Thursday, 12 January 2017

"Sing some more, and we'll travel on" - a review of David Bowie's Lazarus

In the last year of his life, David Bowie fulfilled his lifelong dream of writing a musical. With the help of co-writer Enda Walsh, producer Robert Fox and director Ivo van Hove, it played off Broadway in New York from December 2015 to January 2016, then moved to London's King's Cross Theatre that November. It finishes on 22 January and is now sold out, but I'm thankful to have seen it twice, and I think it's his crowning achievement. For all that it's inevitably a collaboration with a broad group of creative people, it may even be the best work he's ever done.

And yet, out of all his works, Lazarus is probably the hardest for me to write about. It's easy to say that it's a sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Walter Tevis novel which was adapted into a 1975 film starring Bowie as the central character. Lazarus shows us the alien Thomas Newton (played marvellously by the American actor Michael C Hall) forty years later. Having long failed in his mission to take water back to his drought-stricken home planet, he's holed up in a New York City apartment, addicted to gin and Twinkies. He's depressed and doesn't go out, reliant on his assistant Elly to keep him supplied and his home in some semblance of order. Deeply depressed because he's unable either to die or to go home, he's haunted by memories of his family light years away, and of his ex-girlfriend Mary Lou, who left him years ago. He's mentally falling apart, until a mysterious fourteen year old Girl, who remembers nothing about herself or her past, inexplicably arrives with her own mission. All she knows is that somehow, she has to help Thomas Newton.

Lazarus doesn't really have a conventional plot, but it has a story, which you have to kind of piece together yourself as it goes along. The story is Newton's journey from despair to hope, and to a kind of peace. But it's told almost like a dream (with a dream's unexpected shifts of character and mood); and along with Newton and Elly and Girl, there are several other characters with their own stories, who may or may not be real; they could be products of Newton's almost deranged mind. Even Girl may not be real; indeed, she's the character least likely to be, since most of the time only Newton can see her. But the mystery of her presence has another explanation, which she herself only realises near the end - and it's both a tragic and a deeply moving one.

If this sounds confusing, it is - at first. Several of the actors, in interviews, have suggested that it's best to simply sit and experience the play, without worrying too much about the story or what it “means”. This is good, because the experience itself is wonderful and there's a lot to enjoy. Firstly, of course, there's the music: about ten classic songs spanning the whole of Bowie's career, together with four which he wrote specially for the play (and they're not let downs by any means). The arrangements are crisp and tight, and gloriously sung, especially by Sophia Anne Caruso (still only fifteen years old) as Girl. Some songs, such as the recent Where Are We Now?, are very close in style and sound to the original, while others are so surprising that they sound virtually recomposed (I'd never realised before what a great song This Is Not America is! - or how relevant it feels to that country's situation now.) Like the play, they vary greatly in mood, from the tormented rage of Killing a Little Time to the upliftingly poppy Absolute Beginners. Even the vintage Changes sounds fresh and new, partly by shifting in mood more than the original, but also by being sung by a woman (Amy Lennox as Elly). And rather than sounding shoehorned into the play, each song expresses something about the character, characters or situation, heightening the emotions in the process. This is no jukebox musical; the songs are an inextricable part of the play.

Then there's the visual element, which is dazzling, considering there's hardly any set. Newton's flat is suggested by an unmade bed, a fridge, and a record player with two stacks of Bowie records! At the back of the stage, in the middle, is a white screen separating two big windows behind which the musicians play (almost unnoticed, the show itself being so mesmerising). The windows often show a New York skyline behind the musicians, at different times of day and night. On the screen in the middle, a dazzling succession of varied images is projected, often seeming to represent thoughts, images and memories in Newton's mind. This visual brilliance extends to the lighting, the colours, everything - it's amazing. I think David Bowie was to a large extent synaesthesic, as he said he could “see” music in his mind - the tone colours and textures automatically finding visual equivalents. Sometimes he even sketched or painted it, to help himself find what an album or song needed. This shows in Lazarus, which is truly a multimedia theatre experience - involving character, dialogue, action, music, lighting, film, abstract art and a rocket which Girl outlines on the floor with masking tape! I've truly never seen anything like it.

