole, which is the end cycle of the life of large stars. It's somewhat akin to John Lennon's "God," which he lists things he is not, as Bowie sings, "I'm not a film star, I'm not a pop star, I'm not a marvel star, I'm not a porn star, I'm not a white star. I'm a blackstar."

It also connects to his persona of Ziggy Stardust and the album that so heavily refers to the word star, both as a celestial object and a person of great fame. I could go on and on about the lyrics and their meaning, but here's a good place to delve into it.

The song is in different pieces (I always love a song like that) and has impeccable production values, by Bowie and his long-time associate Tony Visconti. Since in one of my imaginary lives I'm a drummer, I marvel at the complicated time signatures of Mike Guiliana.

There are six other tracks on the album. One of them, "Girl Loves Me," which refers both to George Orwell's 1984 and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, sounds most like Bowie, and could have created around the time of the Thin White Duke and Diamond Dogs (which contains the song "1984").  The literary allusions continue with "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," which is the title of a 17th-century drama by John Ford.

If the lyrics of "Blackstar" weren't enough, Bowie titles another song "Lazarus," who of course is the Biblical character brought back to life by Christ. If you watch both the video for this and "Blackstar," you can see the references to death, particularly that in both he wears a blindfold with buttons for eyes, perhaps suggesting the pennies placed on eyes of the deceased.

David Bowie was one of the great musical geniuses to come out of the rock world, and he transcended it. Much of this album is not traditional rock, mixing jazz and what I suppose would be simply called experimental music. He was never one to rest on his laurels. We can be thankful that like Leonard Cohen, he had a chance to write his own musical epitaph. One can only imagine what other great stars, like Lennon or Prince, would have had a chance to do with that knowledge.

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