Leah Kardos and ‘Blackstar Theory’: The Interview

Dr. Leah Kardos is a composer and musician, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, and the founder of Kingston University’s Stylophone Orchestra. She’s written a book on David Bowie, entitled Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie, which Bloomsbury Academic publishes in January in the U.S. and February in the UK. (The e-book is out now!)

Blackstar Theory isn’t a Bowie biography, nor is it something as foolhardy as a chronological song-by-song guide to Bowie’s music (cough). Instead, as Kardos writes in her introduction:

What this book does do is explore some of the interconnected webs of meaning that are observable in the work itself. By ‘the work’ I refer not only to the primary outputs of the period in question, but to the artistry embedded within that connects with Bowie’s entire sphere of activity – his career history and the totality of his observable creative practice across time. Although Blackstar Theory deals with death as a subject, it is not the aim of the book…The aim is to approach the realities of Bowie’s mortality using the same terms as he used in commenting and wrestling with it through his work.

Part of this entails Kardos breaking down every Blackstar song and some Next Day ones (I regret that these musical analyses weren’t available for me to rely on in Ashes to Ashes, but am also grateful that I didn’t have to match the caliber of Kardos’ work here—it’s thorough, intelligent, and definitive). She explores some likely influences on Bowie’s last works, including Carl Jung’s dream journal and Dennis Potter’s last teleplays, and has fresh interviews with the likes of Tony Visconti, with whom she’s worked for years. It’s a major addition to the Bowie critical “canon.”

Leah and I spoke via Zoom in early December—the following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CO: It’s still unclear to me, after all this time, whether Bowie, when he was putting out all of this stuff in his last years, had something like a complete design in mind. I guess I always saw him as someone who’d more draft extensive plans that would never come to fruition, as he’d abandon them to move onto something more interesting. But there’s a narrative logic to the 2013-2016 period, even if unintended. Do you think so, too? Do you see an overarching pattern?

Leah Kardos: I get the impression that he was an intuitive creator. He followed his nose and was really grabbing at anything to try out. However, certainly since diving into the last works and from that position looking back at the rest of the catalog…you recall all those interviews in 2003 when he was saying “I’m always writing about the same thing, it’s always been the same question about isolation and identity, etc.” I started to think, “actually, yeah, you might be onto something there!” Because he really is just talking about the same things repeatedly, just putting a different costume on each time. Approaching the same question from different angles.

The consistency of his catalog is something that’s really struck me since he died. When he was alive, he’d provide something interesting and new, and because we didn’t have the full rear-view picture, it kind of felt like we were floating along with the changes. But I was really struck by the coherence of the catalog. One reason why Blackstar Theory came about was the realization that wow, it really does hang together. The longer you look at it, the better it gets.

CO: One thing I’ve found when I was writing about not just the Blackstar period but Hunky Dory and Station to Station is interacting with a few people, over the years, who really take the occult side of Bowie very seriously. Who appear to believe there is a master plan, that Bowie was dead serious about it all and had mapped everything out.

LK: That there’s a code to be cracked.

CO: Yes, all a bit Da Vinci Code. I do still love the Villa of Ormen Tumblr.1 I love the unsolved mystery of that. That could have been him: it’s not out of speculation.

LK: It’s in the realm of possibility. And it seems on brand for him to fuck with people like that. He knew how to slide into a chatroom and pretend to be someone else. I think also all of that fulfilled the function, the drama, the theater, the fact that he was so officially quiet and yet so forthcoming in other ways. Sneaky. Putting this shroud of numinous energy over the last album. I wouldn’t put it past Bowie to have done that. And the fact it’s unresolved is delicious.

Part One: The Set-Up (The Next Day)

CO: So, in your book, as this late period begins, another is winding down. You were a BowieNetter2, and that era seems like such a contrast to the late years. In the late Nineties, he’s Accessible Bowie. He’s chatting with fans, having in-studio live feeds, doing interviews with anybody who claimed to be a journalist. It must have been a fun period for you—does it feel bizarre in retrospect?

LK: It felt very normal for me—I joined BowieNet when I just came out of high school and was just starting to discover Bowie. Back then you bought a CD from HMV or whatever and it would have a card inside saying, ‘join BowieNet!’ I had no idea that being a fan could be any other way, and I discovered the career backstory retrospectively. It was strange when he left us all hanging, but of course we knew he was sick, what more you want? You don’t want to be that kind of fan.

Looking back now, what a remarkable thing it was. It felt so normal at the time, I made friends in the UK when I was still in Australia, probably the seeds of my immigration, to come to England and live here, began there. There are friends I met on BowieNet who I’m still close with today. It’s hugely important to me. His “dad jokes, everyguy, I’m just normal Dave” act, well I fell for it. Obviously he was right to get the hell off of the internet and away from social media when he did.

Heathen hijinks, ca. August 2001, Allaire Studios, NY.

CO: Your book is primarily about The Next Day and Blackstar. Do you see the beginning of this period with his reunion with Tony Visconti in the early 2000s?

LK: That’s the way I see it, in two categories—the ‘late period’ from Heathen to Blackstar, and the ‘last works’ between 2013–2016. Because the sound of Heathen I feel is traceable right to the end. I also think Tony brought out a certain type of music from Bowie.

The period is also marked by Bowie’s autonomous process. He didn’t have a guitarist or co-writer coming up with material, so in a way the music there links further back to Buddha of Suburbia—that’s just the sound of David making his music, his way, that’s what he sounds like. Writing everything himself in his little home studio. And there’s the freedom of ISO.3 Also Heathen’s introspective anxiety seems to intensify throughout.

So when I pulled it all together, I thought I’d draw a line on it. Some people refer to this is his neoclassicist period, but I’d say it’s more accurately defined as his late period, due to him finding a more consistent approach to music making with Tony, free from label demands, and of course the conscious playing around with his own history.