And I've barely yet mentioned the actors, characters, or the wonderful script, which is often moving and sometimes pretty funny. The first time I saw Lazarus I was near the back, and couldn't fully see the stage. I felt a bit distanced from the characters, both physically and emotionally, so much of the impact of the play was of a visceral kind; it was a lot just to take in the visuals and music. Because of this I ultimately decided to see it again, and from the middle of the second row I could see everything. I could see the entire stage, only about fifteen feet away. I could see the faces and emotions of the characters - Newton's torment, Elly's longing and confusion, and the pathetic yet oddly charismatic serial killer Valentine, played brilliantly by Michael Esper. The story made more sense; I could see the significance (not necessarily “meaning”) of events and characters. Michael Esper gave a thrilling performance of Valentine's Day (helped by brilliant lighting, visual and sound effects). Michael C Hall was very moving and, for me, made Newton more sympathetic than Bowie himself did in the original film. And most of all, his developing relationship with Girl was deeply touching. In the emotionally complex staging of Absolute Beginners, Newton sings the song platonically to Girl, while a confused Elly (who cannot see Girl) sings it romantically to Newton. Despite Elly's pain, the song marks a crucial point in the development of Newton and Girl's relationship, which is so central to the story and its eventual resolution. Whether she's real or not, Girl is who and what Newton needs to help him find peace, and once he realises that he has hope. He confesses to Valentine that it doesn't matter if she's real or not - he has something to live for. And I'll never forget the compassion and emotion in Caruso's incredibly expressive eyes, or the poetic strangeness of her vocal delivery at times (almost a little alien herself). Or the sudden expression of love and affection (which I won't give away!) at the end of Life on Mars? Hall is already, justifiably, a star of both TV and stage, and I'll be very surprised if Caruso doesn't have a similarly bright career ahead of her, having seen the depth and variety of which she's capable while still a minor. She brings not only heartbreaking poignancy but also feistiness to the role of Girl - and is as funny in some moments as she's convincingly confused or frightened in others.

The climax of the play brings resolution both to Newton's conflicts and to his relationship with Girl. It's hard to even give a sense of it without plot spoiling, but I'll try. Girl remembers who she is and why she's there - not only to help Newton but to ask him to help her. Like him, she is lost between two worlds (No Plan, the wonderful new song that Bowie wrote for her, gives an early hint of this). And ultimately, it’s the murderous Valentine who unexpectedly helps Newton to free her. If Valentine too exists in Newton's mind, it's almost as if Newton has to accept and turn towards the rage in himself, before he can truly be free from his despair.

Although the ending is ambiguous, and like so much else, probably takes place only in his mind, I don't think it matters. What matters is that he finds peace; like the original Lazarus, he is reborn. And at the very end, Girl and Newton sing a song to each other, a very famous song, but completely changed in character so that it brings a feeling of ultimate rest at its close. It’s tender, playful and incredibly beautiful, with an unexpected and deeply appropriate change of two lines halfway through. Before Girl almost literally puts Newton to bed, and a final, very moving image is projected onto the screen.

Now I've seen a few live operas in my time, and I know that Bowie, for all his talent and influence, was no Mozart. But this ending reminds me of the quiet emotional climaxes (similarly involving the love of two characters) that end two of Mozart's greatest stage works. I was moved by the end of Lazarus just as I was by those earlier experiences years ago. I felt myself choking up inside - and yes, I cried at the beauty of it.

