Random Thoughts on The Man Who Fell to Earth, Concluded

Finishing this up. My days turned to weeks. 

9. Nicolas Roeg allows viewers much room to intuit connections in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The first few minutes are among the most illogical. All you have to go on is the title. Something seems to explode in the sky and crash into a lake. A boring looking man in the distance watches another man with unusual hair struggle not up from but down toward the lake. How do we know this is the man who fell to Earth?

What Newton plans to do if his spaceship gets home is anyone’s guess. Why is the launch aborted? It seems Newton climbs into the limo and leaves the site on his own initiative. 

10. The dialogue of several of the old movies Newton watches on his banks of TVs blends is seamlessly with the action. The conversation from Love in the Afternoon could be Newton and Mary Lou’s, as well as that in The Third Man. When his driver comes to an abrupt stop outside the shack Newton lives in when he leaves Mary Lou, it sounds like he has blown out a tire. But that sound like a gunshot is on the television — a cowboy and Indian movie this time.

11. When Mary Lou takes a bath in their apartment, Tommy looks into his eyes in the mirror much as he will when he reveals his true self to her.

12. How does Tommy transform shape? One way may be the removal of his contacts. (Bowie is wearing a contact as he plays the role because the pupil size of both Thomas Jerome Newton’s eyes is the same.) A special twisting of nipples seems involved, too. Nipple play happens often with Bryce and his girls. Tommy seems nervous about it when he is in bed with Mary Lou. Why do scientists use a scalpel to get blood from Tommy’s nipples, a scene causing Bryce, to whom Bowie calls for help, to run away?

13. “Freak” is a jarring word in the movie. Mary Lou uses it to Tommy, as does Oliver Farnsworth’s boyfriend about Tommy.

14. Is Mary Lou’s cry, “Tommy! Tommy! Tommy can you hear me?” when Tommy locks himself in the bathroom a call-out to Bowie’s old friend the Who’s  Roger Daltrey’s Tommy?

15. Faith and trust: Newton told Mary Lou his name was Sussex because he did not yet know her. When she asks if he is married, he does not lie. Deceit is not natural to him, in spite of his assumption of the appearance and behavior of a member of a different species. He seems more comfortable doing this than claiming he is English. Newton tells Bryce and Mary Lou he trusts them. He misreads them. Or is this a self-deception?

Tommy really does not want to go to church with Mary Lou. Her talk of God turns his face to sky and memories of his family.

The night before his first physical visit with Bryce, he transmits his image to the dock where Bryce is fishing with the message, “Do not be suspicious.” When asked if they have met before, Newton’s standard answer is evasive, that he has thought about him a few times, as if those — being in physical and mental presences — are same.

After he has been imprisoned, Mary Lou asks Tommy to reveal to the authorities that he is who she knows him to be, but he will no longer prove himself to anyone.

16. The sphere ornament over Newton’s red bridge attracts Bryce’s attention, and foreshadows the huge sphere in the space capsule.

17. There is a statue of an angel or saint along with a mural of the moon in one of the government’s medical exam rooms. Church bells herald Tommy’s escape. At the lake, there were three crucifixes over one of Bryce’s inner thresholds.

18. Farnsworth calls his glasses his eyes. In her last appearance, Mary Lou is bothered by a displaced false eyelash. The x-ray of Newton’s eyes doesn’t blind him, but fuses contacts to his cat eyes, and if the removal of the contacts is an essential first step to leaving his human identity (see above), he is now stuck in disguise.

19. Drink doesn’t sicken Tommy, but it does, he says, allow him to see things. Mary Lou is scandalized by his answer to her question what kinds of things? “Women. And Men.”

20. In Chapter 16 of the Criterion DVD at 13:40, Newton bathed in blue light looks like a much older Bowie. In several scenes, Newton is uncannily still, foretelling the puppets or mannequins of arguably his creepiest video “Love is Lost” (Steve Reich’s remix).

