Now that you are back at your home in the sky,
I hope that you have found a place just as unsettling as you are – I imagine you, poised between two stars, unsure which of you three is about to explode next (but it will definitely be you: the question is when). And there you have it: your critical confoundedness is epitomised in that last sentence that I wrote. You are so mercurial that the amount you change has become a cliche in itself. Critics will not shut up about your ‘constant reinvention’, but when will they reinvent themselves?
The problem is, David Bowie, you have put us all in a quandary. With your quicksilver changes what is there of you really to latch onto? For surely there has to be a fragment of embarrassingly simple person poking around the edges of your many personae, in order for us to like or love you. You are a Magical Mister Mistoffelees, where we watch fabulous stunts – we may even remark, ‘Oh, well I never, was there ever a cat [man] so clever as…?’ – but little of ‘the real you’ is visible. Oh, and believe me, I am as sceptical as any existentialist about the ‘true self’ even existing; but there has to be something at least relatively consistent and physical about a person.
And yet the name Mistoffelees also hints at perhaps some devilish magic (like Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus) that really does set you apart and, paradoxically, show some strange, androgynous consistency; and perhaps that is what we look for. Unlike real men and women you are the figure of the artist par excellence, showing some kind of delight (deadpan and unemotional as it seems to be) in constant evanescence. Dark and devoid of personality, like Jimmy Page perhaps, it is surprisingly humble that you do this: we do at least have a lot to study. Without really focusing on you as a person we can at least look at your work. That is unusual for a rock star.
Sure enough, throughout the day when we heard that you were dead, it was when your songs were played, to which I knew all the lyrics, that I felt like I could come in from the cold and finally play a role in mourning. You, the Blackstar: as everyone seems to be quoting, ‘Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)’. I would read the lines as saying something like – someone else longs to die and go to (dark) heaven more than you, and takes your place. In the end, though, it points again to identity being unimportant, except from song to song; it is performance and communication in the moment that matters. From the lovable daddy of ‘Kooks’ to the musical theatre star of ‘Five Years’, to the psychedelic, sickly singer in ‘Heroes’. Your voice is irreducibly distinct, across most of these; another trace of you which remains, despite the constant changes. But what does it matter, when each of the songs leaves such an imprint?
When we talk of the constant changes of the Blackstar we are right; but really, we are getting it wrong. As a true dramatist you didn’t want us to look at the man behind the masks. That is why, what I would call your ‘king’ character, the slightly demonic, elusive magician who weaves into your many other authoritarian, mischievous roles, does not exactly seem pleased to meet us when we poke out our fingers to grab hold of him. You’re an introverted alternative to the ‘good actor’ model, who, like the Blackstar, looks not to himself but to the plot as providing truths. The problems of your slightly scary, exalted kind of solitariness do not go away by saying this, but you do pose an interesting question to us now. Why do we obsess so much over people and ‘personality’? And is there anything to learn, in a post-reformation, psychoanalytic age, from your calling us to look beyond the factual person to fictions alone as places to find solace and refuge? Perhaps we ought to thank you, for helping us let go.