The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Some Thoughts on the “Blackstar Working”

blackstar

When Bowie’s Blackstar album came out last Friday, and the title track was finally heard in context with the other six (mostly, equally stunning) songs, there was something truly weird about it all. This was no mere album, and no mere concept album. The last two hauntingly beautiful tracks, “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” felt very much like a goodbye. The whole thing was creepy and ominous, like Bowie had something really big up his sleeve. My wife and I listened to the album three times over three days, spellbound by its depth and sadness, and could not stop talking about it. It put us in a very strange, very sad mood. And when I rose from bed Monday morning, the line “something happened on the day he died” was on repeat in my head:

Something happened on the day he died.
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.
And someone else took his place and bravely cried: I’m a blackstar!

Sure enough, Bowie, who spells his name on the cover using fragments of a five-pointed star, did have something big up his sleeve. When I sat down at my computer and read the awful news, I was shocked but not surprised. We now know from the producer, Tony Visconti, that he’d indeed been planning Blackstar as a deathbed gift to his fans since he learned he had incurable cancer 18 months ago, and that the songs were recorded in early 2015, when he was obviously in much better health. (There is no hint of weakness in his singing voice, although he allows his breaths to be heard on a couple tracks, which, along with every other detail, now becomes highly significant.) Has an artist … or anyone … ever gone out with such masterful control, grace, wit, and mystery? Bowie, as many remarked on Twitter, managed to stare death in the face and use it.

majortomskullWhen the “Blackstar” video (bottom of this post) was first released in late November, there were rumors that it was somehow about or related to ISIS … which seemed a bit too narrowly geopolitical a subject matter for Bowie. Yet there was an unmistakeable whiff of the imagery that had become associated with that group’s adolescent atrocities. There was the blindfold worn by Bowie himself and then the three scarecrows at the end. There was the theme of death and, specifically, execution (“On the day of execution, only women kneeled and smiled,” etc.), in a vaguely Middle Eastern setting. And most significantly, the video opens with the retrieval of a jeweled skull from inside a spacesuit, while later we see a headless skeleton floating in orbit. Death, executions, beheadings. It seemed like Major Tom had been martyred in a particularly distressing way.

Knowing that this album was written and recorded a full year ago, the ISIS link makes much more sense: From the time Bowie found out he had cancer in mid 2014 until he recorded these songs, the world was transfixed by the ISIS spectacle, specifically their videos of decapitations. Bowie, unparalleled master of fame and stardom, must have recognized their savvy method: using extremity and transgression to transfix the attention of the world, capitalizing on the total whorish complicity of the media. In his own much more benevolent way, Bowie had pioneered this M.O. in his own career. Like all of us, he must have been saddened and appalled at what was happening, while at the same time reeling from his own diagnosis. His associative mind would have drawn a link between the black-clad executioners marching through Syria and Iraq and the illness spreading in his body. It now turns out that “black star” is medical jargon for a certain type of cancer lesion.

I think Bowie saw here an opportunity to commit a last heroic act: Reappropriate ISIS’s symbolic language (ritualistic executions, decapitation, blindfolds, etc.) and subvert it, utilizing his own death to draw the necessary attentional energy to a final magical intervention against the extremist violence eating away at the world. In the video, he waves a black spell book, and indeed the gorgeously designed book accompanying the LP is very like a grimoire. “BOWIE” spelled on the cover in star fragments literalizes that he is using the shattering/destruction of his self to cast a “spell” at evil, or the forces of evil. Blackstar is not about ISIS so much as a kind of magic(k)al “working” (a la Crowley) against ISIS (and what they represent). It remixes their own symbolism into a dark and beautiful summoning of female power to defeat the forces that enable that kind of base violence to flourish.

blackstarsinglecoverSymbolic working and re-working (or in an academic and political context, “reframing”) uses the fact that all symbols have multiple meanings. Bowie’s death two days after the album’s release provided the final bit of needed meaning to understand the “Blackstar” video: A blackstar is obviously much more than a cancer lesion; it is also a black hole, the remnant left when a very big star dies, absorbing all light (the cover of the single, right, showing a gravity well, confirms this intended meaning).

Such a heavy hole in spacetime, I think Bowie knew and hoped, could supply the necessary power for his spell against the terrestrial darkness blighting our world. What indeed did the entire world do when it found out about his brilliantly timed death, but attend ever more closely to Blackstar‘s tracks “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” and to his whole life and works? He would have counted on that black-hole-like sucking-in of all attention and meaning.

