Good Dissonance: Daniel M. Shapiro and Jessy Randall On Horns, Rhyme & Mortality on David Bowie’s Blackstar
Track 1: “Blackstar”
Randall: I will start by saying that rhyming “blackstar” with “gangster” is genius and that this is possibly the most poetic song on the album in the sense of attention to language, wordplay, words-as-words.
Shapiro: Yes. The drum part here worried me a bit the first time I listened to this song because it sounds like something off a Fiona Apple album from 15 years ago. Don’t get me wrong: I love Apple, but I was expecting something more 2016.
Randall: Hmm. I see what you mean, sort of. The saxophone sound is very 1980s and made me think of the film—you know that film—with Ernest Hemingway. And you and I both loved it, and I listened to the soundtrack a lot. Please, help. [long pause before Randall remembers] The Moderns!
Shapiro: That was a jazzy score, so I see a bit of a connection. I had read somewhere that this was Bowie’s “jazz album,” but it’s no jazzier than anything else he has done. He was a sax player and a big jazz fan, so horns were always around, especially on the soul/funky numbers.
Randall: This is not a jazz album. Jazz wishes it could be this album.
Shapiro: I wouldn’t go that far. I would say Michael Bublé wishes he could make an album like this.
Randall: I suppose the word “jazz” encompasses a lot. Like Walt Whitman, it contains multitudes.
Shapiro: This song shifts wildly in the middle part, where the synthesizer sounds almost like Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack.
Randall: This bit here is very movie-ish. Yes, absolutely Blade Runner. Maybe a little bit of Tommy, too.
Shapiro: And his vocal is almost gospelesque.
Randall: Rock opera. And then this section with “I’m a blackstar,” etc., is kind of lazy wordplay, like stream-of-consciousness stuff.
Shapiro: I love the harmony parts there, and the little funky riff that’s sneaked in with horns.
Randall: I’ve been wondering why I haven’t heard any of these songs on the radio.
Shapiro: Well, this would have to have a severe edit. It’s a 10-minute song.
Randall: Radio stations stick to very safe things generally—but the day he died I thought stations would be playing nothing but Bowie. Our local college stations didn’t play any Bowie that day that I heard. It bummed me out majorly, like all of radio is run by robots now. Pre-recorded. Hmmmm…This monotone singing is a bit Koyaanisqatsi-esque. Minimalist.
Shapiro: It is like meditation. I don’t know what the atonal flutes and sax are doing at the end, but I like them.
Randall: The dissonance is good.
Track 2: “`Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”
Shapiro: This tune has even more Fiona Apple drums than the last one.
Randall: You said earlier (before we were keeping track) something about the likelihood of a throwaway song or two on the record. I think this might be the throwaway.
Shapiro: It’s my least favorite song. More atonal horns here, too. The Fiona beats make them more listenable. Really ‘80s-sounding synth here.
Randall: I was thinking this was a Shakespeare quote, but it turns out It’s a Pity She’s a Whore was a play by John Ford, performed around the time of Shakespeare. It seems like Bowie’s kidding around with that high singing of the word “whore.”
Shapiro: I hope so. This song is better with headphones because of the overlapping horns on left and right.
Randall: I wonder what the sheet music looks like for this part. Did the musicians have sheet music, or did Bowie just say, “Play really loudly and high and make a lot of noise”?
Shapiro: Good question. The whole song might be a joke—an inside joke with somebody else.
Randall: Yeah, I hope this is like a bunch of lines he found on someone’s text message, like he picked up someone’s phone and these were the lines so he made them into a song and cracked himself up.
Track 3: “Lazarus”
Shapiro: The lone horn near the beginning of this song is almost too sad. There’s a calming groove with the bass, though.
Randall: The bass part reminds me of something. Ohhh: This is the one that sounds like The Moderns. OK: It might be this I’m thinking of.
Shapiro: That’s got a French cafe feel to it, like Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli.
Shapiro: Here’s the Fiona Apple drums that sound like the drums on this album.
Randall: Or maybe it’s this Ani di Franco song, “Pulse.” I guess what I want to say about “Lazarus” is that it sounds and feels very familiar, but not derivative or stolen or anything. Just beautiful and familiar, like this song has always existed.
Shapiro: We could make real asses of ourselves by explaining how every lyric is a reference to his dying.
Randall: Right. That’s why we’re not doing that.
