It has been a little over a year since the death of David Bowie shook the world with surprise and grief. He had just released ★ (Blackstar) two days prior to his passing, and only those closest to him knew he was stricken with cancer. The album release coincided with his 69th birthday and was his 25th and final studio album.
After the tragic death of Bowie, fans and critics everywhere mourned and applauded him for his courage and began to speculate as to the meaning of Bowie’s often-cryptic meanings behind his songs. Blackstar, by far, was one of the most scrutinized albums. Looking for clues and insight into whether or not Bowie knew he was dying as he was writing the songs that would end up on the album became the focus of many. While it is human nature to romanticize the mystery behind Bowie’s persona as an incredible and deeply-layered artist, the real intent of the meaning behind his last record and what the listener perceives can differ. Of course, easter eggs like the packaging of the vinyl version of the album and the music video for “Lazarus” might lead one to believe that what they hear and see is reality. That is the beauty of art. It is open for interpretation.
In a documentary that aired on BBC the day prior to what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday, questions were answered about the timeline of events that shaped the artistic presentation and his life at the end of his legendary career. Johan Renck, who directed the poignant and emotionally powerful “Lazarus” music video, spoke about the things he learned in hindsight on David Bowie: The Last Five Years, saying, “I found out later that the week we were shooting is when he found out that it is over. We’ll end treatment or whatever capacity that means, that this illness has won.”
It was also revealed by Renck that the scenes featuring Bowie lying and writhing in a bed, sight obscured by bandages, upon which buttons were sewn, were not depicting the artist’s illness. The perceived meaning had to do with the “biblical aspect of it, the man who would rise again.” For those viewing the video, the imagery took on a whole new meaning in the wake of Bowie’s seemingly-sudden death, and we saw it as someone saying farewell. It was widely reported prior to the revelations made during the documentary that Bowie had planned Blackstar to be his farewell album. However, the record was already finished by the time he was notified that the treatments for his cancer were not effective.
The mystery still does remain as to when Bowie was first diagnosed with cancer. In an interview with The Guardian, director of the documentary Francis Whately mused, “I still don’t know if he started making Blackstar before he knew if he was ill, or after. People are so desperate for Blackstar to be this parting gift that Bowie made for the world when he knew he was dying, but I think it’s simplistic to think that. There is more ambiguity there than people want to acknowledge. I don’t think he knew he was going to die. However, he must have known that there was a chance that he wasn’t going to recover, so, to do an album with a certain amount of ambiguity in it, is Bowie playing the cat and mouse game that he always played.”
The documentary revealed that Bowie had only discovered that his cancer was terminal a mere three months before it had taken his life. Long-time producer, Tony Visconti, stated that Bowie was “at the top of his game” during the recording sessions for Blackstar. The singer seemed determined to not let his ailment derail what would become his final masterpiece.
Right in line with the airing of the documentary was the release of the EP entitled No Plan. Included are the final three songs known to have been recorded by David Bowie. The four-track release contains the title track “No Plan,” “Killing a Little Time,” “When I Met You,” and “Lazarus,” the hit from the final album Blackstar. All of the songs were recorded during the Blackstar sessions, and the release includes a new video release for the title track.
2017 will also bring a series of tribute concerts to honor the life and legacy of David Bowie. The concerts will span the globe and will feature “Bowie people playing Bowie music Bowie style.” One such show will take place at The Wiltern in Los Angeles on January 24 and will be headlined by rock icon Sting.