“Bowie hasn't lost his edge, he keeps reinventing his image and his characters,” I remarked. “This one has a dark passenger. I think there might be a Major Tom riff in there too, with the space suit containing the bejeweled but long-dead skull.”
Yesterday, with the sad and shocking news of David Bowie’s death—and the release of his new video, “Lazarus,” on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death—the dark and unsettling aspects of "Black Star" that puzzled me when I first saw it suddenly made a whole lot of sense. For a year and a half, David Bowie had been struggling with cancer—something he kept private from the world—and knew he was dying. His last album was a carefully planned meditation on death—and life—in all its mystery, glory, pain, pleasure, and wretchedness.
In the new video for “Lazarus,” Bowie’s ailing character—blindfolded, with buttons where his sightless eyes should be—lies in a hospital bed, singing:
Look up here, I’m in Heavenand
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me
For half a century, David Bowie constantly reinvented himself, his music and his career by creating and inhabiting characters and stage personas, and using these characters to comment on the absurdities and challenges of human life and society. Ziggy Stardust. Aladdin Sane. The Thin White Duke. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Pierrot the sad clown. Jareth the Goblin King from the film Labyrinth. The nameless, suit-wearing hipster who toured the world filling stadiums and brought us a series of funk-inspired pop hits throughout the last two decades of the 20th century.
Bowie’s characters were rarely, if ever, easy pills to swallow. They were fiercely crafted commentaries on addiction, fame, greed, fashion, vanity, sexuality and gender, the absurdity of human behavior, and the suffocating nature of society’s norms. Bowie’s characters were much more than the passing fashion statements of a pop star (though he also remained a fashion icon for half a century, as well). They were carefully constructed, always defiantly weird and unconventional and creative, and he embodied them so deeply that David Bowie the man sometimes became indistinguishable from his character.
One of the most common themes I heard yesterday from friends around the world—aside from the profound grief they felt at his loss—was how David Bowie had always made them feel it was "okay to be weird," okay to be yourself, okay not to fit into society’s cookie-cutter molds. Another common theme expressed by many friends yesterday was the feeling of shock at being suddenly reminded that David Bowie was, in fact, a mortal human being just like us—not some kind of god or space oddity.
And now, as his parting gift, he leaves us with Lazarus. Lazarus is Bowie’s final character, and a fitting one to articulate the supreme questions of life and death that we now know he was wrestling with in his last year. Lazarus is an unsettling vision, a man at the mercy of ultimate forces beyond his control, helpless and blindfolded, surrounded by symbols of death and reminders of the ephemerality of all his creations. But Lazarus is also a character who—to borrow a famous line from Dylan Thomas—refuses to go quietly into that good night, but rages against the dying of the light. Lazarus twitches and levitates above his hospital bed; in his lyrics and his vocal performance, he alternates between anger, fear, gratitude, peace, and transcendence. Lazarus sees his life and his creations slipping from his hands, and refuses to stop creating. In the video, as Lazarus lies in his hospital bed, another version of Bowie—Bowie the performer, Bowie the ambitious artist—emerges like a wraith from a dark wardrobe closet, frantically scribbles his inspirations onto paper, delighting in his own creations, and then retreats with a puzzled expression back into the darkened wardrobe at the end of the video.
This too, Lazarus tells us, is part of the experience, part of the performance. It may not be pretty, it may even be frightening and creepy at times, but it’s an essential part of the dance of life and death. We mustn’t look away from it. In fact, if we look at it carefully, it may even reveal treasures that we didn’t know were there. “Look up here,” he foretold, “I’m in Heaven.”
Those who know the story of Lazarus from the Bible know that Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus four days after his burial. We now know that David Bowie’s entire last album was carefully planned and its release apparently timed to coincide with his 69th birthday and his death two days later. In playing out the theme of Lazarus and his resurrection, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if David Bowie has more messages in store for us in the coming months.
Thank you, David Bowie. It was a fantastic gift to have you on this planet. You will be greatly missed and never forgotten.