For all the Lovecraftian schlock and rubber monster japery that follows, it’s this self-narrating component which distinguishes In the Mouth of Madness, at times pulling the film into Dennis Potter country. ‘Cane’s writing me,’ Styles tells Trent during a botched getaway. ‘He wants me to kiss you. It’s good for the book.’ This combination of B-movie fun and dizzying meta-fiction makes the film something of a companion piece to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, another mid-90's tale of lowbrow storytelling intruding onto the everyday. I’d hazard it’s also one of the reasons why the film, although critically panned in the U.S. on its original release (‘a really bad movie’ was how The Washington Post summed it up), was relatively well received in Europe with Cahiers du Cinéma even going so far as to list it as one of 1995’s best films.
I was recently asked by The Quietus to pick a film which I thought underrated and write a short piece about it. You can read the full feature here.
[Minor errata: as you can see, I chose John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. In hindsight, I’m not sure Mouth is all that underrated per se. It has had its vocal fans, including a number of professional critics, and – as often seems to be the case with once-maligned horror films – has attained a strong cult standing. In other words, it’s a film which has its audience. Prince of Darkness (1987) – a quieter, smaller-budget affair, lost between the action-fantasy bluster of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988) – would perhaps be a more deserving candidate from Carpenter’s back-catalogue for the title of Most Underrated.]
'I counted that I had read seven hundred and forty-nine ghost stories,’ wrote Roald Dahl, summing up his brief experiences as an editor in the early 1980’s: ‘I was completely dazed by reading so much rubbish.’
It's perhaps a little sweeping, that rubbish, but anyone who reads a large number of ghost stories will be hard put to disagree with Dahl entirely. When it comes to ghost stories it's a sub-genre tend whose most well-known examples tend to come from a rarified group of tales, their presence in anthologies ubiquitous, their mien steadfastly traditional. There are of course stories which have been very unfairly consigned to history, and those readers willing to venture into the territory of the lesser known ghost story will find rich rewards, but to do so one is first required to first sift their way through countless tales which were perhaps best left forgotten. There is, in short, no greater test for a lover of ghost stories than to read widely in the field.
The ghost story’s golden age ran from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, a period defined by revolutionary scientific progress, but also by the conservative reaction against it. Whereas the concurrent rise of detective fiction was borne out of the era’s principle of methodical rationalism, the heyday of the ghost story reflected the reverse: beware inquiry is invariably the message of the Victorian-Edwardian spectre. The protagonists in both Dickens’ ‘The Signal-Man’ and M.R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' (to pick two stories from the grand canon at random) encounter spirits powered by a forbidding, inscrutable knowledge and are sent away humbled and cowed, life lessons learnt.
The interwar period effectively saw off the genre as we know it. As well as the advent of electricity illuminating hitherto darkened corners, the First World War had brought home the very real suffering and slaughter humans can endure. In the face of industrial carnage, tales of titillating terror began to seem inconsequential, even tasteless.
Or so it would seem. In fact, one could argue, not only has the ghost story survived but also – with an aptly invisible stealth – it has triumphed.
Firstly, writers continue to be drawn to the form. No bad thing that, but also not without its problems. The popular view of the ghost story as intrinsically Victorian has compelled many to recreate the starchy bygone tone and revisit extinct concerns. Understandably, this yields mixed results, something embodied by the supernatural novellas of Susan Hill.
Hill, still perhaps best known for 1983’s The Woman in Black, a note perfect piece of Victoriana, began revisiting the supernatural in 2007 with a series of similar-length works, each published as small and elegantly designed souvenir books. These stories – 2007’s The Man in the Picture, 2010’s The Small Hand, 2012’s Dolly and 2014’s Printer’s Devil Court – were republished recently alongside Woman as an omnibus edition (1992’s The Mist in the Mirror is omitted both from the collection and its list of the author’s other works). Taken as a whole, they serve as a handbook for the ways in which an ersatz nineteenth century performance can succeed or fail. While The Woman in Black retains its power (the book routinely pops up on the school curriculum in the UK), a reading of her subsequent efforts brings the formula which shapes them into increasingly sharp relief: the prim writing style grows increasingly perfunctory, the period details begin to look like off-the-peg gothic trappings, the circuitous someone-told-me-this second hand narrative so much padding.
But can one fault Hill? As Roald Dahl discovered, on the whole ghost stories simply aren’t any very good, and it often feels unfair to hold their authors responsible. A brief summary of what goes on in even the most successful examples – possessed paintings, sentient trees, magical monkey paws – makes clear what a tenuous, risky job it is to write seriously about the unbelievable. The reality is they either end up working or they don’t: I can think of very few okay ghost stories, which inclines me to conclude that success is as much down to serendipity as it is to craft. As a handful otherwise eminently capable authors have testified in their recent collections – Hill’s The Woman in Black and Other Ghost Stories (2015), Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales (2013), Sophie Hannah’s The Visitor’s Book and Other Ghost Stories (2015), John Connolly’s loopy Night Music: Nocturnes Volume Two (2015) – finding one has written a decent ghost story does not necessarily mean another will follow.
