The Big Issue JANUARY 18-24, 2016 - by Malcolm Jack


Clues to David Bowie's demise were hidden in plain view on his twenty-fifth and final album Blackstar. So why didn't I spot them until two days after its release on his sixty-ninth birthday, when David Robert Jones (to give Bowie his earthling name) succumbed to cancer? I suppose because I hadn't even really considered it possible that Bowie, a man by all impressions not of this universe, could die.

But he did, and with it his final months and that album, all suddenly appreciable in full context, became a farewell of the most breathtaking integrity and dignity. "His death was no different from his life - a work of art," wrote close friend and producer Tony Visconti. Much as everyone wishes Bowie could have had more time, Visconti's right. It was excruciatingly perfect.

The Starman came out of a ten-year career hypersleep in 2013 with the blindsidingly superb album The Next Day. His health problems were well-known - after heart surgery in 2004 he effectively retired from touring. But his cancer, diagnosed in 2014, was kept secret until the end. Bowie wore a cloak of enigma throughout the Blackstar campaign, eschewing public appearances, instead endeavouring to make his parting statement through song. What guts and guile that must have taken, to end his life in private, hard at work and still writing, and let the world remember him not as frail and fading but at his untouchably cool best.

Cornerstones of rock iconography, Bowie's personas - among them glam androgyne '72, plastic soul boy '75, stick thin and strung out on cocaine '76, bleach-blonde, suntanned and in a big pastel suit '83 - all feel some how immortal. In reality each lived a few short months as Bowie released fourteen albums in fourteen years between 1969 and 1983, reinventing himself almost every time. All of his best work, from rock 'n' roll game-changer The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars through the moodily futuristic Berlin trilogy (including my personal favourite 1977's Low) to his commercial zenith Let's Dance, came practically as an unbroken, breathlessly prolific stream of creativity. Fans could barely dye their hair quickly enough to keep pace. Blackstar blasts Bowie's manifold legend back into the cosmos where it belongs. The video for the ten-minute title song begins with a diamond-encrusted skull in a space suit - imagery that needs no explanation. The closing track is called I Can't Give Everything Away. A complex and adventurous set, to my ear it draws inspiration from Scott Walker, specifically his avante-garde solo albums. Search YouTube for a 1997 BBC interview in which Bowie chokes back tears after being surprised by a heartfelt fiftieth birthday greeting from his "idol since I was a kid" as he puts it, and you'll appreciate not just what Walker meant to Bowie but how Bowie was a true music fan with attendant emotional triggers just like me or you.

Even if he didn't seem earthy, his sense of humour was. Viz was among his favourite reads, and in 2006 he made a memorable cameo in Ricky Gervais' sitcom Extras, performing the song Chubby Little Loser. It became a kind of gallows humour towards the end. With Lazarus he practically delivers his own obituary ("This way or no way, you know I'll be free") with a video depicting him singing from a hospital bed. He looks anxious, as any man would facing death. Yet he finds playfulness and poetry in life even as it's about to be taken from him.

David Bowie could have fallen to Earth at any time in human history. Let's be thankful that he landed on our watch.