This rage in me
I've got a handful of songs to sing
To sting your soul
To fuck you over
This furious reign
David Bowie – Killing A Little Time
A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration
Icon (noun) – definition from the Oxford English Dictionary
I don’t write much, I don’t write enough. I don’t write unless I need to say something. There was no intention to write about Lazarus, Bowie’s final work, but here we go. Is it his final work? I suppose it’s his joint last work, alongside ★. These works of art dovetailed each other, the play being begun in 2014, the album made in 2015, the play finished off at the same time. Then came the album’s title track in November, following by the play’s premiere in December, and finally, the album in January 2016. They are a Venn diagram of the last two years of his life; the play bristling with anger, the album filled with sadness, creating together the masterpiece of the perfect exit. A lyric, for a song written in 1992, recorded in 2003, springs into my mind:
You promised me the ending would be clear
You'd let me know when the time was now
Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Stab me in the dark, let me disappear
I’m writing this first part the day before I see Lazarus in London, because tomorrow the meaning will change. And unlike ★, which I spent three days listening to (January 8-10) without knowing the meaning was about to be ripped open dramatically, I do know this time that his final work is about to come to me anew.
This is not a review of Lazarus, because others will do that better. Suffice to say, it’s a wonderful, odd and thrilling fever dream of an evening at the theatre. It’s confused and confusing, it’s only really got two great characters (Newton and Girl), and most of the London cast is changed from New York. The theatre is absolutely huge: five times larger, going from the NYTW’s 198 seats to 1002 (unless I’m counting wrong! I thought it was 960…) in King’s Cross. The songs carry it forward, as if he wrote them over a span of 45 years to tell this story. It’s sieved through this character, who he identified with when at his worst during the making of The Man Who Fell To Earth, and who he let follow him throughout his life and chose to ally with just before he left the earth. He sent Lazarus to London in his place. He sent his costumes and lyrics and drawings to London in his place. He sent his art collection to Sotheby’s in London in his place. The 2013 V&A exhibition was a method of ‘touring’, since he had little interest in doing any actual touring, with nothing to gain from appearing on stage. As ever, he created the parameters (choose from my archive, from the artefacts I let you see) and had the V&A curate a retrospective that he visited, quietly, privately, with his family. As ever, again, like the consummate casting director he was, he created the parameters to let Lazarus and ★ keep him alive in perpetuity. ★ occupies a rather physical, tangible place; it’s mostly listened to alone, at home, or during travel, or walking down the street. It’s not a communal experience; it’s not acted out without him and the musicians on it (outside of cover versions, to which I say, too soon!). Lazarus, the play, is a live version of his final thoughts. The actors give you his message, in person. I didn’t know any of this when I was in NYC in December 2015. What was it like then? What can I remember now that will tomorrow be joined by new memories in the hard drive of my brain?
I was nervous, that it wouldn’t be any good. It was ambitious, daring, a mad thing for him to do: a musical, which he’d dreamed of and planned for over 40 years, coming out at the same time as a new album. The one thing he had never done, and now, running out of time, it was the last thing he wanted to do. Gifts upon gifts for me, for us. Seeing it in NYC was a remarkable experience, done twice on consecutive nights. I hardly understood a thing on the first night; it was impossible to take in, the density and complexity of it all. Overwhelming in every way. The second night I got a handle on it, and though I try to shy away from being too literal, those I spoke to immediately after, with heads spinning, already thought it was all about death long before we realised it was about his death. Of course, it’s open to interpretation from all angles and there is no definitive reading (multiple readings, the absence of an authoritative voice and all that). Is the ‘Girl’ character Newton’s surrogate daughter? Yes, the casting call says so (though interestingly she was supposed to be over 18 until they saw then-nearly-14-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso and she dazzled, so the part went younger). If Bowie is Newton, again (as he was in 1976), is Girl a cipher for his own daughter (Caruso is 11 months younger)? I think so. I don’t know so, and I never will. Ambiguity and performance: the two constants throughout a 50-year career. He was never himself, there was always smoke and mirrors. He never explained, and you wouldn’t want him to anyway (not that he didn’t muse on the idea of revealing more over the years before losing interest and moving onto the next new thing).
