Death as a work of art: Bowie


Unfortunately, I am unable to find two really good, matching stills from ‘Absolute beginners’ and ‘Blackstar’ to illustrate that what I saw in my mind. I wonder if anyone else noticed the evolution of the “woman with a tail” that happened between 1985 and 2015.

‘Absolute beginners’ was made some time after ‘the Berlin period’ 1977-79 – that was, to me, the only period of mature Bowie when I could not perceive anyone else in his albums, apart from the author himself. For those three years, another person, perceptible to the extreme in the ‘Station to station’ (1976), stepped back.

Perhaps I should say a few words about what the work of the recently deceased artist has been for me. I have been in love with the work of Bowie for many reasons including the excellent stimulus it provided for my own work: his songs and compositions seemed to “loosen” my mind – apart from their other qualities they are very synesthetic. The major reason for my love for his art, as I see it now, was that his work and he himself together were so perfectly blended and embodied what can be very inadequately defined as “the [seeming] omnipotence and freedom of a creator”, the extremely seductive Luciferic aspect of the unreferenced creativity. “I can do anything!” – “I am great” – “I am” – “I AM”.

It is, actually, quiet boring when it is expressed by anyone else who is not – not in that state or does not subscribe to that philosophy, and this inevitable boredom makes the pronouncement of any moral judgement so problematic. A person who creates worlds out of nothing indeed feels omnipotent, free and entitled to do anything if it helps to create more. Any arguments against those notions, that there is dirt and purity, good and bad, and God and evil cannot withstand, the glorious sight of the man “who is all and in whom everything comes together”; male and female both irresistibly decadent and charming, “visionary”, “alien”, “great Arian beast”, “simple dude”, etc, etc, etc and his work, supernaturally varied and potent. Anyone can find anything there, try a persona on himself, borrow the omnipotence and “jump”.

When the “fundamentalist” evangelicals write their angry articles about the satanic nature of rock’n’roll they seem to miss the important point: the songs and compositions which concern them are truly brilliant and the musicians are extremely talented. To fail to acknowledge that is to shoot oneself in the foot; perhaps evangelicals fail to see the brilliance because they lack aesthetic sense?

This is what happened with me. When I listen to the Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ it was brilliant, very powerful, very stimulating and yet completely infernal, channelling the voice of inferno via the person of Bowie. As I mentioned in my review of ‘The Next Day’ the music caused me to paint the “visual comments” for each song. The process was effortless, felt very rewarding but somewhat impersonal. It was my own creative response to Bowie’s album that made me carefully analyse what was there, and then I had to make a choice, not the simplistic choice which some evangelicals seem to make, between “simply satanic words” and God but between the brilliance, being drunk with my own creativity, feeling that I was a wire through the powerful force was rushing, very original images effortlessly coming to life under my fingers, and my God. I am not going to pretend that it was an easy choice because nothing, nothing can be compared with being drunk with one’s own creative abilities, with putting visons into the palpable art – nothing but God, personal God, being in personal relationship with God. Hence I understand why for those who do not know/ do not want to know God the Person the choice is pretty obvious or even non-existent. This is why I cannot highlight it too much: Bowie is a brilliant artist and he is totally Luciferic and empty at the same time.

I would like to bring the reader’s attention to the fact that my choice was not, as Bowie’s fans may perceive, “between their idol and God”. I wish to clarify this obvious (and silly) thing because there are many notions about “Bowie as God” over the Internet. No, the choice was between Me = my own “creative omnipotence” expressed by Bowie and God or, in essence, between Lucifer and God. Bowie and I are equally insignificant here; we (or anyone else) make a choice whose voice to express so to speak, of the Ultimate Creator or of His imitator. And, because the voice of the former is so delicate, pure, and non-imposing and the voice of the latter is so forceful and, the most important, so similar to a human, we often mistake it for our own and choose it being convinced that we chose “I”. That looks like a noble rebellion, a refusal to submit to the oppressing God the Father, the Prisoner (“My father ran the prison”, ‘The Next Day’).

