What Does David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ Tell Us About His Cancer Struggle?
David Bowie's final album, released just days before his sudden death, perhaps provided clues no one initially recognized about his losing struggle with cancer.
The Blackstar single "Lazarus" opens with the lyric, "Look up here, I'm in heaven." The accompanying video, also released in the days before Bowie's death yesterday at age 69, found him confined to a hospital bed, his eyes obscured by bandages.
Later, perhaps in reference to efforts to complete Blackstar, Bowie is seen frantically working at his desk. The song title itself recalls a Biblical character who rose from the dead, and Bowie clearly alludes to life's passages: "This way or no way, you know, I'll be free. Just like that bluebird, oh I'll be free."
Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer, has confirmed that he was aware of Bowie's fate as they worked on the album. "He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift," Visconti said in a Facebook post. "I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it."
It's hard not to hear allusions to that sad destiny everywhere on Blackstar. The title track, which features a video filled with the dark imagery of burial, includes the line "Something happened on the day he dies / Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside." The end seems much closer on "Dollar Days," however, as a longing Bowie ends the song by repeating, "I'm dying to. I'm trying to."
Later, on the album-closing "I Can't Give Everything Away," Bowie seems to wrestle with his diagnosis: "I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns the prodigal sons / The blackout hearts, the flowered news, with skull designs upon my shoes." Soon, he appears ready to put everything into a broader perspective: "Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes – this is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent."
Elsewhere, Blackstar is filled with verses and symbolism that couldn't go further afield from his cancer battle. ("Girl Loves Me," for instance, includes words from the language Anthony Burgess created for the teen marauders of A Clockwork Orange.) This, too, was in keeping with the way Bowie lived out his final days, according to Brian Eno.
"I received an email from him seven days ago," Eno told NME. "It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: 'Thank you for our good times, Brian. They will never rot.' And it was signed 'Dawn.' I realize now he was saying goodbye."
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