David never told us he was dying. Then again, he sort of did:
“Lazarus” was the title track of the Bowie musical that premiered in 2015, the main character of which is an older version of Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien David played in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Newton would like to die but can’t — this idea had been an obsession of Bowie’s since “The Supermen” — whereas the biblical Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus.
In the video David emerges from a cabinet that, in this context, can’t help but resemble a coffin. At the end he goes back in. What does it all mean?
Like I know. I never saw the musical, and I’m not sure I want to — I heard the soundtrack and was not impressed, and as far as I can tell there’s no plot to speak of. It does not seem to be available for viewing in any case. I remain a little curious, and maybe someday it’ll pop up in some form; indeed do many things come to pass.
As for the video, it’s a pretty bold piece of work. Bowie puts his withered self right there in closeup and dares you to look away. My favorite part comes at 2:42: David picks up a pen; he has something he urgently needs to write down. But then he can’t remember what it was. (Anyone over 50 has experienced this.) After a moment of panic, he turns to his paper and begins frantically scribbling. It doesn’t matter whether he’s remembered what he wanted to write or thought of something new — what matters is that he’s working, which is what he always did.
Musiscally “Lazarus” sounds so much like the Cure that it can’t have been an accident.1It may be that of his many acolytes Bowie was especially fond of Robert Smith, who took inspiration from the older man but spun something entirely new out of it.
To this day when I hear “Lazarus,” for the first 45 seconds, I think it’s the Cure. But then the saxophone starts to take things in a new direction, and once the voice once it comes in there’s no mistaking it. Those “bizarre shrapnel chords” that punctuate the lines “are all Bowie,” as Blackstar band member Ben Monder put it. David played them himself on a Stratocaster that Marc Bolan had given him.
“Lazarus” doesn’t bother with rhymes, with a verse/chorus structure. It’s all atmosphere. It’s sad, it’s beautiful, it’s strange… it’s Bowie.