Shapiro: I love the lyric “I’m so high it makes my brain whirl.”
Randall: Me too. His “rhymes” are so perfectly imperfect: “whirl” and “below.” “Gangster” and “blackstar.”
Shapiro: “This way or no way” strikes me as a classic Bowie philosophy. How would he not have been a taskmaster? I’m not sure why he sings about being free as a bluebird. I wouldn’t have thought he was big on Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Randall: The repetition of bluebird and free/me makes me wonder if he’s kinda making a comment on clichés in songs and poetry, you know, like rhyming “sky” and “high.”
Shapiro: Could be. This is exactly the sort of shit we’re supposed to talk about as poets reviewing music.
Track 4: “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”
Shapiro: I think there are video game sounds at the beginning of this. Something is definitely not an instrument. This is not a pop song.
Randall: It seems impossible that David Bowie would ever be intimately involved with someone named “Sue.”
Shapiro: I agree.
Randall: “I got the job” reminds me of a time when I was out to dinner with your wife at a place in NYC and one of the servers let out a happy scream and Kris said, “She got the job” (like an acting job, kidding around), and then it turned out that was exactly what happened.
Shapiro: “I just said ‘home’” is a mysterious lyric.
Randall: “The x-ray’s fine” makes my heart hurt.
Shapiro: Same here.
Randall: I, too, wonder about “I just said ‘home.’” Is it like, it wasn’t actually home, it was maybe a hospital or a hospice?
Shapiro: I have no idea. This is probably the most jazzy tune on the album, by the way, as if he’s reading a poem with musical accompaniment, and he sings a melody to match what the musicians are doing. It’s not remotely hummable and therefore is not really a pop song.
Randall: David Byrne talks about how he writes lyrics in his recent book How Music Works. He says he just makes sounds and then puts in words that sound like his sounds. So like, if he makes an “ooo” sound he might make that into “Sue.” But you’re right. It’s definitely not hummable, like the first song. Repetitive and minimalist.
Shapiro: It’s a series of letters to Sue, progressively more detached.
Randall: There’s that video game sound again. I’m waiting to hear “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!”
Track 5: “Girl Loves Me”
Shapiro: “Where the fuck did Monday go?” is a lot of fun to sing along with.
Randall: This one is Peter Gabriel-esque.
Shapiro: It really is. The little yelp at the end of the word “go” is pure Gabriel. I don’t have any idea what those harmonized vocals are there. Gibberish? The lines that are sort of a bridge—used only once.
Randall: I just looked up those lyrics: You viddy at the cheena Choodesny with the red rot Libbilubbing litso-fitso Devotchka watch her garbles Spatchko at the rozz-shop Split a ded from his deng deng Viddy viddy at the cheena
Shapiro: Yeah. What the hell is all that?
Randall: It’s like A Clockwork Orange Russian-influenced slang.
Shapiro: Ah. Of course. He decided to put a language poem in the middle of his song.
Randall: I think it might be inside-slang, it might actually mean something.
Shapiro: I know, but again: It doesn’t mean anything to 99.9999999999999999% of listeners.
Randall: My translation would be something like, “You’re watching a movie at the Chinese theater, it’s so wonderful with the red rot (like, rotting red velvet seats at an old theater?), loving the light, a girl something, sleeping or fun,” hmmm. Funny how two years of Russian class in 1985-86 stick with ya.
Shapiro: I don’t remember if A Clockwork Orange was on Bowie’s top 100 list. I think it was.
Randall: Yes, it’s on his book list.
Track 6: “Dollar Days”
Shapiro: I still think this is my favorite song on the album, in part because of its placement. The last couple of tunes were frantic and dark, and this feels much more positive.
Randall: This is a good beginning—a respite from the difficult sounds. And here’s that horn again.
Shapiro: Yes, the sad horn. But I still think this tune is much more positive/peaceful sounding than the previous two, which were more complicated.
Randall: Again he uses simplistic rhymes—did he always do that? “Me” and “see,” “trying” and “dying.”
Shapiro: I don’t think he did that as much earlier. This song has the best sax solo on the album. Its lyricism replaces the earlier atonal sounds. I still like this song best of all because it’s a release from the darker couple of songs before it.
Track 7: “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Randall: Ah, I love this one. It sounds like an `80s movie soundtrack or Pet Shop Boys.
Shapiro: Is it retro or dated? Who cares?