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Some Random Thoughts on The Man Who Fell to Earth, Part 1

Each time I watch The Man Who Fell to Earth, I wonder anew. I have no thesis here, so these thoughts just roughly follow the chronology of the movie.

  1. Bowie’s character does not smoke cigarettes during the movie. Buck Henry’s Oliver Farnsworth does in the first scene in which he appears and at least once again. Stills from the set show a great deal of smoking going on, but although this was during Bowie’s chain-smoking days, Thomas Jerome Newton does not smoke.
  2. Is Newton drinking water from cupped hands when we first see him crouched? I used to think so, but he is too close to the roadway and far from the lake to make that practical. After he sells a ring to the curio shop owner for $20, he returns with a coffee cup. It is more of a prayerful pose. (He has cupped hands (2)bundles of $100 bills, but these must have been counterfeited on his home planet, which is the way that Newton is finally taken into custody in the Walter Tevis novel. From television, Tevis’s aliens had gotten a good idea, but not good enough, of the appearance of $20 bills. Also, paying with $100s to get a cup and some snacks would be attention-grabbing.) 
  3.  There are three trains, excluding the one on Newton’s planet: a rusted steam engine, a Santa Fe freight, and an Amtrak passenger. A presentiment of the opening of Station to Station?
  4. This is America. We know immediately and for certain because there are guns. The first is in the cash box at the curio shop, a snub-nosed piece. The Chekovian rule that if a gun appears in Act I, it will be used by Act V sort of applies when Newton orders a pistol that shoots blanks from his jailers when he hears of Mary Lou’s visit. At first he says they gave him one, then corrects himself: he paid for it. He [unwillingly] pays for it all. Not their faces, but their guns are also what we first see of police who check out Newton’s limo in NM. They are a prominent feature in many of movies Tommy watches, including The Third Man and cowboy and Indian movies.
  5. Did Newton walk all 20 or so staircases to Farnsworth’s penthouse to avoid the elevator? Just going five floors in Artesia, NM leaves him in a faint.  From the views and time it eventually takes Farnsworth to fall, his penthouse must have been high up. This falls into the realm of the unknowable, the suspend your disbelief category. Newton could have gone one floor by elevator or stairs, rested, and continued. He could have had Tony carry him. It doesn’t matter, just a curiosity. 
  6. Some equally irrelevant things are knowable. For example, if Arthur isn’t allowed to go over 30 mph, how long would a limo ride take to Artesia? (By the way, at 3,380 ft elevation, any physical exertion would be harder than at sea level.) Artesia is 1965 miles from New York City, so that would be roughly 65 hours, 30 minutes. So if Arthur drove 12 hours a day, about 5 and a half days. Not so bad. By the time Mary Lou and Tommy start looking for a building site for their home, they must have moved their base to Albuquerque because from Artesia to the city is 239 miles, about 8 hours, Newton time. (The film locale is Fenton, just 77 miles or 2.5 hours at 30 mph.)
  7. Coca-Cola is everywhere in America, but considering that the movie was filmed during a hiatus in Bowie’s coke years, it is amusing to hear the Coke commercial “I’d like to teach the world to sing” on in the background on one of the TVs in the early days of the movie and to see a Coke machine in the lobby of the hotel in which Bowie had been kept prisoner.
  8. Mary Lou has an orange cat in her apartment in Artesia and much later when she is living with Nathan Bryce. It could be 10, 15, even 20 years old. Bryce and Mary Lou have certainly aged — and Mary Lou looks fairly bloated — since they betrayed Tommy, although Mary Lou still looks the same naked when she visits the prisoner, who has been in custody long enough to declare his intention to stop trying to prove anything to anyone. Enough time passes between Tommy’s release, Christmas with the unhappy couple, and the final scene for Tommy to have recorded The VisitorWorldwide had been in business for long enough to have a publishing and photography division when Dr. Nathan Bryce enters the story.

Check back in a few days for more.

 

 

Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar: Frock Coats and the End of Empire


Bowie on Outside in 1995 interview with Larry Katz: 

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.]”

