Henry Rollins: Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
The more you think about Bowie, the more amazing and enigmatic he becomes.
Photo by Jimmy King
Sitting on a tour bus in Newcastle, England, I found out that David Bowie had passed away.
Within minutes, still clumsy with shock, road manager Ward had Bowie’s new and final album Blackstar coming through the speakers. Bowie’s detached vocal on the title track almost hypnotized me. Not only did it command my total attention, I realized that the person singing was dead. I listened to the rest of the record carefully, trying to forget that the man was gone.
The lyrics of Blackstar’s third song, “Lazarus,” are some of his most powerful. “Look up here, man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose/I’m so high it makes my brain whirl/Dropped my cellphone down below.” It is the work of a man who is seeing the end of creation, as he creates what he knew would be his last artistic communication with the world.
I am sitting in a cold backstage area in Newcastle, listening to Blackstar for the third time today. I will be onstage in about 90 minutes. I am wondering how I am going to get through it.
I have been hoping to find a lyric on Blackstar that will make me want to put my sadness on pause long enough to be clear-headed for two-plus hours. I think I found it in the song “Dollar Days”: “I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again/I’m trying to.” I love that sneering defiance.
Blackstar is on the level of Low, Heroes or any of Bowie’s standout works. It is hard to listen to because it was obviously written with his condition in mind. The final lyric of the last track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” repeats the song title over and over, like a mantra, and makes me want to chase after him as the song fades away, pleading with him not to go.
The album is agile and nervy, challenging and masterful. It is unreal the poise and guts he displays in this collection of seven songs. Hopefully, he was able to get some feedback from fans all over the world.
There are some artists who are as big as life itself. They are part of your life and somehow escape the obligation of mortality. We cannot imagine our world without them.
Bowie’s staggering output, his at-risk genius and continual changes in look and musical style, made him many things to many people. I can’t think of any other musician who achieved such a level of intimate distance with their audience. The more you think about him, the more amazing and enigmatic he becomes — less a man than the aura that surrounded him.
If you watch Bowie in interviews, he is articulate and almost feral in his desire for dislocation from the ritual of Q&A. He really did let the music do the talking. If he couldn’t give everything away, as he states on Blackstar, we are left to wonder how much he in fact did give away and what it was that he kept for himself. That, perhaps, will be the most mysterious mystery of the man.
Spending time with David Bowie, as brief as it was, had a major impact on my life.
It was almost 20 years ago. We were both playing the same festival. I saw him walking alone. I just stood there, awed that there was the man himself. I didn’t say a word.
He stopped and looked at me. “Rollins!”
“David!” I replied, as I walked over to him and stuck out my hand.
He asked me if I had eaten lunch yet. I said no. He recommended that we do that. As we walked, he told me that he really liked this thing I had said in a recent interview he read and proceeded to quote several sentences of it. Then he quoted me from a different interview from a year before. He asked when my next book was coming out. I was speechless but managed to answer. Bowie told me that he had read a few of them. I have no proof of this, but I am happy to take him at his word.
Our conversation during the meal went from Iggy Pop to Hubert Selby, Jr. I expressed interest in contacting Lou Reed to see if he wanted to perhaps do some music for a potential project with Selby, knowing that Reed was an admirer of his work. Bowie told me he would call Lou on my behalf. I barely believed it and took it to be David just being friendly.
Later that evening, I watched David Bowie from stage right as he sang perfectly in front of thousands of people. He was amazing. The way he held the audience was like nothing I have ever seen before or since.
Weeks later, I was back in my micro-apartment in NYC and my phone rang. I answered. I heard a voice that my DNA recognized before I did. “Hello Henry, this is Lou Reed. David said you wanted to talk to me.”
Just remembering that is making me feel a little better.
Somehow, the world will go on without David Bowie living in it. But it will be different.
I have yet to play any other Bowie albums. I hope hearing them now doesn’t hurt too much.
For those who have not listened to David Bowie beyond his singles or the inescapable Let’s Dance album, I hope you allow yourself to do so. I can’t think of any other single artist who not only covered so much ground but broke it (and himself) as well. The entire time, he kept just out of reach, even at his most radio-friendly pop moments — those perhaps being his biggest put-on of all.
As good as music gets can be found on any number of his albums. What he gave away to us is more than enough.
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