“David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.” -Kanye West
“It’s kind of impossible to quantify the importance of David Bowie to our culture and music.” -Laverne Cox
“His courage and fearless creativity was a model to follow. I didn’t know him well, but I will always love him. He was supportive, and lent his help, when it meant the most. There will never be another like him.” -Joan Jett
“I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.” -David Bowie
David Bowie was the living embodiment of Rock and Roll. He lived his entire life with total fearlessness, never stagnating, always pushing the boundaries and reinventing himself as he reinvented popular music at the same time. He didn’t keep himself confined to Rock and Roll because he was always breaking into new territory and displaying a mastery of every genre he touched. He lived his life for himself, we’re just lucky enough to have gotten the opportunity to experience his art. Since his debut record in 1967 it was like he was from a different planet, an alien uniquely evolved to make exciting music. On January 8th, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday, he released an unexpected, bold, new album with nothing but a black star on its cover. 2 days later, Bowie lost his battle with cancer that he had been fighting unbeknownst to the public, and passed away peacefully in the presence of his loved ones. He never felt like he belonged on this Earth, and he had finally left it. Bowie was gone.
Spending his life in music, every musician mentioned in this month’s Musical Training Plan (with the exception of Chuck Berry and possibly Led Zeppelin) owes a debt of gratitude to the Starman himself. David Bowie is on the shortlist of greatest and most important artistic innovators since 1900. As his life came to an end, he knew he was dying, so he dealt with it the same way he had dealt with everything else: music. Blackstar is more than just a piece of music, it is the swansong of one of the best artists of the last century. Blackstar finds Bowie coming to terms with his mortality. It’s spiritual, beautiful, shocking, bold, saddening, and overall just an incredible work. Literally to his dying days Bowie was moving forward, breaking the mold, doing something new. I went back and forth about choosing this as today’s selection for the Musical Training Plan, but I ended up giving in to its power. Each time I listened to it, it got to me just a little bit more, and I came to realize how appropriate this album is today. Rock and Roll has lost much of its power. It certainly isn’t dead as alt and indie Rock continue to find consistent success, metal bands continue to evolve and produce quality music, and old souls like Greta Van Fleet work to keep the classic style alive, but it isn’t the force in music that it used to be. Hip-Hop (whose roots tie back to Blues, a common ancestor of Rock and Roll) is now the top style and it is entering a prosperous period the likes of which we’ve not seen. Blackstar does not, however, represent the death of Rock and Roll, instead it represents the end of an era. The time of the legends of Rock is coming to an end. As Bowie entered the the twilight of his life, as we all must, he recognized that his generation was the one that reinvented Rock and Roll and made it possibly the most potent cultural art form of the 20th century. Those heroes and legends of Rock and Roll are all entering the final seasons of their lives, and Blackstar acts as the moment which defines the end of their era. Rock and Roll is entering a new chapter and on Blackstar Bowie encourages the youth to welcome it with open arms. Rock and Roll has never been the genre for staying within your comfort zone, and that’s part of what made Bowie so perfect for it.
Musically, in true David Bowie fashion, Blackstar is kind of weird. In fact, my first time listening to it I didn’t even really like it that much. It’s out there, it’s challenging, it is not what I would call an easy or fun listen, but it is most definitely worthwhile. From the hypnotic opening chords of the album over which Bowie sings “In the villa of all men stands a solitary candle// in the center of it all”, it is clear that this album will not be a light hearted pop experience. Part of what has grown on me so much about this album though is how truly unique and interesting it sounds. No real comparisons come to mind, sonically, it really just has to be experienced to be understood, and even then it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it. The album is dark and mostly concerned with death, but somehow it doesn’t feel entirely negative. There’s a level of fear and anxiety surrounding death, but one gets the sense that, as the album progresses, Bowie is working through his emotions, coming to accept it, maybe even finding peace in it. There is an undeniable amount of spirituality coursing through Blackstar which is most notable in the lyrics “I am the great I am”, a reference to God speaking to Moses in Exodus, and in the song titled “Lazarus”, the name of the brother of Mary and Martha for whom Christ weeps before raising him from the dead. “Lazarus” is my personal favorite track on Blackstar, partially because it is responsible for one of the most powerful musical moments I’ve ever experienced. In the very first words on “Lazarus” Bowie sings “Look up here, I’m in Heaven// I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”. Listening to this album now that Bowie has passed away, this moment actually feels like he is speaking from the grave and few moments in song have ever elicited such an emotional response from me. It is saddening, beautiful, twisted, and a genuinely one of a kind album.
Over the course of his life Bowie gave us a lot of great art. One method that he used to constantly push himself into new headspaces and directions musically was the invention of personas. Bowie would change his hairstyle, makeup, clothes, and reinvent himself for whatever he was working on. The most recognizable of these personas are Ziggy Stardust, Alladin Sane, and the Thin White Duke. One thing that sticks out to me about Blackstar is that Bowie doesn’t reinvent himself or take on any new identity. On Blackstar, Bowie is just himself, which considering his history, is kind of striking. The man was no longer telling stories of alien rockstars or psychopathic aristocrats, and in order to face his own mortality, he had to do it through himself. In the final song of the album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, Bowie acknowledges that although he gave so much of himself to his art, there are things that he will die with, things that were purely his. We can only imagine what he was holding on to, and honestly I don’t really want to know what they were. The man already gave us so much, to want for anything else would just be selfish.
Blackstar doesn’t so much represent the stage of evolution that Rock and Roll as it marks how far it has come. Picking Blackstar as today’s album honors and celebrates the history of Rock music and champions one of the pioneers who made it so damn great. With optimism for the future and respect for the past, I’m going to not just say Rest in Peace, but thank you. Thank you to David Bowie, My Chemical Romance, Nirvana, Def Leppard, The Clash, Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry, and all of the men and women who made Rock and Roll so awesome and made the world a little better through song.
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