Secret Meeting score: 100
by Phil Scarisbrick
On the morning of 11th January 2016, I was on my way to work like any other Monday. Stood at a bus stop in the freezing cold, in the darkness of the 6.30am winter sky, broken only by car lights, I awaited the number 51 to take me to my shift. It was during this wait that I received a WhatsApp message from a friend that simply read: ‘Bowie dead?!’ I was in shock. I went into full Hercule Poirot mode and hit the internet looking for confirmation of a hoax.
Only that weekend, an image of a billboard had been doing the rounds on social media, seemingly confirming that Bowie would be making his long-awaited live return at that summer’s Primavera Festival in Spain. My friends and I were scrambling around for ticket details, flight times and annual leave, before more evidence came through that this poster was indeed a fake. But, unfortunately, the ‘Bowie dead?!’ message was not. He had passed away the day before after battle with liver cancer. A battle he’d managed to keep a secret from all but a handful of confidantes. Only two days earlier, on his 69th birthday, he had released his final album: Blackstar.
A month before he passed away, Bowie realised a long-held ambition when his stage musical, Lazarus, opened. The musical was inspired by Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie had played the lead in the film adaptation in 1976 and now was taking it to Broadway. The opening night would be his final public appearance. While some songs from Blackstar feature in the musical, it isn’t a specific soundtrack album. No. It is yet another genre ticked off by the chameleonic Bowie. This time, he tackled jazz.
Like previous album, The Next Day, recording took place at New York City’s Magic Shop and Human Worldwide studios. According to regular collaborator and close friend, Tony Visconti, Bowie had wanted to record a jazz album for a long time. In 2014, he recruited jazz orchestra big-band leader, Maria Schneider, to help him record two new tracks for his forthcoming retrospective album, Nothing Has Changed. The two tracks were Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) and Tis A Pity She Was A Whore- the former winning a Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or Vocal for Schneider. When it came time for Bowie to start recording Blackstar, he wanted to work with her again. Unfortunately, she was unavailable due to commitments on her own project. Good fortune had it though, and she had recommended Bowie check out saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
The Donny McCaslin Quartet are an exploratory jazz group who had recorded over a dozen albums. On Schneider’s recommendation, Bowie headed to New York’s 55 Bar in the West Village, a century-old jazz club, to see them for himself. According to McCaslin, Bowie sat near the front of the stage, watched the set, and then left without speaking to anyone. It was only after he had gone it began to dawn on people who they’d had in their midst. A week or so later, McCaslin received an email: Bowie wanted him and Quartet drummer Mark Guiliana to visit him in the studio. Initially, they worked on one song (the afore-mentioned Sue) with Bowie and Schneider. Then in January 2015, the entire quartet was invited to Magic Shop to work on what would be Bowie’s 25th studio album.
Demos for the album had started in 2014, with Visconti and drummer Zack Alford. When they convened in early 2015 with Donny McCaslin and the band, they wanted to do something that stood out from anything he had done on his previous 24 albums. Visconti told Rolling Stone, “We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. We wound up with nothing like that, but the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock and roll.”
The album Visconti was referring to was Lamar’s third LP, To Pimp A Butterfly. While he says they ended up with “nothing like that”, you can definitely hear the influence it had on Blackstar.
Having a band that could handle anything that was required of them was certainly of huge assistance to Bowie and Visconti when it came to this approach. The musicianship throughout the record is exemplary and allowed multi-instrumentalist, Bowie, to unleash the greatest tool in his locker: his voice.
The ten-minute, opening title track, Blackstar, is everything a David Bowie song should be. It absolutely pushes the boundaries of what pop music can be. The jarring guitars and drum pattern anchor the opening section before layered Bowie vocals haunt the listener. The darkness here feels almost overbearing as it sucks you in to its melancholy. McCaslin’s sax joins the fray to add yet more drama as the song builds, before seemingly falling apart around the four minute mark. This, though, is the moment the light pours in. Lush strings replace the uneasy backing and we return to a more familiar sounding Bowie vocal. Despite his failing health, his voice, although clearly aged, remains as exquisite as ever. As the band rejoin, the blooming joy builds. A shining light. A sense of freedom as the song escapes the shackles of the complex rhythms that preceded it, before the song reaches its cyclical finale and the mournful opening returns, minus the drums which acted as its foundation. The darkness seeps in as the layered vocals return to repeat, ‘I’m a Blackstar’.
After a re-worked Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (with added McCaslin saxophone), comes Lazarus. The accompanying music video should have told us that something was wrong, but with Bowie’s history of inhabiting complex characters, this felt like just another chapter. As the largely unsaturated footage of Bowie on an uncomfortable looking bed, with blindfold over his eyes, transitions to him disappearing into the cupboard, little did the world know he was gone forever. The song, with its driving guitar riff and mournful saxophone walk-down refrain, was clearly his way of turning his death into a piece of art (how very David Bowie is that)! ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody know me now,’ he sings. Despite the circumstances and what it may or may not mean, this is another beautiful David Bowie song- metaphoric, interesting and beautiful in equal measure.
The other song from the Schneider sessions, Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), gets a reworking here also. With added urgency and gravitas, it fits perfectly on to this record as the centrepiece of the seven-track running order.
Girl Loves Me is a driving stomp with a strained Bowie singing, ‘Where the f*ck did Monday go?’ clearly addressing the passing of time, and how fleetingly it goes. You can once again hear the raw emotion in his voice. On Everyday is like Sunday, his former touring partner, Morrissey, gave an almost apocalyptic quality to the final day of the week. Given that Bowie died on a Sunday, and Monday never came for him, you could say this is absolutely accurate and that was what he tried to achieve in this song (although, I don’t think even the transcendent David Bowie could have engineered his actual date of death).
On Dollar Days, Donny McCaslin and his saxophone take centre stage. There are many great examples of his work on this record but, for me, this is the moment he really shines. Laid over sparse, finger-picked electric guitar, his playing soars before giving way once again for Bowie to give us the clues we all missed of his impending demise. ‘It’s nothing to me/It’s nothing to see/If I’ll never see the evergreens I’m running to.’ Maybe he was contemplating an afterlife or immortality, or maybe he was lamenting that he’d never see the country of his birth again having lived in New York throughout the latter part of his living days. Either way, it’s a beautiful piece of song-writing, performed by brilliant musicians.
The album’s closing track is I Can’t Give Everything Away. As the most up-tempo track on the record, it continues thematically with what has come before it and the last words we hear from him is the song’s title. His way of an apology. An explanation as to why, after a lifetime of privacy and mystery, he couldn’t bring himself to share his critical news. He couldn’t give everything away, but in someways he did indeed give us everything.
And like that, he is gone. Seven magical, thought-provoking pieces of art laid out for us enjoy and ponder. Like everything he did, it is riveting, entertaining and provocative.
Blackstar is an absolute triumph in every way. David finally got to make the record he’d coveted for many years, and the results are breathtaking. The accompanying videos and artwork, the way it was released and even the timing is encapsulated into a whole package that only David Bowie could deliver. The musicianship, the lyrics, the vocals and the production are a treat for our ears, and our minds.
A hero. An idol. A god. Just some of the descriptions people use to label what he meant to them. Through 25 studio albums, various tours, acting and stage roles, he created a legacy that is unrivalled. Even now, I get emotional when talking about him. His music is embedded within me and will never be let go. I will continue to laugh, dance, be happy, reflect, run, walk, drive, get angry, play with my son, cry tears of joy and cry tears of despair to his records. Though the ‘Starman’ is gone, we’ll always have the music. And, as a parting gift, Blackstar might be the greatest of them all.