The women are the “heroes” of “Blackstar.” When the sly animal-tailed woman at the beginning of the video retrieves Major Tom’s jeweled skull and the relic is then incorporated into the circle of female power “in the Villa of Ormen” (i.e., “____ or men”), it seems to summon a spirit that punishes and destroys the initially smug blindfolded scarecrows. Bowie seems to be saying to women, and to the feminine (i.e. receptivity) in all of us: Take the power back from those stupid children. Bowie saw clearly what somehow few people want to talk about in our insane times: All violence in the world, be it ISIS, school shooters, gun nuts of all stripes, is committed by men. Terror and violence are not about religion and politics; they are about testosterone. Perpetrators are often young and confused, flooded with adolescent and young-adult male anger—precisely the raw material that older, powerful men have always summoned and channeled for wars. If women of the world stopped being impressed by male audacity—both the audacity to kill and the audacity to command death—how might that change the world?

It would thus be a mistake to read the “women kneeling and smiling on the day of execution” as women complicit and supportive of the horrors being perpetrated by their atrocious menfolk; the knowing smile on the face of the tailed woman as she appropriates Major Tom’s skull and bears it through the village toward its destination is how I take that smile—a calm “you just wait and see what’s coming” smile.

Bowie repeatedly insists that the place where the action is, the “center of it all,” is “your eyes.” Another thing a blackstar is is the pupil of the eye, which is a candidate for the materia prima in alchemy—the black raw material (i.e., what is in your field of vision) from which anything can be made. You are not a slave of ISIS, or of their media servants, or of anything or anybody doing outrageous things to capture your attention. Instead of filling your vessel-like gaze with stupidity and atrocity, look up instead, he says—look to the skies, to the stars—don’t look at all this shit being spewed on your TVs and your computer screens.

I don’t know if Bowie read Giordano Bruno, but throughout the “grimoire” accompanying the album, the lyrics to several songs are printed as stars arranged in constellations. Bowie’s “working” reminds me very much of Bruno’s 1584 attempt to reform the heavens in his book The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast: Because worldly institutions were so full of corruption and people’s values had sunk to such dismal lows in his time, Bruno felt that the constellations themselves by which humans orient their lives needed to be reformed and reshaped, their images given new meaning, and his lengthy book in dialogue form attempted precisely this. That is exactly what Bowie, that emissary from the stars, seems to be attempting in a perhaps more modest way.

The way Bowie takes and redefines “execution” is his boldest stroke. The decapitated skeleton isn’t just a martyr to ISIS; it is also someone who has followed the advice of a book that we do know Bowie had read and counted among his favorites, D.E. Harding’s Zen classic On Having No Head. Really pay attention to what you actually see in front of you, not to what you imagine or think is there. The headless skeleton floats in space in front of a pupil-like black hole, and this is precisely what the eye actually sees of the self in Harding’s vividly described satori vision: everything but a head. That’s because there is no head; only other people have such an appendage—you don’t. Recognizing this truth, in all its senselessness, is the true path to liberation.

About

I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at] gmail.com.

22 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the “Blackstar Working””

  • Excellent and shared. Lots of hidden meaning in Blackstar.

  • My wife and I have been discussing similar thoughts for the past three days. We both feel David performed a last magickal working of some sort. This may be it.

  • Posted about this on Facebook yesterday. I wasn’t completely out-front with what I was saying, but by the time I woke up yesterday, I had decided that the most “informed” way of thinking about the album (which I haven’t heard or watched yet, myself) is to think of it as a *spell*. Great minds think alike. Thanks for parsing out what it might be about.

    What timing the guy managed!

  • Fucking moron.

    He meant the Goddess Isis.

    Blackstar is a qabalistic reference to a couple things.

    1. Saturn

    2. The mystery black sun that the Goddess bears, which radiates across the abyss.

    3. The video is utilizing multiple gnostic symbols, all of which you’ve missed apparently.

  • Thanks Robert.

    The rumors about ISIS (vs. Isis) come from comments Bowie allegedly made to one of the musicians, as quoted in several articles, e.g. this Atlantic piece: “Bowie reportedly mentioned the Islamic State to the saxophonist and band leader Donny McCaslin when talking about the song, though the drummer Mark Guiliana and the producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone they had no idea the haunted and haunting 10-minute opener had anything to do with terrorism.” A spokesperson for Bowie subsequently denied the song was about the Mideast situation … just as everyone involved denied rumors the singer was in failing health.

