Accompany music : Blackstar
I wrote this piece late January 2016, after making the box as a way of paying tribute…. Unfortunately I didn’t have the heart to post it. So to celebrate Blackstars 1st birthday, remember again those 3-4 days & celebrate Bowies life, here it is.
A couple of years ago we had an extended Steph orientated weekend in London. Initially built around seeing her favourite modern dancer Akram Khan at Sadlers Wells doing his excellent and compelling Desh show. We then had the opportunity to see her favourite singer Siouxsie Sioux at the Royal Festival Hall. Again an amazing show. To balance this out I was given free reign to plan somethings for us over the 3-4 days there. Amongst the lovely walks, fine bars and exhibitions at Tate modern and Britain. I was determined to get to one show. The ‘This is David Bowie’ exhibition at the V&A.
We turned up early, queued for tickets and then had an hour wait before our entry time which meant we could peruse the excellent exhibits in the V&A collection. As the allotted time arose we were presented with headphones and a small box. Instead of the usual tour guide where manual operation is needed to access information, the headphones leaped into life when near an exhibit. In many cases it was near videos presentations where the track would boom out, at other times Bowie (and other contributors) would appear randomly in your head. The exhibition took participants on a journey from early Bowie through to the present day in a celebration of his music, fashion, design, acting and his overall inspiration. All of it was spellbinding but there were quite a few spine tingling moments. From his life as David Jones, through Space Oddity through to the Top of the Pops video of ‘Starman’ with sharing a hug with Mick Ronson and pointing at the camera in the harlequin jumpsuit (which was just behind glass a few feet away). Ziggy Stardust continued into Piero and into the Berlin Years, culminating in a concert hall, showing gigs on huge screens. Fashion, Stage sets, lyrics, song writing techniques, and films showing his influence spread out across generations.
All the time the headphones played as we stopped at each set of videos. At one point at a monitor a number of us gathered to watch a few of his most well known videos surrounded by the costumes worn. It was then Life on Mars started up. This is my favourite Bowie song. I love its beautiful piano at the start, with the fragile vocals. I love the way it powerfully builds up and up and leads into sublime choruses. I love the non-sensical lyrics and I love Wakemans fadeout piano solo. But I always find it irrationally emotional. From the first note of piano and the first shot of red hair and pastel blue suit (which stood almost at touching distance just to my left) I felt myself taking a deep breath trying to hold on. By the first chorus and the amazing bridge that leads to it, I am filling up and the first tear is rolling down my cheek. At this point I took my headphones off, embarrassed at what was happening. And there I was standing in the silence, watching a silent Bowie. I look around at all the other 20-30 people all with headphones in tact and nearly all crying away. Maybe at this point I understood what Bowie meant to me.
I wouldn’t say I was the biggest Bowie fan. I had heard a lot of Bowie singles on Radio 1 as I grew up and I knew lyrics to quite a few of them. It wasn’t till my early teens I heard the full albums. The first was Hunky Dory, then Ziggy and Diamond Dogs. I loved this whole period. Later I grew to like the Berlin era but was a little lost by his later 80’s/90’s productions. I lost track a little and became a little dismayed by his music. It wasn’t till years later I went back and relistened to albums and got a greater understanding of the work I liked and how it had shaped other music I listened to. Recently Mr Drayton Record Player, our communal vinyl playing evening had played a number of the classics, all well attended and gave further insight into his genius. But at that moment in the V&A I got it, Bowie was (like for many others of my age) an integral part of our musical listening life. I may not have liked all his stuff, but the tracks I did were awe-inspiring rock/pop that made me think and made me emotional. In fact the exhibition it was amazing to see how influential he was on society in general.
So January 2016…..
