Gloomy Tunes: David Bowie, “Blackstar”

David Bowie made many transitions during his career, but none was as carefully stage-managed as the last—the move from the life to death. There had been rumors of his illness, of course, but nothing definitive. The release of 2013’s The Next Day, his first album in ten years, kickstarted a spate of creativity.   He was working on a theater piece with acclaimed director Ivo van Hove, and was contributing a song to, of all things, The Broadway version of “Spongebob Squarepants” (he had voiced the character of Lord Royal Highness on the  episode “Atlantis Squarepantis“).   Then, on his 69th birthday, Blackstar was released.

Lord Royal Highness (voiced by David Bowie) greets SpongeBob SquarePants in “Atlantis Squarepantis”

It’s a stunning album. So fine, it was hard to believe it was the work of a supposedly dying man, even if the title track was suffused with images of mortality: Solitary candles, the day of execution, the lyric “something happened on the day he died,”  announcing a change of tone, and an angel’s invitation to to take you home (don’t forget your shoes, passport, and tellingly, sedatives). But he music felt like the start of a new era: mixing jazz and electronics in a new an undeniably creative manner. And how could a dying man put that much emotion into a sax solo? Even the press photo sent out with the album showed him dapper, in a black suit and wide-brimmed fedora, a big smile on his face.

David Bowie’s final publicity photo

Just as people were starting to digest the material, the news came: Bowie was dead of liver cancer. He had been diagnosed in 2014, but only his family and a few friends and collaborators were told. So “Blackstar” is his farewell to his fans, a dying gift, a beautifully crafted and considered capstone to a grand career.

He was cremated, as requested, with no friends and family present, and no ceremony.


Steven Mirkin

Steven Mirkin’s diverse career has taken him from politics to pop culture to high art, offering him a front row seat to some of the most fascinating events and personalities of our time: writing speeches, fundraising appeals and campaign materials for Ed Koch, John Heinz and independent presidential candidate John B. Anderson; chronicling the punk/new wave scenes in New York and London; interviewing musicians such as Elton John, John Lydon and Buck Owens; profiling modern masters Julian Schnabel, Paul Schrader and Jonathan Safran Foer; and writing for TV shows including 21, The Chamber, Let's Make A Deal, and Rock Star: INXS.

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