He knew, of course, throughout the writing and recording of this album, that it would be his last. So many songs about death, the afterlife, such generosity of spirit. I haven’t fallen for a Bowie album as heavily since Scary Monsters, 35 years ago. He made a handful of good albums after that, Outside and Heathen probably the best of them, but none as brave or consistent as this. I’m glad I had time to come to love Blackstar before it became so inexorably associated with his death. Bowie made his death a work of art, as his producer Tony Visconti pointed out earlier today, but none of us spotted it. Even the (now unbearably poignant) video for Lazarus was taken as related to the New York play it was supposedly written for, rather than a macabre farewell. There was just one repeated line that threw me when I was listening again and again to Dollar Days, the lovely penultimate track: If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see. An odd farewell to England, I thought. Turns out it was his farewell to life. Resigned, wise, lovely. Hope he wasn’t too far gone to hear the fantastic notices that Blackstar received when it was released on Friday, his 69th birthday, and found out that it went straight to number one. Because, while he nearly always stayed true to his artistic integrity, our David did like to have a hit.
I’m going on local TV later to talk about what Bowie meant to me, and thinking about that now. First heard him in early ’71: Holy Holy on Radio Luxembourg. Loved him since 1972 and Ziggy Stardust, when everyone my age (14) discovered him. The song that absolutely captivated me was Five Years. Bought all the records, and the bootlegs. Was on holiday for his famous Rock City visit in 1997, but saw him play a fantastic set three years later, at Glastonbury (it appears in my novel Festival too), then went, with Sue and both Mikes to see his final tour, at the NEC, where we had seats right at the front, and where he was terrific. Over the last few weeks, my reading at the end of most evenings, after I’ve finished the latest chapter of the book I’m reading, has been an entry or two from Chris O’Leary’s terrific Rebel Rebel, the first volume of a superb series of analyses of every song that Bowie recorded. It began life on this fine blog, where, today, Chris has made a space for people to pay their tributes. This is mine. I rarely write about the deaths of people I didn’t know, but Bowie was a huge part of my life and the lives of many people close to me. I started the morning comforting my partner, then talking it over with a poet friend in China, a few years older than me, who is equally devastated. Then I went to a meeting with a city councillor who had clearly been wiping away the tears. It’s not what Bowie meant to me I need to talk about, it’s what he meant to all of us. How great art brings us together, reinforcing our humanity, inspiring us to be better. The video below is of the magical first moments I saw him, when he arrived early on stage that night in 2000, playing to the biggest Glastonbury crowd ever – over 200,000 people – the first of several numbers from what – if push came to shove – is probably my favourite Bowie album, Station To Station. We were still trying to find a good place to stand as he came on, and at first, his hair was so long, I thought the screens were showing a video from the first time he played Glastonbury, in 1971. But it wasn’t. It was Bowie, live. And he was brilliant.