Look up here, I’m in heaven…everybody knows me now.
While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.
Leonardo da Vinci
David Bowie’s fearlessness at headlong swan-diving into the unknown was astounding, inspiring, and freeing. To experience that daring creative spirit first hand was pure magic and a great gift. Even at 68, his true passion for creativity and daring artistry brought him to yet another new edge. Who else continues to make such penetrating music for such a long span of time?
He created a universe all his own.
“Where the fuck did Monday go?”
Why, towards a day of mourning for and a celebration of…
But you already knew that.
Still, when I heard Bowie mouth that lyric, beamed in from the beyond, the irony of an artist seeming to take note of his own postmortem, calling his own shot as it were, like Babe Ruth—with a walk off grand slam homer, as one writer characterized it—proved rather unsettling.
As so often happens, the aphorism which holds that everything happens in threes, seemed oddly apt as we stumbled into the new year, having borne witness to how a trio of 20th century musical giants swooped the sphere within a fortnight of each other: the post-modernist jazz piano innovator Paul Bley; serial music champion and visionary composer/conductor Pierre Boulez; and that exploratory, subversive giant of pop music and beyond, David Bowie.
Everywhere one tuned or turned this second week of January, 2016, Bowie’s jarring, unexpected passing, just three days after celebrating his 69th birthday with the release of his latest, most daring recital, BLACKSTAR, was cause for both wonder and despair.
And so in a classic example of life imitating…LIFE, I found myself, like so many others, immersed in Bowie’s final bequest, swept away by the courage, audacity and sense of purpose it took to remain so focused and creative down to the very last minute—AND BEYOND.
The news of his passing on Sunday January 10th, brought things to a standstill first thing Monday morning, and in that moment I found myself, like so many others, immersed in the dark symbolism of his libretto, as from somewhere beyond the veil, the author of the feast took note of his own passing in an act of artistic prescience both purposeful and ironic.
Where the fuck did Monday go? To the contemplation of Bowie’s magnum opus, BLACKSTAR, and extended reflections upon a rich musical legacy and a creative life, well-lived, right down to the wire.
With BLACKSTAR, Bowie left on his own terms; he called the tune and set the tempo
And in consecrating his demise, italicizing his own death, making of it a final work of performance art, he blurred the distinctions between birth and death, offering his many fans a final bequest, a personal testament, while drawing those who may have strayed back into the fold. An entire planet focused on David Bowie; the man who sold the world, now paying it forward, with interest. We can be heroes…
Or as he Bowie so elegantly put it: “The truth, of course, is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing at the same time.”
Like many, I am torn between a sense of despair and a sense of wonder. Surely, as someone who was the same age as Bowie’s daughter Alexandria when my own father passed away, my heart goes out to her and her mother, Iman.
So why do I find myself smiling?
Not out of any lack of respect, but because this man’s visionary theatrical resolve knows no bounds, if we may tarry in the present tense. I mean, who have we been talking about all week? “Everybody knows me now.” Talk about going out on a high note. Damn.
The idea of a creative artist (no, make that a, man, I say M-A-N) contemplating his imminent demise, not in despair, but in a celebration of life (his life and that of his many fans); sharing his love by gifting us some new music; suggesting creative new vistas on the occasion of his very birth; then sanctifying the moment by slipping away ineluctably into the night–but not before leaving behind an enigmatic trail of bread crumbs for everyone to fuss about, and ascribe their own meaning. That someone could find it in their soul to essay such a noble depiction of the eternal circle of life and death, of birth and rebirth, in such an audacious parting gesture imbued with such love and generosity…all on his own terms–well, there are no words.
Or as James Joyce once allowed, when asked why he had written FINNEGANS WAKE in such a willfully abstract, impenetrable manner, replied, “To keep the critics busy for 300 years.”
Likewise, Bowie has left behind an unapologetically edgy last will and testament, subsumed if not in modern jazz conventions, then surely in its abstract, collectivist, spontaneous principles, or as long-time producer/collaborator Tony Visconti summed up their final project: “The goal in many, many ways was to avoid rock & roll.”
Which, truth be told, is very much the hook-up for this aging jazzbo. Not that I am incapable of embracing any aspect of the remarkably inclusive musical output he’s essayed since 1969, when he inextricably linked his own Major Tom persona to the imminent moon landing. However, when I made my own personal connection with him in the late ’70s, truth be told I came to Bowie without referencing the cultural liberation his androgynous ambiguity and potent mixture of glam and slam portended to a generation of young dudes…and duchesses…
Even so, that relatively narrow, personal connection surely speaks to the enduring universal qualities which have proven so consuming about our collective experience of David Bowie’s passing, and all of the sundry references to his cultural and musical legacy; the sheer number of people he genuinely moved and inspired from so many musical genres and modes of existence—through the things Bowie embraced, let alone those things Bowie embodied. Making of them all…Bowie.