I don’t want the meaning of Lazarus to change, but it will, when I see it again. I didn’t want the meaning of ★ to change, but against my will it did. A friend told me that he couldn’t get the notion of Lazarus being entirely/only about Bowie’s death out of his head during the play when he saw it at a London preview. Understandable, and that’s what spurred me to write this, as I have the New York version playing in my head and, honestly, how many people will be able to write about seeing it in both cities? One or two hundred? It’s special to me, now, more than ever, the ‘before and after’ contexts. Now Lazarus comes to London, like a morbid travelling version of his ashes. What’s new? So far, what I know is that the brief appearance of a famous actor on the screen has been excised. Good creative decision, as I found it distracting. A too-famous face takes you out of the moment. There’s one more new big creative decision, to put Bowie’s face on screen at the end, which was absent in NYC even after January 10. I’ll see it tomorrow and decide how I feel about it, but my gut feeling (which I suspect I’ll be largely alone in) is that it’s a fucking dreadful, mawkish decision that grates in the worst kind of sentimental, emotionally manipulative way. And for sure, if you knew him at all, you’d know he’d hate that. He refused to have Heroes in the show until Henry Hey re-arranged it so it couldn’t be sung along to (the Lazarus version sounds like the bleakest John Lewis Christmas advert ever). He was not a sentimental man. The subtlety of the references to him inside the play – a few scattered vinyl albums in a corner, a brief snippet of Sound and Vision – were clever, jarring in a good way, and deliciously cheeky. But a photo of him so we can applaud at the end? He’s dead, I get it, I know it, I don’t need to hear a big cheer in a theatre. That brings me to another reason I wanted to write this, to talk about changing fandom and iconography.
It’s been a weird year, in innumerable ways. Setting aside real world life and death and politics and the depressing right-wing rise of what was previously unspoken in polite company, the transformation of Bowie from a live, real human person into this deified dead guy, standing alongside Elvis and John and Amy, has been pretty hard to take. It won’t last, I predict; most people will lose interest in a year or two. His marketable quality won’t match that of Michael Jackson or (what a year) Prince (whose ashes are being displayed in a miniature urn in the shape of Paisley Park, inside the newly opened museum of the actual Paisley Park. Not even kidding). Nor will his rock legend infamy be as long lasting as the murder of Lennon or the bloated junkie self-destruction of Presley. But to make financial hay while the sun shines, the legacy bombardment has started and it’s only the tip of the iceberg of trying to open our wallets. His own estate has many decisions to make about what comes out and when, and at what pace, as they drip-feed us promises of new mixes and alternative takes and so forth. Without Coco in charge, I have little faith that his ruthless, always forward-looking spirit will be honoured. Or more accurately, that business decisions will be made that stop at this red light first: ‘would he have been ok with this coming out? Would he have been ok with me saying/writing this?’ In the pursuit of money, and in the cloudy heads of grieving family, I’m quite sure that plenty of stuff is going to happen that I don’t like. And that’s just from the people who actually knew him.
The next category – those who worked with him either briefly or on and off – have their own books to write. The final category – those who met him briefly and are gleeful about making a few bob out of it – is the one that I must try and go to my happy place when I hear about. I don’t think I’ve ever written this word in any writing before, but there are some people who are just behaving like plain old cunts (among others, I’m talking to you, Lesley-Ann Jones, you hack; I’m flattered you blocked me on Twitter out of your own guilt and glad to hear that your shitty book has tanked). Rather than being ashamed of themselves, their greed and narcissism, like a normal human would be, they delight in the attention their falsehoods bring them. But that’s it, isn’t it? He’s no longer someone who belongs to me, to you, he’s everyone’s, for a while at least. He’s a face on a t-shirt in Camden Market.
We’re all still trying to process what life is like without him. The transformation of our fandom, which is out of our control. Mostly, I just feel… grateful. Lucky. That I exist now, a miraculous pinprick on this spinning rock, and that I existed at the same time as him on a planet 4.5 billion years old. That he made music that I’ve sewn into myself, grafted onto my heart. That he told me about non-music things (like art and philosophy and literature) like an inspiring teacher. That he gave me non-music gifts, like people who I’d never have met if not for him, who I lived half a world away from and had a one in 7.4 billion chance of meeting. It was all one way, from him to me. I’ve nothing much to offer, there’s nothing much to take…
Let’s wrap up part one: the ‘before’. I can close my eyes and think of how I felt walking into the New York Theatre Workshop on December 9/10, 2015. Excitement, trepidation. Ready to fall in love with him for the thousandth time in 30 years. So high it made my brain whirl. Dear friends around me, joined together from all over the world to celebrate the second part (after The Next Day) of this most unexpected return, after nearly a decade of near-silence. Hugging and crying, drinks and hangovers, singing and laughing into the early hours, and the next day and the next. That was how New York felt, and will never feel again.
Tomorrow that context changes, which is fitting in itself as who else was he but someone constantly on the move? Never look back, walk tall, act fine. Much more than ★, Lazarus is the exile’s legacy. It’s an audacious wink from beyond the grave about resurrection. It’s about a man who left England when he was young but spent the rest of his life collecting art that reminded him of home. Spent his last overseas trip taking his child around old London addresses. Spent one of his last songs talking with sadness of never being able to visit England’s evergreens again. The sailor who spent his life travelling has executed his master plan, which will leave me forever in awe, and is finally home.
