‘Black Star’: Death and the Bowie

I was coming down the snowy mountain from my 3-week retreat when David Bowie died.

I don’t much care to add to the pile of panegyric that is piling up on him. I loved him moderately. Didn’t listen to anything for years. Was a bit luke-warm about his last, ‘come-back’ album “The Next Day”. But he was a true creator and wild – which I loved.

But I sat and watched the video he made to accompany the title track from his very last album and it made me feel very rich inside.

A sick singer, fully aware of his probably terminal diagnosis, commissions a young video artist to make a video that explores and most importantly ritualises the approach of death.

Bowie as the character ‘Button Eyes’ (who appears in Lazarus’ video too), is there singing in a room with three young epiletically shaking dancers. A beautiful woman calmly collects the rotten skull of Major Tom from an astronaut’s suit and brings it to an all-female ritual. Scarecrows are attacked by something dark and terrible, never quite seen.

It’s the visual poetry of death matched by music and lyrics that are first incantatory and then, in the middle section, uplifting:

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 star star, I’m a blackstar)

Like the best poetry its meaning exceeds itself and the symbols ooze excess. It disrupts any clear reduction but it is undeniably about death.

Recently in the LRB, there was a good review by Adam Mars-Jones of a novel “Grief is the thing with Feathers.” He is quizzical if not critical of the ‘grief’ industry. He pointed out that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the grandmother of the five-stages of grieving, died far from peaceful but bitter and angry, saying “life is shit’.

Kübler-Ross’ neat five stages never really happen as planned – neither for the dying or for the grieving. Death is disorientating – the great disrupter – and making premature peace with it would be foolish. Nonetheless, what Bowie demonstrates is how an artistic (and by that, here, I could also say ritual) approach to death both contains and amplifies the crazy disruption of the End.

Knowing that he is going to die, Bowie doesn’t tell the world about his diagnosis but he makes art that raises his death to another order; where the images of death hang around in the minds of the living for days and weeks after he himself has passed. The images become a way of containing our grief as the artist sails off into silence.

I have always had a fraught relationship with grief and a suspiciously straight-forward relationship with death. There was a lot of death going on in my household when I was a very little one. My mother’s father died when she was carrying me. Her mother died a year after I was born. Death was not the problem – but the grief that took my mother’s attention from me was.

So typically, during my therapy training, I would notice how other people’s grief would make me angry rather than sympathetic. Death, it seemed to me then was a straightforward part of life and dissolution shouldn’t come as a shock. This is why, at that point, I made such an eerily good Buddhist but a terrible therapist.It took seven years of therapy and training to understand the frozen rage that made me so numb around the subject of my own or other’s grieving.

Unearthing of that infant rage allowed me to approach grief differently. I still don’t fear death – I think that my experiences on Ayahuasca may have prepared me a little for the mystery and I sense in death one of those exciting transitions that all humans share. But I do realise that embracing grief is – paradoxically – a very life-enhancing thing.

If you can truly love something then you have to accept that grief is part of it. Without the amplitude for grief then then there can’t really be the space for loving. If you make space to grieve something then you have allowed it to mean something, allowed it to fill that space that will be left empty.

I never met David Bowie so I can’t speak about his love for his family or friends. I’ve heard different tales: that he was a charming gentlemanly character and that he was curiously vacant like an empty space waiting to pull on his next mask. This video definitely seems to point to the Bowe-half-full interpretation. There is such heart but also such vulnerability. This is true in Blackstar but also in Lazarus. He is broken and dying but he is also youthful and dancing. Craggy and decaying but also bright-eyed and luminous.

But there can be no doubt of his great love for his art. And he exhibits in his music and songs and ‘image’ the full spectrum of human emotion in a way that few other rock stars did. Scary Monsters is one of my favourite albums because it is so blisteringly angry and, well, scary. It seemed to articulate some of the blind, roaring confusion of my teenage and early 20s. For friends of mine, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane articulated the gender ambiguity that before had seen so taboo. The Berlin albums prefigured my own experience in Berlin 20 years after his. I even chose to live in Neukölln because it was a track on Heroes.

With Black Star he articulates the ultimate piece of the human puzzle. When the tectonic plate of life shears and crunches down under the plate of death. Where the dark continent stands unescapable on the horizon and we dance and shake and cover our eyes. Where words and music and imagery stop. He pushed it all right up to the sutured seam of life and death and then left. But left us something to grieve with. And not sobbing and weeping but a dry-eyed wonder at the magic of that transition.

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