David Bowie remembered: What we’ve learned since his death
Some astounding new Bowie facts have come to light over the last year
A candle in front of a painting of David Bowie in Brixton, London, after his death was announced. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
In the wake of David Bowie’s death, the impulse to treat Blackstar like a puzzle to be solved was understandable yet seemed to defeat the point of his luminous, liminal final statement. A year on, however, his collaborators have revealed a wealth of tantalising new information about Bowie’s plans for the future, while his legacy has twisted into various fascinating shapes. Here’s what we’ve learned in our first year without Bowie.
He found out that he had cancer in summer 2014
When he entered New York’s Magic Shop studios to record Blackstar in January 2015, Bowie had been battling cancer for six months . Subsequently, he kept recording sessions short – typically working from 11am to 4pm – and often turned up fresh from chemo, with no eyebrows or hair, as producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone , placing the band in the tiny cohort of people who were aware of his illness. Not even Brian Eno knew: a week prior to his death, Bowie sent his longtime collaborator an email that was “as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and the usual stuff we did,” Eno said in a statement to the BBC . “It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot.’ And it was signed ‘Dawn’. I realise now he was saying goodbye.”
There was more to the Blackstar artwork than we initially thought
Bowie also imbued the artwork for Blackstar with intimations of mortality, says design collaborator Jonathan Barnbrook. Originally, the black star image was one of the graphics mooted to obscure the “Heroes” cover for the artwork of his 2013 album, The Next Day. Instead it reappeared as they were conceiving the Blackstar artwork. (Incidentally, Barnbrook revealed on Twitter that he and Bowie had conspired to present the copy of “Heroes” that they used for The Next Day to Barnbrook’s wife on their wedding day. It’s inscribed: “To Jonathan and Anil, Well we can be heroes for ever, what do you say?”)
“This was a man who was facing his own mortality,” Barnbrook told Dezeen. “The Blackstar symbol, rather than writing ‘Blackstar’, has a sort of finality, a darkness, a simplicity, which is a representation of the music. It’s subsided a bit now, but a lot of people said it was a bullshit cover when it came out, that it took five minutes to design. But I think there is a misunderstanding about the simplicity. The idea of mortality is in there, and of course the idea of a black hole sucking in everything, the big bang, the start of the universe, if there is an end of the universe. These are things that relate to mortality.”
The vinyl sleeve is die-cut, exposing the record. “The fact that you can see the record as a physical thing that degrades, it gets scratched as soon as it comes into being, that is a comment on mortality too,” said Barnbrook, who called Bowie the artist responsible for bringing art-school thinking into the mainstream.
Bowie didn’t know the cancer was terminal until three months before he died
The video for Lazarus – in which a blindfolded Bowie flails in a hospital bed – was posthumously interpreted as a literal deathbed scene. But, as director Johan Renck explained in the BBC documentary, David Bowie: The Last Five Years, he came up with the concept for the video a week before doctors told Bowie that they were ending treatment after a period of remission.
His intention was to die as discreetly as he had spent the final years of his life – in which, the writer William Boyd revealed , he would often walk around New York holding a Greek-language newspaper, so that people thought he was just some Greek bloke who bore an uncanny resemblance to David Bowie. “He wanted to slip away, almost like a phantom, so that it would not – at least in the run-up – become a reality show,” an anonymous friend told the Guardian. Ultimately, he was privately cremated in New York, requested that his ashes be scattered “in accordance with the Buddhist rituals” in Bali, and left his $100 million estate to his wife and two children, Duncan and Lexi – along with $2 million and shares in a mysterious nonexistent company called Opossum Inc to his personal assistant, Coco Schwab, who worked with him for 42 years. As one fan pointed out, a possum has “a propensity to play dead when he doesn’t want to deal with a situation confronting him. Intriguing!”
The diagnosis gave him a sense of urgency about his work
While Bowie was working on Blackstar, he was also realising a lifelong dream to produce his own musical. Mime artist and early collaborator Lindsay Kemp revealed that, around the turn of the 70s, he had mooted the idea of bringing Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies to the stage. (Kemp also revealed that Bowie had refused to play Puss in Boots in the Musselburgh Christmas panto.)