At the time of Bowie’s Glam & Glitter Rock Explosions, I myself was consumed with the beginnings of my jazz journey. I came rather late to the game, in the summer of 1970, and had a lot of catching up to do, so I wouldn’t have really gotten on-board the Bowie Train until much later in the decade, primarily through his Eno and Fripp collaborations, while looking back affectionately at all the glam and R&B from a relatively narrow point of view, as great hard rock and funk (though now and again a moment of pure WHAT THE FUCK interceded, as when pianist Mike Garson interpolated some Cecil Taylor-like avant garde jazz piano ruminations into the body and the blood of “Aladdin Sane” all the way back in 1973).
“I had told Bowie about the avant-garde thing,” Garson recollects. “When I was recording the ‘Aladdin Sane’ track for Bowie, it was just two chords, an A and a G chord, and the band was playing very simple English rock and roll. And Bowie said: ‘play a solo on this.’ I had just met him, so I played a blues solo, but then he said: ‘No, that’s not what I want.’ And then I played a Latin solo. Again, Bowie said: ‘No no, that’s not what I want.’ He then continued: ‘You told me you play that avant-garde music. Play that stuff!’ And I said: ‘Are you sure? ‘Cause you might not be working anymore.’ So I did the solo that everybody knows today, in one take. And to this day, I still receive emails about it. Every day. I always tell people that Bowie is the best producer I ever met, because he lets me do my thing.”
In reaching out to his BLACKSTAR collaborators, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Guiliana (a working group), and guitarist Ben Mondner, David Bowie in a sense entrusted his legacy to a core of cutting edge jazz musicians, an interesting parting gesture, validating as it did, a lifetime of interest in modern jazz and sundry hybrid forms (a multi-instrumentalist himself, Bowie was also a saxophonist, who took a boppish instrumental jaunt over a decidedly post-bop groove in 1993 on “South Horizon” from THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA), an interest which the likes of Pat Metheny, Lester Bowie and Maria Schneider had long reciprocated: guitarist Metheny and his keyboard partner Lyle Mays teamed with Bowie on “This Is Not America,” the theme from THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN back in 1985; the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s renowned trumpeter Lester Bowie collaborated with him on 1993’s BLACK TIE WHITE NOISE; and in 2014 Bowie joined forces with the estimable big band composer Maria Schneider’s Orchestra for an incredibly powerful arrangement of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” from his NEXT DAY sessions, which most certainly portended a shift in focus and intensity for this eternal changeling.
Still, there is a qualitative difference between deploying jazz musicians and creating a jazz album. BLACKSTAR is most definitely informed by jazz, in the sense of a spontaneous feeling, open-ended improvisations, and a left-of-center rhythmic and harmonic dynamic, but no one will ever confuse it with Jazz at Lincoln Center. Clearly Bowie wanted to flesh out a fresh sonic canvas in keeping with the dark visions that his libretto portends; a more expansive, open-ended, free-flowing collective approach to the creative process itself.
Personally, I can experience it as jazz, but then, I regarded The Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Tony Williams Lifetime and Weather Report, the work of Betty Davis and Parliament-Funkadelic, as reflecting some aspects of jazz’s improvisational aesthetic and its freedom principle; some of my more bebop-oriented colleagues would slap me upside my head for being such a shameless apostate, but then I have long held to a more inclusive vision of jazz and blues and country music and the Latin tinge, of multiple tributaries in the greater river of the American experience, even as I have never faltered in my devotion to the heritage of Armstrong and Ellington, Parker and Gillespie, Coltrane and Miles (verily, the Coltrane of both A LOVE SUPREME and STELLAR REGIONS, the Miles of MILES AHEAD and MILES SMILES, as well as BITCHES BREW and PANGAEA).
And in listening to the collective vision of the Donny McCaslin Quartet on their superb recording FAST FUTURE, it is easy to apprehend why Maria Schneider recommended them to Bowie after he’d indicated to her that he was looking for a jazz combo to collaborate with on his latest project, and why they embraced each other of naturally. In truth, while Bowie gave McCaslin & Company their creative head, and they transformed each other in divining a new vocabulary, Bowie’s fingerprints are all over BLACKSTAR–the hunter was most definitely not captured by the game.
“It felt like he was really trusting our instincts, or my instincts,” McCaslin told writer Michael Bonner. “It felt really cool that way. It was the jazz idea of a collaborative democracy, where we’re passing the ball back and forth, but yet it was in this context of what he had written and the forms he’d come up with…the concept with my band, it’s this idea of electronica music mixed with improvisation. I think David was particularly drawn to that.”
“I am so deeply saddened by today’s news,” saxophonist McCaslin subsequently posted on FACEBOOK. “Working with David Bowie on BLACKSTAR was a life-changing experience for me and a gift beyond measure. David was fully present and engaged in the creative process from the moment he entered the studio until he left. He was always gracious, generous, and funny. I will always be inspired by him, am grateful to have known him, and am holding his family and friends in my heart.”
Also on FACEBOOK, keyboardist Lindner spoke to the steely intensity of Bowie’s muse. “I’m deeply saddened, stunned, mystified and completely awed by the power of David Bowie’s creativity and determination to produce all he did in the single year I’ve known him. It’s humbling to have been invited to share in the process leading to BLACKSTAR and to witness his brilliance and benevolence. My heart goes out to his family and loved ones. Be in light, David.”