I also wanted to put the focus back on the songcraft and not define things by the haircut he had at the time. I really wanted to get away from that.

DB in NYC, October 2002 (Myriam Santos)

CO: We’ve talked before about his love of the Korg.4 How best to describe how odd his affection for this keyboard was—while it’s not a kid’s keyboard, it’s no state of the art synthesizer either.

LK; It was a pretty cool keyboard in 1997. If you needed to save patches on it, there was a module that attached to it and you could save them on floppy discs. I quizzed Tony about the Korg a lot, I was really fascinated by it. The sounds that come from it are weird and incongruous. Like, why choose that? The sounds in something like “Dancing Out in Space”: why are they choosing that? It always came down to this keyboard. He loved that thing.

CO: He was a big preset guy too, I recall Visconti saying.

LK: He did like the old preset but apparently he also knew how to go in and tweak a preset, making something more bespoke. I downloaded all the Korg effects, there’s a sample pack you can find online, and I went through them and I couldn’t find all of them [that were used on the albums], so I suspect there was some parameter fiddling going on.

CO: His composition style is often about what instrument he’s mostly using at the time, right? Space Oddity is the 12-string acoustic; Hunky Dory is the piano. Are the late records in part Korg compositions, deep in their bedrock?

LK: They are! And they’re also owed to the Zoom R24 multitrack unit he had,5 the way he was creating his demos. I spoke to Henry Hey and he got rough demos sent to him, Tony as well, and they had a particular sound about them. You listen to the Lazarus soundtrack, particularly “When I Met You” or that early version of “Lazarus,” you’ll hear these weird guitar parts in there. That was a detail on the demo and Henry said he wanted to honor that.

The demoing comes into its own in the late period, the particularity of the choices that David makes tended to get translated. Tony bought his own Zoom unit so he could figure out how to work with it. Reportedly David would say things like ‘I like the way I did it [on the demo], I don’t see why I have to do it again.’ So the demoing is bleeding into the end results.

CO: The demoing is far different from the old days when he’d go into the studio and tell Carlos Alomar, “okay, this is in A major, and have this funk riff here, and let’s work this out.”

LK: All those [Young Americans session] tapes at the Drexel Archive that Toby Seay has6 is literally that private process of him demoing, but he needed a band to do it back then. So [home demoing] gave him a lot of autonomy in the late period. He didn’t have to rely on a Reeves in the room, on Mark [Plati] in the room, and I think you can hear it in the choices he makes. Some of them sound naïve, some sound exquisite—you get both with Bowie’s demoing.

CO: You mention he’s even doing the scoringagain, this was something he always had to have Ronson or Visconti do—he’s even taking that in-house.

LK: The fact he was achieving this with his basic Zoom digital multitrack unit and not, say, ProTools on a Mac or PC…it’s amazing.

CO: Among my what-could-have-beens if Bowie was still alive, I wonder if he would’ve done a McCartney II7 at some pointa whole record from the Bowie home studio.

LK: His lockdown project.

CO: Because he did a test run with the “Tis a Pity” B-side.

LK: Which is one of the oddest things he ever produced. And Tony was emphatic about how much he loves that version, he told me that for him it rivals the Blackstar version. It’s a very strange record indeed, I really enjoyed analyzing it.

Transcription, by Kardos, from Blackstar Theory

CO: You go a lot into Bowie’s “late voice” which you describe wonderfully as having the “wow and flutter of ancient tape.”

LK: Tony is very keen to say whenever he has the opportunity that Bowie’s voice was brilliant to the end. And he was in the room, so who can argue. However in the Whatley Last Five Years documentary, when they isolate the ‘Lazarus’ vocal, you can hear how raspy he sounds. There’s a heavy frail grandeur to Bowie’s late voice that I spend a bit of time trying to frame in the book. Thankfully, another feature of the period is the consistently great vocal takes Tony manages to draw from him, so there’s a lot of musical examples to dig into.

Another thing about the late period is the ensemble singing. It’s often an orchestra of voices beautifully arranged, walls of harmony, call and response, octaves and unisons, left and right spread out, sometimes barely audible—you realize, wow, it must have taken ages to do all of that.

CO: He had on call a singer as good as Gail Ann Dorsey but he chose to do all the vocals himself, for the most part right? He used [engineer] Erin Tonkon for a few things.8

LK: There’s a heck of a lot of him, just walls of David on the Next Day even though he’s got Janice Pendarvis, Gail and Erin and what sounds like a gospel choir there, he uses voices in a painterly way. I mean think about “The Informer” and what’s going on with the vocal arrangement and its construction—that must have been a few days’ work at least. That’s a lot of architectural detail to render.

You know that footage of Lou Reed isolating the backing vocals of “Satellite of Love” and saying ‘how does David do this?’ That’s what I think about the backing vocals of The Next Day—they’re so intricate. Maybe he did spend a bit too much time on that record, those details are so gothic.

CO: The Next Day is in an interesting place right now, reputation wise. There was the initial “he’s back! this is great!” and then with Blackstar, it wasn’t quite a backlash but more a “Blackstar is what Next Day should have been” kind of revision. Where would you rank it now? I find it’s a major record but also an overlong one, and the sequencing feels off.

LK: When The Next Day came out  remember feeling ambivalent about it— for me it felt like the album was trying too hard, perhaps overcompensating for something. But I wanted to love it, and of course the first half is super-strong. I think those appraisals were battered by information overload—that’s how I came into it, really loving the good bits on it and hating stuff I thought was badly executed.

Then when I engaged with it deeper, I found the longer you sit with it the better you see the trick he’s trying to pull. I can see he was trying to pull off something quite grand and meta. Whether the material started off intended for a musical or as some kind of experiment or exercise to build back his songwriting chops, maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s got some weird shapes and so much surplus detail.

