Viddy Well, Devotchkas And Malchicks, Viddy Well.
That Bowie fella was a clever droog. In death he created one of his greatest pieces of art. The songs that make up Blackstar contained an outpouring of coded references to the pancreatic cancer that he would succumb to two days after its release. The benefit of such short hindsight allowed even the blindest of Bowie lyric decoders to join the dots and see the bigger picture. Only a small handful of folk knew, but Dave was terminally ill when he wrote and recorded his 25th album and scattered across the tracks were the clues that became so obvious in the days that followed. You know that already though.
“Look at me, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be healed.”
“Something happened on the day he died.”
“Why too dark to speak the words?”
“If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me.”
“I’ve got nothing left to lose…I’m so high it makes my brain whirl.”
“Hope I’ll be free.”
“I know something is very wrong.”
“I can’t give everything away.”
He maybe didn’t give everything away, but he gave a huge part of himself. The font used to display the tracklisting on the back? A relatively obscure one called Terminal, funnily enough. Even the sleeve itself is a perfect artefact. Bereft of it’s contents and held to the light, it reveals a galaxy of stars that shines with all the wonder of the cosmos. A certain, intentional metaphor for Bowie’s omnipresence, it’s his final gift to us all.
Blackstar wasn’t the easiest of albums to digest at the first sitting. Much of it is skewed and, unsurprisingly, doom-laden, carried by skittering drums and the sort of skronking jazz that’s only recently found itself on the margins of the mainstream thanks to the occasional rotation of acts such as The Comet Is Coming and Polar Bear on BBC 6 Music. Be it glam or electronica or new romanticism or even speed garage, Bowie was forever at the front of the queue whenever a new musical direction was being charted, in both senses of the word.
There are stellar moments, of course, some of which take half a dozen or more plays before they’ve worked their way into your head, by which point you’re revelling in one of Bowie’s most complex, most complete albums. Blackstar may not’ve been for everyone – my local independent seller was scathing of it upon release, but for those that get it… wow! There are truly brilliant moments on Blackstar, as euphoric as Absolute Beginners, as arty as anything from Low and as essential as the rest of the high rollers that immediately spring to mind when you’re asked for your favourite Bowie albums.
This week’s highlights: the song-within-the-song moment midway through the title track…the crashing guitars that colour the none-more-Bowie vocal on Lazarus….the jerky paranoia of Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)…..the straightforward piano and electric guitar ballad of Dollar Days, an album highlight that sounds most like the Bowie of old, whatever that means. It features a great sax line too, played, I imagine (I hope) by Bowie himself. Meandering, mournful and slowly unfolding, it’s the stately sound of Bowie facing death with stiff upper-lipped dignity. In a back catalogue of fantastic highs, Dollar Days is right up there as one of his very best.
David Bowie – Dollar Days
Best of all though, arguably, is Girl Loves Me, a song smartly written in a mish-mash of two made-up languages, Polari and Nadsat.
Polari was the coded language (more decoding!) used by gay men in the 50s and 60s as a way of finding like-minded companions. With conversation based around combinations of slang and interpolated foreign words, gay men had the perfect means to hide in plain sight. Polari even made it onto the BBC when, unknown to the bosses, it was used extensively on Round The Horne.
In more recent times, Morrissey went through a short phase of adopting Polari. Piccadilly Palare, for example;
The Piccadilly Palare
Was just silly slang
Between me and the boys in my gang
“So bona to vada, oh you
Your lovely eek and
Your lovely riah”
His Bona Drag compilation album too. Translated from Polari, it means ‘good clothes‘. Anyway, I digress.
Alongside his adoption of Polari, Bowie borrows heavily from Nadsat, the half-Russian, half-English language that Anthony Burgess used in A Clockwork Orange. The Russian word for ‘good‘, for example, is ‘khrosho‘, pronounced ko-ro-sho. In keeping with the book’s theme of wanton, casual violence, Burgess cleverly twisted this into ‘horrorshow‘, so whenever a character in the book refers to something as ‘real horrorshow‘, they’re expounding on how great it is. It took me a while to work this out when I first read it, as of course, four pilled-up and violent teenagers giving an old guy a kicking really is a proper horrorshow. I’d no idea for many pages that they considered a ‘horrorshow’ to be a good thing. Jeez.
As a result of it’s lyrical styling, Girl Loves Me sounds weird, wonky and other-worldly. It’s real horrorshow, in fact.
David Bowie – Girl Loves Me
Cheena so sound, so titty up this Malchick, say
Party up moodge, ninety vellocet round on Tuesday
Real bad dizzy snatch making all the homies mad, Thursday
Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday
Where the fuck did Monday go?
I’m go to this Giggenbach show
I’m sailin’ in the chestnut tree
Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?
Girl loves me
Despite the fantastic imagery that the lyrics throw up, the refrain of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” sticks out a mile for me. When I watched my dad pass away through cancer, he’d lie in a morphine-induced sleep for days at a time. When lucid, he had no idea what day of the week or time of year, or indeed, what year it was. For us carers, minutes turned to hours which turned to days which turned to weeks. Where the fuck did Monday go indeed. It’s the perfect line. Of all the death-related ones on Blackstar, it’s the one that resonates most with me.
Bowie has been gone four years now. He’ll live on forever though.