It’s Sunday. I’m home alone and I cannot for the life of me figure out where the smell of roses is coming from. Besides being the dead of winter, there are no roses in the house, and I don’t wear perfume. The dead poinsettia from this recently departed Christmas has gone crunchy, dropping its leaves and petals to the table. That must be it. I give it a sniff. It smells like a void.
In case I’m about to have some kind of seizure, I google “sudden smell of roses in the air” and roll my eyes at the results. I try to ignore it and go on with my day, but the aroma is overpowering and distracting. I have to get out of here. So I go for a walk.
The newly fallen snow is pretty. It won’t last long, with all the unseasonably mild weather we’ve been having. As I step away and further away from my house, I realize that the floral smell seems to be getting even stronger. With it, a sadness pours into me from the bottom up. My legs start to feel sort of heavy, my stomach feels like there’s a 20 lb rock in it, and then oh… what’s this heartsick feeling all about? My head hangs low, like I’m unable to bear the weight of it on my neck.
I could just fall to the snowy ground, lay my head down among the snow-covered remains of lifeless stems in the flowerbed before me, and bury myself in a fluffy white blanket. Except… hang on. Not all of the flowers are dead. They should be, this time of year. But curiously, one remains in bloom. Black, but supple, with a strange aura surrounding it. This must be the source of the smell. But how…?
The flower seems to have called me here, and I’m sort of questioning reality, wondering if I’m in some kind of dream. I’m not. Dreams don’t feel like this. Answering the flower’s call, I bend down to take a whiff of the pungent aroma. And suddenly I’m falling with rattling speed. At least I think I’m falling, but it’s hard to tell when you’re surrounded by abyssal blackness.
The falling motion suddenly stops. I don’t hit bottom, I don’t feel any surface beneath my feet or around me – it’s like I’m dangling, suspended by an invisible rope. Millions, billions, trillions of shapes are floating around me. There’s something very special about these objects. They seem to exist in more than three dimensions… dimensions that I can’t describe. I can't see these other dimensions, but I know they're there. And without even touching the objects, I can feel them. They’re soft like kitten fur, cold like ice, hot like fire, and hard like steel.
I can hear them, too. Whispers, musical notes, explosions, and giggles, all layered over one another. Words in all of earth’s languages, and some that sound completely alien. You’d think it would all produce an overwhelming cacophony of sounds, images, feelings… but it doesn’t. It’s like there is some kind of underlying rhythm or story that ties them all together in a way that makes sense.
The shapes -- what I now understand to be ideas, concepts, pieces of inspiration, thoughts and memories of everyone who has ever lived in the past, present and future –- move around the infinite space in layers, forming pictures... even entire scenes that are recognizable to me. But their movement is constant and the pictures are fleeting, like clouds in fast forward motion.
I reach out to touch them, but the gentlest tap forces them away. In my attempt to catch one of the objects, I seem to have accidentally torn a hole in the layer of space surrounding me. Ain’t that just like me. I feel an awful sense of regret, like I’ve gone and mutilated an essential piece of the universe.
I wonder if I’ve permanently damaged this place. I wonder if people on earth are suddenly forgetting treasured memories, or are now experiencing collective creative block due to my carelessness.
Then I see a hand reach through the hole. The hand tears the hole open even further, and I can see there are more layers in behind, a whole other world of beautiful shapes, sounds, words, and feelings. I reach in and pull myself through the gash. The membrane is so thin it’s like moving through air. On the other side of the membrane I see a familiar face. All my fear and regret washes away as the face smiles at me, and now it is not only the face that is familiar, but I feel like I’ve been here before, somehow.
Not deliberately, of course. I fleetingly remember it from my dreams, but also from my waking life… there is a familiar sense of purpose, of drive, of something that isn’t quite me but is still mine, steering me to a place I was always supposed to go. I remember that feeling. It lit me on fire once, and I let it take me to its fated conclusion. And when it left me, I cried, and begged for it to come back.
A shape… a concept, suddenly presents itself to me. Automatically I reach out to grab it, but then I pull back, remembering that this place is delicate and easily injured. The scene before me dissipates and everything goes dark… that is, my vision, my hearing, my thoughts, all turn to nothingness.
I wake up on the snowy flowerbed next to the city street, staring at the swirling sky above me. Something tells me I need to get up, but I’m groggy and oddly comfortable here. But the longer I lay, the more aware I become of the cold wetness seeping through my clothes. With the intention of moving into a standing position, I look at my feet. I’m suddenly aware of skull designs upon my shoes. They weren't always there, were they?
