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I Can’t Give Everything Away: on David Bowie’s Final Song

I had heard snippets of “Lazarus”, the third song on David Bowie’s new release “Blackstar”, on the radio last week. The announcer described it as part of Bowie’s newest “jazz album”, although the strongest connection I could detect with jazz was the omnipresence of the saxophone as a lead instrument. Whether the album was “jazz” or not did not concern me all that much. I thought the song was excellent – written with superior craftsmanship and performed with superior musicianship – so I purchased the album and listened to it while driving.  It did not disappoint. “Blackstar” is a stunning musical achievement.

Two days after the album’s release, and two days after Bowie’s 69th birthday, it was announced that he died of cancer after an 18-month battle.

As St. Kurt would say (and he said it better than I ever could), “so it goes…”

There is no need for me, or probably anyone else, to rehearse the by now obvious case that Bowie was always in the process of reinventing himself, of trying on new musical and theatrical ideas, of being a skin-shedding musical reptile, and so on. This is all true, but I think it evades the source and center of this musical change, which was I think quite pure. It was all about music as such, music per se, but also about the way in which a commitment to music as art, as language, is as much about holding back as in giving forth.

The final song on “Blackstar” is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Its chorus is a repetition of this title, sang with a crooner’s passion, awash in synth strings and chorused and digital-delay guitars, not to mention the ubiquitous tenor sax.  And the verse lyrics make it clear that Bowie knew this was his swan song:

Seeing more and feeling less

Saying no and meaning yes

This is all I ever meant

That’s the message that I sent

Bowie’s various images – Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, the artful foreigner in Berlin, the dancer, the comeback kid – were all ways of saying “no” to a previous incarnation, but also ways of meaning yes. That is: the music is what counts, and is inexhaustible. And that is what moves me, and moves us all.  His work proclaims “Anything else is bollocks, so don’t ask me who I really am or what my music is all about. I can’t give it all away. That would make it shallow and fake.”

A few days ago, an interviewer asked Quincy Jones what he thought of “the music industry” nowadays. He replied, “Honey, we have no music industry. There’s 90% piracy everywhere in the world…You can’t get an album out because nobody buys an album anymore.”

In one context, Jones is right of course: from the perspective of artists, especially new or marginal ones, the environment for making a living out of musical art is as hostile as the Sahara. But in another sense, Jones is uncharacteristically dead wrong. The “industry” is alive and well, and has never been more industrial, in the manufacture of top 40 hits funneled to well-groomed pop divas and gentlemen. In the world of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, every note and rest is geared toward the final product, where the marketing tail wags the musical dog. And everyone else – especially the bar band playing Stones and Zeppelin covers to a handful of friends, knowing the venue won’t have them back because the bar-draw was below quota – can go screw themselves.

What is great about “Blackstar” is that Bowie has told everyone who wants him to “give it all away”, to stop being an artist and start being a bright star, to go screw themselves. It is an album conceived and executed with no forethought whatsoever about airplay, about reception, about the genre mongering that much of the rock music press obsesses over. It is an exercise in sheer artistic creation, possible the purest such effort on Bowie’s part since what I take to be his best period, the Berlin-based Fripp-and-Eno era of “Low”, “Heroes”, and “The Lodger”. The album does have a jazzy edge to it, but also could be dubbed “art rock” a la the Velvet Underground, and even has some moments reminiscent of the unfairly and reverse-snobbishly maligned “prog.” But none of this matters, except to those journalists whose entire reputation involves putting the music into a box and judging said boxes better or worse according to an algorithm. “Blackstar” makes this kind of writing-about-music seem, as Martin Mull once put it, like dancing-about-architecture. That is, insanely beside the point.

The point, at least the one that I want to make, is this. Artistic expression, especially musical expression, has its own life and direction. The music plays you as much as you play it. Admittedly, while I liked Bowie’s music, I was never a huge devotee of his stuff (the Berlin era period being the biggest exception). But I understood how well he understood music, and I regret that that kind of understanding is on the wane. Music is a kind of absorption, which says “no” because it involves exploiting certain forms and practices while abjuring others. But it always means “yes” when it means itself musically, as art, as expression, as creation. It does not give everything away, and it certainly does not give it away as a commodity. But what it gives, it gives well.

Requiescat in pace.

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Michael Quirk

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