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Death, salvation, liberation: Learning from David Bowie’s songs

Today I wish to write about rock music and the philosophy behind lyrics. For those who grew up with the genre of British and American classic rock of the Seventies, the name David Bowie would come to mind. His last days were filled with completing his last project, Black Star and how he reflected upon the inevitability of death and how he saw its coming on his deathbed and turned his experience into an artform: music and media installation in the form of a video. Below I present the lyrics of Bowie’s last masterpiece and my reading of it.

Death is the topic. A certainty. Yet, what surrounds the phenomenology or the meaningfulness of death is uncertainty. Therein lies the culture and nature of the meaning of life and death. Following Jean-Paul Sartre who said that there is no a priori meaning of life and that one constructs meaning out of it, and nourishes it with one’s value, we find that life itself is not a grand plot with a beginning and an end. Where do we come from, where are we now, and where will we go when we “die” – these are philosophical questions of our “ontological vocation,” as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

How do we get the idea of where we will be going when we die and if the “door that we enter” or the “gates awaiting us” as the “soul continues its journey”? — these are questions on truth and salvation. Which idea of religion and philosophy of living will be the most valid and reliable, scientifically speaking, that will ensure each of us will have a smooth journey to “Eternity” as that lone soul, given freedom and strict control as life’s tools of meaning-making? Or, in simple words, which door do we enter marked “The Only Salvation”?

I shall allude to the case of one of the most celebrated pop stars of our century, David Bowie and how his last days gave us a clue of what salvation and the certainty of where one is going after one die look like. Next, I will ground the discussion with perspectives from a variety of cultural philosophies and/or religions and finally offer some questions on how to think about the self, salvation, and the sociology of death and dying.

Death, salvation, and Bowie

Below is the first set of words, produced in toto, on meeting with death, as visualized by David Bowie, in the song “Blackstar”:

“Blackstar”

by David Bowie

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

On the day of execution, on the day of execution

Only women kneel and smile, ah-ah, ah-ah

At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all

Your eyes, your eyes

Ah-ah-ah

Ah-ah-ah

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen

Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah

At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all

Your eyes, your eyes

Ah-ah-ah

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)

How many times does an angel fall?

How many people lie instead of talking tall?

He trod on sacred ground, he cried aloud 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 the flash in the pan (I’m not a marvelstar)

I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)

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)

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 starstar, I’m a blackstar)

I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangster)

But I can tell you how (I’m not a flamstar)

We were born upside-down (I’m a starstar)

Born the wrong way ’round (I’m not a white star, I’m a blackstar)

Oo-oo-oo (I’m not a gangster, I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Oo-oo-oo (I’m not a pornstar, I’m not a wandering star)

Oo-oo-oo (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

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)

Phenomenology of death and dying

There is a lesson in the phenomenology of dying from “Blackstar”, David Bowie’s song on the gift of understanding life and loving living it. From it, one can understand the inevitability of death and how best to prepare for it. It is about the metaphysical uniqueness of living one’s life itself, the cultural-ness of one’s belief system, and the cognitive-ness of one’s understanding of the meaning of death that will determine the totality of understanding where one will be going to when one dies.

If the life examined is worth living, as Socrates has said, death deconstructed is even more worth dying for, as David Bowie believed. The answer to the question of which door, if any, one will be “going into” when one is done with living, is contingent upon the entire body of knowledge about the philosophy of life one holds on to.

Whether one’s soul or spirit or “energy’ goes into a closet, travels into light at some end of the tunnel, rises up like vapour out of one’s body, is seen by oneself where that “other self” is going, all these are philosophical conjectures worth engaging in, I suppose?

And Blackstar is a poem about and in preparation of death and what it means to the dying and to who could “feel the coming of death” — years, months, weeks, days, seconds, breaths, last breath hence … — is worth writing about when one’s mind can still function in a (Ludwig) Wittgensteinian and (Clifford) Geertzian mode; the former deeply linguistic, and analytical in its feel, and the latter cultural-philosophical and thick-descriptive in narratives of sensibility. Such is my feeling about Bowie’s “Blackstar” I wish to write about.

Worth exploring is such philosophical and spiritual-anthropological themes in at least two music videos by the modern-pop-cultural-musical genius David Bowie offered as an insight to the phenomenology of death and dying. I think there is brilliant stuff going on there.

The fact that Bowie’s wife Iman Abdul Majid is a Muslim and he had asked his ashes to be scattered on the Hindu-Javanese Island of Bali is an interesting piece of phenomenological data to understand this unique, personal-lyrical narrative this artiste has offered to share with us what lies in his consciousness as death comes inviting.

In teaching a course on exploring the philosophy of the self here in the United States a few years ago, I’d use these videos and lyrics as study materials. I think they are good instructional pieces, given the depth of the subject — meaning of death and existentialism — and what a mediated life means. In these classes and dialogue, I’d usually begin with some perspectives of the individual or the meaning of the multiplicity of the self and next move on the exploration of narratives and moments of one’s life itself, framed maybe as a “memoirist”.

Bowie is a fine artist in the most kaleidoscopic sense of the word, weaving his art from the visual to the lyrical to the spiritual texturizing sources. He concocted his artefacts so that they became almost like a strange brew of Baudrillard, Epicurus, and Albert Camus combined. He made his life imitate art, right from the beginning.

A simulacrum of the self he sculptured is the mediated life he wishes to be; he is akin to a Picasso of visual and mediated self when it comes to dancing with the times of his life, from a Ziggy Stardust of the early space age to the voice of age of the cultural logic of late capitalism to a narrator of the meaning of death and the meaning of the dynamics and decay of the “body and mind” as life comes to an end with him fully conscious of the coming of the inevitable.

The second set of words on the phenomenology of death and dying is produced in toto below:

“Lazarus”

by David Bowie

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

You are free now, I presume.

May you rest in peace, David Bowie.

May you still write songs, wherever you are!

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DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.
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