I remember her handwriting, blue pen turned to black marker as she scrawled the following sentence on sheets of lavender paper…
“The black candle is secretly providing the white candle with wax and wick. Eternally I may sleep. I don’t want to Kate.”
That was the last thing my cousin Holly wrote to me before she died, a poetic offering of what was to come. It crossed my mind as I first listened to the lyrics of Bowie’s Blackstar:
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
This is what William S. Burroughs describes as an intersection: a piece of writing, art, sound, or music that reminds you of something you or some one else has created and amplifies it. The example Burroughs uses to illustrate this phenomenon is the moment a piece of his writing from 1957 intersects with a newspaper article in 1964:
“An old junky selling Christmas seals on North Clark Street. … The ‘Priest’ they called him. … And just here is a picture from Newsweek, May 15, 1964 … plane wreck. … The ‘Priest’ there hand lifted last rites for 44 airliner dead including Captain Clark (left). Left on North Clark Street.”
The news article he is currently reading parallels something he has previously written, causing an intersection. The position of the priest in the two pieces, on the same street, their movements mirroring one another.
Holly’s last words had intersected with Bowie’s last album. While they related at the time, I didn’t know it would be his last album. As a young girl, I practiced intersection by taking walks, photographing and recording what I saw around me. Later, I reflected on what I was thinking at the time I commemorated the moment. This practice continues to be a part of my daily life. Bowie’s Blackstar acts as a link to what’s known as a Black dwarf star (what happens when a White dwarf star has cooled and lost both it’s heat and light) once it was revealed that the album was Bowie’s parting gift to his fans and a reference to theoretical cosmology from the Starman himself. It is also reference to Elvis’s little-known song Black Star which was released in the 1960s.
Every man has a black star A black star over his shoulder And when a man sees his black star He knows his time, his time has come
Black star don’t shine on me, black star Black star keep behind me, black star There’s a lot of livin’ I gotta do Give me time to make a few dreams come true, black star
Bowie shared a birthday with The King and was fascinated by Elvis’ song. There are hints and references to it in his video for Lazarus, which was released on the day of St. Lazarus of Bethany. In the video, Bowie sits at a desk frantically writing while a figure representing Death creeps up on him. This was a lesson in time travel—in which quotes from the present reflect or intersect with writing and art that had been created earlier, bridging memory and the present in real-time. I think of Holly’s last letter once again, subconsciously she knew death was approaching as she wrote out her own future.
I’m thinking of Bowie, Burroughs, and Elvis as I wait at the intersection between Prince and Green for Troy Chambers, an artist and occultist, to meet me. We are visiting Bowie’s memorial to not only to pay our respects, but also to carry on with our habitual examination of cut-ups—a practice Bowie employed—and time travel. In time travel, we see an ascension from physical to dream state. The Blackstar video places us into the thought process of the dream state as well, what happens when the body drifts off into nothingness and allows the unconscious to take form. How can we intentionally project ourselves into that state? By recreating ourselves and our characters and continuing to inspire and be inspired. We can take on identities, embrace and embody each of these characters at various moments as each provides a perspective and one develops out of another. We discuss this as we head to Olive’s to pick up Bowie’s favorite sandwich—chicken, watercress, and tomato with chipotle mayo- and then make our way to La Colombo for a double macchiato, Bowie’s favorite coffee. By visiting the places he frequented, and leaving gifts, the interconnection between the present and the past creates a “cut” in time.
Burroughs and Bowie intersected as well. The Wild Boys description was part of the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust, and after reading Nova Express, Bowie began was inspired to use cut-ups to create a new dynamic in the performance. He spoke about this in an interview with Burroughs in 1974 for Rolling Stone.
Bowie: Nova Express really reminded me of Ziggy Stardust, which I am going to be putting into a theatrical performance. Forty scenes are in it and it would be nice if the characters and actors learned the scenes and we all shuffled them around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just performed it as the scenes come out. I got this all from you, Bill… so it would change every night.
Burroughs: That’s a very good idea, visual cut-up in a different sequence.
Bowie ever the shapeshifter in character and in art, incorporated cut-ups into his work. He even created a program to help him with the process: “It’s a program that I’ve developed with a friend of mine from San Francisco, and it’s called the Verbasizer.” He incorporated time-travel techniques into his practice as well. As he went through the lyrics generated, he focused on locating intersections, creating the bridge into the next visual or lyric. Bowie reinvented himself throughout his career, shifting personalities through the characters in his albums, creating a lifelong piece of performance art. Troy and I speak about this over lunch.