I find it very interesting that so much of Bowie’s “attributes”, being extracted out of the man and put into dry words, are the attributes of Christ, albeit perverted. For example, Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, has masculine and feminine qualities about Him. This is why the mystics, both males and females, are able to relate to Him as their Divine Spouse and find fulfilment of their own masculinity and femininity in His corresponding qualities. I suspect Bowie’s androgyny “worked” in a similar way for many admirers, superficially speaking of course. The difference is that the Bowie’s personas stirred lust which pulls a human being down, the lust which causes a person to find physical satisfaction in any form and shape while the Person of Jesus Christ induces the love, on all levels, of the human being (meaning spirit, soul, and body) which transcends and lifts up – however, without denying to a human being their body. What is this exactly, one can find in the books of Christian mystics; it is enough to say here that a mystic’s bodily desires are lifted up and transformed in God while those who ardently go for “personas” disperse themselves in various quite questionable sexual practices. The first is about the unity, of a soul with God and with her/his earthly spouse (if such a person exists) and the other about a gradual loss of oneself. There is something very awkward and even stupid about comparing Jesus Christ with Bowie. Here I simply follow the line of thought of Bowie’s fans. And this stupidity and blasphemy appears to point at something of value: indeed to one who is familiar with Christian mystical theology the personas of Bowie carry a certain dose of mockery of God, the pollution of the intimate relationship of a soul with Christ. It is legitimate to say that the inferno, via Bowie, uses the most potent force, the human libido, our instinctive desire to be fulfilled, by another human being and by God. Primitively speaking, to the souls lust for God, the Eternal, here is offered a temporal fake, instant gratification but it feels good in the beginning, especially if a person has never tasted God – and how could he or she do this if the very attributes of God: purity, truth, goodness, kindness, even beauty are now very commonly perceived as something “boring” and even shameful to associate with.

It seems to me that any argument about the infernal nature of such and such music or art or something else is deemed to look superficial if it is done other than on the terms of the discussed perversion. What I mean is that it is impossible to discuss, for example, the Luciferic features of the Bowie’s art operating only quotes from the Scriptures and “listing” blasphemous elements of his songs/ videos because:

- The blasphemy is not perceived as something questionable by many now;
- The occult references are “thrilling” for those who do not know much what is behind them or know only superficially;
- The occult components are deliberately covered by other, “innocent” or “very legitimate”  references which render them insignificant;
- The stereotype of the literary thinking “bible-basher” obsessively listing “isolated things” without consideration of their context is not something that one wants to be associated with.

There is a deeper reason here. The argument from a purely evangelical position would be possible if the works of Bowie would be as clear, with commandments, ethical and moral maxims and so on, for example if he would sing “you shall kill” you “shall hate” etc. He does not sing this but he communicates it on a different deep/ hidden level. Any simplistic argument “see the pentagram there” fails because, although the pentagram may be indeed there it is usually accompanied by something else which allows interpreting it in the opposite way, overwrites it, even to show the author as a possible Christian.

This is why Bowie’s occult mysticism can be adequately addressed only from the position of Christian mysticism. And, just like Christian mysticism is defined not by its symbols and visions (there are multitude of them and they are very diverse) but solely by the purpose of the mystic, i.e. to achieve union with God in love, occultism can be just as easily defined not by its imagery but by the desire of the occultist to achieve omnipotence = the power to do what he wants, by all means. Those are the two vectors along which one’s life gravitates: the former is towards Another One as it is in a case of the real love; the latter towards oneself/ the force which propels such a solitary love affair while trying to incarnate in the person (a side-thought: so many personas of Bowie can be, apart from purely psychological/ artistic/ theological reasons, his attempt to fall in love with a new partner). In both cases the images and symbols are secondary compared to the “vectors” of intentions; they are useful for discernment but not the most important. The “air” of a song/ a composition/ a video are more telling than the separate elements; the same is true with the body of the work stretched over a certain time period or over a lifetime.

Here is an extreme example of what the superficial analysis of the video/ single “Blackstar” can look like: “He told me it is about ISIS”. It is actually the most memorable interpretation probably because it is “nothing to do with the song” taken to the extreme. If Bowie indeed provided such an interpretation it is not at all surprising – it is a fit mockery although it has some, extremely pale, truth about it, that ISIS kills Christian as well (and Moslems). Other responses are: “an “intensely creepy” video that “begins in space and gets crazy” (Pitchfork); “a straightforward example of a surreal dream-logic film that tries to sustain itself a bit too long.” (Pulver). They are as empty as Bowie’s explanation but far less imaginative.

I am a little surprised that I have not come across any critical responses with substance because the video (and also the lyrics) says a lot. Below I will attempt to represent my initial impression, albeit necessarily broken into parts.  The imagery and lyrics are combined; [comment in square brackets] highlight what I find to be important.