For bassist Tim Lefebvre, the sudden death of his newly minted collaborator of the past year, was stunning. “You can now better understand what the album BLACKSTAR is about. I knew that David was ill, but not to this point. He made us understand that he was frail. We didn’t realize. When he sang, when he played, he had strength and a real punch. I’m shocked.
“Last night, I was playing at the Blue Whale, a club in Los Angeles, when between sets I got the news. I checked my phone and read a text message, which said, ‘He is gone.’ Mark Guiliana, the drummer on BLACKSTAR, was with me. I went back on stage thinking, ‘This can’t be true.’ It was unbelievable and shattering, but I went on playing, transported by David’s overpowering energy.
“He created this album knowing that he was going to die and he never let go till the end. It’s his testament, a final part of his heritage, a last gift for all of us. Do you realize the generosity of this immense artist? We are often so full of self-pity; in the meantime David worked, giving all of himself, with a smile, despite the sickness.”
And did Bowie’s new band ever deliver the goods. All coupled to a darkly oblique libretto, as on the title track, which suggests some ineluctable Vedic Rites, a vision of resignation and acceptance, mystery and metaphor, whereas on “Lazarus” they frame the protagonist’s despair in a kind of languorous chordal ecstasy. Coming as it did, out of the blue, this longest of goodbyes, a gift that promises to keeps giving, an invitation for all of his most casual and devoted fans to share, for a fleeting moment, a nanosecond of commonality…and there, at the center of it all, giving it all away, is David Bowie.
I do not propose to break down BLACKSTAR into tidbits of analysis…I am too taken by its sense of mystery and ritual, fear and…wonder. Nor do I feel versed enough in the layers of occult symbolism to really break it down for anyone, least ways not in the kabbalistic sense as I have seen elsewhere. I am still getting to know this transformative music, this moody confessional of an artist with the cheek to transform his very death into an art installation.
Having listened to it maybe three times from start to finish since his passing, it has yet to fully reveal its secrets, though the yearning temper of Bowie’s vocals…the keening intensity of McCaslin’s solos…the bracing orchestral power of Lindner’s keys…the elemental ebb and flow of the Lefebvre/Guiliana rhythmic pulse reveal more spontaneous grace and power with each pass–that is to say, in the interests of full disclosure, as a devotee of instrumental music, that those aspects have penetrated my force field and spoken directly to my heart, while the symbolic aspects of his libretto accrue more slowly.
This is how I am wired as a listener. I hear something different each time through, and last night, I felt that on the conclusive “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” in stark contrast to the corrosive catharsis and cacophony of the title track, there was something ascendant in how Bowie seems to surf majestically into a radiant beyond, lingering longingly on the phrase away, imbuing it with a wistful quality–shepherded as he is to the other side of the river by Ben Mondner’s anthemic guitar solo.
No, for RADIO FREE CHIP, this offering simply represents a personal totem of respect and affection for a man stepping out on his own terms, leaving behind something to keep us wandering and wondering and scratching our heads for another 300 years; something that we will not be able to ingest and dispose of in the manner of most pop artifacts, but something that will only deepen and resonate as we too, contemplate our own arrival and departure; and that Brother Bowie not only understands, but comforts us in the knowledge that some vibrations simply linger longer, and that by abiding in spirit, we abide in each other.
And that while there is so much we do not know about the length and breadth of our journey, that we give it meaning by living it to its fullest.
I would hope that when my own time comes, I am able to face it with the dignity and grace and insurmountable sense of purpose that David Bowie brought to BLACKSTAR.
Having left behind something so creative, so conclusive, so manifestly, heroic, David Bowie has offered us a road-map not for how to defeat death, but rather to counter it with acceptance; and that in facing off with the inevitability of our own rites of passage, that we too might approach it with a sense of dignity and wonder and a creative spark; with an abiding sense of curiosity, so that we too, might raise up and rise, rise and walk again among the living and the dead alike, like Lazarus…that we might indeed all be heroes…and for more than one day. Or as Bowie hints in his “Lazarus” video, that having once emerged from a closet of duality–sexual, symbolic and otherwise–in returning symbolically to said closet that he might emerge again, who knows where, and who knows when.
And that in facing the eternal challenge, we are never truly gone, not so long as we endure in our loved one’s hearts and minds—never gone, not really…only dead.
Or as his wife Iman framed the moment: “Sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”
It will take more than a few trillion light years to keep us apart…you are always in our hearts, Brother Bowie.
After receiving an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music back in 1999, at a commencement ceremony in which David Bowie also addressed the students and received an honorary doctorate, tenor saxophone giant Wayne Shorter might very well have been penning David Bowie’s own epitaph when in speaking to the student body he described music as a “…celebration of life; the bread crumbs that lead me to loved ones…what allows me to go on in the face of the unexpected, is a deep faith in the existence of eternity.”
“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area,” Bowie consuls. “Always go a little further into the water than you feel capable of being in; go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting”