Scars that can’t be seen

David Bowie was diagnosed with liver cancer in mid-2014. Only family, close friends and certain colleagues were informed about his illness.

Tony Visconti, Blackstar‘s producer, learnt of the illness the day before the album’s recording sessions began.

I knew about David’s cancer for over a year. In January 2015, he called me for a little meeting in his office and it sounded ominous, like I was going to get the sack. He said, “We’re just gonna have a little chinwag.” So I met him in his office and I noticed that his eyebrows were missing. I thought, Uh oh.

David said, “I have something to show you,” and he pulled his woolly hat off and he was completely bald. And he said, “I have cancer…” – and my life has not been the same since that moment.

I choked up in front of him, and he told me not to cry. And I said, “That’s impossible…” I was wiping away the tears, but then we spoke very positively about the album we had planned because we were going to start recording it the following day. We were already keeping the album secret but this added an extra burden. It’s been hard to live with.

Tony Visconti
Mojo, March 2016

Bowie started chemotherapy shortly before the start of the Blackstar sessions. Initially he appeared to respond well to treatment, and by the middle of 2015 his cancer was in remission.

Everyone in the band was wonderful about it, amazed that he wanted to work. But there seemed to be nothing wrong with his energy. He still had that sparkle in his eyes, and when he got in front of the microphone he was belting like he was on-stage at Wembley Arena. I was seeing that energy way into June this year, when we were still doing odd little bits and bobs for the album, and I thought he was going to pull through, and he did actually go into remission. Then in November it came back.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, March 2016

By the spring of 2015 Bowie’s hair had regrown. Blackstar‘s guitarist, Ben Monder, joined the recording sessions in March, and knew nothing of the singer’s illness.

“It never looked to us like he was sick,” bass guitarist Tim Lefebvre told the New York Times. “He was just coming in and singing his ass off.”

He [Bowie] always worked at it, and he was always challenging himself. When we discussed using Donny McCaslin’s band for ★ he said, “Tony, you have to study them. They’re way above us!” So we both had to educate ourselves to get up to the level of Donny. Perhaps that’s why David sang every single take that the band did live. Because he was learning it. Refining his vocal along with the music. David and Donny’s band were hand in glove. They were The Spiders From Jazz.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, March 2016

Visconti, who handled the majority of media interviews in the lead-up to Blackstar‘s release, was forced to deflect questions about Bowie’s future actions – including ones regarding the singer’s health and whether there might be future live performances.

What he said years ago still applies. He doesn’t tell me what his plans are but he’s so adamant about it when that subject comes up, he’s just not going to do it. Possibly he might do a one-off but I have no knowledge of that. He’ll surprise you and me at the same time if that’s the case.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

Despite the darkness of the songs, the recording sessions were, by all accounts, upbeat affairs, with Bowie joking and bonding with the musicians and production team.

I never asked [David] if this was his final album. Some of the lyrics were very dark but I would never say to him, “Are you making a final album?” Absolutely not. It was written somewhere that I did ask him, but I was misquoted. He was already talking about making a new album before this one was released. He told me he had new demos for a new album, but I never heard them.

If anything, that idea [that he knew this was his final album] was an erroneous observation many people imagined after he had passed. After all, David’s been writing about death and decay since the ’70s.

Tony Visconti
Grammy.com, May 2017