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
– ”Lazarus,” David Bowie (2016)
Last Thursday, one day before David Bowie’s 69th birthday, he released the video for his single, “Lazarus.” The following day, Jan. 8, his 25th album, Blackstar, was released to great critical acclaim.
And two days later, on Jan 10, David Bowie shockingly died, after an 18-month battle with cancer.
It’s impossible to watch ”Lazarus” and not think you are seeing one of our great artists choreographing his own death. This is as close to a goodbye as we’ll get from David Bowie. Bowie wasn’t much for hellos or goodbyes. He always came and went as he pleased.
Or maybe it’s the perfect goodbye. Bowie’s death was “sudden” only because his long slow illness was his secret. But it gave him time to plan his affairs. “Lazarus” is a man writing his own obituary in all the impressionistic, oblique language we would expect from someone who so generously gave his art while viciously guarding his life.
In the Bible, Lazarus was the brother of Mary, whom Jesus raised from the dead. It’s fertile ground for a songwriter dying of cancer. In the video, Bowie lies on a hospital bed, buttons sewn on his eyes, outstretched like Jesus.
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Bowie writhes on the bed, a black skull sitting on a nearby desk. Was he in pain in this final days? The announcement from his Twitter account says he died peacefully in his sleep. Was the skull an omen? In the video, a shadowy female also reaches from underneath the bed.
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your a–
We see the writer furiously getting out his thoughts on paper. He cannot write fast enough, and the paper isn’t large enough to contain his words. He writes down the side of the desk. He’s running out of time. Is he writing a goodbye letter? His last will and testament? Nonsensical ramblings induced by pain meds?
Writers, fans, and curiosity-seekers will undoubtedly pore over the lyrics to Blackstar looking for confessional clues. They’ll come up empty. Bowie was not into clues. Bowie was a painter. Of images. Of words. Of imaginary places borne of fantasies and nightmares. He was a man who always looked up to the heavens. He knew we were made of stars and all destined to return to space and dust. Ashes to ashes.
The above photo — used as the cover of David Bowie’s 1977 album Heroes — sums up everything. He was the man everyone loved and no one knew. David Bowie is… was… that most precious of artists. He gave us all of his art yet none of himself. It was none of our business. His sexuality, marriage, fatherhood, and even his cancer were his and his alone.
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me
The final act of “Lazarus” ends with Bowie backing himself into an armoire and closing himself shut in it. Is he hiding? Burying himself alive? Dying?
Bowie’s longtime producer, Tony Visconti, posted the following on his Facebook page the day after Bowie’s passing.
“His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.”
You’re free, David Bowie, back to outer space from whence you came. And we’re left here to wonder.
See the rest of our David Bowie coverage HERE