The man who fell to Earth
David Bowie knew what to give away, and what to keep for himself

There is a lot of saxophone on David Bowie’s latest, and last, album, Blackstar. Saxophone was Bowie’s first instrument – his father bought him a white Bakelite alto saxophone when Bowie, then David Jones, was 12 years old – but he didn’t play it on his own records very often. On Blackstar, he cedes the role to New York jazz band leader Donny McCaslin. It was – is – an aspect of Bowie’s mastery that he knew just when, and how, to deliver himself into the hands of other musicians, other minds, trusting to the end in the generative and mysterious power of collaboration.

Blackstar is a fantastic album. Had Bowie not died, this album would have still been spoken of all year long, and beyond, as a deft, daring work by an artist whose late-career resurgence was by no means guaranteed. McCaslin’s saxophone moves loosely but purposefully through the songs, sailing across quick rhythms. There are shades of keyboard and string instruments, and confident, smacking guitar parts. Bowie is in fine voice, that unique voice, wry and strict at once.

But Bowie’s own death is what Blackstar is about. We all know it now. “I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen,” he sings on ‘Lazarus’, “Everybody knows me now”. And we do, and do not, because David Bowie was, as ever, so many steps ahead.

I went out and bought Blackstar last Saturday morning, at the first practicable moment that I could get to a record store after the album’s release a day earlier, on 8 January, Bowie’s 69th birthday. It’s not often these days that the act of buying an album feels charged to me, in the way it did when I might have been 15 years old – when I can’t wait to carry the record home and enter its musical universe, believing, knowing, that this universe will contain within it things I need to encounter and must try to understand.

Blackstar felt that way, feels this way. It’s also the only Bowie album within my lifetime (or his) that I’ve rushed out to buy on its release. The Next Day (2013) was underwhelming. And before that, well. The decade of my adolescence, the 1990s, coincided with what were Bowie’s wilderness years, if an artist of such stature could be said to have those. He wasn’t treated by the music press as a revered elder then, or like a demigod who oversaw the whole comedy. It was more as if he were a mad uncle, faintly embarrassing, off in his rave-music phase. Just last night I came across a 1995 live review in my archival stack of music papers that compared Bowie unfavourably with his then support act, Morrissey. Bowie, the reviewer scolds, lacks “a coherent sense of himself”. So you might say. In retrospect, a few of those wilderness albums stack up, especially Outside (1995), but it took me a long time to appreciate that.

In high school I had a close friend who was a Bowie devotee, which was not an obvious thing for a teenage girl to be during the 1990s. Through her I absorbed, almost unconsciously, the sound and sense of albums like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) and Station to Station (1976). I cannot say what was the first Bowie song I ever heard, or when I heard it. My first conscious memories of a force called “Bowie” are filmic, not musical – his role as Major Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), a film my father watched many times.

Bowie was just always there: a memorable image, a discernible influence, a reference point, a presence. He was, among other things, a poster on an ex-lover’s wall, an album cover propped up in a flatmate’s room, a hit played on the radio. Once, I sat in a half-empty New York repertory cinema watching Nicholas Roeg’s abidingly strange The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring Bowie, then coked-up and cracked-out, as a cunning but lonely alien. Once, I decided to listen to 13 Bowie albums in a row, which turned out to be a worthwhile experiment. There are popular artists I have loved more passionately, but few I have admired so much, and none at all who can match the singular and universal impact of Bowie.

He was there and yet not there, for Bowie might as well have been a myth as a human being – was a myth, until it turned out that he had been real, all along. I know that I am far from the only person brought suddenly undone, when the news of his death broke, by the realisation that he was mortal. The pop stars I have loved, from Boy George to Beyoncé to Tricky to Morrissey to Jarvis Cocker to Robert Smith to Kate Bush to Kanye West: each of them owes something, if not everything, to David Bowie. And that knowledge has also undone me: to think that all this magic, all this passion in my life was sparked by one man. All of what I understand popular music to be – a theatre of rebellion and transformation; the pre-eminent modernist art form; a stage upon which to mean it and not mean it simultaneously, staking your life on a chord change while laughing out the side of your mouth at just how flimsy, just how impermanent it is – has to do with Bowie. I love that he was a buddha of suburbia, the gnomic godfather to autodidacts worldwide; those kids, like me, from families without fortune or sophistication, stumbling to piece together an escape route out of record sleeves, Penguin paperbacks, and histories of modern art. Bowie put the pieces together more quickly than anyone.

I have read some commentary in recent days from people sceptical of the depth and breadth of public mourning for Bowie, as if the grief is both insincere and overwrought. This seems to me a fundamentally ungenerous reaction, a failure to recognise or to honour just how much popular music can mean to our lives. Bowie understood, better than any other pop artist ever has, how a life might be changed by a gesture, an outfit, an attitude. You never had to hear Bowie to be affected by Bowie – how many have taken the lightning flash of his dandyism as guide, separate even from the music? There were never rules to learn or measures to live up to before you could engage with Bowie.

This week I’ve been listening a lot to ‘Win’, one of my personal Bowie favourites, the second track from his 1975 ‘plastic soul’ album, Young Americans. The alto saxophone, played by American musician David Sanborn, ripples out in waves. “All you've got to do is win,” Bowie sings, and he makes it sound so desperate, and so easy. A year later, in a 1976 interview with Cameron Crowe for Playboy, he said this: “I’ve now decided that my death should be very precious. I really want to use it. I’d like my death to be as interesting as my life has been and will be.”

That it was, and is. He sprung his final disguise upon us – an epitaph costumed as yet another reincarnation – and then let it fall away, retreating finally into his own self, before we could catch up to him. Bowie’s combination of privacy and openness was profound, and profoundly generous. He guided his listeners (or more than guided them – he was a master manipulator to the end), and then let them go, to range freely through their own imaginations. Every listener can find a facet of themselves in Bowie because what he reflects back is you, not him – your attention, your dreams, your way of being in the world. The core of himself he kept for himself only, in order to stage his endless public selves. “I can’t give everything away,” he sings, on the last track of his last album, and he didn’t, yet he did.

Once, in response to the question “Which historical figure do you most identify with?”, Bowie answered, “Santa Claus”. Of course! The real-and-not-real icon, who gives and gives without ever asking for a favour in return. And what a gift to have engendered, all this love and admiration, and what a life, to have delivered so much joy into the world.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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