Before I start, on this fine morning, where I awake to the frankly unbelievable news of my team having beaten the biggest and best in world football, I would like to say that I loved Lazarus in NYC. Sure, it didn’t make a huge amount of sense, I thought Walsh’s book was a bit of a mess and I was just happy to have the songs carry it home. I didn’t really like Cristin Milioti as Elly and the Greek chorus of girls had a fairly undefined, shaky role. The supporting characters felt a bit underwritten too. It had the air of an idea being worked out; after all, the clue is in the title. The New York Theatre Workshop. My dear friend Jake, the most knowledgeable theatre nerd I have ever known, told me that it was going to be much bigger and better in London, and that the intention was always to bring it home and watch it soar. We agreed that the NYC production was, essentially, a dry run for the real thing. I still treasure every second of the NYTW production, for what it gave me at a particular time, and that holiday will be something to remember forever.
So, you can understand that I had felt a bit anxious about seeing it again, kind of fearful that it would have the same effect on me as ★. That it would have its second meaning – it’s all about his death – revealed to me as the album did. That I would find it hard to get through without crying. That it would be, frankly, a depressing experience in the world of ‘after’. Absolutely none of those things happened. I’m as surprised as I could possibly be. To say the producers and creatives have pulled this show together is to commit a great understatement. It has taken all the elements that Bowie and Walsh and Van Hove put into the NYTW production and tightened them beyond what I thought was possible. There are entirely new sections of dialogue. There are performances that soar in a way they never did before (primarily Amy Lennox as Elly, with singing and acting of top quality – Always Crashing, I never thought it could be like that, with some light in it). Everything is bigger. The stage set is several feet larger all around, and this suddenly allows everyone the space they need to tell this story properly. The dialogue is polished and sharper, the central performances given the breathing space to be even better than in NYC from Hall and Caruso. It’s not at all about death. It’s about love, it’s about defeating forces that try to stop love from working, it’s about mental illness (a very old subject for Bowie to get back into), it’s about letting go. All the bits that didn’t quite work in NYC have been coalesced here. It is a truly, properly fantastic play. A theatre experience that absolutely works as a piece of art, not just a collection of great songs on a piece of string with some ropey dialogue holding it all together. There are still some rather Broadway moments (mein herr!), like Changes and Life On Mars, but that’s fine, you must allow a touch of glamour!
The final scene, of course, is still a bit of a wrench. The dialogue about reading to his ‘daughter’ on the hill, the farewell, it’s hard not to see the real life behind that. I felt a bit choked up, a heartstring tugged, but you know… Heroes will do that. He gave it greater meaning in the 2000s himself, following 9/11, and on tour, and it’s intensely powerful here. Even the photo of Bowie at the end on the screen was fairly unobtrusive and not made a big deal out of (though it isn’t needed and I still think they’d do well to drop it).
I do not subscribe to the idea that The Next Day’s songs were destined for this; rather that he fitted them around bits of the story. So on the album Valentine’s Day is about a school shooting, but here it’s the big theme for the murderous, psychotic Valentine – played with so very much more menace and darkness, eliciting genuine dread, by Michael Esper than in NYC. The Next Day is a backward-looking album, his only one. It’s taking stock, it’s angry, it’s partially a statement on the 20th century’s wars and religion and their effect on culture (I’d Rather Be High, Grass Grow, The Next Day). It’s wistful for England (Dirty Boys), wistful for Germany (Where Are We Now?) and coruscating on those who deserve it (You Feel So Lonely…). It even finishes with a nod to where he’s going next, as he often did, with Heat. It’s about love and mortality and the future. It’s about a man with a young child and a heart condition coming to terms with his own fragility. It’s actually not ★ but The Next Day that makes more sense now, because of Lazarus. ★ is nothing to do with this play, beyond the song Lazarus, which he only put on there, quite clearly, to promote his final masterwork. The remaining three new songs come alive here in a more convincing way than his versions on the cast album (though, as ever, nobody delivers a song better; No Plan destroys me). Killing A Little Time is absolutely thrilling here, though the ★ band version is a level up again. The sung counterpoints of When I Met You give the song a real electricity jolt. And the new band, led briefly by Henry Hey before he goes back to NYC next week, are also more convincing and well drilled.
All the creative decisions that were made for this London run worked. Jake bumped into the director, Ivo van Hove, on the way in (ok, in the loo) and told him we saw it in NYC. He replied, “I can’t believe how big it’s gotten!” You’re not kidding. Everything simply makes more sense now, like the characters’ motivations and how they’re played. It’s about 20 minutes shorter, cuts have been made that work, speeches have been created that illuminate and songs land that hadn’t quite nailed it before (like Where Are We Now?). The visual projections dazzle and have new supercuts flashing past that will let me spot new things each time I see it (caught a fast flash of Boys Keep Swinging after the final wig comes off). I do think it made a bit of a difference to be seated right in the centre of the front row, with Valentine hovering over my head, getting to see the intricacies of the facial expressions and interplay. Having said that, I can’t wait to see it again (hopefully soon) in another seat. Then in another. Even from the back row, which must feel like a mile away.
I thought it would make me sad, make me think about him not being here. But, unlike the album, I can now see that it wasn’t designed that way. They’ve made his lifelong dream of writing a brilliant musical come true. It does him proud, and I am so proud of him for making it possible.