Lazarus, of course, has added resonance because (along with the album Blackstar) it was Bowie's final creative work. Strangely, it seems to complement Blackstar; while the album is mostly dark and introspective, Lazarus, for all its juxtaposed moods from nightmare to comedy, feels ultimately like a celebration. As I said at the start, it may even be Bowie's greatest achievement. Despite the fact that it's a play, involving many collaborators from the actors/singers to co-writer and director, the whole experience feels like Bowie, as much as any of his albums do. Partly, of course, it's the songs! Bowie worked closely with the arranger Henry Hey, and with the three actors Hall, Esper and Caruso, all of whom came to London from the original New York cast. Caruso says that Bowie gave her advice on the phrasing of Life on Mars?, as he went to rehearsals when he was well enough (the cast apparently had no idea he was ill). So he was closely involved, and it's not surprising that the experience felt as if Bowie was being channelled through the efforts of everyone involved. I've been a fan since 1982, so I should know! :-)

The play was also imbued with many of Bowie's preoccupations, familiar to fans of his earlier work. Serial killing, and a fourteen year old girl, are the subject of his great 1995 album Outside. Isolation, loneliness and addiction are familiar themes throughout his work, and Bowie's identification with Newton is well known; during rehearsals, he once accidentally referred to Newton as “me”. As in the original film, Newton seems to express something for those of us who are human on the outside but feel alien on the inside - strangers in a strange land. (Many fans felt that way about his work from the beginning; it was as if he gave young people permission to be odd, to be different, and because of the lasting quality of his best music, those fans now span the generations). In Lazarus, I wonder if Newton's retreat from the world reflects Bowie's well known attitudes to fame and celebrity. In 2004, Bowie retreated into ordinary life (he too lived in a New York penthouse!) after a heart attack curtailed an exhausting world tour. He drew and painted, he watched movies, he enjoyed life in a loving family. And he watched and helped his daughter grow up - a daughter who at the time he wrote Lazarus, was the same age as Girl. It was while Lazarus was in production that Bowie realised he would soon have to say goodbye to his own Girl.

There's a lovely moment in the play where Newton asks Girl (who says she knows everything about him) to tell him about a good memory he has - something he has never told anyone. And Girl radiantly describes him climbing a hill with his daughter (“about my age”) on their home planet, to sit and look at the stars. He'd tell her stories about flying through space. And when he stopped talking, his daughter would say to him, “Speak some more, and we'll travel on.”

On 7 December 2015, David Bowie attended the premiere of Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop. One of the actors described the shining happiness on his face as he joined them to take their bows. It was the final public appearance of a man who loved to work outside of the cultural mainstream (and Lazarus is pretty outside!), yet was only rarely outside of the public consciousness.

Just over a month later he died, surrounded by his family. Maybe to travel on, or maybe not. If he did, I hope he found peace.

After the premiere, 7 December 2015. Photographer unknown.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

"Something happened on the day he died..." Some Personal Thoughts about David Bowie, a Year after His Death.

A picture from Bowie's last official photo shoot. © Jimmy King, 2015

I'm writing this at the other end of the year - actually in 2017, but at the end of the year that's passed since David Bowie died. By common consensus, 2016 was a pretty dreadful twelve months, in which frightening political events and trends seemed reflected by the deaths of so many artists and celebrities who were - are - important to so many of us. In my personal experience, though, the only one of those deaths that affected me deeply, almost as if he were someone I knew, was the first. David Bowie died on 10 January 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th studio album, Blackstar. Even I, a fan since 1982, was surprised by the media shockwave that resulted, and the genuine grief that it triggered in many, including at least one of my friends. It's almost as if I assumed I was the only one who felt that way about him. And I think that's because when I first discovered him in my teens, I really was the only person I knew who did. I was that socially isolated, although starting to emerge at last from several years of self-protective hibernation.

