The song’s title and enigmatic lyrics were manna for fans searching for meaning, an endeavour which took on greater urgency after news broke of David Bowie’s death.
“He told me it was about Isis,” Donny McCaslin told Rolling Stone prior to the album’s release. This was misdirection on either Bowie’s or McCaslin’s part. Producer Tony Visconti and drummer Mark Guiliana both told the magazine that they had “no idea what the song is about”, although Visconti was well aware that Bowie was writing about his own mortality. “You canny bastard. You’re writing a farewell album,” Visconti told the singer after noticing the tone of the album’s lyrics.
A ‘black star’ is a sign – normally found in mammograms – which can give evidence that the radial scar they form around benign rather than cancerous.
The symbol has appeared in numerous forms, from music to fiction, film to astronomy – Saturn was referred to as ‘Black Star’ in ancient Judaeic belief. It is also the term for an alternative to a black hole, a theoretical construct created through the use of the semiclassical gravity theory.
Two musical antecedents may have been significant to Bowie. In 1960, Elvis Presley – who was born on 8 January 1935, 12 years to the day before Bowie – recorded the song ‘Black Star’, a meditation on mortality which begins with the lines:
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 was also a hip hop duo comprising rappers Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, formed in New York City in 1997. Bowie was known to be a fan of Mos Def, and it is not unlikely that he was aware of their music – hip hop being a key influence on the album.
There is also a potential link to the television drama Peaky Blinders. Bowie reportedly loved the series, going so far as to send a copy of Blackstar to creator Steven Knight, and requesting that his music be used in the third series.
We all grew up with David Bowie and he’s a hero. It’s a major thing that someone like that was a fan of the show. He said he wanted his music to be part of it, but at the time I didn’t know it was his dying wish.
Star of the show Cillian Murphy also sent Bowie his cap from the first series; Bowie reciprocated by sending a photograph of him wearing it.
We were friends and I sent him the cap from the first series as a Christmas present. He was a very sweet man and a genuine fan of Peaky Blinders, and I was a huge, huge David Bowie fan.
He was very private and probably wouldn’t like all this fuss. It’s sad, isn’t it?
In the first series, Murphy’s character Thomas Shelby is shown drawing a black star in his diary. He is asked: “Black star. What does that mean?” to which he replies: “Black star day is the day we take out Billy Kimber and his men.” While it may be fanciful to suggest that Bowie used this as a basis for his song, it is nonetheless interesting to see how the image recurred in many of the media he loved.
The opening verse of ‘Blackstar’ contains references to “the Villa of Ormen”. This mutated from Bowie’s original phrase, “the villa of all men”, which suggests a universality that he wished to obscure. Why it was changed to Ormen is less clear; possibly he just liked the sound of the word, or its potential for conjecture.
Ørmen is a village in Norway. The Ormen Lange, or long serpent, was a famous Viking longship. The word ‘ormen’ also means ‘serpent’ in Swedish. We may never know whether these are coincidences, or part of a mysterious code which Bowie was assembling; possibly he was just toying with words for their sound rather than meaning, which he often did with his lyrics.
Bowie repeats the line “At the centre of it all” in the opening verse; it also appears in ‘Slow Burn’ on Heathen. The words also echo a line from The Star Sapphire, a 1913 magick ritual by Aleister Crowley, which contains the words: “Let him then return to the Centre, and so to The Centre of All”.
A Tumblr weblog began in November 2015 to coincide with the release of ‘Blackstar’. The Villa of Ormen collated a variety of images such as candles, images of death, and other stills, which appeared to tie in with the lyrics or video. It was later expanded to encompass other songs including ‘Lazarus’.
In early 2016, following the news of his death, there was speculation that the site was the work of Bowie himself, or in some way related to him, but no proof was ever found. It went offline at the end of 2018.