Voicing Death

When the Blackstar video dropped, I was excited. The tonal depth of the video, it’s visual rubric, and it’s lyrical content hit me right where I live. I ran through that video a number of times, cutting it with earlier Bowie. I revisited the Space Oddity video, watched the 2000 performance of Ashes to Ashes, and set my analytical mind to parsing it out. I don’t want to pontificate over long, but I want to walk this down into my life a little ways. Hopefully this isn’t just adding to the pile.

I thought about posting on it then, but something was missing from the discussion. Then Bowie died and I realized what was missing—the way in which Bowie’s keen sense of his own mortality animates it. This was a swan song and the closest reference I had for it was Johnny Cash’s America IV album. Knowing that the album is bound up with Bowie’s death causes the rest of the material to light up.

The Cash comparison isn’t shallow. Cash and Bowie occupy a similar circle in my musical heavens. They didn’t form part of a my youthful musical horizon back in the 1990s and while I know that they were both active then, even now that period of their music seems less iconic than other eras (I have no taste, though, so feel free to disagree).

(They do share a tie to Trent Reznor. There’s another piece. While there are a couple of Nine Inch Nails songs which still grab me, it is Reznor’s musical career broadly viewed that pointed me toward several musicians who would define my musical tastes: Tori Amos, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, David Bowie.)

Cash and Bowie are both figures toward whom my musical horizons grew and as such they carry with them the aura of maturity. They define poles along a spectrum for me and trying to sort through what Blackstar means as a final song is entangled with what The Man Comes Around means. I can listen to Bowie croon “I’ll take your passport and shoes” and hear Cash’s “he decides who to free and who to blame” rumbling alongside it.

Each of these songs was also accompanied by another, a song cast in a pointedly subjective mode. Each song seems to occur within the cosmos of the first song, reflecting a lone person coming to terms with the eschatological dimensions revealed within the first. Cash gave us his cover of Hurt, with the aching sense of regret that only age could provide.

Bowie left us with Lazarus and its mixture of hope, mania, and mortality. The unitard-clad Bowie shuffling backward into the wardrobe while a blindfolded Bowie lays on the hospital bed…that’s a hard edge for a song that opens with a sentimental “look up now, I’m in heaven.”

Despite the distance that separates these two pairs of songs, they speak to each other across a common Christian framework. Cash’s The Man Comes Around thrums with a rich apocalyptic strain of Appalachian Christianity while Bowie’s Blackstar lights up with heretical gnosticism. In Cash, death finalizes judgments, whereas in Bowie it opens the way for an unnerving and delightful, devilish series of displacements and possessions (Blackstar from 4:41). The finality of death in Cash is what gives Hurt it’s depth, while the race before it gives Lazarus it’s ambiguity.

All that said, it’s fair to say that my way of negotiating this landscape has a lot more sympathies with Bowie than with Cash. Throughout Blackstar there is a structured repetition of three figures, two men and a woman. Those figures appear in the attic (behind a blindfolded Bowie), in the staged open sky (behind a preacherly Bowie without blindfold and holding out a Blackstar ‘Bible’; speaking of men in black), and in the field, on the crosses (by themselves, except coming under threat/pain orgy from a mysterious Babaluaye-like / soundsuit monstrosity).

Three sets of three, each triplicity bringing its own world. Seems faintly familiar.

Enveloping and winding their way between those figures is a cultic female presence (“On the day of execution, all the women kneeled and smiled”). One initiates the video by removing the skull from the spacesuit, removing the head from Major Tom (one of Bowie’s oldest alter egos), and transmitting it into an initiatory movement that crowns the woman found in at least two of the three two-men/one-woman trinities.

Regarding the all woman cult, it’s worth keeping in mind the role played by Bowie in Labyrinth and considering that alongside the visual allusions to Labyrinth in the video. It resonates with some bits of folklore regarding the way in which some traditions of folk healing transmit knowledge, from man to woman and woman to man.

There is a survival and continuity enshrined in Blackstar, but unlike the uplifting resurrection and finalizing damnation of the The Man Comes Around, it occurs in the dark, in the hand-to-hand transmission of mystery, one that extracts and transforms through an engagement with bones. There is a striking visual parallel here to the original Space Oddity (ca. 1:56) where we find Major Tom stripped of his suit by ethereal maidens.

On the day of execution, all the women kneeled and smiled. It is among the women who encircle the skull that something genuinely ecstatic transpires, that the spastic motion found throughout the video is transfigured into dance and where our departing soul makes contact with her eyes.

And it’s all composed out of the stuff of Bowie’s life and career, what Gordon called “iterating off ‘syncs’ into building your own language,” except here we see that language projected into history, subject to the crooked path of transmitted understanding. The video pulls together a number of threads of Bowie’s life, musical and otherwise, and projects them into a future over which he will not have a final say. This is the mystery  which the Blackstar, the spirit that “bravely takes his place,” elucidates and bears witness to.

That interruption, too, is a solo moment. The severing of the head, alongside the three triplicities, is the opening of Daath, of the dark mystery that cuts we who still live off from the absolute. The passport you can’t get back is the true loss of your head and the transmission into the mystery only glimpsed beyond. What the head represents is that which falls back to earth, that which can initiate and spark movements in the world.

And let me end with this, not just because it forms a middle point between Space Oddity and Blackstar, but because I so love the ebullience and joy he brings to the stage. It is this, too, that winds down the mystery line.

Thanks for the good times, Mr. Bowie.

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5 thoughts on “Voicing Death

  1. Alexandra

    “Cash and Bowie are both figures toward whom my musical horizons grew and as such they carry with them the aura of maturity.”

    It was the same for me. And thinking about Blackstar, I inevitably keep coming back to Johnny Cash and American IV too. I love the humor in Blackstar, and the way Bowie references himself, his prior work, and his various avatars in the video. It’s so cheeky and yet it also feels like he’s culminating a Great Work. I read recently that the word “reinvention” was coined to describe one (or more) of Bowie’s changes of persona; his death feels to me like he is simply reinventing himself yet again.

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