In the second half of Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar, Hoare visits the Royal Museums Greenwich for a personal viewing of Admiral Nelson’s undress coat worn when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.

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 reminds me 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 in The 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.

Evocation: Billy Collins’ “Embrace”

Last week I came across Billy Collins’ poem “Embrace” — and I learned the rules* have changed, so I can offer it in totality, which is a good thing because you need it all. 

Embrace

You know the parlor trick.
wrap your arms around your own body
and from the back it looks like
someone is embracing you
her hands grasping your shirt
her fingernails teasing your neck
from the front it is another story
you never looked so alone
your crossed elbows and screwy grin
you could be waiting for a tailor
to fit you with a straight jacket
one that would hold you really tight.

@Billy Collins. From the collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems. First published 2006; rptd. 2014 by the University of Arkansas Press

It’s a stunning 12-line poem, and immediately I thought of Bowie, and will likely never again watch Bowie do the “parlor trick” without thinking of “Embrace.”

There’s absolutely no reason as far as I know why Bowie would have inspired any of Billy Collins’ work — the connection is in my head. Collins is an American poet, born 1941 in Manhattan, and was America’s poet laureate for 2001 to 2003. I’d describe him as an imagist, with a small i.

I hunted without success for a portrait by Andrew Kent, the photographer who did the black-and-white studies of the Thin White Duke. Maybe there is a Kent still of the “parlor trick,” or perhaps I was just mingling what we know of Bowie in the TWD era and the last six lines of “Embrace.”

I then asked for help from a particularly welcoming FB group of Bowie devotees (not all are) and got dozens of response, but this one of “Heroes,” from the same broadcast as the Bing Crosby and Bowie duet of the “Little Drummer Boy” is in in tone and choreography perfect. The video starts 15 seconds in.

heroes

*Quoting more than a few lines of a poem used to amount to academic or professional suicide. But the Poetry Foundation has concluded that a non-commercial blog may do so, if the poem is accompanied by “critique or commentary.” Many other conditions apply and are listed on page 13 of the guide. If a poet objects, then his or her wishes are to be respected. My reasoning is that since 52 of Collins’ poems are on PoemHunter, and the Foundation and PoemHunter are frequently mentioned in tandem on educational sites, Collins would probably not object.

Liminal Lazaruses 3: Do You Want to Be Free?

“This way or no way/ You know, I’ll be free”

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.*meister_des_codex_aureus_epternacensis_001

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.”

02655rThere 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.heic0506b_hst

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.”

and

“We could be saferJust 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?

Quotations from 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 the Holy 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.

Liminal Lazaruses 2: Loving the Alien

“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.

Photos are from the National Park Service.lazarus-portraitchains-2

 

The Liminality of Lazaruses, part 1

Bowie’s Lazaruses (Blackstar’s and the musical’s), Anna Kavan’s, the beggar Lazarus, Lazarus of Bethany: I’ve been thinking about Lazaruses a lot lately.

“I’m a dying man who can’t die”–  David Bowie and Enda Walsh, Lazarus: A The Musical

We know Thomas James Newton can die; he is mortal. That, after all, is why he is on Earth: he came in search of water because his own planet had become too dry to support life. His family is dead. His problem is not that he cannot die but that his life has become unlivable, suicide doesn’t seem to be an option, and his body doesn’t run on the same timetable as humans’. In the last scenes of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nathan Bryce and Mary-Lou have aged some 20 years, but Newton has not. His liver must be superhuman: he has failed to drink himself to death, while Mary-Lou and Bryce seem well on their way.

I’ve not seen the musical; I’ve only read the screenplay, but my impression is that it ends with Newton finding what he wants, and that is to be free from life on Earth. Any play ending with “Heroes” can’t be as bleak as the videos for Blackstar.

