Lazarus awakens in Bowie’s home town, and I just had to go and see it…
*Mild spoilers for Lazarus and The Man who Sold the World may follow, as much as they can for two surreal and metaphorical works...*
A year ago today, Blackstar emerged, the lead single from David Bowie’s 25th studio album.
His final album, but not his last surprise.
Less than three weeks later on 7 December 2015, Bowie made what we would soon know to be his final public appearance at the premiere of Lazarus: the realisation of his long- held dream to produce for the stage. Taking songs from 45 or so years of his back catalogue, expanding on the story of the film and character that was a central element of his most prolific period, Lazarus was ready-layered by Bowie past and present. Between the launch of Blackstar and the premiere of Lazarus, speculation could do little else but anticipate the return of a resurgent Bowie. The old argument, and those standard reviews (‘this is best album since Scary Monsters‘) had been reset by The Next Day in 2013. Bowie was back, and his work would be challenging, interesting, exciting. It would be new. And it would be Bowie.
Over a decade after Reality, the new reality was that it was an end. The meaning of Lazarus and Blackstar, the single and subsequent album, have transformed since the late autumn of 2015. When the Blackstar single emerged, conversation revolved around the visuals, that its length was constrained by iTunes stipulation, that Bowie had assembled a new band comprising some of the greatest pre-eminent jazz musicians of New York not just for the taxing Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) the year before, but for this long-player as well. At the time, I was certainly drawing links to his back catalogue and marvelling at the enigmatic delivery. “There should be questions,” I said. Faced with the new button-eyed Bowie, it was all classic Bowie speculation back then.
Within two months of the lead single’s release, the album surfaced and after a mere few days to let its vast meaning sink in, Bowie had died.
Lazarus must stand as Bowie’s final work
On the day of his death, the New York cast recorded the original soundtrack of Lazarus, an unimaginable coincidence that cold morning. When the album surfaced on 21 October it featured three new Bowie songs. They weren’t any such thing of course; but his versions of songs from the book of Lazarus. Wonderful interpretations, especially the haunting No Plan, there was a closure gifted by every one of Lazarus‘ songs now having a definitive Bowie version. But those songs were written and recorded during the era of Lazarus and Blackstar, alongside the composition of new songs and reinterpretation of classics. In the final years of Bowie’s career, when he had been working towards his crowning work. The culmination of a journey that was so much more than creating songs for the musical or picking relevant old favourites and slotting them into the musical book. Lazarus and Blackstar are interlinked in a hi-octane mix that will fuel years of analysis. The three new songs that sat outside albums, were rooted in the Blackstar sessions, adding a leit motif to both album and musical. And it’s Lazarus, finally transferring across the Atlantic to London, Bowie’s other, original home city – opening less than three weeks after the release of that cast recording – that must stand as his final work.
Off-Broadway in New York, Lazarus has taken up a slightly contrary, off-kilter, pop-up space in London’s King’s Cross. Inside, a perfectly aligned, sloped block seats 900 people below rippling canvas. Everything inside the space points towards the beige box space which clears and compacts as the story develops. Many critics have hung on that beige backdrop. Certainly a bold move from director Ivo Van Hove, but one that makes perfect sense.
At the beginning, a band stands visible behind perspex screens; divided by a central video screen, breaking the beige back wall. By the time the story has essentially straitened and diminished to lead character’s Thomas Jerome Newton’s mind, everything bar the screen are blocked off. By then the screen acts not as a route for Newton to observe and remember his adopted world, but for the actions of the main characters to be recorded.
Yes, Newton is still obsessed with television, mainly surviving through gin. There’s the big revelation, completely overlooked by me in pre-coverage, that Lazarus is a sequel to Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Sold the World. A complex, uncompromising, puzzling film at the time, many critics agreed that only Bowie had the integrity and claim to expand that story 40 years on, having taken the lead role so vividly in the original film. And many critics who found Lazarus clinical and confusing no doubt thought the same about the film.
But Lazarus is both an extension of that story, taken originally from Water Tevis’ novel, and a wholly different beast. The film showed us the character’s journey as a mosaic, but that journey was there all the way to its open ending. In Lazarus, the action almost entirely sits within Newton’s apartment. The bed at one side, the fridge on the other, in-between his mind. Every character ends up on or near the bed during the course of the musical. The fridge, its door often ajar, is subtle and constant reminder of normality, addiction and capitalism during the live performance. More effective than the constant pouring of gin on celluloid, although there’s often a bottle at the front of stage.
The 1976 film ended on a suitably open note, and although not seamless, it’s not much of a leap to the opening of Lazarus. The same is true of the ghost of Mary Lou, ever-present in Lazarus from the opening moments of Ricky Nelson’s Hello Mary Lou. Her role dictates the journey of the musical’s two female leads, slightly tarnishing the finite misery of her exit from the film. But by starting with Nelson’s 1961 rockabilly rather than a Bowie number, Lazarus is able to bridge time and make room for the diversity of Bowie’s music. Even when continuing the story of an apparent immortal, it’s odd that the only official continuous work connecting the cream of Bowie’s back catalogue is a sequel. But it works. Only the video screen lets the contemporary in; the rest of the story flits through any of the previous six decades as it wants.
