It’s been a long long time since my last post. Since then I have gotten married and started pitching our animated series, all while my spine continues to twist in on itself. I’ve started re-digitizing hundreds of tapes and records now that I have a decent setup. I figured with this horrible decade coming to a close, it would be a good time for me to finally come clean and tell the stranger-than-fiction story about how I fell into this Labyrinth.
Note: Please keep in mind that this is just the introductory chapter to a longer story. There is a massive amount left unsaid here. If this one broken tape was the only thing I found, then I wouldn’t have wasted my time.
I realized after my last article that a proper introduction needed to be given about this project. And in order to do that I would need to explain why I started scrutinizing Bowie’s work so closely in the first place. Failing to do so would undermine my whole approach, because no matter what I’d say, it would always come back to: why the hell is this person picking apart his personal history, lyrics and inspecting his records with a blacklight? Why is she looking for ghosts in the static?
I don’t know how to transition to this next part so I will just be blunt:
David Bowie left behind a series of clues after his death. The first clue, discovered in 2017, was an entirely new version of his final album, Blackstar, on a bootlegged cassette tape. Since then, we have found many, many others. It is my theory that in the decade before his death, he pulled a Willy Wonka, disappeared from the public eye, and crafted a massive alternate reality game spanning the entirety of his career with the intention of leaving a final mystery behind. We have mostly kept this to ourselves up until now.
I know it’s a big claim, but bear with me. Without the key information of this discovery, this blog would probably look like a strange nerd obsession at best and the early manifestation of mental instability at worst. On the other hand, despite the gut-dropping implications of what I’ve found, I was still seriously debating whether or not to talk about it at all… Every time I’d try to write this down I’d get cold feet and stop. My thinking was, what if, by talking about it, I somehow compromise my ability to collect these magical items and venture further down the rabbit hole? Following the Willy Wonka analogy, if I were a lucky contestant in Bowie’s murder maze, would revealing this to the public be the equivalent of giving out the Gobstopper formula? I’ve been following these breadcrumbs for 3 years now and in that time I kept a close eye on conversations about Bowie, and so far no one has said anything, so maybe I should just keep this to myself. It’s such a creepypasta situation that it reads like a work of fiction anyway… Then again, if he didn’t want it to be found, he wouldn’t have made it at all… Right?
A quick note about Bowie Bootlegs. I was lucky because my husband Andy had already been casually familiar with the Bowie market before 2016. It was expected that sales would spike after his death, but when he died it was like a switch flipped and the entire landscape underwent a massive change. New albums started popping up, like the uncompressed Leon Suites and The Trident Tapes, with modern cover designs and remarkably crisp audio production. I’ll even go so far as to say that The Trident Tapes is a secret Ziggy album on par with The Rise and Fall. It really is that good. The physical record has the most superior quality versions I’ve found of all the songs on the album, including Velvet Goldmine, Holy Holy, and All the Young Dudes. Despite it’s quality, I haven’t seen anyone talking about it outside of insular and obscure collecting groups. I doubt most people even know it exists.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to where it all began:
It was an entirely unremarkable cassette tape, floating among the crowded marketplace that Andy bought on a whim. It had a simple label, “Special Extended Limited Edition 2017” with a stencil font, and a Hamilton logo (of all things) on the spine, deceptively appearing as unofficial as possible. The tape itself was clear with red white and blue glitter in the plastic.
We popped it into our deck and immediately realized that the audio was somehow even more haunting and ghostly than the original. It truly sounds as if it’s emanating from a distant signal in space. This quality would normally be dismissed as a poor audio transfer, however when we listened closely, it became apparent that it was in fact a different mix, engineered to sound buried in static. At one point during “Girl Loves Me” the static turns off completely, and it sounds as if the old man is popping out of the ground. As the final track faded away we were hooked. I mean, if you found a tape haunted by Bowie’s ghost, what the hell would you do? We eventually decided to hold off on our impulse to shout to the internet about our discovery for all the reasons listed above. It was a tough call.
Below is a sample of one of the tracks so you can hear for yourself. This version of “Sue Or In a Season of Crime” was labeled as being the 2014 Parlophone single version, but we have that one on record and after listening to it side by side, it was clearly not the same thing. This version screeches and howls along, its Old Hollywood and Sweeney Todd influences coming through louder than ever. And if that doesn’t grab you, it even has a mysterious instrumental interlude right before the tape clicks off.
I have to note that I have NOT tampered with the audio. I primarily write and work in animation production, so I’m absolutely clueless when it comes to sound mixing. Each digitized version is recorded directly from our tape deck with no interference, equalization, or noise reduction. Everything is exactly how it naturally sounds.
Hundreds of tapes, records, and CDs later, we continue to dig and we have amassed a pretty good collection of Oddities. We don’t have much money, but Andy developed a method to collect on a budget, so we have had some lucky breaks. My chronic pain has made it difficult to go anywhere, so I’ve become something of a hermit. Don’t have a lot of IRL friends, so I thought it’d be nice to share some of this magic with others who are similarly fascinated by it.
I also wanted to finally come out and talk about it because I’ve seen the things that can happen when an internet community decides to get to the bottom of an ARG, and at this point I have amassed enough evidence that I could really use an extra pair of ears and a couple dozen extra brains to help me get to the Minotaur at the center of this labyrinth.
This Blackstar tape is just the tip of the iceberg. If you aren’t convinced, I completely understand. The whole thing is pretty weird. But, I have three years’ worth of strange events and treasures to talk about, so I will try to keep up with this blog more in 2020 and maybe something will eventually convince you later on. Next week I will be covering a ghostly Lazarus single that we found shortly afterwards that just further reinforced the realization that we had stumbled onto something really strange.
See you next year!
EDIT: Until I can find a better way of hosting files, here is a dropbox link for a .wav of the full tape. Happy New Year!
EDIT 2: Can’t believe I forgot to mention this, Side B of the tape starts with “No Plan”, “Killing a Little Time” and “When I Met You”. These songs were previously only included on Lazarus and I have not heard these specific versions incorporated into the album elsewhere.
EDIT 3: A commenter named Michael Judge also caught something:
On “Sue,” the main ostinato is different between the single and album versions – on the single, it’s a piano playing a single repeated note (I believe an E), and on the album, it’s a guitar playing four Es and a C#. Here, it’s the album version of the riff, but it’s played on a piano, and there’s additional guitar over the intro.
I’m guessing this version of “Sue” was a scrapped intermediate attempt – DB and band probably tried to ornament and overdub the original Maria Schneider version of “Sue” before deciding to rearrange and rerecord the song completely.
The Reddit conversation about this post can be found here
If you made it this far, you are probably thinking “that’s just a blurry tape”. Before leaving the 50th comment telling me so, please check out my followup post addressing common questions, critiques and other discussion here