One of my conclusions about it is that it works best when you consider it as assemblage art, like the key is not only seeing what it resembles, but also seeing the various parts and remnants that comprise it, the bolts and screws and seams, the proximities of everything. I found an interview with Tony Oursler where he said he and Bowie were involved with the V&A exhibition, they were involved with planning it, and Jonathan Barnbrook also confirmed [Bowie] had his hand in it. So you can add the V&A to the pile of Next Day and Next Day Extra: he was giving us a lot of information in a deliberately impersonal arrangement. An invitation to participate and construct something meaningful from the bits and pieces. One can really sense his directorial hand in all of it, the ‘David Bowie Is…’ question being explored on all sides.

CO: For Next Day and Blackstar, he turned over the promotion of the albums to all those who played on it. This was unusual: if you look back, say for Earthling, maybe Reeves did an interview with a guitar magazine but otherwise it was all Bowie Bowie Bowie, saying ‘this is what the album’s about.’ But now you have everybody but Bowie doing substantial interviews: the drummers, the backing singers, the engineers. It seems to be deliberate in that he was already removing himself from his work, quite early on.

LK: I agree. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Remystification’ where I’m trying to look at that movement, how he made that retreat. Also to think about ways he represented his own art: refusing to talk but at the same time laterally making more stuff for us to engage with: all the music videos embedded with Easter eggs, the lists, the books. I enjoyed that new kind of intimacy with his material, matched with his absolute disengagement with the media.

Part Two: The Performance (Lazarus)

CO: The middle section of your book is about Lazarus the play. You saw it in its first run in New York [December 2015-January 2016], as I did, and you describe the audience reaction as being much like the one I was in, with everyone walking out of the theater saying “what the fuck was that about?”

LK: The group I was with were like “What was that? Did you like it? I don’t know, I think I loved it. I hated it.”

CO: I’m glad it’s being staged more. At first, it was just this two-month off-Broadway run in this small theater, so it felt like a secret thing that lot of fans didn’t know about because they couldn’t see it. The missing piece of the puzzle.

LK: It’s so crucial, I felt. I think it’s successful. I think it does what it’s meant to do. But the timing of it, you know, it changed it. I saw it while he was alive and again after he died. There’s no way you can come to it the same way again, and no way the play could say the same thing that it first did. It really does exist separately in that first run up until he died. You can see the change in what the new directors are doing with it. It’s really not about [Thomas Jerome] Newton at all anymore, it’s more a Bowie-like character having a dream.

He worked so hard on it and I felt the need to really go deep on it in the book because he devoted and sequestered a lot of his time on it in his final two years. It deserves a deep diving analysis, absolutely.

CO: I’m curious if it will survive as a piece of drama, if it could be staged in 2070, when few people will still have memories of David Bowie while he was alive. Or will it have a short life? I still find Lazarus hard to grapple with. It’s the closest I ever felt to seeing how Bowie’s mind worked, being able to peep in on his thought processes. Like someone recounting a dream to you.

LK: I really love it, and I’m still kind of afraid of it. As a theater piece, if you come into it cold, in one sitting it’s really difficult to grasp because it shunts you about between violence and pantomime and comedy and Bowie songs you love, followed by murders and blood. It’s a lot. As an audience member you come out of there feeling quite punch-drunk: is this what he wanted us to see and feel before he left us? There’s a lot there that works with Bowie’s established archetypes, all the Jungian stuff, the lines all but ripped from the Red Book.9 The Looking Glass Murders redux.10

CO: You devote a good amount of space to the late works of Dennis Potter, which I really thought was right on the money. I had no idea Potter had a piece called Cold Lazarus! When I read that I cracked up: “Bowie, you thief.”

LK: Based on something Enda said, I checked out The Singing Detective11 and my jaw was on the floor—there are so many references I recognized from Next Day and Lazarus. Also Potter’s deliberate merging of his biography and his legacy and his myth in the fictions he was creating, muddling it up on purpose to make it richer and more emotionally dense and confusing. You recall the Bowie quote “I think I like complications… I like thickly textured things.”

In Cold Lazarus,12 there is this sequence where the memories of this detached head are projected on screen and go backwards, not through the character’s life but Dennis Potter’s life: this was staged with his direction from beyond the grave. Same in Lazarus: Newton is completely woven into Bowie’s myth almost to point of interchangeability: people see Newton and see Bowie. The blurring allows the show to function like a performed closure of a public life.

CO: It’s amazing how much of a through line Newton is for Bowie. I heard “Looking For Water” playing a while ago and thought “that’s another Newton song.”  Is it strange how much he identified with the character?

LK: I was digging around those issues of Modern Painters from the mid-Nineties, and in that interview he does with Balthus he brings up the Bruegel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus again. That’s another detail directly lifted from Tevis’ book and Roeg’s film. He really did keep referencing and returning to that text.

CO: The recurrence of stars is another one. Towards the end, he’s playing with the idea of a star aging, or dying, like a red giant.

LK: Which I took from you!

CO: Which I may have gotten from one of my commenters, Deanna Kerry, who was an astrophysics grad student at the time—I later asked her to explain blackstars, which she did as well as she could to a scientifically-challenged person like me. It seems like a cliché that everything with Bowie is stars, everything is black holes, but as you said the consistency is unnerving at times. You wonder: did he really have it all figured out in 1968? Maybe that’s all on the Ernie Johnson tape,13 which is why we’ll never hear it.

LK: My favorite dead star metaphor reference is in that conversation with Burroughs where he’s describing, down to the costumes, the Ziggy Stardust storyline of dead stars, and aliens traveling along the black holes, all this stuff borrowed from Kubrick’s movie and Quatermass. With immaculate consistency following through with it.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the Infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.

Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense.

From Craig Copetas, “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman,” Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

CO: In the late work, Bowie seems to be in dialogue with other older musicians, you note. Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is very much an influence on Heathen, I’ve thought.

LK: I think so too, so many great parallels. The more you look at them, you think, were they looking over each other’s shoulders? While Dylan was writing Chronicles, Bowie’s working on his books. There are the musicals with Irish playwrights14; the archives.

