How could we have been so stupid? David Bowie had barely been seen in public, didn’t do interviews, and then he put out the video for a new song, “Lazarus,” in which he’s sickly thin, in a hospital bed, with his eyes covered. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings in the song’s opening.
As fictitious movie producer Ben Geisler shouts in “Barton Fink”: “Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”
Except we made our deal with Bowie a long time ago. His gift for telling a story and inventing the characters and universe driving it — and our willingness to suspend disbelief — became our immutable pact. Why would we doubt him now? Images of death and destruction have been elemental in Bowie’s work, from his Ziggy and the Thin White Duke personas to his “Outside” and “Heathen” albums. If there was a time to worry, it was after his heart attack in 2004 and subsequent public withdrawal. Then our hero returned, out of nowhere, to make 2013’s “The Next Day,” a record strong enough to register with his best work, and followed, days before his death, with the adventurous “Blackstar.”
Yes, “Lazarus” was about mortality, but what isn’t?
The art of creation while dying. Famously heard, of course, in Mozart’s “Requiem” and the tender darkness of Franz Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger.”
For me, there’s also the work that emerges when the artist may not know the end is near, work we explore while searching for clues into the elusive creative process. Was Coltrane, skronking as furiously as he could in the mid-1960s, aware at least subconsciously that the clock was ticking? Doris Lessing capturing her family history in the clunky but rewarding “Alfred and Emily” as her mind tests her. When I read Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur,” I feel the melancholy of a man who has certainly resigned himself to a creative death, even if the body won’t take its last breath for seven more years. “Big Sur” is his last great book. It’s also a kind of end. “Oh hell, I’m sick of life — If I had any guts I’d drown myself in that tiresome water but that wouldn’t be getting over at all,” groans Jack Duluoz, Kerouac’s alter ego.
The interpretation also can shift. Does the brilliant video of Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” resonate more today because, only seven months after its filming, he would be gone?
In Bowie’s case, we had the artist declining to offer his insights upon “Blackstar’s” release. Some critics reported the new work was referencing the Islamic State. (A spokesman eventually dismissed that interpretation of the 10-minute title track. “ ‘Blackstar’ is not about the Middle East situation.”) But there was certainly no sense that he would be gone so soon.
“Ambiguous and spellbinding,” Alexis Petridis wrote in the Guardian on Jan. 7, three days before Bowie’s death. “It’s a rich, deep and strange album that feels like Bowie moving restlessly forward, his eyes fixed ahead: the position in which he’s always made his greatest music.”
Then he was gone. And Petridis wrote another piece, about how the album’s meaning changed. Even “Lazarus,” meant as the title track in the off-Broadway musical of the same name that Bowie co-wrote, could no longer be viewed as emerging from the production’s lead character. “Now it feels suspiciously like Bowie writing his own epitaph,” Petridis wrote.
Tony Visconti, the longtime producer and friend, characterized “Blackstar” as “a parting gift” in a Facebook post after the news broke.
“His death was not different from his life — a work of art,” he wrote.
In that spirit, Bowie reminded me of George Harrison, who soldiered away at his (also excellent) final album, “Brainwashed,” while privately battling disease. Bowie told only a select few about his cancer and swore them to secrecy. Not even the musicians who played with him on “Blackstar” seemed to know his dire state. Now, like us, they find themselves reinterpreting “Dollar Days,” a song as beautiful musically or lyrically as anything he ever wrote. “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to,” he sings over an acoustic guitar’s strums, “it’s nothing to me.” The song builds, driven by Donny McCaslin’s saxophone, as Bowie repeats, “I’m trying to, I’m dying to.”
“I felt the incredible sadness of this song while we were recording it,” bassist Tim Lefebvre wrote in Rolling Stone magazine. “I would be unable to play it again today.”
Maybe so, but I can’t stop listening to it, in part-tribute, part fact-finding. We remain a society obsessed with death, particularly when we can pretend it’s others, not us, who are facing it. We sometimes use it to justify and excuse the deathbed product, whether Glen Campbell, struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for a documentary created supposedly in the service of raising awareness, or Billie Holiday’s “Last Recording” and Michael Jackson’s “This Is It.” We search for clues in Elliott Smith’s “From a Basement on the Hill,” the album he was recording as he was overtaken by depression. We don’t have to search hard. “I’m through trying now, it’s a big relief,” Smith sings on “The Last Hour.”
Bowie, obviously, understood how he wanted to be remembered — through this art, not some Jeteresque farewell tour — but that doesn’t mean his was the only way out.
I still think of Warren Zevon’s final act. The “Werewolves of London” singer, diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2002, died as he had lived, with humor, sarcasm and dysfunction.
This was a man who wanted us to feel everything, the rawness in the studio as he’s surrounded by friends, the frustration as the painkillers derail a session, the absurdity of the death watch, when suddenly everybody who ignored him for years wanted a piece.
In the documentary that aired about his struggle, we see Zevon in a limo heading to do “The Late Show With David Letterman” for the stunning episode in which he would be the only guest. His manager tells Zevon that New Yorker magazine is now interested in doing a profile. (Now? Where were they when his last record came out?) “Too late,” Zevon says. “Too late.”
This approach is nothing like Bowie, cool and mysterious and private to the end. Yet his “gift,” as Visconti so perfectly put it, was as generous as what we received from Oliver Sacks and “Tuesdays With Morrie.” These figures gave us their time when they had so precious little of it. For that, we should be grateful.
All of Monday, I watched in awe at the flood of appreciation in my social media scrolls, from the usual suspects (Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop) to the wholly unexpected. (Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi tweeted out the lyrics to “Space Oddity.”) That night, I called singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips after reading his moving Facebook post and realizing we had shared the same experience as so many others. We spent the weekend feasting on “Blackstar” — a new Bowie record! — and all of Monday in mourning and shock. I asked him about watching “Lazarus.”
“The video was chilling, hard to watch in some ways before,” he said. “I haven’t watch it since. Our heroes, they carry us on their backs and they carry our dreams, and to see them facing down mortality,” he trailed off.
I asked whether he would listen to it more and watch “Lazarus” again. Yes, he said.
“Because that’s what those things are for,” Phillips said. “They’re medicine for this culture to confront these ugly realities, and death is one of them.”