The job of the artist is always to deepen the mysteryFrancis Bacon
On January 10th 2016, everybody had something to say.
Like an inky black punctuation mark at the end of a life sentence, 3 years later Blackstar still carries an aura of mystery that has yet to be fully brought into the light.
More than any other record in my collection, Blackstar is dense. The unbreakable link of the album to the event of Bowie’s death and the haunted music in its grooves gives the entity so much weight, it might as well have its own gravitational field. Yet, for something that was created in the last days of an old man’s life, it’s hard to ignore how calculated it all feels. Every single aspect of the presentation itself – even the physical weight of the album has a deliberate sense of finality to it, and whenever I take the record out of its sleeve, I struggle to brush off the impression of opening a sarcophagus – which would absolutely be as morbid as it sounds on paper if the whole presentation wasn’t so… Elegant.
This meticulous attention to detail that the folks at Barnbrooks did with the design and packaging is truly exceptional, and these are all delightful tricks to discover and play around with, but we’d be missing the forest for the trees if we didn’t also turn our focus towards why an ever-deliberate craftsman like Bowie would leave them behind in the first place. This post will serve as an introduction to my greater examination of Blackstar, and how it transformed the tragedy of a beloved star’s death into a beautiful work of performance art – one that we all participated in to some degree.
The Duke, The Peacock, and The Rock n Roll Suicide.
There is a great deal of alchemical significance assigned to the Peacock, but I’d like to discuss another angle to that. While researching the Bowie/Elvis connection, I came across record executive Don Robey (who also went by the pen-name of Deadric Malone). In 1949 Robey founded Peacock Records (which eventually merged into the Peacock/Duke label).
This guy was either a magical business genius or a complete sonovabitch depending on whose perspective you read, but the reality is that he was very much both of these things and was notorious for employing mafia-esque tactics to keep business profitable. However, regardless of the man’s character, he was largely responsible for introducing black music to mainstream white audiences. He produced Big Mama Thornton’s song Hound Dog before he turned around and sold it to Elvis Presley who turned it into one of the most profitable singles ever made. Considering Robey’s actions helped birth modern Rock n Roll, that’d be enough material to tie it to Bowie alone, but it was his involvement in the death of a young black musician that specifically caught my eye.
On Christmas night in 1954, a young musician named Johnny Ace shot himself in the head backstage during his show’s intermission at the Houston City Auditorium.
Discovered by Robey at just 23 years old, Johnny scored a hit with his very first recording and soon found himself touring alongside an up & coming Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton on the Chitlin’ Circuit where apparently “their earnings were so low, Little Richard took up a side hustle vending fried catfish. According to legend, Robey accused Richard of breaching his contract and slapped the singer in the face with a hot fish.” Talk about ruthless business practices! After touring for just one year, fame had come at Johnny fast, and he fully embraced the now-classic rock n roll fast lifestyle of liquor, women and copious drug use.
“That Christmas, Johnny and Big Mama played at the Houston City Auditorium. That night, a few minutes past 11 p.m., they concluded their duet “Yes Baby” and left the stage to relax in a dressing room during intermission. Johnny sat on a dresser and his girlfriend, Olivia Gibbs, a waitress at Don Robey’s Matinee Club, sat with him. A pint of vodka circulated among Big Mama, Johnny, Olivia, and another couple. Johnny, compulsively fooling with his silver, snub-nosed .22 revolver, pointed it at the other couple in the room. Big Mama told him to quit it and asked to see the gun. When she returned it, she told Johnny not to point it at anyone.
But he put the barrel of the gun against Olivia’s head and pulled the trigger. Snap. He cackled and everyone yelled for him to stop. Then he said the gun wouldn’t shoot. See? He looked down the barrel, pushed it to his right temple, and pulled the trigger.
With a quick pop, a bullet fired into Johnny’s brain. He went limp, drooped to the floor, and crashed among empty liquor bottles. The room cleared fire-drill style, and someone got Evelyn Johnson, who was taking tickets and counting money at the auditorium ticket window. She rushed back and saw Johnny lying dead on his side in a pool of blood, with a penny hole in his temple and a smirk on his face.
A county coroner’s inquest ruled the cause of death as a gunshot: self-inflicted while playing Russian roulette. John Marshall Alexander Jr. was twenty-five”
Rumors circulated that Robey had somehow pulled some strings in the murder (supposedly because of Johnny’s slip in sales), but no one can conclusively say for sure. What can be said for sure, is that with Johnny Ace’s tragic death, Robey had found himself a goldmine.
Robey wasted no time in making sure the news hit the papers the very next morning, and a massive funeral was orchestrated to capitalize on the drama. As he soon discovered, nothing boosts sales like a tragic death. Johnny’s last single, released immediately after his death, was so popular that Robey was even able to convince a white pop singer, Teresa Brewer, to cover the song. It became a pop sensation and gave Robey an avenue to sell his music into the lucrative and off-limits white markets, meaning that Johnny Ace’s death effectively opened the flood gates for black music to be bought and repackaged for white people. For the first time, R&B was recognized by the American Music Industry, and Billboard had desegregated their charts by 1956 – the same year that Elvis Presley’s version of “Hound Dog” came out. In a morbid sort of way, our entire modern music industry came about because of this blood sacrifice.
(For a more in-depth look at Robey’s career and the death of Johnny Ace, I highly recommend this article by Preston Lauterbach.)
After reading about this, I began searching for more old R&B music labels out of curiosity, and whaddya know, I found even more direct references to Blackstar’s lyrics:
A number of allusions in Bowie’s work come to mind after reading this story. One of Bowie’s first singles, I Pity the Fool, was a Don Robey/Deadric Malone original, and Big Mama Thornton was known for driving around a giant Cadillac. Could Johnny Ace’s death be a layer of meaning in Rock n Roll Suicide? And what exactly was in the news that those Boogaloo Dudes carried?
