David Bowie died during the evening of January 10, 2016 in New York City, but much of the world was sleeping, and so woke to the news on the 11th, the news traveling like a cross-continental comet.
He was cremated, according to the death certificate filed with his will, on January 12 in New Jersey; the will directed that if it were not possible to cremate his body in Bali “in accordance with the Buddhist rituals,“* his executor should scatter his ashes off the island’s coast.
Smoke rising; ashes falling.
Philip Hoare notes in RisingTideFallingStar that Guglielmo Marconi believed that his transAtlantic radio transmitters “might also pick up the cries of sailors long since drowned in the Atlantic” (39). Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, recorded an LP, The Visitor, in hopes of radio play that would allow his wife, if she were alive, to receive a message from him on their home planet. He wouldn’t be making the journey home.
My feeds have been nearly all Bowie for the past three days and will continue into tomorrow.
I wonder if all these transmissions, bouncing between towers, betwist satellites, are being received by the starman, as Hoare calls him.
“Outside is set at the end of the millennium. What are your thoughts about what’s in store?” Bowie: “‘I’m very positive about it. …What Brian and I are trying to do is develop a series of albums that trace the last five years of the ‘90s. This is the first in this series or cycle of albums.’ [As it turned out, Outside was Bowie and Eno’s last recording together.]”
What, I wondered on first reading, is Admiral Nelson doing in a book featuring so many poets that returns again and again to Bowie?
It’s the frock coats, the frock coats with “pleated skirts [that] swung as Nelson walked. . .and gold-lace cuffs” (327). It’s also the stockings, and the emphasis in portraits on the Admiral’s “balanced” “stance,” more like a “dancer than a fighter” (323). Much of ruling is looking the part. It’s as theatrical and improbable as Bowie.
As the curators explain the fascinating construction of these amphibious woolen maritime frock coats, Hoare muses on how it would feel to be so protected, much as he earlier considered what it would be like to assume the body of a dolphin washed ashore in Provincetown: “I imagine her as a human in a dolphin wetsuit. I think of her bones, lighter than mine since they did not have to bear the full weight of gravity” (61), and the claims of the poet Oppian (AD 180) that killing dolphins is immoral because they were humans who returned to the sea, and “the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds” (60). If, Hoare imagines, he could slip on Nelson’s coat, and “feel the skirts sway and bounce like a kilt,” he could “be a hero, just for a minute or two” (328).
In fact, Nelson was not a handsome sailor but a small admiral who had lost an arm in battle and was blinded in one eye, above which was a scar,“as if he’d been ripped by lighting, a zig-zag rip” (324). His scar remindsme of the one on Pierrot in Ashes to Ashes, and during the production of David Bowie Is, the curators took Hoare to see the costume up close, which is described both in this book and a passage from a profile of Hoare inThe Guardian:
“There lay a cross between a plywood cradle and a semi-circular, space-age coffin. Like the casket of a mummy. In there was the Pierrot costume for the “Ashes to Ashes” video. It was made of buckram and silver fabric and sequins, but it was stiff and looked like the chrysalis of an insect which had vacated it. It was in the shape of David Bowie, as if he’d been teleported out of this world and left this reliquary we were worshipping. I reached out but I couldn’t touch it. It would have been too much. It would have broken the spell.”
As Hoare leaves the Nelson vaults, he notices a sequin had fallen from the coat, “a bit of stardust,” and dutifully returns it to the curator.
But what do these coats have to do with Bowie? RisingTideFallingStar covers the past five hundred years. It is, on one level, about the rise of Empire, the allure of the New World, the migrations of peoples, exploration, cruelty and destruction, and making it new.
It begins with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a shipwreck halfway to the New World on Prospero’s island, likely Bermuda. Bowie spent a lot of time there is the late 1990s after selling his place on Mustique. He was poised then between Old and New Worlds, becoming, finally a New World New Yorker. He, like Hoare, was a child of a near-dead Empire, and when I look at Bowie’s wardrobe for Outside and Earthling, the End of Empire (millennium, century, and decade) comes to mind.