Fallen astronaut [“the man who fell on earth”, Icarus, Bowie, fallen angel, whoever] – a button with a smile [a light touch of mockery]
In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all
[Jerusalem, that is “the centre of the world”]
Your eyes

perversely looking female resembling “a wiccan witch” (not so much by her appearance but by the “air” around her), with a worm-like tail sticking out of her dress is walking towards him
On the day of execution, on the day of execution
[Jerusalem – execution of three including Christ]
Only women kneel and smile, ah-ah, ah-ah
[only women were next to the Cross, kneeling – but were not smiling but crying in despair]

Bowie is blindfolded [reference to the blindfolded on the day of execution Christ]
At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all
[Jerusalem]
Your eyes, your eyes
a woman lifts the astronaut’s helmet and extracts a skull
a candle, the skull, two waste-naked men, white and black – “good thief” and “bad thief”, shaking their middle parts
a woman proceeds to the city which, by the way, looks like Eastern quarters solemnly carying the skull
men continue shaking, Bowie continues praying “Christ”

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all
Your eyes
Ah-ah-ah
the candle now looks more like a female breast somehow, because of filmography and probably because a white liquid erupts from the “nipple” and streams down. Similarly to the first female, other females gather in a circle and also shake in a similar way. The astronaut’s skeleton flying up to the “Blackstar”.

Bowie with “the book of the covenant” with the black star on the cover in celestial surrounding; then semi-ecstatic Bowie, now free from his blindfold, prayerfully-mockingly exclaims as a revelation:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

[the “old good gnosis”, that Christ did not die on the cross but someone took His place]

[next, his usual “I am not he – I am he – I am not etc collage” where the evil playfully say “yes, I am the evil” but it is too funny, everyone is too involved in the game so it does not matter]
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)
I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)

I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar)
[At last: “I Am who I Am”, says God]

I’m a blackstar, way up, on money, I’ve got game
I see right, so wide, so open-hearted pain
I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Three crucified, one of them who supposedly “took his place” now whirls his pelvis, just like two others; Bowie continuing his mockery; now he looks much more vital and juicy with his “book of the covenant” in his hand:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star's star, I’m a blackstar)

I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangstar)
But I can tell you how (I’m not a film star)
We were born upside-down (I’m a star's star)
Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)
[Christ, bright morning star]
(I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar
I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Then there is an approximation of the black mass: a dark priestesses (allusion to the Mother Goddess) with the skull; the “altar” is formed out of the body of one of the women; the skull is placed upon it and everyone submits including the three crucified on their crosses made with ridiculously thin brunches. The triumph of the Luciferic gnosis brought via the “ female principal” which conducts the ritual sacrifice of the “unenlightened”.

In the villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle
Ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, your eyes
On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile
Ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, your eyes, your eyes
Ah-ah-ah

[Those are just the most important, rough and obvious connotations; there are plenty more.]

It is of course very easy to dismiss the comments above as “yet another Christian madness”. That is indeed easy, if one, so to speak, keeps sticking his or her nose close to each comment and each moment of the video and each word of the lyrics, without stepping back and attempting to see all the collage, keeping in a mind its contrary parts. If one keeps doing that then it is indeed easy to see the “scarecrows”, “fairies”, “Gagarin” and even “ISIS”. By the way, those things can be present in ‘Blackstar’ as well, and this does not cancel another meaning conveyed above. Noteworthy, the further one step back from the song ‘Blackstar’ the more evident its gnostic message becomes, just like the nature of Christian mysticism becomes clearer if one distils the writings of mystics from their psychological individual peculiarity, historical setting, and so on.

Firstly, there is an undeniable perversion in Bowie’s video; parallels “innocence = rot”, “virgins = perversion” etc, and this is far more revealing than blasphemous “sauce”. What appears good at first covers something revolting, but then this revolting becomes “artistic”, the source of power (a smile on a button – a dead body – there where a plain ugly skull is supposed to be appears a skull adorned with the jewels”, a magick item). The crosses are not real crosses but made with thin branches; the black mass is also somewhat mocked… but less so, lightly, but still mocked. And here is something that is the most coherent and convincing: Bowie actually mocks not just Christianity but the “primitive occult” as well. The only things in the video which are not mocked are the book of the covenant with the ‘Blackstar’ and Bowie himself as ‘Balckstar’ proclaiming the “ultimate gnostic knowledge”, that someone swapped with Christ and there was no Sacrifice and no Atonement, it was a trick in which the stupid masses believe. I even suspect that he mocks the belief of Christians in Christ together with the belief of some more primitive occultists, in the reality of Christ = mocks their hatred for Him. It appears to me that Bowie has well transcended the primitive occult and moved to pure gnosis, to the realm where a person stops raging at God (as was evident in his album ‘The Next Day’) but for whom God no longer exists, at all. He is in his own universe in which Lucifer and him are one, as he perceives it. The video actually states this fact of achieved “mystical union” quiet explicitly.