Except for the first few weeks, though, I haven't felt as sad about David's loss as others seem to have done. I haven't passed through any grieving process - not unless it's a very unusual one. I do still feel strange when I reflect that there's no longer a David Bowie in the world, because it seems so counterintuitive. There's always been David Bowie; he was always alive, seemed so full of life. Perhaps that's why, during the past decade, I always got a shock when I saw recent pictures of him, and realised that he was looking his age. It must have reminded me that one day he was going to be gone. And that's the counterintuitive part: he seemed eternally young, so vitally and creatively alive. Even if he wasn't always making albums, he was still around somewhere. Mostly he was in Greenwich Village, or in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock. But he was also in my head, even though I didn't think of him that often. Because he was there - very much so - at the beginning of my delayed social adolescence, when I began to thaw out and live and, to some extent at least, join my teenaged peers in the human race. In the Bowie-shaped cluster of neurons that forms my deepest memories of him, “it's always 1982” ('Slip Away’, from the Heathen album). Or it was until recently.

The following is a collection of bits I wrote in the weeks following his death - on Facebook mostly, sometimes shared privately with just one friend or two. I hoped eventually to write something bigger about Bowie's importance in my life, so I kept them, pasted into a draft email to myself. They're organised only by chronology, slightly edited, and form the first part of my reflective/celebratory piece about this unique and extraordinary popular artist. The second part will be a personal response to experiencing (twice) his crowning creative achievement: the almost indescribable multimedia musical play, Lazarus.

But for now, back to the start of that collective annus horribilis.

16 January 2016

The memories David's death stir in me are rather lonely ones, I guess. I never dressed as Ziggy, I was never a space cadet, I never went to clubs. But I discovered Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust at the age of 16, and soon after that Let's Dance came out. I was hooked, and rapidly became what must have been the biggest Bowie fan in St Albans. I could not have been more obsessed. Mostly I just listened compulsively to his albums in my bedroom, but I also remember the multiple groans in the 6th form common room every time I put Low or Young Americans on the record player (yes, those were the days of 6th forms, and common rooms, and record players - and people talked instead of being absorbed in their phones!) I remember one girl, though, appreciating it. "Everyone else plays such rubbish, and here you are educating us with David Bowie!"

I didn't have many friends back then; I was slowly coming out of my shell. Looking back though, it was a time when I was beginning to feel really alive, and Bowie was the soundtrack to that. Whether I was stamping my feet alone at bus stops and singing Starman into the night, or going crazy to Modern Love at the first teenage parties I ever got invited to. Although he's done a whole lot more since then (including much that he's still not given enough credit for), I forever associate Bowie's music with that time, when I hardly listened to anything else.

After that my musical loves became vastly more diverse. But apart from the classical composers, probably only Kate Bush has struck such deep chords in me, to the point of real obsession. I don't listen to either of them as much now (there's too much other music!), but I would never dream of purging them from my music collection - there isn't a single album by either of them that I haven't bought and played - apart from The Next Day, which was a birthday gift.

Blackstar arrived from Amazon a week ago; I listened to it once and on a first impression thought it was Bowie's best since Heathen. The following day my partner told me the news of his death. Even though I'd felt he was suddenly looking his age, it was still kind of hard to believe he was dead - partly because he was always moving. Musically, stylistically, physically, in his thoughts, interests and words. Now that he's been cremated, it feels even more final. He's really gone - except for the songs, which are quite a legacy.

25 January 2016

I was reading his Wikipedia entry last night and it gave me a weird feeling that it was all written in the past tense. Facebook seems much quieter about him now, but he's still very frequently on my mind. Listened to Blackstar again yesterday, planning on Station to Station today. I don't feel particularly sad anymore except when I think of the fear he must have felt at times, and Lexi still really a child. In an interview in 2002 he said that leaving his daughter was one of the things he feared about death. But I just feel like playing his music, celebrating his creativity. Something which I haven't done in a long time.

His death has made me think of mortality generally, including my own. How little time might be left. I'll be 69 in only 19 years, which will probably fly by. And I'm sure David planned on having a few more years left yet. It's all a bit scary when I think about it.