There is, of course, the slashed Union Jack coat for Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen, and some of Earthling’s titles allude to WWII, e.g. “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” but the coat itself is the most eloquent statement.
I’ve long been fascinated by the frock coat Bowie wore on the Outside tour. Why cobwebs? But when Hoare mentions Nelson’s coat that the admiral “wore at the Battle of the Nile… now sadly injured by moths” (317), my thinking changed. It’s described as “a dark, wool frock coat veiled with torn embroidered tulle, and a pair of high-waist, full dark trousers dribbled and smudged with paint.”
Torn embroidered tulle and lacy ruffled cuffs, deliberately distressed or delicate: this is the end of the Empire.
Bowie spent a lot of time visiting galleries in 1998 to 2003, especially in NYC and London. Sailor’s Journals include numerous snapshots of the paintings and artists.
After his death, the estate put many of the works he had bought throughout his years of collecting for auction at Sotheby’s. I think there were several reasons for this. They were doing no good in the vaults. For the younger artists, having a piece that once belonged to David Bowie auctioned at Sotheby’s would be of tremendous benefit to their careers, even more so than having it donated to a museum. They now have a sales history at Sotheby’s and an identity as an artist Bowie collected.
But for the two masterpieces, it’s different. In the journals, Bowie simply answers a fan question that it is true he has a Tintoretto and a Rubens, but doesn’t name them. I don’t know if the Rubens was auctioned. If it is very small, it might have been kept in case of a sudden need for portable wealth, who knows?
This list includes fashion designers and architects. A.J., 3/29/99 Armitage, Kenneth, 3/10/03 Body Parts, 10/29/98 Boshier, Derek, 5/17/99, 5/9/00 Bowie’s art works: 8/24/98; 9/10/98; Mini Cooper 9/14/98 Branca, Glen, 1/24/99, 5/1/18/01 Brown, Cecily, 2/8/00 Burne-Jones, 3/10/03 Chapman Brothers, 10/22/98 Chalmers, Catherine, 5/9/00 Charles, Michael Ray, 5/17/99, 12/16/99, 10/1/00 Chertavian, Kate [Bowie’s curator/mentor in collecting], 9/5/98 Cornell, Stephen, 9/14/98, 9/17/98, 9/21/98 Currin, 10/29/98 Dada, 10/29/98; 2/20, 26/99 Dali, 3/10/03 David, Jacques-Louis, 9/16/98 Death of Marat, 9/16/98 De Meuron, Pierre, 9/22/98 Diarchy, 3/10.03 Dix, Otto, 10/29/98 Duffy, Brian, 5/9/00 Eames, Charles, 9/14/98 Eames, Ray, 9/14/98 Eddy, 10/4/00 Emin, Tracy, 3/10/03 Epstein, Jacob, 2/24/99 Fragonard, Honore, 1/27/99 Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover, 5/17/99 Freud, Lucien, 3/10/03 Garnett, Sandy, 7/30/00 Gleason, Matt, 11/20/98 Goldsworthy, Rupert, 11/20/98 Hamilton, Page, 5/9/00, 5/16/00 Hockney, Peter,3/10/03 Hawkinson, Tim, 10/29/98 Herzog, Jacques, 9/22/98 Hirst, Damien 8/23/98; 9/10/98, 9/14/98, 9/17/98 Hockney, 5/17/99, 8/15/99, 5/9/00, 3/10/03 Hume, Gary, 3/10/03 Horne, Rebecca, 10/29/98 Hunt, Holman 9/6/98 Indoor Flag, 9/16/98 Johns, Jasper, 9/16/98 Jones, Allan, 5/17/99, 5/9/00 Kersel, Martin, 10/29/98 Lanyon, Peter, 5/22/00 Light of the World 9/6/98
