Bowie’s Final Alchemy

by: Chris Thompson and Michael Shields

With a heavy heart Across the Margin bids farewell to a fearless innovator and a true original…

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It feels like a cruel, cosmic joke that after having released his 25th album, Blackstar, on January 8th – his 69th birthday – David Bowie should pass from this realm of existence into another. Spending the past weekend with David Bowie’s latest masterpiece makes his loss even more unfathomable, as the level of artistry flowing through him as exhibited by his final album’s brilliance is unrepresentative of a man perched upon death’s doorstep. But Bowie was no ordinary man, and his artistry never traditional. After thinking about it more, and pondering the glamor and spectacle and genius that was David Bowie, the loss of the iconic rocker and musical chameleon from an eighteen month battle with cancer so soon after the release of such a stunning and inventive album as Blackstar begins to make sense.

With Bowie’s name in the news again, after so many unsettling years of silence where many had thought that the rock god had retired from music, and the accolades pouring in for his latest album, with some calling it “urgent, contemporary and elliptical” and “a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing,” it feels altogether fitting in a universe inhabited by David Bowie that his death should fall so closely to the release of an album like Blackstar. For with Blackstar we were given a new version of Bowie to go along with its experimental music, a new persona in a long line of enigmatic and inventive characters. One of a blindfolded elder with nothing to lose, calling the universe out to task for its actions, its beauty and its cruelty. In a final album so fully steeped in death and symbolism, it makes it easier to come to terms with the loss of such a legend and cultural influence as the Man Who Sold the World, and we’re confident we’re not alone in this line of thought. In fact, the release of Backstar has now been cast in an entirely new light, illuminated more clearly for what it truly is: a carefully orchestrated farewell transmission to the world, and in particular, to those who have supported Bowie’s eccentric and life-affirming art for decades. Blackstar’s producer, long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, has confirmed that Bowie “made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” “His death was no different than his life,” Visconti went on to say, “a work of art.”

But in trying to comes to terms with the loss of a larger than life character like Bowie, it’s not only in the present that we should dwell. For reading and writing about loss is an oftentimes cathartic exercise, and through delving into the past of such an iconic individual we may uncover the healing elixir we so desire to help us make sense of our grief. That David Bowie was a master of disguise, the mother of reinvention, is without doubt, and in looking back fondly on his accomplishments and the influence that his music and his art and his personas had on his countless adoring fans, it easy to understand that he was also so much more than that. He was a creative genius who lived out his brilliance in all that he touched, even up to his final, sweeping goodbye.

David Bowie’s most renowned albums were those birthed in the early 1970s, a time when the world came to know a “fictional” rock star named Ziggy Stardust, who acted as a messenger for extraterrestrial beings, and where The Thin White Duke in Station to Station belted out sentimental and highly-affecting ballads from a cold, unfeeling heart. But throughout his entire career, Bowie’s music continually evolved and rewarded those curious adventurers brave enough to walk with him into the undiscovered lands he faithfully unearthed. From the Berlin Trilogy (albums Low, “Heroes” and Lodger) recorded with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, unto his poppier “Phil Collins years,” and to  most recently with the haunting Blackstar, Bowie was most easily defined by his inability to be defined. Bowie’s art wasn’t so much reflective of industry trends or even the world that he inhabited, but of a limitless imagination and a mystical understanding of the harmonies of the cosmos. David Bowie was a brave innovator, both musically and socially, and when he took a bold step forward, it was always up to the rest of us to follow suit.

St. Vincent was once quoted as saying that “Bowie is so often cited as an influence by people, but that’s almost like saying that food is an influence,” and this is indeed the case. It is near impossible to find a musician, independent of genre, that hasn’t been affected by Bowie’s dynamic and ever changing sound. From Iggy Pop to Arcade Fire, Nirvana to Phish, De La Soul, Nas and Kendrick Lamar to Lou Reed, the wide swath carved out by Bowie’s influence is gargantuan. But David Bowie’s impact has never been limited to sonic ingenuity. Bowie was a champion of diversity, pushed the limits of fashion, was an early supporter of gay rights, and was at the forefront of expanding the understanding and openness to our differences in sexual identity. It’s not going too far to say that the world wouldn’t be where it is today without Bowie continually pushing the limits, defying stereotypes, and expanding minds. In fact, it’s terrifying to imagine where we’d all be if he had never existed in the first place.

Most recently David Bowie was a playwright, co-writing a strange, jukebox musical production of his 1976 cult sci-fi film The Man Who Fell To Earth entitled Lazarus, an “alienation alt-musical that channels the trippy dream state of an alcoholic extraterrestrial insomniac,” penning original songs for the play that stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and Cristin Milioti (Fargo, Season 2). In the Bible, Lazarus is a beloved friend and follower of Jesus who dies and is brought back to life four days later in an act which exemplifies the power of Jesus “over the last and most irresistible enemy of humanity – death.” In an odd parallel, one that in hindsight is wholly Bowie-esque, the song “Lazarus” from Blackstar, and its accompanying music video, was crafted as a poignant and carefully orchestrated final parting gift to his fans, with the opening lyrics to the song “”Look up here, I’m in Heaven” eerily prophetic to his fate, and the inception of the video featuring Bowie lying in a hospital bed, and concluding with him retreating into a darkened closet, as if he could at some later time spring forth from it reborn like Lazarus. That there is such a rich visual and musical poetry to David Bowie’s final send off, with a layering to it that feels as much steeped in his life as it does in a cosmic and otherworldly intangible, in some way lends comfort to the idea of his loss.

Even in his earliest of incarnations, David Bowie seemed oddly in tune with the great beyond. “Space Oddity,” an exploration of psychedelic folk-rock written when Bowie was only twenty-two, portrays the thoughts of an astronaut named Major Tom who is well aware of his impending demise. Major Tom’s knowledge of his fate mirrors the David Bowie of recent, and of Blackstar, portraying a man who is acutely cognisant of the fact that he was not long for this world. But instead of choosing to merely disappear, to glide from this plane of existence to the next, Bowie instead chose to richly fold the final chapter of his life into his art, to as Dylan Thomas so eloquently put it in his seminal poem Do not go gentle into that goodnight,rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Because in the end, Bowie’s art and his death now feel inseparable, as if by merging the two, like an alchemist, Bowie’s turned the news of his death into life, ensuring that like Lazarus, he will forever be reborn and never truly disappear. While we are entirely unsure and ever doubtful about what is to await us in the hereafter, David Bowie’s spirited life has provided us with the solace and mindset that if there is another plane of existence after death, he is surely there. Because from our viewpoint, Bowie has always existed in another realm altogether anyways.

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