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An oral history of David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ – five years on from his death

Five years ago today (January 8), David Bowie stunned the world with his masterpiece ‘Blackstar’. His fans had only two days to live with the record before its meaning changed forever, stuck under a different lens by his death. Until that point, the wider world was unaware that he had been suffering from cancer. Despite his illness, the Starman spent his final time on earth working on what would become his last album, as well as the Lazarus musical. Here, some of his final collaborators reflect on those projects, his death and his legacy.

Read more: Johnny Flynn on playing David Bowie in Stardust: “I got a lot of violent hate mail”

A curtain rises

While Bowie was in London in 2013 to visit the V&A’s David Bowie Is… exhibition, he called up his long-time friend and theatre and film producer Robert Fox with an ambitious new idea – a musical based on The Man Who Fell To Earth. This wouldn’t be the first time Bowie had used the story in his work, having appeared in a film adaptation of the novel in 1976.

Robert Fox: “At that point, the idea was as far along as him saying, ‘I know it should be called Lazarus and I know it should be based on the character Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell To Earth, but I don’t know anything else’. He asked me what we had to do next so I said, ‘We have to find a writer’ and suggested Enda Walsh because I thought they’d get on and spark ideas off of each other. He read lots of Enda’s work, lots of other people’s work and about two or three months later, emailed me and said, ‘Enda’s the one’.”

With a writer on board, director Ivo van Hove soon signed on too, and work on bringing Bowie’s vision to life as a stage musical kicked off in the middle of 2014. It was around the same time that ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’, which appeared on the compilation album ‘Nothing Has Changed’, began to take shape, setting off the other project that would become synonymous with the genius’ final days.

Enter the ‘Blackstar’ band

Where Bowie often returned to the same group of trusted musicians to join him on his records, ‘Blackstar’ saw him bring in a jazz ensemble to work with him for the first time. Donny McCaslin, leader of New York’s The Donny McCaslin Group, came recommended to him by musician Maria Schneider, who Bowie worked with on the 2014 version of ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’. McCaslin, a part of Schneider’s orchestra, also appeared on the track.

Donny McCaslin: “Bowie’s team had reached out to Maria to do a collaboration on ‘Sue…’ with her orchestra. During that time, she was talking with me about it, and she called and said that David had been trying to describe to her what he heard as the rhythmic underpinning of the song and that it made her think of me and my group. So she played him a record of mine called ‘Casting For Gravity’ and that led to them both coming to hear my band play at a club in New York called The 55 Bar about a week before the first workshop session for the David and Maria version of ‘Sue…’.

“So they come to the show and I didn’t meet him, but I saw him out of the corner of my eye. Then, a week later, I met him for the first time at this session and we’re talking and he asked for my number and email address. The next morning, he sent me an email saying he’d love to do something and sent a home demo of ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ that he had sequenced at home – he played the saxophone on it and had done everything as far as I could tell.”

Once the recording of ‘Sue…’ was complete, Bowie and McCaslin stayed in touch, with Bowie emailing over several demos for the bandleader and his group to get familiar with.

Donny McCaslin: “It was exciting – that’s the first word that comes to mind. There just felt like there were so many possibilities in what he sent. The framework of the songs was in place in these demo versions and they sounded, to my ear, really strong. I wasn’t sure what to expect from him in the studio so I tried to prepare by really immersing myself in every detail of the songs so I would have the flexibility to pivot if need be in the studio.”

‘Blackstar’ bursts into life

Unbeknown to the rest of the world, 2015 began with Bowie hunkering down at New York studio The Magic Shop with McCaslin, pianist Jason Lindner, drummer Mark Giuliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre and his long-time producer Tony Visconti to begin work on ‘Blackstar’. The recording was split into three chunks – a week a month from January to March – and saw Bowie’s collaborative spirit in full flow.

Donny McCaslin: “The first day in the studio was a mixture of excitement, anticipation and hoping that it was all going to go smoothly. I was loving the music he had sent and I had done some work on it on my end with woodwinds and with voicing things that I hadn’t told anybody about, so I was excited to unveil that. When we got going, it just felt seamless and organic – the analogy I would use is that the group was like a basketball team where we were constantly sharing the ball and throwing it back and forth.