Loebs, Damian 12/6/00 Longos, 1/18/01 Man Ray, 1/29/99 McQueen, Alexander, 9/5/98, 9/16/98 Moore, Thurston, 10/22/98 Moss, Kate, 8/31/98 Men in Cities, 1/18/01 Mugler, Thierry, 1/23/99 Nauman, Bruce, 10/29/98 Nitsch, Rudolf, 8/23/98 Ockenfeld, Frank, 3/29/99 Odd Nerdum, 1/30/00 Ofili, Chris, 10/29/98, 5/17/99 Oursler, Tony, 11/20/98, 1/24/99, 5/16/00 Picabia, 8/24/9; Picasso, 8/24/98; 9/10/98 Pollock, Jackson,1/9/01 POP, 9/10/98 Rubens, Peter Paul, 3/10/03 Rock Drill, 2/24/99 Rock, Mick, 1/17/01 Rodin, Auguste, 2/24/99 Saville, Jenny, 9/24/00 Schiele, Egon, 9/6/98 Schnabel, Julien, 11/15/1998 Schwarzkogler, Rudolf, 8/23/98 Sensation (Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection show), 9/21/99, 9/29/99 Smith, Paul, 8/31/98 Stuff, 9/10/98 Thurlow, 10/29/98 Tintortteo, Jacopo,* 3/10/03 Turks, Gavin, 9/10/98, 9/14/98, 9/16/98, 10/22/98 Underwood, George, 11/5/02 Union Jacket 1, 9/16/98 Warhol, Andy, 8/25/98 Yoneda, Tomoka, 2/2/00 Young Americans II (Saatchi’s), 9/17/98, 10/29/98 *About the Tintoretto:From Artnet:
“The Angel foretelling Saint Catherine of Alexandria of her martyrdom (late 1570s) was acquired for £191,000 by a European collector during Sotheby’s sale of the late musician’s collection last Thursday. Immediately after making his purchase, the collector announced his plans to place the work on a long-term loan to the Rubenshouse Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, in the hope that there, the piece will be admired by many.
“Through this act of generosity the collector sought to pay dual homage to the remarkable influence that Tintoretto and Venetian painting had on Belgian artist Peter Paul Rubens, and to the legendary musician who formerly owned the work. The gesture is intended to honor Bowie’s life-long love of and generosity towards museums and cultural institutions.”
Corrections are most sincerely welcomed. This project got a little out of hand, shall we say. I am deeply grateful to Noel Barretto for his help in improving Part 1.
More like a half a droplet in the seas than the tip of the proverbial iceberg, here we have the few authors and works mentioned in the brief Sailor’s Journals. There aren’t quite as many authors and books in Sailor’s Journals as you might expect. On the erstwhile bowienet there was a section entirely devoted to books.
Two Lazaruses: a song and a play; a beggar who stays dead, and a youth who walks out of his grave and into legend.
If Bowie’s last works were a parting message to his fans, why were there two of the same name but so different in tone?
I think Bowie was himself unsure, until fall 2015, whether these would be his final works. It’s widely reported that he didn’t know he was dying until fall 2015, but longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti and others said he had told them he had cancer in 2014.
“The moment you know/ You know you know…”
That disconnect may mean that it wasn’t until the last months that his doctors told him they had nothing left in their bag of tricks, no more chemo, no possibility of surgery, all that could be had been tried, and all had failed.
But what if he had beaten the odds once again? He’d done it before. He was healthier at 50 than at 30, and seemed to be going strong when downed by a heart attack in 2004.
Six years ago, in this blog’s second post, I listed reasons why Bowie mattered to me, including:
“He survived. He came about as close to destroying himself as a man can, but he stopped his fall into the abyss, found something firm to cling to, and clawed his way back to safety. Then he moved on.”
When he released The Next Day, I recalled Bowie’s courage in performing “Wake Up” with Arcade Fire in 2006, his first post-heart attack appearance. “The Next Day” begins with the declaration: “Here I am/Not quite dying.” In 2004 he said he would not be writing about his heart attack, and with this line, he seemed to say, let’s get this out of the way at the start.
But I doubt that death was ever far from his thoughts after 2004. Perhaps it never had been. Bowie was a serious seeker, whether following the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism or studying the Gnostic gospels.
