When David Bowie’s final album Blackstar released last week, as well-received as it was, many were left wondering what it was all about. The cover featured not a picture of its famed artist, but a stylised black star. Some of the songs’ videos featured a blindfolded Bowie, wringing his hands, with buttons for eyes. The title song featured a dead spaceman. The lyrics were as cryptic and mysterious as ever. I Can’t Give Everything Away featured words like: Saying no, but meaning yes, this is all I ever meant. The track Lazarus had lines like: Look at me, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen, I’ve got drama can’t be stolen; everybody knows me now.
What were the damn songs going on about?
Now, after his death to cancer, the meanings of these strange songs become clearer. It was like as though he was writing his epitaph. His way of saying goodbye. As though he was stage-managing and choreographing the farewell. A dramatic end to a musical career that encompassed so much, much more than perhaps the reach of music itself.
Bowie was an original. Weird, odder and more original than anyone else in his time. He burst into the scene—successfully first with Space Oddity a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey and days before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission —during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But he was not about protest anthems and class conscious demonstrations, like many of his illustrious contemporaries. He was about the self—something which he carried with him right through his shifts in time and musical form— about realising and not conforming oneself, however ambiguous or unusual.
With his edgy vocals, inventive writing and music arrangements, Bowie mastered the full potential of whatever form or genre he chose. He didn’t just do the songs. He did the clothes, the make-up, the stage performances, even dreaming up, every few years, entire new personas. For all the shocks served up by the rock scene of the 1960s and 70s, nobody, at least no big musician or band of that era, ever touched homosexuality. Not the Beatles, not Led Zeppelin, nor anyone else. But that was not the case with Bowie. He cross-dressed, he applied makeup, and he declared his bisexuality. When someone once pressed him for details, he is said to have remarked, “I am a closet heterosexual.” His songs frequently referred to gay encounters. The cover of his 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World had Bowie dressed in a ‘man’s dress’.
But while many of his contemporaries stuck with the same old styles, Bowie moved on. He was not going to wallow in nostalgia or become a rock heritage. Instead, he retired old personas and created new ones. He went from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to Thin White Duke. He came out—leaving behind his drug-addled and highly successful glam and punk rock versions—clean-suited and singing what he called ‘plastic soul.’
When, after the release of Reality in 2003, he underwent surgery to correct a blocked artery, everyone assumed Bowie was now retiring. He was, as it was said, spending and enjoying family time. An entire decade followed. And suddenly in 2013, the old rockstar was back with The Next Day, without any announcement or hype.
There is a picture now, being shared by his wife Iman, on social media. Shot only 48 hours before what was to be his death. He is dressed in a dark suit and a top hat, a roll-up metal door behind him. His trousers, slightly raised, reveal absent socks. He knew the end was near. But he was smiling. A big exuberant smile.