“That first day, the spirit of what David told us was, ‘Let’s not worry about what this will be called, let’s just go have fun and anything you’re hearing I want you to go for it’. He didn’t say ‘no inhibitions’, but that was the spirit of what he said. It was great to have that affirmation before we even started and to sense that he trusted us with this music. You couldn’t have asked for it to be a better environment creatively.”

Inspiration strikes

During the second recording session in February, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy joined the group after his work on Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’ inspired Bowie to remix ‘Love Is Lost’ on ‘The Next Day Extra’.

Murphy’s role was meant to be far bigger than it ended up being, with Bowie and Visconti asking him to co-produce the record – as he explained on Radio 1 in 2017:“I played a little percussion. I was supposed to do a lot more but I got overwhelmed. It takes a different kind of person than me to walk into that room and be like, ‘I know exactly… I belong here, I should definitely insert myself in this relationship because they just can’t manage to make a record without me’.”

Donny McCaslin: “James came into the sessions for the second block of recording. He was great. I remember there was a horn line on a tune that didn’t make the record, but when we recorded that he wanted to do another version where it was messier and not as polished – not even totally in the execution but just in the note twists. I appreciated that and it was fun to work with him on that. It’s hard to know if he had any influence on the sessions even after he’d gone because Ben Monder came in on guitar for the third batch and so there was a different dynamic.”

Even before ‘Blackstar’’s release, the central influence on it was often cited as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. Bowie and Visconti had been playing the record on repeat, with the producer saying his friend’s goal was to “avoid rock and roll”.

“He was so full of life and laughing, it was impossible to imagine was anything wrong with him” – Jonathan Barnbrook

Donny McCaslin: “That record came up as something that he was listening to and checking out. It’s not something that we played in the studio. The one connection I can think of is the song ‘Girl Loves Me’, there’s that sort of a made-up language that’s happening on that song. Some of that was from the language of A Clockwork Orange. But some of it was also very old British slang. It would sound very odd to hear David Bowie rapping in today’s language, right? I think it could be thought of that that was a way that he was looking to find language that would work for him. And that’s the connection that I see, which is brilliant.”

Bowie hits the drawing board

With recording completed in March and overdubs and final additions done by May, it was time to start thinking about the other aspects of the record. Bowie brought back graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who he’d worked with on all his album art since 2002’s ‘Heathen’.

Jonathan Barnbrook: “It was quite unusual that time because he asked me to go to New York to talk to him about it – normally we do everything by email or Skype. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but he especially just wanted to sit down with me and listen to the album together. It’s quite terrifying with David Bowie sitting next to you, listening to his album and he’s looking at your face to see if it’s good or not! I couldn’t tell he was ill at the time and actually, we didn’t discuss the issues of his health, it was more about the universal idea of mortality that was represented in ‘Blackstar’.

“The idea of the cut out black star was the main idea from the beginning. My feeling was that it should be quite minimal because the music, especially the main track ‘Blackstar’, had such a heavy, dark feeling which…. was very much of the time. It was never the case that it was going to be a nice picture of David and a bit of text saying ‘Blackstar’.”

The first clues arrive

Look up here, man / I’m in heaven,” Bowie sang on ‘Lazarus’, which featured both on ‘Blackstar’ and in the musical that shared its name with the track. With the power of hindsight, it’s laden with all kinds of clues to the legend’s health issues, but few picked up on them on first listen.

Robert Fox: “I must have heard ‘Lazarus’ for the first time just before rehearsals for the musical started, because it was around then that I went to see the filming of the music video for it. Because I knew what the content of the story that we were telling was, it felt entirely appropriate to the musical. If I hadn’t had the context of the show, it probably would have been quite a different experience. But it completely made sense for the character of Newton to be singing that song in our show. So it was great to hear; it was exciting and felt completely right for what we were doing.

“There’s lots of discussion about to what extent he identified with the character of Newton, to what extent what he was going through in his own life, with illness, and possible death and all of that influenced his work around that time. It was not the first time that he’d had health scares, so I think his own mortality was very much on his mind.”

Mortality is a very big theme of the music video for ‘Lazarus’, which saw Bowie lying in a hospital bed with a bandage over his eyes. It’s ending – which saw him climbing into a wardrobe and closing the door – was later theorised by fans to represent the icon closing a coffin lid.