“Love me, love me, love me, love me, say you do…”

The Station to Station cover of Wild is the Wind meant a great deal to me as a young adult. I was in love, and so incapacitatingly shy from years of bullying and other stuff that I couldn't say anything to the girl I yearned for. This song was a kind of safety valve for some of my feelings; if not for music, I don't know what I'd have done. As for Bowie's interpretation, I still think it's amazing that he should choose an old standard to close such a modern sounding, forward looking album - and that his vocal is absolutely wonderful! I used to sometimes come across people who said that Bowie "couldn't sing", and I'd play songs like this and think, “wha-aaaa...???”. The album recording is probably the most moving and also the most technically stunning piece of singing he ever did.

I've been thinking they must surely release the songs he wrote for that hypothetical Blackstar follow up. In his last months he was working at top speed, creating an album and collaborating on a musical, and hoping to finish yet another album. He also curated several records to be released after his death. I'm sure he cared about his legacy, and will have done this with as much care as he could manage, given the limited time he had. But he had so much he wanted to write and so little time. And a colleague of his said that in the last weeks he could occasionally see fear in his eyes.

1 February 2016

I've often been curious, and a bit confused, about Bowie's spiritual beliefs. Throughout his adult life he maintained an interest in Buddhism - a non-theistic religion, of course. For many people it's not even a religion as such, but more a kind of psychology or way of life - a set of practices and ethics. But Bowie so often contradicted himself about religion, sometimes saying he absolutely believed in God, and then later in life describing himself as "almost an atheist". I get the sense he was often not sure himself what he believed, if anything. I do think he was on a spiritual search for something, even though he had no truck with the dogma of organised religion. But I'd love to know if he finally found certainty or peace at the end (even though it's none of my business, I guess!), because he seemed afraid towards the end. I wonder if Iman, as a Muslim, believes she will "see" him again, or not. Or whether he expected to "see" her again, and if that brought him comfort. Or what his children believe. I would imagine they didn't bring up Lexi as a Muslim, but let her make up her own mind; that sounds like what he'd do. Does she believe she'll "see" her dad again one day? I don't know why, but I've been thinking about these things.

24 February 2016

Oh, V- ! Of all the people I know who've been affected by David's death, I feel you've been affected the most deeply. I hope it gets easier soon. {{{BIG HUGS}}}

I'm still very moved by his loss, and sad when I think about it - and sometimes I'm caught off guard by it and find it hard to believe that there is no longer David Bowie in this world. What I don't understand is how and why my interest in him and his music has been rekindled to such an extent. After all, the media hoo haa has died down, so the bandwagon has long passed. Before his death, I had never got rid of his albums, but I listened to them only rarely. I was the most obsessed fan I've ever known at one time, but that was over 30 years ago. Now I'm playing some of the albums again, watching interviews, reading articles... Most days I have one of his songs in my head at least some of the time (at this moment it's Golden Years). I find him gorgeously sexy (at least from 1977 onwards), even though I'm very heterosexual. And for the first time, really, I'm finding myself interested in his private life with Iman and Lexi, which is none of my business. And wondering how he was feeling about dying - someone who seemed to love living so much, and now had an extra person to live FOR. Wondering about all the musical and lyrical allusions on Blackstar and what some of them mean. My friends on Facebook must wonder why on earth I'm sharing so many photos of him. And I'm really not sure myself! Except that I know I'm the kind of person who goes through crazes and obsessions.

It sounds much more difficult for you, I know. I'm here if you need me, is what I want to say. xxxx

I'm not sure if I was aware, all those years ago at the age of 17, that he was the poster boy for odd kids. I knew that I was 'different’, that I didn't fit in, but I was too innocent and still coming out of my shell to really be aware of all the things he was kicking against and attracted to. I found that out much more recently by watching interviews. I guess the recurrent themes of loneliness, isolation and alienation in his lyrics must have registered to an extent - but I mean, his lifestyle (sexually promiscuous until his second marriage) was the complete opposite of mine! I didn't even have a kinda sorta girlfriend until I was 27! Perhaps that's partly why I was happy that Bowie had Iman and Lexi in his later life. The longing for fulfilled monogamy and family - that I could relate to. As Joni Mitchell once sang (something like): "fuck your strangers - don't it leave you on the empty side?"