There are a number of photos of Iman and a happy David Jones at society events in the 2000s. But the last time Bowie smiled during a performance is, I believe, in ”The Stars Are Out Tonight” video. The video for the song “Where Are We Now?,” the first in advance of The Next Day’s January 8, 2013 release, is quietly desperate.
And then he dropped from view until October 2015 when the ★ video was released. He’d aged. A lot. He’d lost a lot of weight. A paparazzi caught him arriving at the premiere of Lazarus: A Musical in early December; compared to the others in the scene, he looked jaundiced, more grimacing than grinning. (There are thankfully a few shots from the curtain call, in which his smile looks genuine and his color good — under stage lighting.)
He looks healthier and happier — truly smiling — in the Jimmy King photos released on Bowie’s birthday, January 8, 2016. The King photos were the last official pictures for public display, but I don’t think they were taken in the last days. In King’s photos, Bowie is wearing a fedora pulled way forward; if his eyebrows are there, they are faint. His hair is very, very short. My impression is that these are post-chemo pictures, perhaps from summer 2015, and the chemo was showing signs of working.
Then he was gone. He made it through then holidays, his birthday and the release of ★. When someone told what the family had tried to keep quiet — that he had had liver cancer — I groaned. I knew what was to come.*
This time he would not be summoned from the grave. The button-eyed beggar Lazarus dies alone in a godless world. The Village of Ormen is gloomy and grey; its object of worship a bejeweled skull. When the Prophet comes, color briefly returns to the world, but it cannot be sustained. There are no children or elders; the quakers and shakers attempt to devise a ritual but finally look like nothing more than a far from stellar collegiate dance troupe.
Buttoneyes dies alone and unmourned in what could be a shabby early 20th century nursing home. If the girl who appears is supposed to be an angel earning her wings, she fails to deserve a feather; she’d rather hide under the bed than be in the presence of the dying. The only ornamentation in the room is a tiny jeweled skull replica. This is Lazarus the beggar alone, whose hope for the future is in heaven, for this life is providing him nothing at all. He’s ready to go. This wouldn’t be the first Bowie song about a spiritual wasteland. It holds out hope of a heaven, but not a new life. Just a place where he might be.
Not very reassuring, is it?
Girl: “When you’re stuck between two worlds, it’s only right that you try something — incredible.”
There could be another end to the story, a “rewrite,” one that suggests a voyage into new worlds or a return to a perfected one. He could set sail; he could become an Immortal, as some legends say Lazarus of Bethany did.
It’s hard, audacious even, to write about a musical I haven’t seen. But pictures of the show suggest that Thomas Jerome Newton lives in a world saturated wih color. There is music. He has visitors. An angel is sent to help him prepare for departure from a life that has become unliveable; another, Valentine, provides the means for direct action.
Hope, help, free and love are words that appears repeatedly in the script.
In the end, there are two changes to “Heroes”:
“We’re free now/ And that is a fact
“Yes we’re free now/ And that is that.”
“We could be safer/ Just for one day.”
Newton is not of the Earth, not ashes and not the dust of decay. He’s stardust, created, as we all were, in the Big Bang, and has returned to space, for where else is there to go?
Quotationsfrom Lazarus: A Musical by David Bowie and Enda Walsh. London: Nick Hern Books, 2016 .”This way,” p. 7, (“Lazarus”); ” moment you know,” p. 28 (Where Are We Now?”); “stuck between two worlds,” p. 26; “rewrite,” p. 45.
Images:Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Top panel: Lazarus begs, dies and his soul taken by angels to rest with Abraham (middle). Bottom: Dives’ (the rich man’s) soul is carried off by two devils to Hell; Dives is tortured in Hades.