    You’re right that the candle symbolism would point to further polysemy around Isis. Didn’t say my reading was meant to be exhaustive, just “some thoughts.”

    Eric

  • When a man sees his black star, he knows his time is come.

    Elvis Presley

  • Yeah, as another poster said, it was about the Goddess Isis and if anything, Bowie was a sacrifice to her to set all this shit about Isis more firmly in the “right direction”.

  • I agree, that would be a big part of the reappropriation of ISIS’s symbology–taking back the name.

  • RE The Atlantic and ‘reportedly’: The original report appeared in Rolling Stone last November. There, one the musicians stated that Bowie had told him the song was about ‘Isis’. Because no one working at Rolling Stone has a clue about Egyptian mythology, they printed the name Bowie had spoken in ALL CAPS. The Atlantic writer, equally clueless, then began to build on that mistaken transcription. The piece definitely plays with the myth of Isis and Osiris and I feel sure that’s what he meant when he spoke that name to the sideman. But I also agree with your notion — that it is indeed a working and it’s mean to reclaim a sacred name.

  • Art means something different to each observer. We will never know exactly the nuance of the ideas that went into this extraordinary work. There seems little question of it’s power. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • Thanks for the clarification, Jake. But I think we have to assume Bowie meant both Isis (the goddess/archetype) and ISIS (the terror/political group). The song references a ritualized public execution, after all. So maybe the musician, and Rolling Stone, didn’t entirely get the nuance, but they weren’t simply being clueless. I saw the video immediately when it was released, before I’d read about any ISIS connection, and my mind went immediately to ISIS upon hearing that line and seeing the headless skeleton. I’m sure Bowie meant us to draw that connection (among others).

  • Well, what others see as middle eastern/ISIS/terrorist references, I see as biblical, and seem to be referencing the times of Christ, with all of it’s meaning and symbolism. And no, I’m not a Christian (nor do I care to be) so it’s not something I’m biased in favor of, or naturally inclined to see. Setting aside the three figures on crosses, there is the village, that while middle eastern looking, does not look modern, or show any signs or hints of being in any way.

    I think the inclination to see ISIS as opposed to Isis, and terrorism in this video are conditioned projections on the part of the percipient. If this video had made its way into reality at another time, I suspect those connections would not be seen.

  • Agreed. But the video begins not in the mideast but in space, where we see the bejeweled corpse of an astronaut (might his rank be that of major?) receiving delicate ministrations from the young woman-with-the-tail (who will morph ultimately into a ritual priestess). I suggest this puts the Egyptian goddess in the foreground of the piece, just as it makes the journey of her brother/husband Osiris — who was executed rather publicly and then re-membered by her to live again as lord of the afterlife — Blackstar’s main subtext. Consider: In a passage of Cosmic Trigger where he summarizes/critiques Robert Temple’s The Sirius Mystery, R. A. Wilson notes that yes, Sirius is a two-star system where only one of the stars is visible to the naked eye. He then adds: “To ancient initiates Isis was a symbol of Sirius and Osiris a symbol of the Dark Companion of Sirius. . . . [According to Crowley and Levi] the traditional secret revealed in the Eleusinian Mysteries was that ‘Osiris is a *black* god!'” (p. 187) Blackstar indeed.

  • The Frida Kahlo character of the woman who retrieves and delivers the skull seems of particular interest, but beyond the reference to the iconic Mexican artist, I’m not sure *what* it implies.

    This was an interesting exploration of the record and video, thank you for that.

  • Of all the interpretations of the Blackstar video, yours makes the most sense to me thus far. I agree with the polysemy of the candle – to me it looks like a breast (life-giving symbol of fertility) and even a bit phallic, yet in this video it appears to represent quite the opposite – a perverted ideology, just as a black star is the opposite of all that is light-giving. The candle appears to be an “evil omen” in “thEVILla of OrMEN”. It appears to have been burning for a long time (judging by the wax), yet is nowhere close to its expiry. The skull with its rubies and emeralds could symbolize the promise of riches in the afterlife. Could the women (virgins?) in the ritual be bowing down in service to the dead space explorer? The button eyes seem to indicate brainwashing and the shuddering people seem to be possessed. The Blackstar is like an anti-star, famous for negative reasons instead of positive. I think that’s what the “born the wrong way round’ lyric is describing. As for the strawman/scarecrow sacrifices – the way they are gyrating looks like they are having continuous orgasms in the afterlife, yet when the women summon that monster thing I can’t really tell what happens.