Part Three: The Prestige (Blackstar)

The Somnabulist and the Handsome Family (from David Bowie Is..)

CO: Moving to the third part of your book, “the prestige” as you call it: Blackstar itself. How essential is the Maria Schneider “Sue”—is that necessary to get to Blackstar?

LK: It’s exciting [the 2014 “Sue”], isn’t it—it’s such a great noir, so dark and elegant. That said, I do prefer the roughness and aggro of the album version, it’s got a lot more emotion in it for me. For the big band version Maria keeps it firmly in control. But there’s something about “Sue” on Blackstar that’s out of control, it’s fucking nuts. I really appreciate the chaos and mess of the Blackstar version.

CO: I have wondered what a full album of Bowie/Schneider would have been like, but I wonder if it was best as this one-off thing.

LK: Would it have been too glamorous sounding? Those large jazz orchestras sound so luxe and shiny to my ear. I wonder if an all Schneider/Bowie project would have felt like a detour in the grand album narrative, like Baal, or that Badalamenti collab. It’s hard to imagine because I love the Blackstar stuff so much.

CO: On Blackstar, while Bowie lets Donny McCaslin and the band have plenty of space, he’s the middle of it all, he’s the controlling figure. Whereas Schneider and Bowie are kind of equals and combating each other, influence wise, in “Sue.”

LK: I’d agree and I love the presence of Donny as being something like Bowie’s emotional avatar, not vying for equal billing, but supplying a musical commentary underneath Bowie’s vocal performance. And it really articulates something: the solo on “Lazarus,” the way it dramatizes a song which on paper is quite simple. The soling on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” also. It reaches towards those inexpressible things, the unsayable stuff. And I’m so glad the last song didn’t end up being “Heat.”

CO: As the legendary Crayon to Crayon said, it’s a blast that the last song on the last Bowie album ends with this noodling, almost prog guitar.

LK: I love it—I’m so thankful for that. The rest of the albums from the late period end on a somber note, so I’m glad he chose to do that with the last one.

“Dollar Days” (excerpt of full transcription by Gary Franklin)

CO: For me “Dollar Days” feels like an epilogue, the calm after the storm, a song about wanting to go home but knowing you will never go home again.

LK: It’s beautiful, isn’t it—slipping off the mask a bit, a vulnerable moment. A song about being English and missing England and being okay with it. What I particularly love about that song is Bowie’s thoughtful use of harmony and structure to dramatize the lyric. He’s really mindful of the chords he’s using and the relationships between them, he’s playing with tension.

A lot of these details can get missed—people concentrate on the lyric, or the voice, understandably. But he’s there on his Korg putting a lot of thought and effort into the musical details, embedding references, playing into and against expectations. One reason I wanted to write this book was to give space to unpacking these kinds of details.

CO: He obviously knew a lot about music, having written it for 50 years—how much did you get a sense of how advanced his knowledge was of composition and theory? He’d sometimes say he was more of a ‘that sounds cool!’ type of composer. You mention on “Love Is Lost” an organ figure Bowie got by playing only black keys on his Korg. Schneider described this sort of thing to me as “the element of surprise,” which she thought was fundamental to his work.

LK: He was so omnivorous with his listening. There’s so much he takes from jazz, classical and experimental music and I really think he downplayed his musicianship a lot in public: the catalog tells another story.

The way he commands harmony even in some of his earliest pieces of music: it’s not someone playing a keyboard and saying, ‘that sounds cool.’ You’ve got “Moonage Daydream” transporting you through secondary dominant progressions15 in the first few bars. You’ve got beautiful chromatic transpositions treading through the bridge of “Life on Mars.” All the way through to the cadences of “Dollar Days.”

The chords of “Buddha of Suburbia” are amazing to look at. The way it’s pinned down on D with E minor and a G minor over the top, and then he flips it into B minor, then to B-flat—this isn’t a dude who just knows two chords on the guitar and can only play five notes. There’s immense sophistication going on. This kind of Eno ‘I’m not a musician, I’m just a dabbler’ thing allows him to engage in rule breaking, like he’s never claimed to be authentic about his music or belonging to any formal tradition with it. I will forever be an advocate for Bowie’s compositional prowess. It’s the reason why I love his music.

However he also struggled with his confidence. I asked Tony about The Next Day: why did it take so long? He said it was his confidence.

CO: It’s amazing to think of Bowie sitting there going “am I past it? Do the kids not want to hear from me anymore?”

LK: Which again is so touching. Sometimes I go a few years without making music and then I try to go back to it and think ‘can I really do this?’ Particularly if music creativity is intuitive for you, if you’re not engaging with it all the time, that kind of magic can disappear and you don’t have ready access to it anymore–you have to build it up again from nothing. I see Bowie as a modern romantic—in his best moments showing uniquely exquisite songcraft easily on par with Sondheim,16 Bacharach, or McCartney.

Ben Monder’s closing guitar solo on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (transc. John Hendow)

CO: Does the last work need to be the last work? Does it lose its power if Bowie lives five more years and makes two more records?

LK: It’s the question that drove me to change the nature of the book. I originally pitched it as Bowie’s Death Art…does the last work need to be the last in order to work? I don’t think so. I think those couple of days when he was alive and we had Blackstar: it was great, and I remember listening to it and thinking “oh my gosh, he’s given us a gem. He’s given us a diamond.” I was really looking forward to spending a few months digging into it. And then he died and it changed it immediately. So many people went back and revised their takes, kinda shutting the book on it quickly and shutting down the album’s lovely sense of ambiguity.

CO: Seemingly everyone who worked with him on the last record has said he wanted to do more.

LK: I think it’s disrespectful for us to presume Bowie made his last work while he waited for death. All evidence suggests that he was deep in the middle of a creative momentum, that he had sessions booked, he had people on the phone, “I’ve got ideas, I’ve got demos, I’ve got new songs.” He’d found a purple patch! He was making some amazing work and he knew it. He knew he was back in. Blackstar has such a momentum about it. You feel like if they’d had a few more sessions they would have come up even more incredible stuff.