It’s no mean feat to add a new contradictory dimension to Life on Mars
Even when the time and scope of the story is opened up, some of Bowie’s songs are a better fit than others; each one reinterpreted for the stage, to meet and break conventions including the visible orchestra pit and Greek Chorus. The Man Who Sold the World is heavily retooled, reacting against the hook that brought it to attention in the album of the same name or the famous, and Bowie produced, Lulu version.
Lazarus does much to support the assertion that Bowie only ever wrote love songs. But it’s a shame that what’s likely his greatest classical love song, already so attached to another film, comes off the worst. On the flip-side to The Man Who Sold the World‘s appropriation, Absolute Beginners suffers in its plunky, normalised beat as its romanticism is pruned. It’s a trap that the inevitable closing song manages to avoid. And while All the Young Dudes suffers a similar heavy beat, its anthemic power shines through with the invulnerability of a cockroach.
Seizing its place from one of Bowie’s most opaque albums, Hunky Dory mainstay Changes becomes far more literal than its early 1970s call to action. On stage, it tracks the breakdown of a marriage and the transformation of Newton’s helper Elly his old flame Mary Lou. Album-mate Life on Mars, skillfully hidden in the middle, could brook no major change. Probably Bowie’s most timeless piece, it shines in the powerful solo of the Girl, played by the exceptionally talented Sophia Anne Caruso. It’s no mean feat to add a new contradictory dimension to many people’s most-heard Bowie song this year.
The real treat doesn’t come with those classics, but Bowie’s later songs. Supporting the idea that Bowie was long working toward a cohesive set of works, knitting together an overarching story. It’s therefore no surprise that the songs formed in the Blackstar sessions, including the musical’s title track, fit the piece so well. That includes the three final songs that Bowie recorded. But while No Plan shines as a Bowie’s adaptation, it’s When I Met You in the penultimate song slot that burns as a powerful two-hander.
Of his recent work, it’s the three songs taken from The Next Day that are the greatest revelation. Bowie’s penultimate album may prove to be overshadowed by Blackstar, but it still stands as one of his great works. That album’s lead single Where are we Now? takes the musical to Berlin, so often an elephant in discussions of Bowie’s work since the mid-1970s. It successfully knits in the idea of a greater world to that box of the stage, bridging the strong strands of Britain and America that lie elsewhere. It’s clearly where the Lazarus achieves peak biography.
What stayed with me after the standing ovation was Valentine
But it’s Dirty Boys and Valentine’s Day that shine the brightest. Or rather, plunge the greatest depths.
Like the film that came before it, the musical is less about plot than theme. It’s a surrealistically visual feast, often layering multiple scenes of action across live action. Whether that’s Newton and the Girl surveying a star-field behind band or the full stage projection of another version of Newton playing over the actors. Some of the layering and the switch between live and recorded footage of the stage is startlingly effective. early on, disconcerting pre-filmed footage, always different, always slightly the same, captures the growing cracks in the relationship between Elly and her husband.
But what stayed with me after the standing ovation was Valentine, the villain of the abstract piece. Unlike the film that dealt with the massing and often faceless threat of government, business, crime or capitalism, Lazarus provides an encircling danger. He’s a necessary direct dramatic threat that cuts through proceedings as he nears Newton. At one point black ink bleeds from his back on the screen he’s effectively hijacked, momentarily shaping dark wings before before flooding the space like an obfuscating poison.
When Valentine’s Day emerged as the fourth single of The Next Day, its character was clear, propelled by a searing Earl Slick riff that harked back to his best on Station to Station. Humourously, Bowie strummed the rhythm line throughout the one-handed video to the intense piece that explored the psyche of a serial shooter and horrors of a high school massacre.
But three years later Valentine’s become something more. The shooter’s outgrown the pointed message of the original song to become the great sprawling, unpredictable villain of Bowie’s final years. He’s the Blackstar of Lazarus. So often known for the alter-egos and personas he employed throughout his career, but most intently in the first decade, Bowie referred to many in the third person (Major Tom, Thin White Duke). But Valentine has emerged unexpectedly discrete from his creator. the threat is a necessary addition to the story, adding a pulse as much as a impending sense of doom. Other works have appropriated Bowie, taking the like of his Scary Monsters Pierrot and turning them into a threatening avatar. But with his last work, Bowie’s gone one further, creating the darkest rogue of his gallery, capable of definite action without sacrificing any of the mystery of his own dark, and thin, white days.
In the final act of its lean two hours, Lazarus reveals its intent. It’s a story about existing between worlds. From Newton’s fantastic but realistic struggle between two celestial bodies, to the Girl’s dark but ambiguous struggle between life and death. Halfway through, the Girl tapes the shape of a rocket to the floor like an outline at a crime scene. It’s the salvation for both her and Newton, or it might be. When you see Newton lying with the rocket it’s hard not to think of Bowie’s pose on the cover of Lodger. Although Newton is less the victim of an accident, as Bowie was in Brian Duffy’s Lodger photo series, than the ambiguous solution to the riddle of being trapped between worlds. It’s not hard to see the parallels that extend to the final years of Bowie’s life and are fully felt in the sublime tracks of Blackstar.
Of course, just as Lodger managed to end Bowie’s Berlin trilogy while mostly being recorded in Switzerland and New York, it’s easy to look for too much meaning in Lazarus. Same as a year ago, any Bowie work comes with an insinuated need to make meaning.
Most importantly, Bowie finally got the musical he wanted. It’s dazzling and affecting, flawed and sublime. It stays with you long after the beige box is left empty, David Bowie’s final salute to his fans on the screen.