I have been making annotations while listening to ★ (Blackstar), David Bowie’s latest, and possibly last, album (who knows about other material, unfinished songs, etc?), in light of his too-early death, aged 69, on 10/01/2016. He was one of my most beloved writers and performers. I fished, as I did forty years ago, for meaning or at least context in his lyrics. Additional clues may inhabit the videos accompanying the current songs. Neither the Blackstar or the Lazarus videos make for particularly comfortable viewing. In Lazarus, Bowie sings from a generic-looking hospital bed, blindfolded and frail; in Blackstar, the shaking, trembling dancers, or writhing figures strapped to timber crosses, evoke living scarecrows. The crucified trio are threatened by a sinister entity sporting what looks like an out-of-control dreadlock hairdo and brandishing some form of a sickle.
In both the Blackstar and Lazarus videos (which can be read as a piece: indeed you might describe Blackstar as a loose concept album), Bowie’s character is seen blindfolded, with small black buttons for eyes. This connects to Newton, The Man Who Fell to Earth (the subject of Bowie’s new stage-play, Lazarus); a powerful metaphor in the original Walter Tevis (1963) novel was the inadvertent blinding of Newton in a physical examination conducted by government agencies. The play, which I have not seen yet, opens at the last act, the denouement of the book.
In the last pages of the book, Thomas Jerome Newton, a space alien—played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film version—now blind and addicted, has finally accepted defeat in his mission. He had travelled to Earth looking for water to alleviate the drought threatening his planet, Anthea, and with the intention of saving the Earth from Anthean-type environmental catastrophe, by promoting wiser political decision making and more advanced alien technology. Bryce, his cynical ex-manager, now discovers the alien as a barfly, living on myths and stories and the last of the fortune he made from alien ‘inventions.’ Newton has recorded an album though; called The Visitor, labelled “poems from outer space . . . we guarantee you won’t know the language, but you’ll wish you did! Seven out-of-this-world poems by a man we call the ‘visitor’.” It sounds even more impenetrable than a Bowie album! But the fallen alien confesses to Bryce that the recording is not of Anthean poems at all. It’s a kind of letter home, to his wife and the wise people who trained him for his mission.
‘I’ve hoped it might be played on FM radio sometime. You know only FM goes between planets. But as far as I know, it hasn’t been played’.
‘What does it say?’
‘Oh, goodbye, go to hell. Things of that sort’.
For a moment (Bryce) wished he had brought Betty Jo with him. Betty Jo would be marvellous for restoring sanity, for making things understandable, even bearable. But then Betty Jo happened to believe that she was in love with T.J. Newton, and that might even be more awkward than this. He remained silent, not knowing what in the world to say.
‘Well Nathan – I suppose you won’t mind if I call you Nathan. Now that you’ve found me, what do you want of me?’ He smiled beneath the glasses and ridiculous hat. His smile seemed as old as the moon…’.
FM radio waves, short of some form of entanglement technology, take time, a lot of time, to reach extraterrestrial planets. But while you can spot many anachronistic plot holes, the book was amazingly prescient considering it was written in the 1960’s; despite books like Rachel Carsons Silent Spring (1962), ‘ecology’ was a term yet to enter the mainstream vocabulary.
It is interesting that, in common with The Visitor, there are seven songs on Blackstar.
‘He who has no Eyes’
In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all … Your eyes
The reference to eyes here is more, it seems, than a memory of the eyes of a loved one. The buttons-for-eyes and the diamond-encrusted skull seen in both videos provide compelling oppositions. Buttons-diamonds might be a statement about value (The space traveller has accumulated material wealth, but has lost his crystal clear vision). Although he was the bearer of information and technology that could have benefited and maybe even saved the earth, Newton would never be understood, trusted or appreciated by Earthling authority. Newton (Bowie seems to suggest) is likely to be valued more in death than in life. Like all ‘saviours’, his power can then be turned to the will of followers or living interpreters. Even with his (un) earthly skeleton lost in space, Lazarus may rise again, but no one can predict the form he will assume (or the text of the ‘Blackstar Bible’ which crystallises his supposed doctrine). In the meantime, someone else will take his place, but again, no one will listen to the saviour/Blackstar until it is too late. This was my early reading, my original take on the song.