CO: The idea of him doing a show with the McCaslin quartet [as McCaslin said he and Bowie discussed in 2015] is…just incredible.

LK: I can picture it as well. Imagine hearing ‘Tis a Pity’ live!

CO: He was never going to go on tour again and sing “Rebel Rebel” to a stadium. But a jazz club within walking distance of his apartment, that was more his style. That was the story of his last years, right?17

LK: “If I can walk there.”

CO: Is there a sense there are outtakes from these last albums that will one day be heard? There’s “Blaze,” we know.18 Are there other songs kicking around, do you think?

LK: The estate has got a lid on whatever exists. It seems that Donny’s got demos and bits of song ideas we’ve never heard before sitting in his inbox. It’s totally feasible that there’s unfinished files and sketches left on the Zoom R24 recorder. But you know, I don’t need it. I’d be devastated if someone went through my files and published my unfinished stuff.

CO: He was never much of an archival guy, musically—getting demos and outtakes from him for reissues was like pulling teeth at times. The idea of him doing a Dylan Bootleg Series is unlikely.

LK: Yeah I think so. Consider his process. For most of his career the way he developed songs was with the help of others. He would have been in a room with the tape or Pro Tools rolling, messing around with musicians and finding what sticks. He needed everyone to respect his privacy, to realize this is process, this is not the finished article. It would be highly rude for someone to share some half-baked shit with the world now that he’s gone. I’m sure there are process-based demos that have Donny’s band, bits of music they didn’t use, and if anything features Donny’s band I bet those sketches would sound especially great and listenable. Hopefully people can keep it all under wraps—I really don’t want to see the things he didn’t want us to hear coming out in a boxed set!

Thanks again to Leah Kardos! Blackstar Theory can be purchased as an e-book now or, in Jan/Feb, in your favorite indie bookstore.


1. A now-defunct Tumblr page (originally: http://thevillaoformen.tumblr.com/archive) from November-December 2015 that contained a number of black-and-white photos, some of which had eerie similarities to images that appear in the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos. No further posts were made after Bowie’s death, and to this day, no one can say with certainty who was responsible for it.

2. Bowie’s webpage/ISP/message board of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, on which he regularly took part in chat rooms, usually under the moniker “sailor,” and shared journal entries and photos. His appearances became much more sporadic after his heart operation in 2004, and as per Kardos, his last interaction as “sailor” was in 2007, around the same time that he stopped doing live appearances for good.

3. Bowie’s independent label, artist roster of one, which he started in 2001; EMI’s rejection of Toy was the last straw for him, in re working for major labels, though ISO has always had a distribution arrangement with one.

4. The Korg Trinity (Bowie also used a Korg Pandora effects unit and a vintage ARP Odyssey), which dates to 1995. You first hear it on the Omikron soundtrack and ‘hours,’ though as Kardos notes, the Korg is a fundamental part of Bowie’s music right until the end.

5. As per Kardos, “the Bowie home studio setup was connected to a Zoom R24 digital multitrack recorder, which came with an on-board drum machine, bass synthesizer, audio loop editor and a step/real-time sequencer. Even as home recording practices quickly evolved in the early millennium towards software applications like Logic and Pro Tools, Bowie preferred to stick with his Zoom hard disc recorder, a relatively limited and old-fashioned piece of kit by the time he used it to produce the 2014 version of ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’.”

6. Both Leah and I have visited this archive, located a quick walk from Philadelphia’s 30th St. station. You can read more about these tapes in Rebel Rebel, though Leah went one better and played excerpts from the tapes at a conference with Drexel’s Toby Seay.

7. A thread on the Vintage Synth board (https://forum.vintagesynth.com/viewtopic.php?t=42109) as to what synths McCartney might have used on that record (“that awful album,” as per one poster): consensus is Minimoog, CS-80, ARP Pro Soloist, Jupiter 4.

8. Tonkon, to Kardos in Blackstar Theory: “For women, a lot of bad stuff can happen when you work in studios, times when you have to smile and put on a happy face and put up with things, but working with David was the opposite of that. I was able to learn so much from him – creative lessons, life lessons … I learned an incredible amount. He was a good person.”

9. Kardos: “The Red Book was Jung’s own private dream journal-cum-art project, a personal record of his own ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, a series of disturbing visions that he experienced during a time when he was close to having a psychotic breakdown as Europe stood at the edge of the First World War. It was finally published in 2009 and its handwritten pages, paintings and drawings were shown at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (October 2009 to February 2010),” an exhibit which Bowie and Oursler saw at the time.

10. Lindsay Kemp’s 1970 televised version of Pierrot in Turquoise, for which Bowie sang “When I Live My Dream” and other compositions. Lots of dreams, mirrors, bedrooms, killings.

11. One of Potter’s masterpieces, The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) has Michael Gambon as a writer, Philip Marlow, recovering from a vicious bout of psoriatic arthritis in a hospital ward. The second episode is entitled “Heat.” Kardos’ book lists a number of fascinating parallels between Singing Detective and Bowie’s last works. 

12. Cold Lazarus (Channel 4/BBC, 1996), was, along with its twin production Karaoke, Potter’s last work, written as he was dying from pancreatic cancer and produced after his death in 1994.

13. Legendary 1968 “rock opera” demo tape of Bowie’s that was auctioned to a record collector in the Nineties.

14. Enda Walsh (Lazarus) and Conor McPherson (Girl From the North Country).

15. A secondary dominant is, typically, a chord that’s “borrowed” from a key other than that of the song, often employed to anticipate the arrival of the key’s true dominant (the V chord). So “Moonage,” which is in D major, opens: “I’m an all-i-ga-tor!” (D, the I or “home” chord), “I’m a mamapapa comin’ for you!” (F-sharp major, a III chord (the secondary dominant), quickly resolving to B minor, the vi chord of D, with a root note of A (the root of the key’s true V chord): “I’m a space invader.”

