Erik Highter is a writer based in Dallas. He and musician Nevada Hill met in early 2013 at one of Nevada's Bludded Head shows. While they worked together to craft press releases and marketing ideas for Nevada's band, it was the hundreds and hundreds of hours of listening to music and talking about art that brought them so close together as friends. That and Mario Kart.
When David Bowie died a few months ago I wanted to write up my thoughts on the man, his career, and his brand new album, Blackstar. My friends know how important Bowie is in my musical life and they rightfully asked time and again for my thoughts. I tried several times to put pen to paper, or to type my thoughts on the glowing screen; but each time I got a few sentences in and my thoughts went elsewhere. Everything spun back to Nevada Hill, who was battling stage IV melanoma since 2013.
He was very public and upfront about the disease, talking about each new development on Facebook, Instagram, in newspaper articles, face-to-face, and through his art and music. He shared every step forward and setback with equal matter-of-factness.
When I asked why he felt compelled to share, he told me it was in the hope it would help someone else facing similar situations. They might learn of something new that could help them. Most important, they wouldn’t feel alone.
Nevada had some serious ups and downs. Blood infections and strokes, rapidly growing and equally rapidly receding tumors, two albums released, I think five tours, multiple art shows, and more. Despite constantly shifting treatments, 2014 and most of 2015 were still positive and life-affirming years on the whole.
However, 2016 didn’t start well. Nevada had been admitted to M.D. Cancer Center in Houston just days into the new year in pretty dire shape. I got a text from his mom and rushed down to see him. I was afraid I was going there to say goodbye; instead, I found him in rising spirits despite his body’s failings. No one knew what the next day held, let alone any possible future days, yet here was Nevada, smiling and laughing, a day out of surgery and making plans. I still cried as I left. I cry as I type this, remembering.
I went back the next week. Things were looking up. His spirits were even higher as he strove toward goals his doctors and nurses thought impossible. The strides he made in one week were astonishing. Once again he was on track to prove everyone wrong.
David Bowie died that weekend, just days after his birthday and the release of his new album. The news came out it was cancer. When I visited Nevada a few days later we talked a lot about Bowie but little about the disease. Nevada knew all too well what that must have been like for him, his friends and his family. The strength, the will, it took to get up each day. To live every painful minute for one more moment with his daughter.
We talked about Bowie's Blackstar. At that point Nevada and I had both only heard two songs, the title track and “Lazarus.” He was particularly taken with Lazarus and the video Bowie made for it. He noted the vocals as something special, not for their content but for their delivery. There is such honesty there, he told me.
I bought Blackstar when I got home from Houston.
I use music to soundtrack my life. It’s a mnemonic reminder of events. In the first few months of this year, when I tried to listen to new music I quickly realized everything I heard was being filtered through Nevada’s situation. It was something I couldn’t handle. Instead, all I listened to was well-worn favorites, albums so imbued with meaning that this would be just one small piece of accreted experience. Music that would not be shaped by trips back and forth to Houston, by the worrying and fear.
The one exception proved to be Blackstar. I listened like an obsessive, drawing comfort from a musical hero facing his cancer and expressing so much life. Yes, death is woven through its fabric, and those moments and songs feel overwhelmingly present in Bowie’s absence. But it’s not a last will and testament. It’s an album of love. Of life. A humane and human record from a man who rarely let the guise slip, who for most of his 50-year career was the alien in his art. Blackstar is a hug from a friend who has always kept you at arm’s length.
I never revisited Blackstar in depth with Nevada. He asked if I’d heard it and what I thought. I mumbled something about it being quite a powerful piece of work, but one that will be hard to separate from the excessive parsing due to Bowie’s death. Nevada was quiet for a few moments, then nodded.
I never inquired into what he was thinking. I was too afraid to find out he was wondering if his own final work would be received and read in a similar fashion.
Week after week, I went to Houston to visit. I stayed over as often as I could, to give his family a break from it — and he a break from them. His birthday, 10 days after Bowie’s own, came and went. Nevada was getting stronger, strong enough to undergo another round of chemo and then yet another experimental cancer treatment. He was doing so well I told him that I had a crazy week coming up and that I wouldn’t be able to make it down. He understood, and told me to come down early the next week because he would miss me.
A few days later he called and left me a message. He needed me to come down. Soon.
Thinking about that makes my heart skip a beat. Nevada never called me. He texted me all the time, but we almost never called each other unless he was on tour.
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I got there two days later and immediately knew why he was so insistent. It had been barely a week since I had last seen him, but the change was heartbreaking. He lived one more week, but I can’t write about it. I can’t even think about it without tears clouding my vision.
Nevada died in the early morning of February 18th. One month after his 34th birthday.
I listened to Blackstar this morning. I listen to it often. I’ve also started to be able to hear other new music, though still mostly from friends of his or bands he enjoyed. It’s a long slow process. But it’s so hard to hear music I know he’d love and not be able to share it with him. It’s hard to see that voicemail still on my phone, asking me to please come visit him soon.
I will, Nevada. I will.