My obsession, at 17, was the music. I was just thrilled by it. Also, to some degree, that sexual charisma. I may have been responding on some level to the context and subtext too, but if so then I think I was unconscious of it. He was just such a thrilling singer and performer, such an extraordinarily beautiful looking man, and the songs were magnificent enough for me to know them inside out and yet not get bored with them. And to a great extent, they still are.


It's the end of the year again now, the beginning of 2017, the anniversary fast approaching. And reading that last paragraph again, I'm sure that I always was responding to that incredible sexual charisma of his. I may not have been able to identify with his lifestyle, but there was a big part of me that wanted, however hopelessly, to be David Bowie. His beauty, his confidence… I had no idea, back in 1983, that he was actually quite a shy person - something that still feels unbelievable to me in a way, but which he was happy to admit to in later life, explaining that that was why he initially needed to create personas to express himself, especially on stage. Later on he felt more comfortable with himself and let 'David Bowie’ become one one big persona, separating it clearly from his private life, in which he remained David Jones. During the decade-long sabbatical from his career that was prompted by his 2004 heart attack, for the first time he spent almost his whole time being David Jones again - making charcoal drawings at home, watching movies, walking his daughter to school. He described aging as “an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been”. And in a statement a few years ago which really touched me when I heard it, he said, “Much to my surprise, I'm actually very like my dad”.

Perhaps my own growing up, together with my alienation from his earlier promiscuous lifestyle, is why I remain deeply attracted to him but to the older Bowie, not the androgynous Ziggy or the sinister Thin White Duke, or even the blond haired, Armani suited stadium megastar of 1983 (he later described the eighties wryly as “my Phil Collins years”). For me right now, Bowie was at his most beautiful fifteen years ago, when he released what I think is one of his best albums, Heathen. That album showed that as he aged he was already pondering the abyss of death, but on stage and in interviews he looked gorgeous, and somehow fully relaxed with himself. He had a new daughter, who he was clearly and touchingly besotted with. And both his thoughtfulness and his sense of humour were as wonderful as ever. That humour is something not everyone knows about, because it's only intermittently present on his albums, but it was witty, quick-firing, free associative, often bizarre, and very, very funny. Check his interviews from the time on YouTube, and contrast them with the awkward, defensive, cocaine-addled interviewee of 1975. It's like two completely different people.

But now it's 2017, and David has been dead for very nearly a year. I'm still sharing daily pictures of him on Facebook. I still have his songs in my head, almost every day, though I play his albums less often. Blackstar, with a few slight reservations, still feels as challenging and forward-looking as one could hope for, and (especially in the title song) deeply moving as well. I'm still, for some reason, not mourning him in the usual sense, though I do feel sad when I reflect that he's no longer with us. Instead I remain very much preoccupied with him, but mostly in a celebratory sense. After all, I never met David Jones, but David Bowie is in a real sense still alive - in his music, his films, his words, his interviews, and far more accessible now than in pre-internet days. I do wonder why I haven't been as grief stricken as so many other fans have been - what that says about me? But how I feel is how I feel. I love Bowie and I miss his living personal presence in the world; his death was definitely too soon. But he still sends thrills of excitement through me, more than anything else.

Always a bit ritualistic about dates, for some time I've wanted to round off these twelve months with some symmetry and closure. I could have just written this, played Blackstar on his anniversary, and left it at that. But in his own final year, David Bowie brought to fruition something so wonderful, so fractured and disorienting and glorious and fun, simultaneously forward-looking and also a summing up, that it was almost like looking back at his whole creative development (including his painting, acting and video work) through a kaleidoscope. It was like getting another album to complement Blackstar, yet in some ways it was more than an album - so very, very much more. And when I experienced it the second time I was moved to tears. That, for me, marked the end of the year - both 2016, to which it finally brought a sense of peace, and the year between his death and anniversary. That amazing, tortured, funny, nightmarish, compassionate, joyful and celebratory creation - Bowie's crowning achievement - is Lazarus.

On with the theatre review!