David Bowie’s epic, multiplatform final works — the stage show “Lazarus” and the songs and videos from the album “Blackstar” — rank high among his very best: eerily magnetic and emotionally evocative, yet cryptic and coded, just beyond the reach of language and logic.
But the star’s death Jan. 10 made their abstruse imagery snap into a new, now-perfect focus. Code broken, they reveal layers that were inscrutable before, but now are glaringly obvious.
When Bowie more or less retired from celebrity in 2004, it was hard to begrudge him the rest. The heart problem that cut short his worldwide “A Reality Tour” appeared happily under control. Alexandria, his daughter with wife Iman, was entering her preschool years. He was basking in critical and fan acclaim for the “Heathen” and “Reality” albums that had reunited him with longtime producer Tony Visconti.
After decades of recording, touring, acting, making videos and painting, db had earned a little time off. We lifelong followers knew his restless spirit would bring him back to the spotlight.
That comeback took longer than some expected, but the surprise 2013 album “The Next Day,” with its thrillingly muscular music and top-tier videos, was exactly the return we had hoped for.
And though the arrival of “Blackstar” was tardier than the singer’s breakneck pace during the 1970s, an album every three years or so seemed more than acceptable.
Coming on the heels of the opening of “Lazarus” at New York Theatre Workshop, the record’s mere existence seemed almost magical — never mind the fact that its wild energy and genre-defying fusion of rock and jazz sonics easily earn it a spot with his most creative and exciting albums.
Was he rediscovering the muse that drove his ceaseless creativity as a young man — this time without the cocaine?
Now that he’s gone, it’s obvious Bowie pushed himself to a final flurry of activity to complete his own elegiac couplet.
“He made ‘Blackstar’ for us, his parting gift,” Visconti wrote on Facebook.
Bowie’s work clearly resonates with the public at large. Several of his albums currently top the Amazon and iTunes best-seller lists. “Rebel Rebel,” “Fame” and “Let’s Dance” will rule the classics playlist for decades.
But “Lazarus” and “Blackstar” are really for the devotees — the kooks, oddballs and misfits who found a Pied Piper and a fellow traveler in the spaceman/mime/drag queen/crooner.
Bowie was at once the ultimate rock star and the ultimate outsider in that world. Never as earnest as Paul McCartney, as coolly detached as Robert Plant or megalomaniacal as Prince. On the playground he would have been pegged as the “artsy” one. Maybe a geek — but the geek whose particular talents and iconoclastic disposition lent him an outsider appeal that made him indefinably off-putting, even dangerous to the normals.
On Nov. 18 I was on an important pilgrimage to New York City. I had one of the most coveted tickets any Bowie superfan could hope for: a third-row center seat at the very first preview of “Lazarus,” procured with the help of two fellow inveterate obsessives.
Bowie is the most profound artistic influence on my life. His “Heroes” and “Lodger” were the first two LPs I ever purchased. The former peers down from the wall when I sit at the desk in my home studio today. I have spent uncountable hours poring over every note, meter change and lyric.
His work has been foundational to the music I have been making since I was a child. While many move on from their teenage fixations as they age, my love for Bowie’s art has grown ever stronger through the years.
And in 1999, I somehow caught a little of the man’s lightning in a bottle.
A BowieNet contest asked fans to contribute lyrics to a new song. I downloaded the unfinished track that was posted as a guide. I combined it with a performance of my own entry, added a few filigrees, and uploaded it to the Web.
How could I imagine my lifelong idol would not only find it, but be enthralled by it? I had hit upon his then-current fascination with the impending digital music juggernaut, and he was electrified that a nobody in Kansas City with a cheap computer and an Internet connection could reach a worldwide audience.
Bowie posted my track, created a special prize in the contest for me, and even talked up my initiative in the international press. He continued to support me generously afterward, asking me to send him new music privately and posting more of my work on his website.
That led to other collaborations with the artists around him. It also introduced me to two of the friends who remain closest to my heart today.
So of course I had to be at “Lazarus.”
The continuation of Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is like no other sequel. The original is straightforward and linear in narrative. Its plot makes conventional sense, rooted in a self-contained, corporeal science fiction world.
But the metaphysical rules in “Lazarus.” Several major characters exist only in the mind of central character Thomas Jerome Newton, played by Michael C. Hall of Showtime’s “Dexter.” It’s even uncertain whether the main antagonist is only a figment of Newton’s imagination.
The musical play’s intermissionless two hours are packed with theatrical, dreamlike imagery and Bowie songs new and old. The action is slow, as the immortal alien Newton pines for release from the Earth he’s stranded on.