The dead astronaut in the Blackstar video wears a ‘flame’ logo on his visor, like a logo for a petroleum or gas company. A reference to the diminishing resources of the earth, the future exploitation of the moon and planets? Ormen is a town in Norway, and the word has various associations with the petroleum business. He also wears a smile sticker. I thought again of Newton, and his suggestions for the management of resources and warfare. (Bryce asked, ‘doesn’t mankind have a right to choose its own form of destruction?)
Passport and Shoes
‘On the day of execution … only women kneel and smile’.
I found this line troubling. I had no idea what it meant. It was a horrible, ominous line. Who is being executed? Women? Strongly redolent, I thought, of the ‘New Normal’, and recent horrors, such as in Paris. Perhaps it was a comment on organised religion, guilt as currency, the treatment of women in various human societies? But why was there a mysterious woman trailing a leopard-like tail from under her skirt? Why was she carrying the spaceman‘s jewel-encrusted skull? The tail reminded me of Future Shock by Alvin Toffler which Father Tonra brought to our school and advised us to read in the early seventies. One of the beneficial mutations recommended by Toffler for space flight was a prehensile tail to better facilitate life in weightless conditions.
Then it occurred to me that ‘the day of execution’ could be judgement day, in the Ancient Egyptian/Gnostic/Kabbalistic sense. Perhaps the women knelt and smiled because they knew that the ritual they performed was cyclical, to be performed again and again, that there was a bigger picture.
Gerald Massey in 1909 wrote Ancient Egypt, the Light of the World. His work influenced and impacted on Alastair Crowley and others such as Dion Fortune, who wrote The Mystical Qabalah (1935). Massey reinterpreted ancient Egyptian and Judaic writings. He showed Horus and his father, Osiris, as facets of a dualistic deity. ‘After his (sacrificial) death, a representative of the Osiris rises again triumphant as the maker of justice visible … As the divine avenger of the suffering Osiris (the human Horus), he arises in the person of the Red God, who is thus addressed: “O fearsome one, thou who art over the two earths, Red God who orderest the block of execution, to whom the double crown is given.” Is this transition, the replacement of the old king by the new, the ‘execution’ to which Bowie refers?
The button blindfold intimates that stranded, decrepit and blinded, the alien Newton becomes An-Maati. ‘On nights where there is no moon, we find Horus worshipped as ‘he who on his brow has no eyes’. Horus—who as a child was a Sun God—assumes this form as the winter God of the Blind.
“Now the annual cycle in the Kamite (African/Egyptian) mythos was divided into nine months and three. The elder Horus was born about the time of the winter solstice, answering to the birth of Christ at Christmas. This is a form of the victim who was slain or blinded by Sut, the prince of darkness. Three months afterwards the risen Horus was revealed upon the Mount of Glory as the vanquisher of Sut. And after his reincarnation it was nine months before the next rebirth at Christmas. Thus the circle was completed both in time and space according to the facts in nature upon which the myth was founded”. (Massey, 534).
The Gnostic view of the saviour was as a kind of Deified Man, dormant in every human soul, which (mystics following Massey contended) lay at the heart of Egyptian Book of the Dead, ‘more properly called the Book of the Coming Forth by Day’. This is the territory being visited by Bowie in Blackstar.
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
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
I’m a Blackstar, I’m not a gangster’
I can’t answer why (I’m a Blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a Blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a Blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a Marvel star)
I’m the Great I Am (I’m a Blackstar)
Newton is one kind of fallen angel. He is not the first. As he is dragged offstage, off the sacred ground, he protests and asserts his credentials (in backing vocals, unseen; the one who deposes him is played by Bowie wearing no blindfold and full of mockery); the themes of time, of repetition, are overt. Integrity and being believed is another lyrical subtext. At 6.30 and 7.05 in the Blackstar video, the idea of a character ‘eclipsed’ is hinted at. The blinded old sun conjures up the passing on of the mantle, the turning of the great cycles. The shot of a headless skeleton drifting through space, overlooked by an eclipsed sun, suggests the discarded corpse of a dead king, a sort of Space Age bog body. Only the astronaut’s decorated skull is retained by his cult, stored perhaps in his empty space suit. Brought out for special rituals, it still possesses special powers.