In 1974, Bowie told William Burroughs that he was turning George Orwell’s 1984 into a television production, though the project was eventually nixed by Orwell’s widow and executor of his estate, Sonia Brownell.
In the early 2000s, he started work on a musical production that would revolve around aliens, the poet Emma Lazarus, a mariachi band, and a “stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died,” wrote novelist Michael Cunningham, the primary collaborator on the project, which trailed off in 2004 after Bowie suffered a heart attack. Although the material wasn’t directly reprised, the aliens and the allusion to the figure of Jesus raised from the dead reappeared in Lazarus , the musical he brought to New York. (It opened posthumously in London.) The musical’s director, Ivan Van Hove, said that Bowie called it “the saddest piece he had ever worked on”.
Bowie frequently attended band rehearsals
He reportedly maintained a quiet presence, writing notes in pencil. For occasions when he wasn’t well enough to come to the studio, a camera was installed so he could watch from home. “Every day he’d call me to say, ‘Wow, this is great’, or, ‘I think you should think about this’,” said Van Hove. “A happy surprise was that he never used his power, he was collaborative. He had strong but constructive opinions.”
Blackstar and Lazarus weren’t intended as his final statements
Despite his diagnosis, Bowie was intent on making more work. A week before he died, he called Tony Visconti and said he wanted to make the follow-up to Blackstar, and that he had already recorded five demos. “I was thrilled,” Visconti told Rolling Stone. “And I thought, and he thought, that he’d have a few months, at least. Obviously if he’s excited about doing his next album, he must have had a few more months.”
There were other projects, too: he envisioned a sequel to Lazarus, Van Hove told the BBC, and had wanted to revamp Outside, the last album he worked on with Eno. “We both liked that album a lot and felt it had fallen through the cracks,” said Eno. “We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that.”
His archives are open
On the box set Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) , we finally got long-rumoured album The Gouster, the precursor to Young Americans and Bowie’s attempt at making “a killer soul album”, according to Visconti . There’s also “a long list of unscheduled musical releases that Bowie planned before he died,” a source told Newsweek . And in addition to those five aforementioned demos – which Visconti has said might make up the second disc of a Blackstar deluxe edition – there are still more outtakes from the record. We just heard Lazarus, No Plan, Killing a Little Time and When I Met You on the No Plan EP , released on what would have been his 70th birthday, but there were “15 or 16” songs recorded for that album. Seven from Blackstar plus four from No Plan means there are potentially five to come, though Bowie’s assiduous fans have tracked more .
Tim Lefebvre, who played bass on Blackstar, has said that When Things Go Bad harks back to both Station to Station and Hunky Dory (which sounds a bit improbable, to be honest). Keyboardist Jason Lindner told French Rolling Stone about a song called Russian Black Man of Moscow, which references the Romantic poet, playwright and novelist Alexander Pushkin. There’s also Blaze, Somewhere, and Wistful, which is said to be a piano ballad. Lefebvre also spilled another tantalising titbit in a roundtable with fellow Bowie players Gail Ann Dorsey and Mark Plati on American radio station WFUV: Bowie had written a duet for Lorde, though only Bowie ever recorded his vocals, according to Blackstar bandleader Donny McCaslin.
He was the only artist who could knock Adele off the top spot
Blackstar briefly ended 25’s seven-week run, and became Bowie’s 10th album to top the UK charts (and his first US Number 1). Several more Bowie albums entered the charts that week: Nothing Has Changed: The Very Best Of (Number 5), The Best Of 1969-1974 (11), Hunky Dory (14), The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (17), Best Of Bowie (18), Aladdin Sane (23), The Next Day (25), Low (31), Diamond Dogs (37), and outside the Top 40, Let’s Dance (42), “Heroes” (45), Station to Station (55), The Best Of 1980-1987 (59), Young Americans (60), Scary Monsters (61), The Man Who Sold The World (89), Space Oddity (95), and Five Years: 1969-1973 (97).