Tomb of Lazarus, ca. 1890-1900. Part of the Library of Congress’s Views of theHoly Land in the photochrom print collection. LC-DIG-ppmsca-02655
Fairy of Eagle Nebula. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI/AURA
*Usually liver cancers are secondary;cancer cells from other organs metastasize or travel there. Primary liver cancer is associated with hepatitis or cirrhosis. After Bowie’s 2004 heart attack, even doctors were quick to blame his excesses during the 1970s. And so when it was announced he had died of liver cancer these years’ indulgences were again cited as the cause. He probably had done some damage to his liver in the 1970s, but those 35 years mattered. The liver is the only organ that can regenerate itself, and only a fraction needs to be functioning to sustain life. But people — including some medical personnel — have a knee jerk reaction when an illness involves the liver. Say cirrhosis and the assumption is alcoholism; hepatitis, drugs. The stigma patients face is such that the international medical community changed the name of one auto-immune condition — primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) — to primary biliary cholangitis, although the new name is a less accurate moniker. Patients have enough to deal with without the yeah right looks that would come with explanations of this rare condition. Trust me on this. So when liver cancer was decreed, but not confirmed, I thought, here we go again: there will be many teachable moments to come.
“Love the alien as you love yourself; for you were once aliens in the Land of Egypt… “(Leviticus 19:34) “Thinking of a different time Palestine a modern problem Bounty and your wealth in land Terror in a best laid plan. . . ” (Bowie, “Loving the Alien”) “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus:“The New Colossus”)
In his introduction to Lazarus: A Musical: The Complete Book and Lyrics, co-author Enda Walsh recalls that Bowie’s first sketch of the musical included
“a character of a woman who thought she might be Emma Lazarus (the American poet whose poem “The New Colossus” is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty) — a woman who would . . . help and fall in love with . . . Thomas Newton.” (p. viii)
Emma didn’t make the cut (and yes, I’ve read Michael Cunningham’s fantasy, “Stage Oddity” — I’ll get to that later), but “The New Colossus” appears in The Complete Book and Lyrics after the end of the play and a blank page.* Is it the name, Lazarus, that links Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” and the musical? Or the theme of emigration, the departure from home to a new land, from which there is little likelihood of return? I think we can dismiss the name “Lazarus” as nothing more than serendipity. Being a stranger in a strange land, not so easily.** As Walsh puts it, Thomas Jerome Newton is “the most travelled of immigrants,” that is, an alien (p. viii). Bowie’s 1985 “Loving the Alien” is not about a man who fell to Earth but instead the seemingly endless back-and-forth battles of “the Templars and the Saracens/They’re travelling the holy land.” The 1985 video has a mid-80s dancing Bowie; the arrangement is curiously bouncy for a song with fairly grim lyrics.
Why the Templars and the Saraceans? Simply through reading widely, Bowie would have come across the Templars, and later when he progressed to Gnosticism, once again, there is a Templar connection. Using “Saracean” is just obscure enough to make the song not about a particular clash in the Middle East.
Primarily, I think too he wanted to play with the word and idea of alien. He’d had 10 years of being an unhuman alien, and now he’s reminding us that not all aliens are starmen.
In 1990, Bowie met Iman, a Somalian immigrant to the US, and the couple joined the millions of other immigrants who have passed through or settled in New York City. In the early 2000s, Bowie asked guitarist Gerry Leonard to rearrange “Loving the Alien,” and on the Reality Tour, the song is slow, deliberate, somber.
Emma Lazarus, a Jew, was not one of the “huddled masses” of the mid-1800s who arrived in America fleeing the Russian pogroms or genocide of Jews; in fact, her forebearers had been in the US for several generations.
But as a Jew, a people without a homeland, she was also an alien, and was one of the earliest advocates for establishing a Jewish nation — a Zionist before the term had been coined. She too was a liminal Lazarus, suspended between the physical homeland of her birth and the spiritual but as yet unreal homeland of her faith.
*I haven’t found out (and would appreciate a definitive answer) if the poem is included in the program or read after the curtain falls on the play. If it didn’t, and the play is staged again, I believe that will change.
** Exodus 2:22. The main character of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is a human raised by Martians for his first 25 years, the sole survivor of a mission to Mars. When an Earth-based expedition discovers him, he is forced to return to Earth, but doesn’t know how to be human. The character’s name: Valentine Michael Smith (there’s both a Valentine and Michael in Lazarus, for what it’s worth.