Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bowie, Blackstar and the Stories Still Untold, Part One

Bowie first appeared on the world's radar with the album Man of Words/Man of Music, better known today as Space Oddity, the title of his first hit single. But he was also a man of secrets, particularly to do with his sexuality and with his involvement in the mystic arts. Bowie's mystique stems in large part from the controversies surrounding those issues and others besides. 

He also seemed to delight in planting arcane clues throughout his work as well as planting seeds of misdirection about the meaning of his songs and details of his biography. Or to put it more bluntly, Bowie was a self-confessed "liar."

A perfect example of this is 'The Bewlay Brothers', written for the Hunky Dory album. Bowie told his collaborators at the time that the song was "meaningless", an intentional windup of American fans who scoured rock lyrics for hidden meaning. 

But Bowie would later admit (in 1977, significantly) that the dark, vulnerable, profoundly-passionate song was in fact a painful account of his formative relationship with his mentally-ill half brother Terry ("Please come away/Just for the day," being a reference to Terry's frequent hospitalizations), a fact he couldn't confess to his macho, provincial bandmates, especially after referencing the issue on the previous album with "All the Madmen."*

The result of Bowie's oblique strategies is that many critics and journalists take his evasions and/or denials about his prodigious bisexuality and his involvement with the occult at face value.  

For instance, Bowie claims he "went straight" in the 80s and that his gay relationships were just youthful experimentation (a somewhat difficult claim to make when these relationships lasted into his 30s). As it stands, there's no evidence to contradict that, no lovers coming out of the woodwork and so on. And Bowie never had any interest in movement politics, even in the early 70s, being generally disdainful of radical politics.

Yet at the same time Bowie seemed to immerse himself ever deeper into gay (or gay-adjacent) culture (notably following his marriage to Iman, with whom he was initially paired up with by his hairdresser) with projects like The Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack, the Matthew Rolston-directed video for 'Miracle Goodnight', the influence of artist Ron Athey on 1.Outside, Bowie's collaboration with gay icons The Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey, just to name a few.** 

It had a salutary effect on his work for certain, but it leads one to wonder if commercial considerations and corporate pressure were behind his newfound identity (or public claims thereto) rather than a change of heart. When you're a publicly-traded stock, you need to be mindful of your public image.

Similarly, Bowie never stopped referencing mysticism and the occult in his work, even if obliquely, despite his denials and evasions in interviews. He'd become considerably less oblique when discussing his 1995 collaboration with Brian Eno, 1.Outside:
Oh, I've got the fondest hopes for the fin de siecle. I see it as a symbolic sacrificial rite. I see it as a deviance, a pagan wish to appease gods, so we can move on. There's a real spiritual starvation out there being filled by these mutations of what are barely remembered rites and rituals. To take the place of the void left by a non-authoritative church. We have this panic button telling us it's gonna be a colossal madness at the end of this century.

Which brings us to his final testament, the album Blackstar and the two videos that accompanied its release. A lot of people have asked my opinion of the videos for 'Blackstar' and 'Lazarus', seeing as how they are laden with cryptic imagery begging for interpretation. 

Of course, now we know that they were in fact referencing his own onrushing mortality, at least in large part. But concurrent with these was Bowie's work on a theatrical sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, which incorporated some of Bowie's songs as well, signaling to us that the Starman wasn't quite finished with the paranormal or the esoteric.

I think people are going to debate the meaning of these videos for a long time and that is probably the point. I think there's a lot of double meaning at work, again intentional. 

The dead astronaut has been cited as Major Tom, meaning Bowie himself, but there's the fact that he's encountered by this girl with a tail, leading us to wonder if Bowie is giving us an ancient astronaut double meaning as well. In other words, he's leaving us with some philosophizing as well as some self-mythologizing.

That impression is reinforced when we see the protohuman (or whatever) take the skull of the Astronaut to her village....

Which is reminiscent of the doorless surreal cityscapes from "Loving the Alien," some 30 years earlier. Alien-loving is exactly what seems to be depicted in "Blackstar."

The skull becomes an object of veneration, in much the same way we looked at here in the post John the Baptist in Space, leading me to wonder if Bowie read this blog. Again.

Just in case you didn't the reference, here's another Astronaut head being revered. The reverence of the John symbolism is significant in contradistinction to the grotesque scarecrows suggesting the scene at Calvary.

Bowie also has the headless body floating towards the occulted sun, reminding us that rite known as The Bornless One is actually The Rite of the Headless One in the Greek. 

I'm betting Bowie knew that.

The skull becomes the object of reverence for an all-female cult, highly suggestive of the all-female Bacchoi of Ancient Greece. I have no doubt this is intentional as well. 

Again, the priestess figure here... reminiscent of similarly enigmatic figures in "Loving the Alien." 

We also see this scenario with these half-naked men with this woman and Bowie preaching the gospel of the Blackstar. This is Bowie's last manifesto, his last pronouncement. I think you can draw the inference from this trio vis-a-vis Bowie's last confessions here, particularly the way we see them in the attic. If not, use your imagination.

So it's highly significant that the first scene in his final video is of a figure coming of the closet. We'll see exactly why this is so significant at the end.

Bowie depicts the final months of his life here, in his sick bed and hard at work while the spectre of Death nipped at his heels. A blogger notes that Bowie is enacting one of the degrees from the esoteric Rite of Memphis and Mizraim branch of Masonry, an important detail as we see how Bowie is dressed when not in his sick bed...

...he's dressed in the same outfit he wore in a widely-circulated photo taken from a CD release of Station to Station, which showed the singer drawing the Sephiroth, or the Tree of Life of Kabbalah. 

As Bowie goes back into the closet- now his sarcophagus instead- he is telling us he leaves this world as the same man he was back then. 

This is Bowie's final confession; the occultist and sexual outlaw-- possessed of superhuman powers of creativity and stamina-- never died, he simply went into the closet. With Death beckoning, he has no reason left to hide.

Or was there one last secret left to tell? Was there one last confession, one that brings us back to that famous photo from 1976, of a doomed love that inspired Bowie's music as late as 2013? A time when Bowie finally met his match? 

A relationship that's been expunged from the biographies by what can only be called a conspiracy? 

* Bowie would revisit the topic with the 1993 single 'Jump, They Say'.

 ** One also wonders if Bowie was sending signals to his fans when he shot the video for "I'm Afraid of Americans" in the West Village- Christopher Street, no less- the gay epicentre of New York City.

NOTE: Yeah, I've seen that Lori Maddox story. Do I believe it? Well, considering she seems to have overlooked a distinctive identifying characteristic of Bowie's in her various versions of the story, no, I don't.