The Lady Wearing a Tail
My initial musings looked at various religious and commercial ‘star’ logos for meaning for Blackstar. I came across Bowie fans who were Muslims asking online if he was mocking their religion (the Arabic scales, the star as in the star and crescent, the scenery, broken towns). Some parts of the lyric, I thought, sounded like a messiah of capitalism, innocent but guilty, preparing to be sacrificed. ‘Take your passport and shoes … your sedatives, boo’, sounds like someone passing through customs. Being processed. Being fuelled. Going on a journey. I still think those comparisons and references are valid. Bowie appears to channel Death itself in places. But more likely he is talking about resurrection, about continuity, natural cyclicality and other themes from his meditation on the Kaballah. And I think he has been reading Massey.
So it is not Death alone, but Horus, in the guise of judge, being voiced here. And the lady with the tail? Reading Massey again provided a suggestion as to whence Bowie derived this symbolism. Egyptian kings were men with tails. King Djoser is sculpted wearing a thick animal tail. Often the tail of the king was a cow’s tail. There is a hippo goddess, Taweret, who is equipped with a tail, too.
Bast is the Cat goddess, the lady of the East, who protected Ra, the sun god, from his enemies. She is a goddess, too, of music (she plays the sistrum) and of sensuality. She kills the evil snake. Bast was a goddess of childbirth, and she could be invoked to prevent illness. And her sacred eye could magically see in the dark.
‘The tail or hind part is naturally a Mother-Totem’, Massey wrote. ‘The tail of the lioness is the Mother-Totem of Shu’. The lioness and cow tails worn by the Egyptian kings, were, according to him, two forms of Zootypes of the mythical mother, Neith the Milch-Cow, and Tefnut the Lioness.
‘Various tribes in the upper Nile are the wearers of artificial tails made of hair straw or fibre of hemp in place of the earlier skin. In Egyptian symbolism the jackal represents the judge; and the tail of horse hair still survives with us as the queue of the judge’s wig. The fox in Europe took the place of the jackal as the zootype of the lawyer, and this preserves the character of Anup the jackal, as the sign of council and of cunning or wiseness on the part of those who “wear fur” or the later silk’.
From Kether to Malkuth
The song Blackstar was, I believe, originally commissioned by director John Renck as theme music for The Last Panthers, a TV crime show about a jewel heist. Renck also directed Bowie’s official video for the song. The song Lazarus was conceived as the ‘title track’ of the stageplay of the same name, now running off Broadway. The play was authored by Bowie in collaboration with Irish author Enda Walsh; Rolling Stone remarked that at its core, Lazarus is a two-hour meditation on grief and lost hope.
Although the songs have roots in diverse theatrical productions, they are thematically intertwined, as the videos suggest. Around the time of filming The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie worked with Paul Buckmaster on an original soundtrack. For reasons of his own, Roeg eventually chose to use different music, and some of Bowie’s unused material seeped into one of his all-time great albums, Low. In between the filming of TMWFTE and Low in 1975, Bowie recorded the album Station to Station. The title track begins the album with the sound of a train; it is reported that one of the songs he offered Roeg for TMWFTE was called Wheels, a song that was never released. Paul Buckmaster described Wheels as having ‘a gentle sort of melancholy mood to it’. He added that ‘the title referred to the alien train from his character Newton’s home world’. We can never be sure if Wheels was reborn as Station to Station or is some distant relative, but the album cover shows Bowie’s Newton getting into his spaceship. The lyric of Station to Station ‘From Kether to Malkuth’ relates to ‘stops’ in the Kabbalah, on the mystical tree of life. On the inner folds of the album, Bowie, wearing a dark coloured jumpsuit with white diagonal stripes, sits on the floor, doing a drawing of the Kabbalah.
That jumpsuit (or a replica of it) would make another appearance forty one years later, in the official video for Lazarus, released only hours before Bowie’s death. Bowie appears in two guises, a blindfolded version who writhes (and levitates) in a hospital bed, and a second who stands and sits; in one scene the out-of-bed Bowie writes furiously at his desk, he seems thrilled when he has a new idea. This character is surely Newton. He wears the same dark jumpsuit with white bars as in Steve Schapiro’s Station to Station publicity photo from 1975.
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?