16. Bowie, 2008: “I’ve never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to  suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.

17. Well, he’d have taken the limo, most likely.

18. Of the various outtakes rumored to have come from The Next Day and Blackstar, only “Blaze” from the latter sessions, which Nicholas Pegg and other sources have heard, is verified to have a complete Bowie vocal/lyric. Many other outtakes of the period likely only have place-filler DB top melodies, Kardos speculates from her research and interviews.

25 Responses to Leah Kardos and ‘Blackstar Theory’: The Interview

  1. audiophd says:

    Excellent interview! I remember hearing Ms. Kardos along with Donny McCaslin on Arsalan Mohammad’s podcast, and I was definitely struck by her deep insight regarding Bowie’s “late period”. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to find out that she’s written an entire book on it…can’t wait to read it!

  2. Galdo says:

    Such a rich interview. I’m very excited to read Kardos’ book and I’ll get it as soon as I can.

  3. Dave says:

    “…I really don’t want to see the things he didn’t want us to hear coming out in a boxed set!”

    I couldn’t agree more, but I’m sure that I’d buy it nonetheless.

    Terrific interview and a lovely early Xmas present. Thanks so much.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant article. Leahs e-book is waiting for a deep dive once I finish dave grohls book. Maybe 8 should’ve done the fluffy bunny book afterwards!

  5. David R says:

    Goodness, have yet to fully read/digest but thank you so much, this is going to be a great read!

  6. Robert says:

    Thanks for this. Very eager to read it and especially happy to see D. Potter’s “Cold Lazarus” come up, a remarkable work. His final interview with Melvyn Bragg, punctuated by nips at liquid morphine, is worth a look. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XpnyPl8-ZcQ

  7. Utterly fascinating dialogue. Gave me some good guidance and moral encouragement re: unavoidable creative gaps. A few thoughts, somewhere between all or none of which may be original to my brain:

    I loved The Next Day from…the first day and have never felt the need to reassess, but of course there’s no denying its sprawl. I’ve resolved that into thinking of it as “his” All Things Must Pass — more compendium than continuum. But composed entirely of history that was brand-new, so to speak. (Looking back through the site I see that Chris has made this comparison — though I don’t think of The Next Day’s contents as amorphous, I think of the songs comprising the Extra disk to be a distinct, ephemeral album; the main disk’s bright, poppier doppelganger [I could easily see Elton John covering “God Bless the Girl,” or even buying it from a time-traveling Bowie circa 1975].)

    As to what Lazarus the show was “about,” I think it may be more like “around” — for me the story centers on Marley, not Newton, and I can’t help thinking it circles some aspect of Bowie’s past. Is there a direct if buried line from “There are children in washrooms, holding hands with a Queen/And my heads full of murders where only killers scream” to Alan Cumming’s creepy monologue in the original production of Lazarus? I’m not the find-the-literal-narrative, dig-up-the-dirt type of fan, but this kind of jumped out at me. (And was reinforced when Slicky seems to be intimating something similar in the Last Five Years doc.) Is Marley’s ghost a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god young David? Bowie’s assessment of his older brother did seem to get less rosy over time…or maybe I’m outta my mind and Bowie just thought one good mass-recognition referent for his grim pop-culture musical would be The Lovely Bones…

    I quite agree on the late-period influences — and I think, at one point, he circled back to Lou Reed too. Somehow only listening to Lou’s Ecstasy from 2000 upon his death, it seemed to me that Bowie’s turn to the many narratives of Jonesy-who-never-left-Bromley (from “Everyone Says Hi” to the suburban couple in the “Stars Are Out Tonight” video), and related kitchen-sink sagas of regular, unfulfilled folks (from “She’ll Drive the Big Car” to “Sue”) could well have been catalyzed by the domestic dramatics of Lou’s album…he was always a referent for Bowie and by then they were again good friends. I’d even conjecture that the Scott Walker influence went up further in Lou’s absence, first from recording and then from life (though it’s strange now to think of any span of time in which Scott put out more music than Lou).

    Dr. Kardos’ point about Bowie camouflaging his compositional adventurousness with claims of non-musicianship is encapsulated by one anecdote Bowie related in, I think, the 1987 cover interview in Stone where he recounts suggesting a chord-structure for “Never Let Me Down” to Carlos Alomar and Alomar politely modifying it from something Bowie good-naturedly jokes would otherwise have been “ponderous and funereal,” his natural reflex. I think of “Dancing Out in Space” as an example of the ponderous-and-funereal tendencies in a pop love song fully unfurled, and I find it both catchy *and* haunting.

    I hear ya on never releasing what was not meant for attention and not ready for assessment — though I think there could be a happy medium: if, say, Visconti’s retracted remark that five more demos exist is accurate, the estate could “donate” files to some institution and a scholarly site could be set up which houses these (and maybe the less-finished McCaslin scraps you mention) in a process-exploring context — which perhaps could include inviting uploads of mixes by site users, with an honor system about no one selling the results (and of course the estate never releasing any form of this commercially). Could be an insight into how his mind worked, with a clear understanding that these are not “official” in any conventional sense. (Aside from this, however, the apparently ready-for-primetime “Blaze” is something I’d be happy for them to get all commercial on us with; still don’t know why that wasn’t a market surprise timed to the “five years” mark.)

    • Leah Kardos says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful response. I love the idea that Bowie’s default tends towards the ‘ponderous and funereal’ haha! Reminds me also of Niles’ comments about when he heard the ‘Let’s Dance’ demo…

  8. Dave says:

    Fantastic conversation — thank you, Chris. Looking forward to getting Leah’s book. The Next Day turned me from a big Bowie fan into a fanatic, and Blackstar is one of my favorite records of all time — it truly changed my life.

