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Black Star

I was reading Doggett’s book on Bowie that I got for Christmas, just starting to digest Black Star when I heard that Bowie had died. I was kind of surprised, of course. I thought I’d take a look at the lyrics and images of the title track for his new album for a while. Bear in mind, of course, that all these interpretations and connections are pure speculation.

It would take a long, long time to analyze every symbol in the video. I really have no clue what some of it is even in reference to, if anything. I’ll just examine some of the things I suspect I at least have a clue about.

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

The only reference to anything I’ve seen anywhere is that “Ormen” is apparently Swedish for “snake.”

Bowie has several characters in this video – the dour looking preacher, the man with button-eyes on a bandage, and it’s possible the skeleton/spaceman at the beginning is a reference to any of his 70’s era spaceman personas (Ziggy, Major Tom, etc.)

preacher

button-eyed-man

major_tom

Notably, it’s the same theme that Space Oddity had: the astronaut isn’t exactly a hero figure, he’s drifting off into space. Poignantly, considering his impending death, the spaceman is a skeleton (sans skull) floating towards a black hole. The skull of the spaceman is decorated – which could maybe be a reference to kapala skulls (Bowie was infatuated with Buddhism at one time) with a double-reference to his own postmortem status as a decorated reliquary piece, both in his characters and as a real person.

yamareliquary

It’s obviously pretty significant that this same skull shows up in his video for Lazarus (as does the button-eyed-man), and it rests on the desk where Bowie (in a biblical Lazarus-esque character) writes on his desk.

 

skull

In a sense, I think this is another double-referent. If the skull is something of a symbol for masks and impending death, Bowie sings he’ll be free just as his character (himself as a muse?) starts writing. The transcendence provided by the characters he embodied will outlast him. The same woman who crawls under the writing desk in Lazarus kneels before the skull in Black Star – death worships artifice. At the same time that death is bowing to artifice, death beckons at the button-eyed Bowie in bed and forces the muse into remission.

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
In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all
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)

This could mean literally anything – but to me it sounds a lot like a gnostic account of Jesus’s death – either that Simon took his place, or that Jesus otherwise evacuated his spirit from his body and watched (and laughed). This seemed like kind of a stretch when I first made the connection, but Elaine Pagels’ “The Gnostic Gospels” is on Bowie’s 100 favorite books list. Some have even speculated that some of these odd texts found their way to the middle east and informed Muhammed’s understanding of Jesus. That would place Bowie’s character(s) here in the role of the false messiah impostor. The following words from that same source seemed eerily accurate for Bowie’s disposition and history:

And I subjected all their powers. For as I came downward, no one saw me. For I was altering my shapes, changing from form to form. And therefore, when I was at their gates, I assumed their likeness. For I passed them by quietly, and I was viewing the places, and I was not afraid nor ashamed, for I was undefiled. And I was speaking with them, mingling with them through those who are mine, and trampling on those who are harsh to them with zeal, and quenching the flame. And I was doing all these things because of my desire to accomplish what I desired by the will of the Father above.”

That might all be totally unrelated to his intentions, but given the somewhat heavy-handed symbolism of the three scarecrows on the crosses it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to speculate that Bowie’s character is posturing as either the impostor or the real (gnostic) Christ. It would make sense if he were on the cross here, but I don’t think any one of the three is Bowie.

scarecrows

Following that, there’s only one scriptural reference to scarecrows that really sticks out for me, and that’s from Jeremiah. It says in chapter 10 of false idols:

“Such idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field.
They cannot talk.
They must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them
because they cannot hurt you.
And they do not have any power to help you.”

Is Bowie referencing the false-messianic role here to point out that idols like this can’t help you? I mean, I don’t think he has any discernibly explicit Christian streak in his art, but to say one doesn’t have answers doesn’t require that.

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)

Here Bowie starts referencing another interesting theme – fallen angels, and their fate. There aren’t a ton of really direct references to that sort of thing in scripture, but the most poignant one seems like Jude to me:”And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” 
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)

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 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)
(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)

Here’s the interesting bit (for me) – claiming he’s not a “wandering star” (like in the Portishead song) might be a reference to Jude 1:13, “wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” Those “wandering stars,” according to Jude, are apparently false Christians. That coincidence combined with the reference to fallen angels makes this seem a little bit less like speculation. Certainly the skeleton drifting towards a black hole sounds like it would fit this kind of judgment.

skeleton

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

In some form of conclusion – I think it’s kind of a mixed bag. I don’t think there’s supposed to be some kind of one to one allegory here, but rich symbolism rarely works that way. It seems to me like Black Star is meant to be a companion piece to Lazarus (Lazarus being a bit more transparently autobiographical, Black Star being more like a death knell to artifice). I could be way off on what I think some of these references are – but as a retrospective it sums up a lot of Bowie’s life and art. Bowie spacemen masks (skull) are being laid to rest, but also held up as idols. Bowie hints that they’re empty as objects of worship, comparing them to the gnostic myth of an impostor messiah. The blinded (button-eyed) preacher slides into the bed in Lazarus, and as he levitates and dies Bowie’s muse and transcendence-vehicle ceases writing and returns to the closet, to darkness, to death. Lazarus’ upbeat lyrics about being free make the drifting remains around the blackhole seem a bit less morbid, but overall it seems like a farewell that stays consistent with the best of Bowie’s work: cryptic, bombastic, and mysterious.

mwallace

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