This is a possible context for the ‘high’ and ‘low’ ideas in the song, i.e. from the top to the bottom Sephiroths; from Kether to Malkuth. On a more mundane level, dropping a cellphone for a bed-ridden sightless patient, until they get assistance, could be equivalent to losing touch with home. Blind Newton sings…
Look up here, 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
It is possible to see these lines, as many have done, as a description of Bowie’s pride and defiance in the face of his ‘scars that can’t be seen’. But it could also be a song of a dying winter Sun. And of course they summarise Newton’s condition; x-rays have burnt him in invisible ways (He can see x-rays and is blinded by them. Darkly ironic, considering Bowie’s ailment; cancer is sometimes treated by radiation therapy). His secret alien identity has been revealed publicly. As the chords change, the apparently younger, sighted version confesses how he became derailed and distracted in his mission, living in New York ‘like a king’, and using up all his money. As the song comes to a close, sighted Bowie/Newton enters an ominously coffin-like closet. It feels like he is saying goodbye, and it makes almost unbearably bleak viewing. ‘Behind that door’ is a metaphor of death in Jaques Brel’s My Death, a song Bowie performed many times. But it is possible to find notes of some kind of hope, too.
The Lazarus of the New Testament is resurrected; so, in different form, is Horus, like all the sacrificial priest-kings of the ancient world; the traveller in Judaic mysticism travels through different stages of spiritual development (often called ‘doorways’) along the tree of life. Bowie is playing Newton here, maybe two Newtons; the dying sun and the reborn version. Although the project is abandoned, and his rescue craft to his home planet will never fly, is he in some sense, re-entering his spacecraft, when (wearing the suit from Station to Station) he passes through the door?
What becomes of fallen angels, fallen heroes, usurped kings? Who protects them on their journey? I wondered if the female character who emerges from the closet at the start of the video and is seen under the bed in the Lazarus video might be sporting an (unseen) elegant tail? Is she the protector Bast, the Lady of the East? She makes gestures which I cannot decipher, so she may represent someone else. Does she have a hand in Bowie’s bed-levitation trick? Is she Betty Jo, Newton’s lover, who at one point carries the stricken alien in her arms. Or a mixture of both?
‘When the Wind is still, I’ll come flying through your door’ – P. McCartney
Bluebird is another key idea in the song Lazarus.
This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain’t that just like me?
The Bluebird may refer to L’oiseau bleu, a children’s play by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlynck written in 1908. The bird, a symbol of happiness, is pursued by two young siblings who want to cage it. The play rails against the hoarding of happiness, advocating that we share it with the world. Its anti-materialistic and antireligious overtones made it popular in the Soviet Union, where it was produced as an animated film. It has continued to generate TV series, stage and film adaptations up to the present time, worldwide, but particularly in Japan. It was referenced by artists in the 60’s and 70’s, notably the Beatles (In the film Yellow Submarine and McCartney’s song Bluebird) and by Charles Bukowski who wrote a poem called L’oiseau bleu in 1992.
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too tough for him;
I say, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you.
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I pour whiskey on him and inhale cigarette smoke
And the whores and bartenders and grocery clerks
never know he’s in there.
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay down, do you want to mess me up?
You want to screw up the works?
You want to blow my book sales in Europe?
There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
But I’m too clever, I only let him out
At night sometimes, when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there, so don’t be sad.
Then I put him back, but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him die
And we sleep together like that, with our secret pact
and it’s nice enough to make a man weep
But I don’t weep, do you?
This is the consolation contained in David Bowie’s final message. Newton, corrupted and cruelly imprisoned, has been set free; perhaps Bowie speaks through him as an artist who has worked the constraints of the music industry, through—in his terms—varying degrees of compromise, while all the while harbouring a bluebird. Whether this is true or not, Blackstar is a collection of songs expressed with freedom, joy and without compromise. It blithely ignores any ‘rules’ regarding content, song length and structure. It bypasses the conventions of marketing and what makes for commercial success in the MTV/music biz world.
If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to me; it’s nothing to see …
I’m dying to push their backs against the grain
And fool them all, again and again.
I’m trying, too
Don’t believe for just one second, I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to, I’m dying too…
(Dollar Days, from Blackstar, David Bowie 2016)
Yes, Bowie was describing directly the experience of his illness and mortality, while developing and extending the story of Newton. But it is worth remembering too that Blackstar is not just about Bowies demise, its about more than a final goodbye. After all, the theme of death (among many others) has been a central one in his work from the early days. Just like him, there are always a number of levels, much to win from re-reading and re-listening.