Even by the stardards of social media in our current day, the outpouring has been immediate and unavodiable. Aside from the terrible shock of a widely loved musician suddenly passing (his fatal battle with lung cancer having only emerged after his death, as per his wishes), there was the surprise that David Bowie might have been mortal after all. Maybe not such a surprise that David Jones the man was, the man that his family and friends now grieve, but that avatar Bowie. It never seemed implausible that he would just keep going on: that he might be around in the year 2296, his physical form now made of modular plastic components to make that next reinvention that bit more practical, telling assorted journalists from across the galaxy that his latest album "was definetely the most confident one since 3. Afrikaans. The disembodied spirit of Brian Eno really threw some interesting ideas in the mix, let me tell you!" Bowie had been everything else after all - who the hell are you to say no to bloody Bowie?
Trying to distill a career or a life like his is a hopeless and futile task: after all, the whole point of Bowie was his constant refusal to be pinned down and explained. As an insight to the remarkable legacy he looks behind though, let's look at it end. As Tony Visconti confirmed today, his new (and, yes, final) album ★ was intended as "his parting gift", the work of a man who knew his time was growing short and wanted one last hurrah before he was done. If ★ may now always be remebered by the tragic aftermath of its release, it's worth remarking that just a couple of days ago, it was already being hailed as a triumph, the sound of a confident artist on the top of their game, still finding new avenues to explore and new inspirations.
Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised then that for his final single, he would make his own imminent death into one last work of art. Lazarus - also the title track to his musical that recently opened in New York, another long-held ambition ticked off at last - might be as fine an example of Edward Said's notion of late work as a "deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against" the urge for reconciliation and serenity. Although it offers a space of respite within the ferocity of ★'s first half, there's a tension between the placid march of the music and the severity of Bowie's lyric - "I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I've got drama, can't be stolen" - as if even his music is now nothing but the passing of time, his voice and words his final defence against the void. In the video too, we see a bed-striken, ailing Bowie in the guise of the button-eye man from the ★ video (a final Bowie alter-ego introduced purely to be killed off: how's that for unproductive productivity?) tormented by an unidentified assailant, before suddenly rising from his bed, sans button eyes, delighted and amazed by one last burst of creativity, before shuddering his way out of the scene. The lyric too moves from boastful celebration to angry dejection on the head of a pin, Bowie himself departing to make way for Donny McCaslin's saxophone two minutes away from the song's conclusion. Both song and visual are sober presentations of the chaos of finality, of the mix of emotions and conflicting desires, tumult presented with great care. It's a fairly remarkable and brave confrontation, the sight of the condemned man all too aware of what awaits but still working furiously, not to save himself but to leave a trace behind.
So much of David Bowie's work has taught us about life and how to live it. Here, at the last, he taught us a little something about death, facing it with no small amount of dignity and with an adament refusal to reject life and hope until forced to. Wherever you are now starman, may you have a fantastic voyage.
This way or no way
You know I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Ain't that just like me
DAVID JONES: 1947 - 2016
DAVID BOWIE: 1947 - FOREVER