  • As a student of Jung, I have long thought of myself as appreciative of symbology. It took careful consideration of your “Blackstar” thoughts to jar me out of my confusion. Thank you for that gift – from David.
    Intellectually, I appreciate the shaman. Experientially, I have not been elected. I give thanks for those few, like David, who are chosen.

  • I didn’t see either video until this weekend (and I still haven’t heard the entire album). I wanted to wait until I could dedicate time to watching it on the bigger screen of my tv. I was blown away. Watching *Blackstar* specifically produced in me a discomfort that is difficult to explain.

    I have spent my holiday after skimming through one of my favorite (hmmm… really?) go-to M/magic(k)al books, E.E. Rhemus’ 1990 (Feral House) mash-up of all kinds of things you, CL Knowles, and Gordon White talk about. I was looking for a specific entry or set of entries that refer to magical practices that are designed to propel the individual consciousness of a person “whole” into the next incarnation (like the high lamas of Tibetan Buddhism). I couldn’t find the entry (the book is challenging that way). In the meantime, I saw some interesting stuff about Isis, the great goddess of mystery.

    In my viewing of the videos and my understanding of the lyrics, I can’t really pinpoint anything to support my niggling suspicion (which is mostly triggered by his timing of departure) that one thing he might have been “doing” is using the attention of the world to in some way affect what happened/happens *to* *him* next — some kind of apotheosis. The Atlantic article seems to put that down to simple “ego” — “I want you guys to remember me.” What if it were more along the lines of “I want all y’all to help me take some specific next step”? At least some of the lyrics in both *Blackstar* and *Lazarus* do not seem to me to be inconsistent with that. Among the interesting things that C L Knowles has to say is the idea that Bowie probably intended these things to be discussed for a long while after we saw them, and I think that’s consistent with the idea that Bowie might have intended to “use” our collective attention for “something.”

    Or, maybe it’s “simply art.” But it feels *big*.

  • The title of Rhemus’ book being *The Magician’s Dictionary.* It is arranged like a dictionary, but in terms of everything he talks about, a particular doesn’t necessarily fall under the alphabetical entry you’d “expect.”

  • Thanks, Ahck.

    …Bowie probably intended these things to be discussed for a long while after we saw them, and I think that’s consistent with the idea that Bowie might have intended to “use” our collective attention for “something.”

    Yes. The more I think about this, the more I see the Blackstar album as the real-life equivalent to the fictional album his character creates at the end of The Man Who Fell to Earth, with the idea that it will get a message to his home planet and his wife. The fact that his other big deathbed production, the play Lazarus, is based on the end of that movie, strongly hints that his final project was not simply a spell but also a message of that sort. But to whom? Maybe himself.

    I once started writing a novel about a dying man who publishes a book intended to be found and read by himself in his next incarnation, that will somehow awaken himself in his next life and download some crucial knowledge. I wonder if this is exactly what Bowie had in mind. The image of spirit rising and stepping aside and being replaced by somebody else suggests a kind of metempsychosis. Who knows.

  • After I posted the last comment, it occurred to me that rather than spending my afternoon poking through Rehmus, I might simply have referenced Johnathan Black/Mark Booth in both *The Secret History of the World* and *The Sacred History*. I think it’s pretty clear that he argues that one of the purposes of the various Western initiatic traditions is to prepare the soul for death and further work thereafter.

    I’m with you that that little three lines of lyrics strongly suggests some sort of “change” (WHO WHAT IS THE BLACKSTAR?) But I’ve been wondering; WHAT exactly might Bowie have wanted *for* *himself* out of this?

    Last night I put something together I think might be a possibility, and it related to the jewelled skull retrieved from Major Tom’s helmet. When I first saw it, it triggered memories of the bejewelled skeltons of Saints that the RC church sent out around Europe as part of the counter-reformation.

    What if Bowie’s hope/intention was to offer himself as, to become, a Saint? From a human point of view, one of the major roles of a Saint is as an intercessor between humans and higher powers. He’d make a great Patron Saint of Queer. I’m not looking for Bowie-related miracles.

  • …and — I think one label for the feeling of discomfort I had watching *Blackstar* might be “dread.”