Robert Fox: “It was astounding [watching him film the video] because, again, nobody on that shoot would have had any idea what was happening to him in terms of his medical condition. And he was, obviously, completely professional.

“The director, Johan Renck, who’s directed many, many things including Chernobyl subsequently and had worked with many, many huge rock stars, said working with David was one of the great pleasures of his life because he was such a consummate professional and gentleman, which was everyone’s experience. I just watched him doing his job and being completely on it in a way that nobody could ever have known that he didn’t feel at all well. But when I went to his dressing room after one of the takes he just said, ‘I’m going to have to lie down because I just feel tired’. He didn’t make a fuss about it and nobody else was aware of it. He just was amazing.”

Lazarus takes New York

Before the album ‘Blackstar’ was gifted to Bowie’s fans, though, there was the small matter of kicking off Lazarus’ run at the New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan’s East Village. Dexter’s Michael C. Hall played Thomas Jerome Newton and the show featured a raft of songs from throughout Bowie’s career, including four brand new ones. Despite the star power behind it, early reviews were hit-or-miss.

Robert Fox: “The reviews were mixed and they will continue to be. It’s not Mamma Mia; it’s not mainstream entertainment. I think it’s very true to the novel of The Man Who Fell To Earth, the inspiration for Lazarus. I think it’s very true to the character. The novel of The Man Who Fell to Earth was not exactly Number One on the Sunday Times bestsellers. But David loved it. He was really, really happy. He was really, really ill on opening night, but again no one would have known he was in a lot of pain. He loved the experience of being there. He went on stage with the cast and everyone for the curtain call and I think that was probably maybe the last time he went out in public. I saw him two days after and he was thrilled, which was what we wanted.”

Blackstar explodes

A month after Lazarus started its run in New York, ‘Blackstar’ was released. While fans loved the music, the initial reaction to the artwork was that it was too simple – ironic, considering it’s now seen as a treasure trove of Easter eggs, from sun-induced star fields to the parts of the sleeve changing colour under different lights.

Jonathan Barnbrook: “Sony were very worried about the cover when I presented it to them. I remember someone saying sarcastically in the meeting, ‘So you’re not going to put a picture of David on the front, or his name and the title of the album – it’s a great cover!’ I said to them, ‘The title is there [in the cut-out star], David’s name is there in the stars on the bottom’. But David was really behind it; he thought it was a very exciting idea.

There is the narrative of ‘Blackstar’ being this farewell, which I totally get… [But] He was planning on doing more” – Donny McCaslin

“I specifically didn’t want everything to be told straight away and that partly came from a conversation I had with David. When we did ‘The Next Day’, I wrote this really long blog explaining the cover and I also put some roughs in the V&A exhibition. He called me up and said, ‘I’m not going to tell you to take them out but I want you to know that, when you do something like that, you devalue the end object’. You explain your thought process and you leave it less open for people to understand or treat it in the way it should be treated.

“So, for ‘Blackstar’ I thought about that process from the beginning. It was very much about how people can find their own meaning and that meaning revealing itself over time. With graphic designers, people think we’re commercial whores who just do it for money. But there is culture in there and there is meaning and hopefully, there’s an understanding of what David Bowie means to people as well.”

Like the artwork, the contents of the record took some time to reveal their true meanings. Critics and fans alike didn’t connect the dots between lyrics about impermanence and heaven with the idea Bowie might no longer be with us – why would they when they didn’t even know he was sick?

Instead, ‘Blackstar’ was hailed as putting the veteran musician back in front of the curve, his strays from pop into more experimental territory celebrated. ,” NME’s four-star review read: “When David Bowie returned from exile with 2013’s ‘The Next Day’, an album that wistfully referenced his late-‘70s art-rock heyday, it felt like this eternal futurist was starting to look back. Wrong, earthlings! Released on his 69th birthday, 25th album ‘Blackstar’ spins the spaceship back around and points it at the moon. Bowie’s formidable record of reinventing himself with each new album remains intact.”

So long, Spaceboy

Only two days after the album was out, though, everything changed. January 10, 2016 began with the world waking up to terrible news – David Bowie had died at the age of 69 after battling liver cancer. Suddenly, ‘Blackstar’ felt different.