Ever since his death, Bowie has also been more alive in the public eye than anytime since the height of his career. To get an idea of how this phenomenon has played out again in music history, Elvis Presley has released over 100 posthumous records since his death in 1977, and in 2005 he was named Forbes’ top earning deceased celebrity for the fifth straight year. Bowie intends to give him a run for his money though – Since 2018, he has had over 20 new releases including box sets, singles and remasters of technically “new” material, and that doesn’t include the vinyl repressings or bootlegs (of which there are many), nor does it feature recent soundtracks and compilations featuring his music.
TL;DR: Death sells, and we’re all complicit.
To further Bowie’s ties to the King of Rock, Elvis also had a Black Star of his very own. Though it was replaced by Flaming Star for its original release, the comparison between the two is pretty apparent. From the subject matter of an encroaching death, to the way the backing vocals pick up like wind howling through a cracked window, there is a bond between these songs that goes deeper than the name alone – especially when you take into account that Bowie released his Blackstar on their shared birthday, January 8th. You can even catch Bowie doing a few of Elvis’ dance moves in the Blackstar video too.
There’s a theory floating around that the name Blackstar was chosen due to it being a term for the mark cancer makes on an X-Ray or MRI. I’m not so sure that I buy that, as it seems to be overlooking all the weirdness surrounding the album as well as the occult and alchemical references to Black Suns. Considering the implications here, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to suggest that perhaps Bowie had planned ahead for the inevitability of his death which is, after all, the only certain thing in every person’s life. Like the lyrics of Elvis’ Black Star, most of us tend to put our encroaching doom behind us and out of our minds, but the more you look into it, it’s hard not to get the impression that Bowie may have been doing the complete opposite – choosing instead to turn around and stare directly into that black sun. Even though Bowie’s talents and energy has always been superhuman, the incredible finesse of the album itself, both lyrically and musically, also suggests that this masterpiece was not simply thrown together at the final hour from a man who was simultaneously wasting away from cancer. Combine that with the fact that there are various lyrical and musical hints to the contents within Blackstar throughout his career, it’s not an impossibility. I realize this is a pretty bold claim to make, but I don’t make it lightly, and I will provide more evidence to back this theory up the further along we go.
Please note that I’m not suggesting in this article that Bowie somehow staged his own death, but rather that there are indications throughout his body of work that suggest he may have planned to release an album like Blackstar around his eventual death from earlier than the official story claims.
So working off the theory that Bowie may have planned ahead for Blackstar to be his last major transmission, just what exactly is the devil in these details trying to say and why doesn’t he just come out and, ya know, SAY it?
Well, perhaps Bowie couldn’t just come out and state it in plain, simple language, because the contents of his message couldn’t be expressed in mere language alone. And words aren’t the only language in play. Music is also a language – one that does a better job of conveying emotional subtleties than words alone. Railing against the limitations of language is a recurring theme throughout Bowie’s work – from his use of cut-up techniques to the unique way he pairs those disordered words with music, he took great care to make sure that as little was lost in translation as possible. And he isn’t the only artist out there who has attempted to do something like this – Shakespeare straight up invented his own words that somehow made sense to our brains anyway, Crowley’s Book Of Lies is essentially an entire book killing language and reconstructing it again just to give the phrase “I Love You” sufficient meaning, and Wagner composed 16 hours of music just to imbue a single bar of musical notes with enough emotional context to break your heart. It isn’t an easy thing to do, and a lot of time and care must be taken to craft a message that effectively pierces through our own walls of perception. This topic is something that will be examined in greater depth later on when we have more context under our belts, but keep it in mind as we go along.
Given the density of Blackstar, I could go on about it for much longer, but we will be pausing here for the time being, because more information is required if everything is going to be understood in the proper context. However, now that we’ve introduced the fact that there really is more to this album than meets the eye, I will be returning back to this topic to unpack the actual content of Blackstar, including the cryptic music videos, the lyrical symbolism and the many yet-unnoticed references encoded within each of its 7 tracks.
The gnostic symbolism in the title track alone is enough to warrant its own article, and if I were to attempt to flatly lay all of it out there without expounding on enough of that sort of thing beforehand and demonstrating how it relates to Bowie’s work at large, it would be far too much for anyone to process all at once and I would likely come across as even more deranged than I already am. Even if I did attempt to do something like that, there’s enough content to turn this blog post into something like 4 blog posts, and I’d like to be able to turn these out a little faster than that. I know when I first tried to look into this stuff, so much went over my head, and years later I am still discovering new things about it, so trust me – there’s plenty more in store, and it’ll be better for our collective sanity if we proceed through Bowie’s Labyrinth with caution.
At the Center of it All
Now that we have been caught by Blackstar’s gravitational pull, I am going to propose one last theory: That instead of viewing Bowie’s albums in a rigidly linear chronological order, we take that timeline and bend it into a spiral with Blackstar at the center of the cone. As different planets/albums make their orbits, they will come in close contact with other planets/albums that would otherwise be further away from them in a linear chronological order. So our first pass of each album will not be the final one, and just as Einstein predicted, the fabric of time and space will further bend and warp as we get closer to the event horizon. As we learn more and progress further into the labyrinth, our orbit will bring us back around to Blackstar armed with knowledge that will allow us to look at his swan-song with a brand new perspective.
To sum this post up, Blackstar is the mouth of the ouroboros, a black hole in the center of the galaxy that everything else orbits around. It is both a tear in the fabric of time and space and Bowie’s final magic trick. If all the world’s a stage, then Blackstar is the symbolic trap door through which he intends to escape the karmic cycle of life and death.
See you on the other side!