Friday January 8th, a special Record Player was held to play Bowies new album Blackstar. A packed digital lounge settled down for a first listen of his latest opus. A startling black album with cut out star was carefully unwrapped. Inside a transparent sleeve contains the vinyl, it is placed on the player, the lights go down and the light from the powerpoint takes over as the first discordant notes of the title tracks starts up and Bowies almost gregorian hypnotic lyrics kicks in. I had heard this track earlier in the day and loved its Crimson like elements along with electronic drum and bass and jazz sax. And so it continued track after track of stunning songs, mixing the new and old with jazz solos and fills abound. Bowies fragile distinct vocals unmissable throughout with what seemed his usual bamboozling lyrics which carried so much darkness and emotion but some clever word play which seemed to be a little joke with the listener. Afterwards we talked about it, those who had sat through the previous album had thought he was pointing to retirement then, but this one seemed to hint at it as well. We thought… oh, he’ll be back. We did agree that this was the best Bowie album in years. It was fresh, groundbreaking, inspiring and influential. Afterwards we celebrated Bowie with a quiz and listened to more of his tracks. A great night was had by all.
Monday 11th January 7:05am : Waking up for work, I sleepily reach over and hit the button of the radio for Radio5, and I lay my head down to hover in the outskirts of dreamland. Usually I am brought around by cheerful discussion of Nicky Campbell, but this morning his voice sounded dulled, broken even betrayed. ‘We have just had confirmation of the social media reports that David Bowie has died’….. I opened my eyes…. What… It was repeated in more broken terms explaining he had died the previous day (Campbell was devastated) and I struggled to take it in…. And then they played Lazarus and the first lyrics boomed out ‘Look up here now, Im in heaven’ and suddenly I was in shock. I kept thinking ‘my god the album makes so much sense now’. They then played a chunk of other tracks which finished me off. On the way into work, those in the know looked shocked whilst being soundtracked by the tinkle of peoples mp3 players playing Fame, Heroes, Ziggy… The day at work was a stunned loss with the constant play of Life on Mars in my head only interrupted when I checked the internet as I remembered more Blackstar lyrics.
Blackstar : ‘Something happened on the day he died’ , Sue : ‘The clinic called, The x-ray’s fine’ , Dollar Days : ‘Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you, I’m trying to, I’m dying to’, I Cant give Everything Away : ‘I know something is very wrong, The pulse returns the prodigal son, The blackout hearts, the flowered news, With skull designs upon my shoes’
There are so many obvious clues but trying to second guess Bowies lyrics remains impossible. What is without doubt is that Blackstar is a stunning goodbye letter to fans that helps with the pain. Amongst all the tributes on Social Media one person stated the genius of Bowie, showed that a terminally ill person created this amazing piece of work and had more creativity in his little finger than the rest of humanity put together.
I remember Elvis dying in 1977 and people being upset and reruns of Elvis movies. I remember in 1980, John Lennon dying, family members crying and his singles dominating the charts. The death of Bowie in 2016, hit me unexpectedly hard and took me back to that day in the V&A, crying in the silence of Life on Mars. Bowie was an enigma, a style icon, a fantastic storyteller, the goblin king, a leader, a hero, an influence and a hell of a musician. Rest in Peace.
I wanted the box created for this piece to reflect the solemnness of the occasion, but also celebrate his influence and life with an array of his images. I chose 6 iconic images and printed them black onto black card almost so they can’t be seen. A star is cut out of two facing sides and a star tunnel created linking both sides. It felt apt that there should be something missing in a box celebrating Bowies influence on all of us.
One year on…… What have we learned
- No musical icon is indestructible….. Prince, Cohen, Michael, Swarbrick, Frey, Emerson…. Never mind the icons lost of the screen, sport, architecture, art, politics, humanities.
- Bowie continues to be an inspiration and the planet desperately needs his calmness, humility and common sense.
- I continue to be grateful for his music legacy which still fills our screens and turntables, which I continue to rediscover.
- Blackstar continues to be an epic album. It is so deep with every listen unveiling another noise, beat, lyric. The musical styles within are boundless and I think my mini review above, was just the tip of the iceberg.
- A year on, it still hurts and Life on Mars still makes me cry…. Mind you, so does Lazarus now.
So Cheers to Blackstar on its first birthday, and Bowie (in whichever wonderful alternative universe you’re in) on your 70th.
Billy (aged 48 at time of album release)