  9. Jim Nightshade says:

    Great interview. If anyone’s interested… you can access the tumblr archive link mentioned at the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine…

  10. Jim Nightshade says:

    Note/Update: The Villa Of Ormen tumblr was updated end of 01.2016 to state that “I am not David”… however, it is odd how the posts in 12.2015 ended around the time the 1st reviews of Blackstar were in print…

  11. Christine says:

    Well, that was a lovely read, thank you Chris. I have the book on my kindle and am looking forward to reading it in spare moments while travelling around the country to catch up with family. I live in the Forest of Dean so have long known of Cold Lazarus by Dennis Potter. But I wonder whether Leah Kardos mentions Leonora Carrington at all? As a symbolist poet who lived between Mexico City and New York with her wonderful weird stories I cannot see Bowie would not have been aware of her. Her short story, White Rabbits, has already been referenced by Mary Anne Hobbs, as the husband is called Lazarus and has bandaged eyes. The story ends with the character’s fingers dropping down like ‘shooting stars’ over the bannister to the ground. Also I wonder if the Lazarus line – ‘dropped my cell phone down below’ (which always seemed a strange line to me) may not be referencing Carrington’s book about her experiences in a mental hospital, ‘Down Below’.
    What a feast of thoughts and interpretations we have been awarded by this amazing man, I am so grateful to DB for the continuing fun.
    Merry Christmas, Chris

  12. wmsagittarius says:

    Wonderful. One of the crucial Bowie books, it seems (to be shelved not far from the guvnor’s illustrious, nay, fabled two). Stick my neck out and suggest the Quatermass in question is more ‘… and the pit’ than ‘… (e)xperiment’ – I may well be wrong, beg please, don’t throw stones. I was at the self-service checkout in Tesco the other day, had just scanned three value garlic baguettes when a familiar melody sailed by my ears – soul singer, lady … vocalising a tune that walks in the footsteps of the ‘… something happened on the day he died …’ section of Blackstar … unremarkable, you may say … except for the following strangeness – much as I strained to make out the lyrics, so that I might google them later, not a syllable was discernable. I find Tesco to be the locus of many such mystical events. Well, the psychic energy of a whole community is concentrated on the supermarket … but I digress. More pertinently, do you perceive a musical affinity with the ‘soul’ section of Blackstar and ‘(you make me feel like a) natural woman’ – heard in the ‘Cracked Actor’ cross-country limo (the fly in milk scene). Milk – ‘making sure white stains’ – ‘what you need is in the limo’ – TJ Newton’s time travelling limo … on and on we could go, cyclical time, cut-up as divination … maybe it was a hyper-sigil, rather than cycle … there’s still ‘The Visitor’ to come, one rainy (there’s the water!) Record Store Day! Many many thanks for creating and maintaining one of the vanishingly few wonders of the virtual world!

  13. TisAPity says:

    Definitely looking forward to reading this book and the connections made in it between Bowie’s last works and what came before.

    Blackstar has always come off to me as a kind of properly pulled-off refraction of the Scott Walker inspired gothic-noir sensibilities found in Outside and the more, dare I say, “personal,” sax-infused aesthetic found in The Buddha of Suburbia and parts of Black Tie White Noise. Like Mr. O’Leary has said in the past, the saxophone was like Bowie’s Rosebud, and to me theres a discernible line between say:

    Pallas Athena – I’m Deranged – Tis A Pity She Was a Whore.

    The latter is almost like a combination of the first two in some ways. Fragmented lyrics pushed forward by propulsive rhythms, jazzy textures, and a minimalist kind of feel.

    I’ve been listening to the latest Bowie box set, “Brilliant Adventure,” and to me those three albums between 1993 and 1995 come off as the essence of Bowie in a way, even if most of their ideas weren’t quite pulled of at a masterpiece sort of level, they were finally refracted into that space eventually with songs like Bring Me The Disco King, Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, Blackstar, Girl Loves Me, etc.

    I think Outside on paper has all the colors in its pallet for it to have been Bowie’s best album, there’s so much going on in it, so so many ideas, but Bowie and Eno himself had both lost their midas touch, and that is evident everywhere on that album, from the timbres of the electronic textures to the poor drum loops drummed up by Eno, I listen to other albums of the time by Massive Attack, Radiohead, or Bjork and the sounds found there come off to me as more timeless and tasteful. Bowie was listening to gaudy jungle, inspired by Goldie, when he probably should have been inspired more by the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, etc. There’s some difference between the drum programming in Homogenic or Kid A and Outside or Earthling. I in fact prefer the drum loop experiments in Outside to those in Earthling as they come off as more tasteful, while the latter is clearly inspired by a more junglesque.

    To be honest, I personally think that latter day Bowie had not only a problem with confidence, he probably also suffered from painfully anxious and convoluted artistic neurosis (as he once pretty much made clear in a Charlie Rose interview), and a clear lost of touch. I view Bowie as THE art-rock god, and so i can’t help but feel disappointed when I listen to albums like Heathen or Reality or The Next Day. Their SOUND from the get go seems very uninspired, MOR, and it pains me to attribute that kind of sound to Bowie.

    I’m actually impressed Blackstar sounds as artsy as it does considering what came before. The Tis A Pity demo is probably my favorite piece of music recorded ever from anyone. Its lo-fi sound reminds me of the lo-fi, camcorder-recorded experiment that is David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I wonder if Bowie knowingly kept the quality of that demo on the lo-fi side, it adds a different character and extra dimension to everything.

    Long live Mr. David Robert Jones.

  14. Phil says:

    Re: Bowie bouncing off Lou Reed circa 2000 (adammcgovern46), if he did it wouldn’t have been the first time – nearly 30 years earlier he’d immersed himself in Berlin until he could do it himself in the “Sweet Thing” suite. And then, of course, he moved on and did something else. (No evidence for this except the timing, and how untypical those heart-rendingly brutal lyrics are for DB; also, Aynsley Dunbar’s playing on it, and DB had tried to get Jack Bruce.)

