Five years is what they’re going to write, and one can’t blame them. It’s a good headline, and it’s the only time they can use it. A strange temporal distance: far enough away to be the past, yet it still feels like it happened a couple of months ago, or maybe in a dream.
It felt like a dream to me, that day. Sitting in my kitchen, putting up a tribute post on the blog, approving comments, turning the Twitter into a tribute feed. I did this for twelve hours or so, then wrote out John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X on Twitter, shut off the laptop, fell asleep on the couch with the dog. It was what I imagine being an air traffic controller is like on a heavy day.
I did this for lack of anything else to do, for fear that I wasn’t doing enough. I’d written about David Bowie for years, had released a book about his music. I felt an obligation to maintain one place where people could go, to talk, to mourn, to just announce their disbelief. For the people who had teared up on the bus that morning, or broke down in a supermarket, for no “logical” reason—after all, this was a famous pop star, whom you never met, whom you never knew. But your grief was real, as you were grieving your life, which had changed overnight, one piece of it suddenly removed, as if you woke up to learn that the moon had disappeared, that there would never be a moon again, just old photographs and films, your memories of it and those of your friends.
One grating performative bit of the past five years is the person who says David Bowie was holding the universe together and it all went to hell after his death, as if he was a Timelord or an Ent or something. Well, the lifespan of David Jones, which encompassed the Korean and Vietnam wars, the assassinations of many beloved public figures, the Rwandan genocide, the Indonesian massacres and so forth, was no golden age. I suppose the most generous reading of this lament is that Bowie’s death was an unmistakable sign that the 20th Century was fading into dust and smoke, taking with it things that had once seemed permanent—newspapers, comprehensible politics, rock and roll. The news of late that nearly every old rock star is selling off their publishing suggests a fire sale that’s grown more desperate. Everywhere one looks now is tumult and chaos; turning a calendar page becomes an act of optimism.
As were Bowie’s last years. He was a 20th Century man from stern to stem. In his relatively brief time in the 21st, he quickly grew disenchanted with it, like someone who regretted buying shares in a disastrous joint venture. I demand a better future, he’d sung, not long after the century began. His last surge of creative life—producing in a few years The Next Day, the “Sue” single with Maria Schneider, Lazarus, and Blackstar—was this demand restated, ever more firmly, a demand to want more, to expect more, from oneself, from the world. Yet there was also an element of finality in this, of knowing this would be the last campaign.
Cut in the final Blackstar sessions of March 2015, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” was “trancelike,” the keyboardist Jason Lindner said. “I just had this piano figure I played on the Wurlitzer that keeps going and stays consistent through the bass notes moving down. It keeps repeating and gets bigger and bigger.”
For Blackstar, Lindner translated what he heard on Bowie’s demos into lush backdrops, converting guitar parts into synthesizer lines, and he gave “I Can’t Give Everything Away” overlapping, swirling layers of Moogs and Prophets: “I would dial in a basic patch on my Prophet ‘08 as a sort of blank canvas sound… It has an organic quality and it matches incredibly well with acoustic instruments. The Prophet 12 produced some beautifully edgy, full pads with ringing metallic overtones that really fit the more intense moments.” (There’s an odd mixing choice to abruptly cut off one of Lindner’s high-pitched drones at 4:28.)
The drum loop that links the track to its Blackstar predecessor “Dollar Days” came from Bowie’s home demo, as did his harmonica parts, unavoidably calling back to “A New Career in a New Town.” As on much of the album, Mark Guiliana had to play a drum part that would hold true to Bowie’s demo, to “accommodate this simple part but also interact with the rest of the guys and build the song in a spontaneous way.”
Guiliana’s work was the fulfillment of what Bowie, Mark Plati, and Zachary Alford had done on Earthling (a favorite album of Guiliana’s teenage years): live drum tracks with the roll and rigor of synthetic ones, playing human variations on an electronic theme. On “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Guiliana takes Bowie’s drum loop and builds it out—laying off his snare in verses to play subtly-changing hi-hat patterns and kick beats, getting in sharp fills to round out refrains, quietly building in intensity and dynamics when responding to Donny McCaslin’s solo.
