As day broke on Monday morning, the shocking death of David Bowie was announced, a statement on the artist’s official Facebook page notifying the world that he had died on Sunday after an eighteen month battle with a cancer none of us knew he had. Bowie had managed to keep his illness secret from all but his very closest family and friends, and was an especially active creative presence in the few months leading up to his death.
On 19 November Bowie surprised us with the single and video for ‘Blackstar’, the song heralding the album of the same name, which he confirmed at the end of the month. On 7 December his musical Lazarus – co-written by the Tony-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh, based on the 1976 film adaptation The Man Who Fell to Earth which Bowie starred in, and featuring reworked compositions alongside new music – opened at the New York Theatre Workshop. The single ‘Lazarus’ was issued on 17 December, with the video – directed like ‘Blackstar’ by Johan Renck, shot in a Brooklyn studio in November, and depicting Bowie with bandages and buttons over his eyes lying prone on a hospital bed – appearing three weeks later on 7 January. And on 8 January Blackstar emerged, Bowie’s twenty-fifth and final studio album, coming just days before news of his passing.
Less often in the public eye after suffering a heart attack and undergoing surgery in the summer of 2004, midway through a worldwide Reality tour whose remaining dates were cancelled, in 2013 Bowie returned with The Next Day, his first album in almost a decade. Blackstar – a title which seems to amass references, but perhaps most clearly calls upon an obscure Elvis song called ‘Black Star’, which opens with the lines, ‘Every man has a black star / A black star over his shoulder / And when a man sees his black star / He knows his time, his time has come’ – became the first full album in Bowie’s career without his image on the cover. But more than the record’s release, Friday was his birthday: he was sixty-nine years old. While the Facebook statement was met with some incredulity, it was soon confirmed by his son, film director Duncan Jones.
Very sorry and sad to say it's true. I'll be offline for a while. Love to all. pic.twitter.com/Kh2fq3tf9m
— Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) January 11, 2016
A mural of Bowie as Aladdin Sane was painted by his birthplace in Brixton in 2013, the work of the Australian street artist James Cochran. And as one of many similar gatherings in London, New York, Berlin, and worldwide, fans thronged there to lay flowers and sing some of his biggest hits, including ‘Changes’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and ‘Starman’. Tributes were paid by leading figures from the realms of music and film, including Madonna, Kanye West, The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, Kendrick Lamar, Yoko Ono, Ricky Gervais, and Guillermo del Toro.
Some of the most resonant words inevitably came from Bowie’s key collaborators. Iggy Pop, who relocated with Bowie to West Berlin at the end of 1976, sharing an apartment while they initially worked on Iggy’s albums The Idiot and Lust for Life, passed on a message stating ‘David’s friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is’.
Talking to the BBC, Brian Eno – who brilliantly complemented Bowie on the ‘Berlin Trilogy’ in the late 1970s, Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger marking an embrace of electronic and ambient music – said that he had been in contact with Bowie within the last week:
‘David’s death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him. I feel a huge gap now. We knew each other for over 40 years, in a friendship that was always tinged by echoes of Pete and Dud. Over the last few years – with him living in New York and me in London – our connection was by email. We signed off with invented names: some of his were Mr Showbiz, Milton Keynes, Rhoda Borrocks and the Duke of Ear.
About a year ago we started talking about Outside – the last album we worked on together. We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that. I received an email from him seven days ago.
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 realise now he was saying goodbye.’
And Tony Visconti, who worked with Bowie from his self-titled second album in 1969, producing thirteen of his records in all up to and including Blackstar, wrote on Facebook:
‘He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.’
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