“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.*
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?
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.