The most peculiar thing happened to me on January 6: I had a stroke. I didn't have a mini-stroke or, whew- a bit of a scare there, ha ha., I had the full enchilada. Long story short: I had a very bad reaction to the contrast dye while having a CT scan, went into anaphylactic shock, flew out of my wheelchair, hit my head on a wall and woke up with the left side of my face hanging down somewhere on my chest and my wife looking at me in a way I had never seen before. There was team of neurologists standing around my bed in a semi-circle and they were explaining what had happened and why I couldn't move my fingers or speak clearly. It all seemed rather like it was happening to someone else and that I was just an observer.
Look up here, man, I'm in danger
I've got nothing left to lose
I'm so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain't that just like me?
Over the next 48 hours, I drifted in and out of consciousness, having very dark thoughts about what my life would be as a professional singing guitarist who could now do neither. I hadn't quite died, but I sure didn't feel very alive and there seemed to be large blank space inside me where some vital part of my self had once been.
On January 8, I was given my iPhone and my in-ear monitors so that I could at least listen to music. Even in my broken brain, I retained enough information to wish all the nurses "Happy Elvis' birthday" as they came and went. I also remembered that David Bowie had a new album out that day and bought "Blackstar" with my good hand and the phone cradled against the useless, un-grabby thing at the end of my left arm. I started listening to it over and over as I contemplated what kind of burden I was going to be on my family, thinking that we would probably lose our house and wondering where we would end up living.
Later that morning, the occupational therapist stopped by and poured out some paperclips on my tray. She told me to try to put them back in the little cup and she would check back on me in a bit. 45 minutes later, she returned to find me sweaty and frustrated as I could not make a simple pinching motion to pick up the clips. I tried and tried and my brain thought it was happening, but the fingers would just twitch and not close. I kept at it and a few hours later, I was finally able to get my index finger to close around the paperclips and get them back in the cup. Then I desperately need a nap.
I lost track of day and night, but "Blackstar" was my constant companion. They were checking my blood pressure every 4 hours and taking blood every 6 and i just lay there with an IV on either side of me and an EKG machine on my chest, laying supine and spread out like a wired-up entree on some awful table spread. I had lines going into each arm, 8 lines attached to my chest an my in-ears pumping Bowie's dark mortality play into my head. The fluorescent half-light from the hospital hallway kept me from ever truly sleeping, but I watched the parade of nurses as they went past my door on various missions of mercy and minutia.
I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
The blackout hearts, the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
"Blackstar" was amazing in this context, let alone the one to follow. I can't ever recall having such an intimate relationship with a record so immediately. Naturally, I watched the fantastic, surreal video for "Lazarus" and vibed on the synchronicity of Bowie in a hospital bed and my own accommodations. I had read some early reviews that called the album "jazzy"- a term that always sounds a warning bell for me- although I was pleased to hear that an old college acquaintance Donny McCaslin was on sax and I had heard that Tedeschi/Trucks and SNL band alumnus Tim Lefebvre was on bass and knew that he was capable of all sorts of low-end wonder. As I listened to the vast landscape of "Blackstar", I scoffed at sheepish critics who heard the expanded tense and pungent chords and sax lines as a whiff of jazziness- as if Bowie hadn't been incorporating those elements throughout his recording history. In fact, it kind of pissed me off: how could anyone try to reduce this sprawling megacosm of sound with a lifetime of experience behind every note into a little box and label it "jazzy"? That scoffing at cynical, reactionary critics made me realize that inner asshole was alive and well and fighting to be heard- certainly a good sign of potential stroke recovery. On the other hand, Tim's sinewy bass lines made me desperately sad that I might never be able to do the same thing myself. My eyes seemed to be leaking all the time in those days.
The next morning, two amazing things happened. The first thing is that I woke up and checked my phone (I'm a modern man, after all.) and saw a deluge of posts about David Bowie. It took me a few minutes to comprehend that he had died. I knew that he had been facing some health issues in the past but had no idea at all that he might actually die. In fact, I'm not sure I ever considered the possibility that David Bowie was capable of something so normal as expiring. At that moment, my neurological team entered the room like the Avengers (they always seem to travel in a group). The immediately commented that my face looked much more expressive than the day before, that I looked "stunned and surprised". I told them that I was and why and, being mostly in their 20s, they had a vague idea of that David Bowie was famous ("Under Pressure, right?"), but no clue as to how important a figure he was. I made them all stand there and listen to a very slurry, but impassioned, history of Bowie's impact on music and culture. After that, the head neurologist- who is a conservatory trained classical organist who has spent years studying stroke recovery in musicians- told me altho, based on my improvement with the paperclips and some other diagnostic tests, they predicted a very strong recovery for my hand. "You will recover your ability to play, I am sure of it" he said. At that moment, my heart lifted just like the F# major chord in the b-section of "the song "Blackstar".
I obsessively poured over online comments on the album and saw Tony Visconti's description of it as Bowie's farewell. It hit me like a ton of bricks, the sheer artistry of it all. Of course, not all of it can be heard that way. Some of the songs seem to be more cut and paste observations from daily life, but one must wonder if his already keen eye for detail had been sharpened with thoughts of how soon it might all be over. Certainly, songs like the title track and "Lazarus" are precisely the thing his longtime fans would need in the days and weeks following his death.
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)
On the night of the fourth day in the hospital, the night nurse came to take blood out of my arm at around 4 AM. They had to check my blood thinner levels every 6 hours and my blood pressure every 4, so there was just one long nebulous state of worry: either trying to get to sleep or being woken up by a needle entering my arm or the velcro scratch of a blood pressure cuff. I pulled my sadly repurposed in-ear monitors out and and made the night nurse laugh: "You forgot to say that I would feel a little pinch. Isn't that violation of some phlebotomy oath?" "You were asleep" "The very subtle needle entering my arm woke me up".
a flashlight in my eyes and a Neuro check for every visit.
"Do you know where you are?"
In the villa of Ormen, In the villa of Ormen
"What's your name?"
I am the great I am
"Who Is The President?"
I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes
"Can you wiggle your fingers?"
How many times does an angel fall?
"Try again, Can you wiggle your fingers? No?"
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
"Can you squeeze my hands? Try harder with the left."
I'm a black star, I'm not a marvel star, I'm a black star…
-- Corin Ashley, 2016
Originally published in The Big Takeover