Before I turned out the light last night, I was listening to David Bowie and reading about his extraordinary new album, Blackstar, trying to figure out how to scratch the surface of its complexity in a review. I fell asleep thinking about it.

Then I woke up and saw the headlines. I can hardly believe it.

Labyrinth (1)He’s been one of my heroes, for just about a lifetime.

It was Bowie’s 1986 performance as the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth that caught my attention. How perfect, that when two of my childhood heroes — George Lucas and Jim Henson — made a fantasy film together, Bowie, would be the star.

I started working backward from there, discovering his many other wild personas and characters. I even loved Never Let Me Down, one of his more critically maligned records. He was a master of metamorphosis, and it made him seem like he’d live forever.

His lyrics are frequently about rebels, fallen angels, and devils like Milton’s in Paradise Lost. And sometimes it seemed he’d been staring into that abyss too long. When he wrote directly of a deity, it was often as though he was describing or addressing a cruel tyrant. But I could never shake the sense that — just as he played The Goblin King with a wink — he was always putting on the costumes of freaks and demons as a way of studying, exposing, and wrestling the dangers and evils of the world, and the darkness within his own heart, some of which he knew all too well from his early years of rock-star excesses.

Of all of his records, his experimental collaboration with Brian Eno, 1. Outside, which was to be the beginning of a trilogy (and alas was never continued), remains my favorite.

Looking Closer Outside Bowie Black and White wide
Strangely, it’s one of his least popular records. It plays like a soundtrack to a sprawling, ambitious, science fiction noir musical, full of fascinating characters and suggestions of stories. Many of the lyrics came from a program that would produce arbitrary word combinations; Bowie would seize on the lines he liked and weave them together to see what possibilities suggested themselves. The results are, for me, the peak of his songwriting genius, and his most inspired work.

You probably know at least one of those songs. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” became the closing credits track for David Fincher’s classic crime thriller Seven. It’s one of his darkest songs, and yet at the heart of it is a voice calling, “Daddy, will you carry me? I think I’ve lost my way.

(It’s painful to learn from Brian Eno this morning that they were plotting to return to that project, because they were both so fond of it.)

And on Blackstar, he plays the role of a blind prophet warning us of a wave of darkness crashing over the world.

How prescient, then, that these lyrics would arrive in his final song, suggesting a premonition that he was reaching the end of this stage in his journey, that something was drawing him home to the place that he knew in his heart that he wanted to be:

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons…

Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

I can’t give everything
I can’t give everything
Away

When he died, his wife Iman posted this message:

“Rise. The struggle is real, but so is God.”

I wish I could find the quote — I remember that he once said that rather than working in the middle where things are popular and familiar, he wanted to work on the edge so he could look out into the unknown. That’s a lonelier, more dangerous place. It takes faith to work there, beyond established vocabularies. But he revealed so much from that place.

bowie jareth labyrinth

And now he’s out there — The Goblin King, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, Major Tom — sailing into the unknown.

The world is a poorer place without his imagination.

Feel free to share your own remembrances and reflections on Bowie in the Comments below, or at the Looking Closer Facebook Page.

David-Bowie_Chicago_2002-08-08_photoby_Adam-Bielawski

 

 

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