[While looking for the text of the lyrics, I came across of the statement that “Ormen” is “serpent” thus “the villa of Ormen” is “the dwelling place of the serpent”. Whether it is true or not, it is not relevant.]

Now, after Bowie died yesterday, everyone says that the album was “prophetic”, that “he knew”. Of course he did. His incredibly well timed death served his statement, “I AM”, very well. Now all that he was progressively embodying for all his life will be much better seen and appreciated than if he was alive. He has effectively parodied Christ “even to death”, his own. Perfectly mirroring (i.e. left became right and likewise) Christ the Son of Man Who incarnated God, he incarnated the evil, especially in his final sacrifice. He will be seen by many as one who “took His place” and then miraculously transformed into a “Blackstar” that is, in Bowie’s world, “I AM”, the Almighty.

And then there is the counterpart of ‘Blackstar’, ‘Lazarus’:

Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now

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 cell phone down below
Ain't that just like me?

By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass

This way or no way
You know I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain't that just like me?

Oh, I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh, I'll be free
Ain't that just like me?

Bowie here is presenting himself as a terribly scared of death old man, a helpless victim of one of the female “witches” from ‘Blackstar” who creepily stretches her hand up to his body from under his bed. Again a murky allusion to “the goddess”, the serpent. Then there is an old man feverishly filling his notebook with verses, mocking his own “stardust” persona and then, Nosferatu-like, retiring to a wardrobe. All that reminds me of Germany somewhat and is associated in my mind with… ‘Low’, his purest i.e. “without inferno” album and, at the same time, extremely potent, the best he made in my opinion. Something that he made in the period of his recovery after extreme engagement with the occult in LA, as he himself stated. As I read him, at some point of being caught in the “satanic hell” he even considered becoming a Christian.  In ‘Low’ I think Bowie was simply Bowie, a man who by some miracle did not perish and now is simply being, not “I AM” but “I am”.

I was very much taken by compassion first – the video appeared to me as a manifestation of another, human side of him which managed to break through but then I recalled that I have already been there, that ‘Lazarus’ suspiciously reminiscent of ‘Where are we now’ from ‘The Next Day’. Bowie released ‘Where are we now’ first I think, just like ‘Blackstar’ and it relaxed me enough to open my heart to the rest of the album that, as I realized late, was entirely different, solidly populated by the occult. Hence I am doubtful; the title ‘Lazarus’ and a few other little features in the song make me suspicious as well. But then there are other songs, ‘Dollar Days’ with the lines:

I’m walking down
It’s nothing to me
It’s nothing to see

I’m falling down

[and then so heartbreaking:]

I’m trying to
I’m dying to [at last the man is real I thought]

[but]

I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again

And at that point it dawns upon me that all this is probably the lie and mockery because what can be better mockery than to induce in someone’s heart a hope in his turn to good, and then triumphantly trample upon the rejoicing soul, bursting into mad laughter?”

It is also unlikely that a man who is sincerely terrified of gathering shadows would publish the first track, ‘Blackstar’, in the way Bowie did.  I am not going to engage in speculation about the fate of the Bowie’s soul. And yet there is always the final song, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’,

Seeing more and feeling less
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
I can't give everything
Away

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
Away
I can't give everything
Away

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout's hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
Away
I can't give everything
Away

I can't give everything
I can't give everything


And so, I will never know.

I am still thinking about the “cat woman” from the
‘Absolute beginners’. Has he done it consciously or has it lurked as an unconscious statement? As almost every “creative action” of Bowie it can be read in mutually exclusive ways, as a conscious devaluing of the past “unsophisticated, too humane feelings” and also as “look what they have done to me, the vital-young-cat-like source of my creativity turned to be the perverse deathly creature with a worm-like tail.”