Jonathan Barnbrook: “The meaning of the lyrics changed immediately. I was really happy about listening to the album before he died because it was quite new, but also it was absolutely someone of his age commenting in on his life experience. There’s nothing worse than when a pop star tries to be young. To me, when I was working on it listening to tracks, it was all about the universal idea of mortality. Maybe there was a part of me that just didn’t want to face that there was something more serious going on. David Bowie, when I met him, didn’t look ill. He was so full of life and laughing, it was impossible to imagine was anything wrong with him. So the contents completely changed.”

For days and weeks after Bowie’s death, a huge outpouring of sadness and celebration of his life and work could be felt all around the world. A mural of him in Brixton stayed surrounded by bouquets of flowers for months and ‘Blackstar’ became an album that was difficult to listen to for some of his audience. His passing was one that felt like it touched everybody, so large was his presence in pop culture.

“He was such a consummate professional and gentleman, which was everyone’s experience [of him]” – Robert Fox

Robert Fox: “He affected so many different people at different times for different reasons, but I think overall he gave people the sense that they could be what they wanted to be and they didn’t have to feel constrained. His overall kindness and humility were a very strong part of what moved people. He was not an egomaniac, which is unusual for somebody in that profession. He wasn’t a big diva at all – he was the opposite.”

Jonathan Barnbrook: “I remember John Lennon dying so I knew it’d be something similar. I was extremely happy that people were showing their appreciation and, more importantly, his influence. Of course, I was upset, but it was also very gratifying to know that he was at the centre of so many people’s creative lives. Honestly, I still can’t listen to ‘Blackstar’ because his absence is a big vacuum in my life so it’s very, very difficult to listen to. It’s all imbued with the atmosphere and emotion of that time when he passed away, as I’m sure as it is for many Bowie fans.”

The debate continues…

With ‘Blackstar’’s lyrical content back under the microscope, a unanimous rendering started to spread among music fans. Bowie must have known this would be his last album and so he specifically crafted it into a farewell to all those who knew him. Listening to the record, it’s certainly a theory that stands up – but reports that he was also working on new material before its release and even planning to return to the stage suggest otherwise. Bowie’s collaborators are divided on the truth.

Donny McCaslin: “There is the narrative of ‘Blackstar’ being this farewell, which I totally get. But that coexists with the fact that he was just so creative. He was planning on doing more. When I went to listen to the album at his apartment in November 2015, the idea came up of doing some small gigs. The Village Vanguard is like Mecca for jazz folks and I had my first run there happening in January. We talked about how to do a little rehearsal and soundcheck and, of course, it was going to depend on how he felt. We talked again in December around the time of the musical and he said he didn’t want to – he was working on new music and he wanted to record in January.”

Jonathan Barnbrook: “It’s very difficult to know what he would have done next, but I do think smaller intimate gigs were on the agenda. He was very excited about just going out with the ‘Blackstar’ band, maybe to some jazz venues, and just getting into intimate gigs and being close to the audience again. I don’t think he would have repeated the mega stadium shows.”

Robert Fox: “No, he knew. I think he knew. Certainly, around Lazarus, it was very clear that there wouldn’t be anything else, barring a miracle. The last time I saw him was when I went to his apartment two dates after the opening of the musical. It wasn’t an overdramatic farewell, although it was pretty clear that it probably would be.”

A shape-shifting supernova

In a way, leaving the world guessing about his intentions behind ‘Blackstar’ is a very Bowie move in of itself. This was an artist who never repeated himself, never stopped pushing his artistry into new ground and always wanted to leave his work open to the interpretation of those who loved it.

Robert Fox: “Lazarus, to me, is very appropriate [to end on]. If you look at the whole canon of what he did, I think it’s an appropriately modest and interesting and unusual thing to have done as your last artistic output.”

Donny McCaslin: “‘Blackstar’ represents Bowie’s career as somebody who was clearly fearless and not afraid to look outside the box at things and how he was constantly evolving and looking at different sort of genres from his unique perspective, and then putting that together into a high art thing.

“He just kept evolving, kept moving forward, kept working through his unique lens and musical language and creating this new thing. I see that record as a continuation of that [approach], which he really embodied. And that’s really inspiring.”

David Bowie’s Lazarus will be streamed for the first time from January 8-10. Tickets are available via Dice. 





Source: NME

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