Bowie’s global Spotify streams increased by 2,822 per cent , with “Heroes” proving the most popular song. (Hunky Dory seemed to be his most popular album, going by its streaming jump, a BBC 6Music listener vote , and, er, former prime minister David Cameron. ) Online retailers thanked Bowie (and Prince) for increasing spending in the 12-week period preceding June 3 , though Michael Jackson topped Forbes’s list of top-earning dead celebrities for the fourth year straight, with Bowie coming in at number 11. (No word on whether the lock of his hair that sold for $18,750 was included in their sums.)
He inspired some great tributes
With the EU referendum looming, violent divisions played out across newspaper front pages in January 2016. But, just for one day (sorry), they were united in their praise of Bowie . In Berlin, it usually takes five years for a notable dead person to be commemorated with a plaque, but mayor Michael Müller waived the rule for Bowie , who lived in the city between 1976 and 1978, saying he played a key role in fostering Berlin’s “sense of being a city of culture, creativity and openness … David Bowie belongs to Berlin, David Bowie belongs to us.” Belgian astronomers also registered a constellation in his name : seven stars in the shape of a lightning bolt close to Mars. And former REM frontman Michael Stipe said that performing in two Bowie tributes led him to realise that he wanted to work in music again.
Of the numerous musical tributes in his name, it’s fair to say that only Lorde’s take on Life on Mars? at the Brit awards, backed with many of his original players, did him any justice. The New Zealand artist had met Bowie at a party honouring the actor Tilda Swinton, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he said her music was like “listening to tomorrow”. Lorde paid tribute to him on Facebook, crediting him for making her proud of “my spiky strangeness, because he had been proud of his.” In a Periscope Q&A , Bowie’s longtime pianist Mike Garson said that Bowie felt Lorde was “the future of music,” and that she was chosen for the Brits tribute because Bowie’s family and management “wanted to bring the next generation in”.
And some not so good ones
There was Lady Gaga’s hammy Grammys medley (produced by Bowie’s former collaborator Nile Rodgers), a fairly ineffective laser show set to Philip Glass’s “Heroes” symphony at Glastonbury, and a ropey BBC Prom . If that wasn’t punishment enough, Sting’s new album will also pay tribute to the late star, along with Prince, Motörhead’s Lemmy, and Alan Rickman. The Weeknd named his bloated new album Starboy as a tribute, and Bowie emojis were introduced.
He wasn’t shy about shooting down potential collaborators
Including Coldplay (“It’s not a very good song, is it?”), the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl (“Thanks, but I think I’m gonna sit this one out”) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (“He said no to us like, two or three times”).
He had voracious artistic tastes
Before his art collection was sold off at Sotheby’s in November, the works went on display to the public: a glorious mishmash of postmodern Italian design, the bucolic St Ives school, Jean Michel Basquiat, Damian Hirst and Peter Lanyon. The first round sold for £24m , the second for £8.5m .
Did he predict the rise of Donald Trump?
Bowie was good at predictions: he released his own ISP years before the internet became mainstream, foresaw its cultural impact , and conceptualised iTunes . But music critic Simon Reynolds, author of Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, spotted more grim parallels between America’s president-elect and Bowie’s mid-1970s predictions of a “strong leader” who would “sweep through” the western world with “a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny”.
On a happier note
It’s been rewarding to gain a deeper understanding of Bowie’s mindset and motives towards the end of his life. But sometimes nothing’s as good as trivia. Like how Peter Jackson begged him to audition for Lord of the Rings . That he was set to appear in this year’s Twin Peaks reboot , reprising his role as agent Phillip Jeffries from the 1992 spinoff film Fire Walk With Me. He was due to become a grandfather : Duncan Jones and his wife Rodene Ronquillo welcomed baby Stenton David Jones in July. And brilliantly, Bowie’s longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar revealed that the only person ever to intimidate Bowie was Tina Turner , when she came to record 1984’s Tonight. “He said, ‘We’re going to go out for dinner and you’ve got to come!’ I said, ‘She’s Tina Turner, she’s not going to bite you! Get some man balls’.” – (Guardian Service)