Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 21 March, 7 May 2015
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Released: 8 January 2016
Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, alto flute
Ben Monder: guitar
Tim Lefebvre: bass guitar
Jason Lindner: Wurlitzer, Prophet ’08, Prophet 12, Mopho X4, Moog Voyager, Micromoog
Mark Guiliana: drums
The finale of David Bowie’s Blackstar album, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ presented his farewell to the world.
I don’t know what the song is referring to, but what he gives away is what he writes about. I think a lot of writers feel like, ‘If you want to know about me, just study my lyrics.’ That’s why he doesn’t give interviews. He’s has revealed plenty in past interviews, but I think his life now is about his art. It’s totally about what he’s doing now.
Rolling Stone, 23 November 2015
Few realised prior to his death that Blackstar was focused on Bowie’s own mortality. Yet the clues were hiding in plain sight, from the title track’s “Something happened on the day he died,” to x-rays and hidden scars.
On ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ his frailty was brought to the fore from the opening lines:
I know something’s very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
The blackout hearts, the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
Bowie’s lyrics were almost never easy to decipher. He used a variety of techniques to write with, from the cut-up method to Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and spoke of how a song’s meaning sometimes only became clear to him once it had been recorded and released. His words were often chosen for their sound and impression as much as for their meaning, and attempting to make full sense of them is often impossible.
One can say a sentence to three people and it’ll take on an entirely different meaning for each of those three people. I think if any of my stuff becomes at all surrealistic it’s because that’s the purpose of it. It’s to give people their own definitions. I certainly don’t understand half the stuff I write. I can look back on a song that I have just written and it means something entirely different now because of my new circumstances, new this or that. I get told by so many people – especially Americans – what my songs are about.
NME, 22 July 1972
‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ contains its share of cryptic imagery – blackout hearts, flowered news, “skull designs upon my shoes” – yet the funereal symbolism is clear. The title, repeatedly sung at the song’s lengthy close, is his plea for peace – for five decades he was in the public eye, his words and actions pored over, and now could give no more.
Bowie’s death two days after Blackstar’s release meant that the lyrics were immediately seized upon. Yet it is instructive to remember that, although he knew his cancer was terminal, he did not know the end was close. Just days before his death he contacted Tony Visconti, explaining that he had recorded demos of five new songs, and hoped to record the follow-up to Blackstar.
I was thrilled, and I thought, and he thought, that he’d have a few months, at least. Obviously, if he’s excited about doing his next album, he must’ve thought he had a few more months. So the end must’ve been very rapid. I’m not privy to it. I don’t know exactly, but he must’ve taken ill very quickly after that phone call.
Rolling Stone, 14 January 2016
As such, although ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ contained Bowie’s final words on his final album, it was not necessarily intended thus. We may never hear his final recordings, or know what he had planned for his unrealised future. So this will do as his self-written epitaph. He cannot give everything away, and we must take instead the embarrassment of riches he showered upon us.