According to Troy, “The performance – or perhaps more accurately, the embracing and embodying of these characters – is a constant switch in time that’s consistently referencing itself at multiple timelines. He gave us characters from the future, sung about in past and present perspective, that developed out of each other—Ziggy the Starman Messiah as the world falls down in five years blends to Aladdin Sane (described as Ziggy in America), where we’re seeing a different type of future (or present?) that lives within, during and behind the Ziggy era. We are presented with songs such as Drive-In Saturday, where a young couple attempts to relive aesthetics and scenarios from an idealized 1950s within a futuristic setting—leading to the deranged and frankly terrifying post apocalypse of Diamond Dogs, and its red mutant eyes and giant fleas playing alongside references to Orwell’s 1984, setting up the shell-shocked optimism and attempt at refinding some form of sanity within ‘plastic soul’ on the Young Americans album and its eventual crash landing into the soulless man who fell to earth to become the Thin White Duke – the last of the great Bowie characters, and perhaps the least human, no matter whether Ziggy was from Mars or not (one does wonder if Bowie felt he answered his own question on the possibility of life on Mars with the arrival the Starman).
After the Duke—a ‘nasty character’—we don’t really have a character that is as full and firm as we’ve seen from Bowie before this, with the dubious exception of Nathan Adler on the Outside album (one of the most explicitly obvious examples of Bowie utilizing the cut-up technique along with other randomized inspiration—as well as further time-jumping and shifting on an album recorded in 1995, set in 1999 yet playing off of the hard-boiled crime pulp of the early 20th century, taking place in a chimeric city that can’t decide if it’s in England or America or both at the same time), though Adler lived more within the album than within Bowie—Bowie did not walk as Adler, like he walked as Ziggy and the Duke.
But the Duke wasn’t gone for good—we see references to and hints of him (that have been pointed out repeatedly in the past several weeks) in the final costume we ever see him in, in the music video for Lazarus, his final recorded look out at the world before he walks backwards into Narnia. The same outfit was worn by the Duke for the Station to Station album, where he is seen drawing out the Kabbalistic Tree of Life while wearing it, on an album where he gives the line ‘one magical moment from Kether to Malkuth’ from a character that was alive for one the blackest parts of Bowie’s career, life, and health (the man was living on a diet of cocaine, milk, and red peppers). We see this descent as a consistent theme – the arrival of these Starmen from somewhere Above and Outside, the Man Who Fell to Earth, from Kether to Malkuth (the top to the bottom of the tree) – and it isn’t until Blackstar that we see an Ascent. The Blackstar video puts us back in space – Major Tom is dead and has been for a long time, and though his body drifts off into nothing, the jeweled memory that is his skull remains behind and continues to inspire.
‘Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside’(Blackstar) doesn’t give us a new character, but it does present us with a humanity in Bowie as he traces back the footsteps of those crash-landed personas – this time, one magical moment from Malkuth to Kether, leaving an open embrace for whatever comes next. It won’t be a new Bowie—but it definitely seems to be a unified Bowie, as his death brings a spotlight down on him with refreshed vigor.”
We finish our coffee and set down the offerings at the memorial. New York is at a crossroads, both mourning the death and celebrating his life. The memorial has been moved a few feet away from the apartment entrance. It’s smaller than the first day, but across the gate reads, “Let’s Dance.” The spray paint on the wall instantly transports us to the NYC of the 80’s. The lightning bolt through the heart of “I love NY” paying homage to Aladdin Sane. The 70’s have seeped through the neon heart. We are standing in three different times as more slip through. Troy and I take photos, not to say “We are here,” but more to map this moment in time. Part of working in time travel is to not only pay homage to the places and people themselves but to document them for future generations. This way, those who wish to carry on the same experimentations can do so with a starting or middle point. Sometimes, the pictures are edited to conjure different time frames, adding layers and flaws to them to give the illusion of wear. Other times, they are smooth and ageless, perfect in the moment they are taken. The performance part of time travel is a continual switch in chronology that is consistently shifting – photographing and recording characters from the future, written, sung about, painted, and documented in the past and present.
At one point, we notice a woman with headphones standing across from the memorial crying. She is a moment I will project to years from now. The lyrics of Blackstar fade in and out, “Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose…” It gives us a new character but it does not present us with a persona, this is formless – this time he reminds us to embrace whatever comes next. At that moment, a fragment of an interview with Burroughs creates a cut-up in my thought:
“I do a lot of exercises in what I call time travel, in taking coordinates, such as what I photographed on the train, what I was thinking about at the time, what I was reading, and what I wrote; all of this to see how completely I can project myself back to that one point in time.”
Bowie’s studio is across the street in a small alley. I remember thinking when I visited this place years ago, that it was one of the only places that still felt like Old New York, a portal through time. Troy and I document it, and in that instant, I am in two places at once: 1997 and 2016. Upon returning home, I learn that the day has been deemed “Bowie Day” in NYC. It also marks the first day the planets have aligned since 2004.
Time travel is an examination of detail, perception, and emotion. It is a study in history and memory through both characterization and formlessness. By documenting, you begin to understand where the cut is made, synchronicity steps in, and the building of new ideas takes place. It creates the connection to chronos and the examination of disposition and development through shape shifting and interacting with the dream state. It is a structured method of chaos in a cut. You create your own piece of performance art. Welcome to lessons in Time Travel, an ongoing experiment.