“Blackstar” = Cancer Lesion? A David Bowie Mystery (With an Elvis Presley Bonus Clue)

Little is known about the cancer that killed David Bowie. although some reports say it was cancer of the liver. And while we know that he’d been diagnosed at least 18 months ago, there’s been no information about how quickly his health declined leading to his death.

One source did tell me that although Bowie was quite ill, he was still up and around as late as Friday, even to the point of leaving the house. But feeling fatigued on Sunday, he laid down for a nap. He never woke up.

Cancer can sneak up on you like that. My best friend was able to hold off pancreatic cancer for weeks before his body catastrophically betrayed him over the course of a couple of days. Lemmy, of course, was dead just two days after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease.

We also know that Bowie conceived his last album, Blackstar, as exit music, a creative finale to a life devoted to creating art. He knew he was dying, as did all the people working with him on the album. He could have left behind hundreds of hooky rock-and-pop songs, but instead he wanted to leave us with an album that challenged him and would challenge us. It’s like the last part of Amadeus where we see Mozart writing what would become his requiem.

Bowie obviously couldn’t predict the date of his death even though he knew it was coming sooner rather than later. But because he wanted this to be a serious elegy, it appears he littered the record with hints, imagery and symbolism alluding to his mortality and the end of life on this plane. That would be so Bowie, right?

I mean, if the title “Lazarus” wasn’t enough of a hint, let’s look at the video for that song. (For extra impact, you might want to read along to the lyrics as you watch the video.)

And then there’s the title of the album. We call it Blackstar, but Bowie wanted the title to be stylized as ★. Can we read anything into that? Maybe.

Music writer Michael Azzerad points out that “a black star” is a medical term for a kind of cancer lesion. I refer you to Medscape.com:

On mammography RS are commonly seen as an area of focal architectural distortion, and are better seen in one projection, without any discernable central mass or overlying skin retraction.[21] The lesion has a “black star” appearance with long thin spicules radiating from a central radiolucent area (Figure 2A). Ultrasound may not always detect RS, but can show a poorly defined hypoechoic area, or an irregular hypoechoic mass with ill-defined, spiculated margins and varying degrees of posterior shadowing.

Whoa.

Okay, so this sort of lesion is usually found in the breast and can point to a benign condition, it’s still potentially a significant clue to what Bowie was thinking. Lyrically, the song seems to be about ISIS, as is the contention of Bowie’s saxophonist, Donny McClaslin.

The song does, however, feature these lyrics:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a star’s star, I’m a blackstar)

Draw your own conclusions.

Another interesting (potential) clue: Blackstar (or ★, if you prefer) is the only Bowie album out of 26 that does not feature his face on the cover. A black star on a white background? A representation of a cancer lesion. Just askin’…

Shifting gears, Julian points out (via Mlkshk.com) that back in 1960, Elvis Presley released a song called “Black Star.” Take a look at these lyrics. Could Bowie have been referencing this song?

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

When I ride I feel that black star
That black star over my shoulder
So I ride in front of that black star
Never lookin’ around, never lookin’ around

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

One fine day I’ll see that black star
That black star over my shoulder
And when I see that old black star
I’ll know my time, my 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

Again, just askin’.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

18 thoughts on ““Blackstar” = Cancer Lesion? A David Bowie Mystery (With an Elvis Presley Bonus Clue)

Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.