Randall: Who cares, indeed. What is that sound, a synthesizer?
Shapiro: Drum machine, keyboard sound from “Stand Back,” and harmonica without irony.
Randall: This song makes me want to give David Bowie a hug and just hold him and caress him. And pet his hair.
Shapiro: I agree. He’s rhyming “less” with “yes,” though.
Randall: This one, like the earlier one, seems so familiar. It could be from a John Hughes movie played over a montage. What would be in the montage? I’m thinking John Cusack longing for Ally Sheedy. And he’s riding his bike in the cul-de-sac where she lives, and when she sees him he rides away again, and never talks to her.
Shapiro: I was thinking Nic Cage and Deborah Foreman in a movie that should have been made after Valley Girl.
Randall: And now John Cusack is riding by himself very fast on a straightaway, and he’s happy/sad crying.
Shapiro: I’m still going with Cage.
Randall: And Ally Sheedy just lay back on her bed and smiled.
Shapiro: Anyhow, I was going to say the album seems to have an arc. The opening sounds like pain with some relief; the second song is just a throwaway to keep one’s mind off the pain. Third is slower and reflective. The last few tunes are more peaceful and less painful.
Randall: The last song is about what he can’t do, but it sounds like a can-do song.
Shapiro: Right. I wouldn’t try to tie the arc too closely with how Bowie perceived his own death.
Randall: This song is intense and beautiful. It’s saying “I can’t give everything away,” but the subtext is “although I know I have to.”
Shapiro: If he had lived longer and kept his health a secret, critics would’ve figured out what was up. You can’t really avoid it. You could say it’s about aging, but it’s doing more than that. I don’t think Bowie would have felt the need to make an “It’s so hard getting old” album.
Randall: I wish he could be interviewed and asked these questions. I’m guessing he would have said that anyone at any time could write an album that seems to be about mortality.
Shapiro: I don’t see most rock stars writing about getting old. Springsteen wrote “Glory Days” 30 years ago, and it’s comparatively a dud.
Randall: I think young people are extremely nostalgic. I hear my children talking about the past as though it’s very far away.
Shapiro: Same with mine.
Randall: Adele at 25 has multiple songs about when she was “young.” On this album, I don’t detect any references to Bowie’s other songs or selves.
Shapiro: I can’t say I listen to Adele.
Randall: I mean, I’m sure there are references to be found, musically and lyrically, but I don’t think he’s doing anything like that overtly. He’s not like, “let’s reference ‘China Girl’ here, and let’s reference ‘Modern Love’ here.”
Shapiro: Right. I don’t like how he said Major Tom was a junkie. Although he wrote that into “Ashes to Ashes,” so perhaps he was just trying to distance his 1980 self from his past selves.
Randall: Hmm, yeah. But anyway, on this album he’s not trying to make some kind of “In Summary...” type statement. He’s putting out an album about his current concerns, with his current sounds because that is what musicians do.
Shapiro: “You’d better not mess with Major Tom” could be a reference to not messing with the past.
Randall: Yeah, like, don’t put Major Tom in an advertisement. Or maybe he’s telling himself not to try to remake past songs, but to always start fresh. In a teeny unimportant way, I can kinda get that from my own experience, like, it’s tempting to rewrite one’s favorite poem over and over, and probably we kinda can’t help doing that. But it’s a sure road to boringness. If you wrote, like, How the Corn Chip Was Invented and I wrote, like, “To the Supposed Lesbian Who Stole My Husband.” [Randall is referencing Shapiro’s book How the Potato Chip Was Invented and her own poem “To the Supposed Lesbian Who Stole My Boyfriend”]
So… shall we quit for now? I feel strangely tired out. I suppose I don’t normally listen to music so carefully. I mean usually you can listen to music and your mind can wander.
Shapiro: Yes. Reviewing can be tiring.
... Daniel M. Shapiro and Jessy Randall have been friends since 1981, the year “Under Pressure” came out. Dan remembers watching David Bowie perform at “Live Aid” on the TV in Jessy’s basement in 1985, but Jessy doesn’t remember that. They have collaborated on the full-length Interruptions (Pecan Grove Press, 2011) and chapbook What If You Were Happy for Just One Second: Instructional Diagrams (BOAAT Press, 2014). Their shared work has appeared in such journals as Menacing Hedge, McSweeney’s, Many Mountains Moving, and a variety of publications with no M’s in them.