    Also worth mentioning that, if DB’s death changed Lazarus, it transformed Blackstar completely. Although the album had only been out in the world for a few days, the reviews had started appearing a month earlier. A while ago I sought out all the contemporary reviews I could find that were still available online; I read about 20 of them in the end. You know how those songs are shot through with death references, from “something happened on the day he died” to “I’m dying to…” to that awful understatement “I know something’s very wrong” to, well, the whole of “Lazarus”? Not a word; not a peep. The review in the FT says that some of the lines in “I can’t give everything away” are a bit morbid – skull designs on your shoes, Mr Bowie, really? – but that’s the closest that anybody came. I don’t think any of the reviewers were in on the secret, either. It’s the other way around: they had no reason to think they were listening to the last words of a dying man, so they didn’t. A really extraordinary transformation, and (although this is morbid) I can’t help thinking DB planned it that way.

  15. Marc Lowe says:

    This is a really fabulous interview. Definitely looking forward to reading the book cover to cover, both as a fan of Bowie’s “later period” work, a musician myself who composes and records via Logic (unlike David, apparently) and a USB keyboard (sometimes also using the acoustic) — I have also covered a number of Bowie’s songs, as well as the entire “Blackstar” LP in a rather different style — and also as a part-time professor currently teaching a course on David Bowie to young university students in Tokyo.

    I agree, by the way: Don’t release the half-finished demos (“Soon there’ll be nothing left of me, nothing left to release…”) but please (open call) DO release the so-called “Leon” sessions from ’94/’95, as Bowie wanted those to be heard, though the label shut the project down (as they did with “Toy,” later, as mentioned in this interview)…

    Glad I discovered this.

  16. glenntwo says:

    Great interview (unsurprisingly–you’re good at this, Chris!). Book is pre-ordered; I’m eager to read it, but I’m willing to wait to get a hard copy.

  17. Frankie Machine says:

    Ivo van Hove actually mentioned the parallels between Bowie and Potter and how they both used their art to meditate on their deaths in the wake of Bowe’s passing. Bowie was apparently Potter’s first choice to play the Martin Taylor role in the film version of his play, Brimstone and Treacle, which eventually went to Sting. Although Potter subsequently said that Bowie possessed an icier persona.

    I admit I laughed when I saw the early draft of the Blackstar lyrics at the Bowie V & A exhibition, where the Villa of Ormen was originally referred to as the Villa of All Men, which highlights the folly critics can make when they overanalyse and intellectualize things.

  18. Good interview, I look forward to reading Leah’s book.

    FWIW, the full transcription of Dollar Days, as mentioned above, is available here: https://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/dollar-days-digital-sheet-music/21172966

  19. William Byron says:

    Very appreciative of this conversation with Leah and cannot wait for my physical edition. Some thoughts on some of the points in your talk:

    – Bowie was very canny to downplay both his ability and his output as a way to evade any potential criticism, I’ve always felt. If he deflates any potential attack beforehand, he leaves the critic with no weapons to use against him. Obvious examples of this are his comments on Ziggy, Young Americans being “plastic” soul (when it’s obviously one of his most heartfelt albums, etc.) and so forth. There’s a long history of Bowie being three steps ahead by proclaiming what he’s doing is a masquerade, therefore leaving little for someone to criticize.

    – I also feel it’s human and understandable but that fans (also) looked to Blackstar as a “farewell” album and accepted the narrative that DB knew he was dying and wanted a conclusion simply because it’s more comforting than what seems to be the reality, which is utterly tragic: that Bowie had felt revived creatively and wanted to do more. It’s painful to think about, less for what we as fans miss out on and more because this was a man taken when he wanted to keep going. Sigh.

    – I shared Leah’s initial feelings about The Next Day and kept thinking I should like it more… what made it more interesting was hearing the extra tracks *not* included on the album much later and being flabbergasted that some of those tracks seemed, to me at least, much stronger (God Bless The Girl) or even just more “catchy” for a mainstream audience (Atomica). With the awareness of these songs purposely cast as bonus tracks by Bowie, I started to feel (and still do) that Bowie purposely chose to make his “comeback” album a bit more challenging and less pleasing, which seems like something he’d do. All my speculation of course.

  20. Added the book to my reading list for this year. Thank you! Your posts are always an eye-opener. I discovered Bowie very late (too late, maybe, but there’s no such thing as too late when it comes to his music, right?) and I would go and binge-read your articles for hours. looking for answers, emations and thoughts that I could share. This interview is amazing, I want to thank both of you for this insightful and beautiful conversation.

  21. John Hendow says:

    What an interesting and insightful interview. I’ll look forward to the book! For the past eight years I have been the guitarist and transcriptionist / arranger for a touring Bowie tribute band called “BowieVision”. The excerpt of the solo from “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is one of my charts, and I’m delighted to see it included here. In transcribing (and essentially decoding) the structure of Bowie’s songs, I’ve discovered some repeated structures and idioms that make his music so entrancing. I wrote a long blog post about the chromatic movement in “Life on Mars?” a number of years ago.

    The harmonic structure – and rhythmic architecture – of Bowie’s songs is often a message itself. There is deliberate disruption of symmetry with phrases in odd-numbered groups, and occasional time signature surprises. Have you ever noticed that the intro of “Fame” is in 3, but the song is in 4? In other songs there are some (arguably) diatonically nonfunctional chord movements, and yet those surprising inclusions don’t seem jarring or artificially “weird for weird’s sake”.

    I’ve shared my guitar transcriptions with others, and have been considering putting together a book of them along with performance notes. Another big challenge in recreating this music is conjuring the idiomatic guitar tones (and playing styles) of the myriad guitar slingers who performed with Bowie. It’s a master class in technique and detail, and I love every second of it 🙂

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