Bowie starts out low in range, his notes mostly those of the underlying F chord. He makes a quiet assertion, moving up a third (“something’s ve-”) and down (“-ry wrong”), ending a tone higher than where he started. Two steps up, a step down. He makes the same movement, only going higher, when the chord changes. He keeps pushing upward until, with the plaintive “GIVE” that opens the refrain, he’s on the peak, looking down at the valley. In a breath, he tumbles down (“ev-ry thing”). He does it again: a striving, a collapse. At last he reaches a compromise on the last “awaaaay,” holding on a C note that’s an octave up from where he’d started in the verse.
It’s a monologue, a surging lifeline against repetitions of drums and keyboards. But after a time, Bowie’s refrain vocal freezes into a pattern. He’s fallen into the song. No longer the lead actor, he moves into the background, his refrain phrasing becoming another loop, now working in support of his soloists. First McCaslin, who plays a melody to wreathe Bowie’s “away” and then takes a journey to parallel Bowie’s: lightly stepping up, sliding down, fixating on notes, urging himself onward, finding new pockets of melody as means to keep aloft; it’s an aeronaut’s solo.
Then the guitarist Ben Monder (like McCaslin, another Maria Schneider Orchestra regular). On Blackstar he’s often the touch-up man, working in overdubs, the inker and colorist who moves in once pages have been penciled. Yet when he appears on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” it’s as if the whole song has been laid out for his benefit, to be raw materials for his coruscating, shredding solo. Monder is another force pushing upward, again and again moving to his highest two strings, peaking on a sky-high A note, then making a tumbling chromatic fall. As “I Can’t Give Everything Away” moves into its outro, Monder plays a ritardando figure of alternating high notes, closing out broadly, no longer in tempo.
And where the ear expects the song to close on its F major home chord, it instead ends on D minor, its vi chord, which aches to be resolved but never will.
This is the last song on the last album that David Bowie would release in his lifetime. And it’s called “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” You can hear his mordant wit in the title—he might have called it “What Else Do You Want, Enough Already.”
When I first heard it, Bowie’s verse reminded me of Roy Orbison’s on “Blue Bayou.” I feel so bad, I got a worried mind, Orbison begins. He’s in exile, separated from his love, far away from his home, and he longs to go back there, saving dimes, working night shifts. But you sense in his voice that he may never make it back, that Blue Bayou, whose details are those of an afterlife or lost childhood (often one and the same in the imagination), isn’t there. Or it once was, but the world has changed and swept it away. As John Crowley once wrote, the world is older than it once was. Orbison could save up, take the train back, only to find nothing but a piece of swampland.
I know something’s very wrong
The pulse returns, the prodigal sons…
Who is this “I,” anyway? Mr. David Jones has brought back David Bowie by popular demand. It’s a show that could play for years, but he knows it won’t—the spells aren’t holding, the bindings are cracking.
Bowie’s stunning lines in the second verse are his Prospero moment, in which an old magician drowns his books in the sea, makes amends for his art and witchcraft:
Bowie sings one last riddle. He saw more than he felt, he said no when he meant yes. This is all I ever meant, he says, with a trace of a smile. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the last scene of a mystery in which the detective reveals there’s been no crime.
Here he stands in his deaths-head shoes, smiling and waving and looking so fine. The image to recall is one of Jimmy King’s last photographs of Bowie. On a downtown New York street, before a grated door, dressed for a tea social, grinning from ear to ear, he looks ready to leap into the air.
Recorded: (drum loop, harmonica) Bowie home studio, ca. mid-late 2014; (backing tracks, vocals) 21 March 2015, Magic Shop; (guitar overdubs) ca. late March 2015; (vocals) 7 May 2015, Human Worldwide. First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.
Photos: Jimmy King, “David Bowie,” New York, ca. September 2015.