“Mr. Bow did not know how lucky he was and perhaps that was rather lucky as well” —  Anna Kavan, I am Lazarus.

kavanPatti Smith casually mentions Anna Kavan (1901-1968) in M Train — just her name, nothing else. I don’t know if Bowie read Kavan, but he and Smith admire many of the same writers (e.g. Jean Genet). It is hard to overstate how bleak and disturbing it is to read Kavan’s I am Lazarus, a collection of short stories. It’s a slim volume, but a long read.

The title story and several others feature broken people subjected to aggressive medical interventions (inducing insulin shock to “cure” praecox dementia; repeated dosing of paraldehyde for “prolonged narcosis” of neurotics [a visitor describes a patient as a ”shape…who had already seemed to forfeit humanity” (“Palace of Sleep”)]. Others have survived WWII to live with the memory loss, terror, and confusion of PTSD.

All could claim to have “scars you cannot see” — if they had the ability or desire to communicate. Helpless, institutionalized or too shattered to realize they are dead inside, they both are and are not alive and have no way out.

New Testament Lazaruses

Lazarus the beggar and Lazarus of Bethany have two things in common: Both die of illness, and neither speaks for himself.

Lazarus the Beggar  (Luke 16: 19-31)

Lazarus died of leprosy at the gates of a grand house where he begged for scraps from the table of a “certain rich man” and was refused. When Lazarus died, “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.” The rich man also died and was buried.Lazarus is at rest; the rich man lands in Hades where he is tormented and can see Lazarus.

Now he’s the one begging. He wants Abraham to send the leper over to his side to give him a drink of water, but the rich man is no longer giving the orders, and even if Abraham were to agree, it couldn’t happen: “‘a wide chasm has been fixed between us, so that those who want to cross from this side to you cannot do so, nor can they cross from your side to us’” [31]. Then the rich man decides the beggar should be sent back  to the world of the living so that he can warn his uncharitable brothers what awaits them. Abraham refuses, saying even if he did so, the brothers wouldn’t listen to the beggar.

So much for worldly wealth and power. I find several other interesting things about this. If the rich man recognizes that the man beside Abraham is his beggar, so to speak, would that mean that even though the angels came for him (the rich man is simply buried), the leper appears just as repulsive as he did on earth? Now the beggar is at rest. Were he sent on the rich man’s errand, would he have to repeat the process of dying? Is he not better off dead?

Lazarus of Bethany  (John 11:1-45) 

This Lazarus is the brother of Jesus’s friends Mary and Martha, so he is a young man when he dies after a short illness. He [his body?] is put in a tomb, and Jesus arrives in 4 days, the stone blocking the tomb is  rolled away, and Jesus calls to him. Then “the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go’” [44].

And that is the last we hear of him, but there are a number of legends about the rest of his life. Perhaps he was set out to sea and landed in Cyprus, establishing a church in Larnaca where the story arose that he lived another thirty years but 

never smiled except on one occasion, when he saw someone stealing a pot, when he smilingly said: “the clay steals the clay.” He was worried at the sight of the unredeemed souls he had seen during his four day stay in Hades. 

A Gnostic teaching (and we know Bowie was interested in Gnosticism) claims Lazarus and the Apostle John are one and the same, “the only disciple to receive all teachings and initiations of the Holy Gospel, outer, inner and secret,” and that these secrets were revealed to him when Jesus entered the tomb and raised him from the dead.

Once dead and resurrected, can one die again? I’m not sure if the following is limited to one community of Gnostics, but it is intriguing:  

St. Lazarus lives in remote places and wanders the earth in secret, immortal and indestructible. According to legend, he receives one or two disciples in every generation to whom he transmits the inmost secret teachings, serving as a guardian and knowledge-keeper of the Light-Transmission on earth. . . .Though many might think of him as an old man, legend speaks of him as a young and very handsome man, and he is often called the Eternal Youth or the Hermit-Lad.. . .

He is youthful and has a beautiful boyish face, appearing as though he were sixteen, though having pure white hair. His eyes are unearthly in appearance, as though the universe is in them and his gaze seems otherworldly.

Those eyes…laz