I check my phone for the time, and I’m shocked to discover it’s Tuesday. Where the fuck did Monday go? I shake off my snowy blanket, rise to my feet and hurry in the direction of home. The floral smell is gone, and I feel happier, lighter on my feet. As I walk toward the light of the sun, a bluebird swoops and glides like he's doing some elaborate dance for his own personal amusement. As he flies away, I notice that if I squint just the right amount, I can just make out an orderly chaos of shapes swirling about in the wind.
Blackstar is a marvelous work of art. It really is. As a whole, it takes the best things about everything Bowie did throughout his career, and smooshes them together into something that encapsulates him as an artist.
This album took me to a different place from what I was expecting. And I'm glad about that. Because two weeks ago I was not exactly in the happiest of moods, as you can imagine, when the news broke that Bowie had moved on from the physical world. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings swirling around, and the words to express them didn't exist.
Of course, I was looking forward to listening to Blackstar. I pre-ordered my vinyl copy back in November, and had been anticipating it since it was announced. But then its context changed entirely mere hours before I was about to embark on my Blackstar listening journey. And while I was committed to giving it the same type of treatment I gave to all of Bowie's other albums, I wasn't sure I would be able to transcend the sadness I was feeling. The first few listens were rough, indeed. But when I finally allowed the music to start to carry me away, as I had done with all his previous albums, it took me someplace kind of miraculous.
But this is also where things get a bit weirdly personal. I've been debating whether I should write about this, but I need to get it out, because it's kind of bothering me. Bothering is maybe not the right word... but okay, here it goes. I promise I'm not crazy.
A year ago, in January 2015, I designed this. It's the self-publishing imprint for a book that I spent 18 months writing, illustrating, and designing. It was self-published in print format in April 2015. To me, it's an odd coincidence that at the same time, Bowie was working on Blackstar, though at that time it had not yet been announced. I didn't know, and could not have known that he was even working on another album.
I believe 100% that the similarity between the two is a coincidence. Of course it is. It's even kind of funny. But there is another layer to the story, and this is the layer that has informed the journey on which this album has taken me.
The entire time I was working on my Plaidstar Publishing project, I felt as if I wasn't completely in control of it. That some unseen force had tied me up, duct taped my mouth, locked me in the proverbial trunk, and had taken the proverbial wheel. I remember making decisions about character names and the colours of the images. That was me, definitely. But in a way that I can't explain, I just didn't feel like it was really me who was responsible for the thing. From the concept, through writing, drawing, inking, designing the book and then finally printing, some unknown force was driving me. I think it's pretty safe to call that force inspiration.
Before this, inspiration always sort of seemed like a fictional character to me. Just a word to express the concept of creating something. But the feeling of possession that I experienced... that must be what inspiration really is. It's unfair to give inspiration the credit for good ideas while we take the blame for the bad ones. It didn't matter to inspiration if the idea for the project was good or bad. It didn't matter to inspiration if the words I wrote and the pictures I drew were good or bad. All that mattered to inspiration was that the project got finished.
I was there, I remember the whole thing. I remember the high moments of loving the character I had created so deeply as if he was my own son. And I also remember the low moments where I laid in bed at night in tears, believing that what I was creating was utter crap and should never seen by anyone, ever. But there was never a moment where I thought I wouldn't finish it. Not finishing it was not an option.
I finished the shit out of the project. At every stage, when I didn't know how to do something, inspiration made me figure out how to do it. And when the end had arrived, and the book was finally printed (funded by yours truly -- sadly, inspiration doesn't pay for printing), I held a copy of it in my hands and sobbed with an aching heart, because it was over. Suddenly the force that had possessed me for 18 months and made me do this thing was just gone. I'm now left with a finished project that I'm immensely proud of, whether it's good or bad. But I can't take full responsibility for it.
And it's to the source of that force -- inspiration -- that Bowie's final album took me. Because it helped me to understand that the place where inspiration comes from is the same place our energy goes when we eventually shed our corporeal containers. You can call it Home, you can call it Heaven, you can call it Tralfamadore. You can call it Quantum Universe Quadrant 56. I don't really have a name for it. But we are all connected to it.
We go there in our dreams, and it comes to us when we're not expecting it. But its ephemeral nature means we don't get to hold on to it. At least not while we're here. Still this vast pool of energy... particles... concepts is available to all of us. That thing you made, whether it was a song, painting, a house, a meal, a business, a birthday card, a software application, or a hand-knit sweater... Regardless of how it turned out, if you felt compelled to make it, then it came from the same place as the greatest things that were ever made.
Yes, it's a coincidence that I named my publishing imprint Plaidstar when Bowie named his final album Blackstar, and that both feature an image of a single large star. But I feel honoured to have been touched by the same force that made both things come into existence. I'm heartened by that idea, and I feel like I have Bowie to thank for helping me find it.