The central plot doesn’t quite make sense, captivating as it might be. Its structure is analogous to the “cut up” technique Bowie frequently used in writing lyrics. He would literally take scissors to paper, dismantling pages of prose into words and phrases, jumbling them, then reassembling them into sentences that often didn’t scan — but somehow still had meaning.
“It seemed that it would predict things about the future, or tell me a lot about the past,” he said while demonstrating it for the 1974 BBC documentary “Cracked Actor.”
Roeg’s film trades in sly references to the celebrity of its lead, most famously when a character passes in front of a record-store display of Bowie’s “Young Americans” album. The line between performer and his character is as blurred as any in the cinema.
That self-referential spirit suffuses every moment of “Lazarus,” beginning with the stack of the singer’s LPs slumped against the downstage-left wall, next to a record player.
Newton’s sterile onstage refrigerator houses white bottles, ostensibly of the gin he guzzles all day long. Fans who agonize over Bowie’s tortured ’70s drug addiction know he grew frail and mentally unstable on a diet of nothing but bell peppers and milk for a time. That he allegedly stored jars of his own urine in the fridge, paranoid a wizard would steal it and use it to control him.
The silent appliance speaks volumes.
A “Lazarus” character sings a mournful, twitchy electronic rendering of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Another defiantly belts “Changes” while in the throes of a psychic breakdown. And most memorably, Newton and his mysterious little girl spirit guide launch themselves like dolphins through a slick of milk as they trade lines of “Heroes,” Bowie’s signature number.
This is no jukebox musical, because the real subject of “Lazarus” isn’t Newton at all.
The show is simply about David Bowie, the man and the artist: his career, the trappings of his public persona, his mark on worldwide culture and his mortality, suddenly imminent.
Its formerly puzzling title has no relationship to the plot. Instead, it is a now-obvious and direct reference to its author’s successful wresting of life from his death.
In that regard, “Lazarus” continues where 2013’s “The Next Day” left off. That album’s jacket reproduces, then partially desecrates the iconic cover of Bowie’s own “Heroes,” signaling its intent to acknowledge, mine from, and build upon the past.
A ‘Blackstar’ farewell
The secrets of the “Blackstar” album, its lyrics and videos also now unveil themselves after their creator’s demise.
The 10-minute video for the titular lead single debuted the day after the first public performance of “Lazarus,” obviously not by coincidence. Its first image shows a spacesuit collapsed on the surface of a desolate, craggy planet.
A black star and Bowie’s stylized name fade into view, directly framing the figure and making it crystal clear that this is Major Tom, the doomed astronaut of the breakthrough 1969 single “Space Oddity.” Moments later, a young woman opens the helmet to reveal a bejeweled skull inside.
Bowie plays three characters: A feeble figure apparently in pain, his eyes bandaged, buttons where his pupils should be. A stern-looking authoritarian brandishing a small leather book emblazoned with a black star. A confident, swaggering performer addressing the viewer directly as he minces and mugs in a dusty attic.
The video is visually dense, filled with enigmatic dancing villagers, shirtless men vibrating in a religious trance, and scabrous, obese scarecrows writhing on their posts. The moody, Middle Eastern-inflected musical themes permeate the piece with a sense of deep foreboding.
The video for the song “Lazarus,” released the day before the album, is straightforward to the point of bluntness. The coda to “Blackstar” sees the man with button eyes now in a hospital bed, at times levitating above it as a frightening hag emerges from an armoire and slithers beneath the springs.
Then we see another Bowie, this time upright, wearing a replica of a silver-streaked outfit he donned back in the ’70s. He dances; he glares; he sits at a desk and is overcome with a fit of creativity, or perhaps even lunacy. Next to him, the same jewel-encrusted skull from the spacesuit.
And then he stands and backs slowly into the armoire. Our last image is of his hand pulling it shut.
Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now
How could we not have realized immediately that David Bowie was telling us he was at death’s door?
Rumor had it he was terminally ill back in the late aughts. But the astonishingly hale performer who starred in 2013’s video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” proved that wrong.
Maybe it was wishful thinking that kept us from really seeing the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” Bowie: gaunt and pale, skin crepey, lips reedy. The videos pull back the curtain from the artist’s failing body, sharing the truth with those who loved him from afar.
I have had recurring dreams for years that David Bowie would end his public career by assuming the role of sorcerer Prospero in a spectacular version of “The Tempest,” William Shakespeare’s autobiographical farewell to the theater.
With “Lazarus” and “Blackstar,” he does the Bard one better. His goodbye to this world is as anguishing as it is brilliant. No other rock star could have possibly pulled it off with such dignity, honest dreadfulness and steely aplomb.