While successful single-author collections remain relatively scarce, the popularity of the ghost story anthology endures. It’s rare, at least in the UK, to encounter a bookshop which doesn’t stock at least one olde-worlde hardback. In part this is because many of the most loved tales, now long out of copyright, make for a cost-effective publishing venture when gathered together. But also the simple truth is that, for all its seeming antiquated obscurity, this is a form of fiction which continues to exert a surprising hold on the reading public. Not everyone is drawn to horror, to short stories or to nineteenth-century fiction, but few can resist the rich promise of a good ghost story.
Ghostly (2015), edited and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger, has an agreeably atypical quality, breaking with anthology conventions in its pairing of reliable standards from the likes of Poe, Kipling and M.R. James with tales of sci-fi and humour and, most importantly, some first-rate contemporary stories (Amy Giacalone’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ is published here for the first time). But there’s one story in particular, Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’, first published in 1911, which dominates the collection, due to both its domineering 25,000-plus word-count but also its subtle, gnomic impact. Although written well before the First World War, Onions’ story bristles with a queasy modernity (indeed almost modernism), equal parts trad. arr. ghost story and delineation of mental disintegration. The protagonist – a writer who moves into a new house whose previous occupant seems to have not quite left – gradually sheds his friends, his work and his life, becoming steadily immersed in a recondite, quasi-sexual malaise. But why? Is he compelled down this path by the story’s barely detectable female presence or is he simply experiencing a psychotic break? It’s a story whose aversion of cosy certainties and insistence on destructive pathology exemplify the gravity that this type of fiction can wield, uncannily prefiguring (much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper) the Freudian inwardness and dissociative brutality which would come to dominate the coming century. Indeed, there are breezy echoes in Rebecca Curtis’ 2014 ‘The Pink House’, Ghostly’s other stand-out story, in which a possible act of possession appears to compel a pair of unsuited MFA students into a miserable, doomed and inexplicable relationship.
Beginning in 113 AD with Pliny the Younger’s rumours of a remote house plagued by the sounds of clanking chains and concluding with a sharp and abstruse piece of flash fiction from 2014, Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Light On (2015), an omnivorous 800-page brick of a collection curated by thriller novelist Louise Welsh, flouts anthology norms even more brazenly. The golden age is healthily represented, but Welsh’s collection is informed by a freewheeling liberality when it comes to assessing what it is that constitutes ‘a ghost story’: stories proper sit alongside extracts from novels, poetry, non-fiction and screenplays. Glancing down the contents page, a reader may be surprised to learn that Richard Brautigan has written a ghost story, as have J.G. Ballard, Yukio Mishima and Lydia Davis. Except perhaps they haven’t, at least not in any conventional sense. Although old school yarns of dilapidated mansions and wailing phantoms abound, Ghost is at its most engaging with those more oblique stories like Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘The Dancing Partner’, in which an inventor creates a mechanical man for his daughter and her friends to dance with. No obvious ghost intrudes on the narrative and it is impossible to put one’s finger on any otherworldly force which governs the story’s events and imparts such disquiet on the reader. And yet it is there.
The inclusion of Mishima in Ghost, as well as Ben Okri and Haruki Murakami, is particularly welcome. Although the canon has, rather surprisingly, been hospitable to stories written by women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s 'The Old Nurse’s Story’, Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ all sit among the elect – there remains a deep Anglo-Saxon conservatism to the ghost story which, for those who read a large number of these sorts of books, can be very claustrophobic. It’s almost a cliché to say so but all cultures have their own ghoulish modes of storytelling: Japanese kwaidan stories remain hugely popular; China owes its existence to the Ming dynasty, the supernatural looming large in both the period’s classical novels and its folklore; Bengali literature has as rich a tradition of ghostly fiction as one could hope to encounter. On the whole, however, tales of djinn, kunti, bhoots and the like remain absent from the great ghost story songbook, viewed as anthropological curios rather than quality fiction worthy of addition to the grand canon.
And yet triumphed was the word I ventured earlier to describe the ghost story. A baffling claim perhaps, certainly a grand one, but one which I promise makes sense to anyone making their way through Ghost in the chronological order in which the stories are presented. In doing so, one begins to suspect that the ghost story, as we have come to know it, is simply the most easily categorisable iteration of a seam of writing which probes the stratum of the dark, murky unknown which generations of men and women have always suspected operates beneath their lives. The most successful modern ghost stories are rarely those which replicate the formal gothic quality of the golden age but those which retain its fascination with the inexplicable and the unreliable, which are at ease with the aberrant and the unheimlich, and which accommodate ellipses and are alert to the power of apparent non-sequiturs. All of which, it could be said, are intrinsic components on which the craft of many of our most celebrated modern authors who write non-ghostly short stories – Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill, Kevin Williams, Deborah Levy, to name a semi-random transatlantic few – have come to rely.
Two Months On: Five Views on David Bowie
1. The river’s muddy but it may come clear.
There are three tracks on David Bowie’s Blackstar which contain brief introductory passages before the songs themselves begin. At the opening of ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ Bowie (presumably) can be heard taking in a breath and then another, a faint tinny whine in the background – possibly machinery, possibly music – before the drumming commences. As it does so the breathing can still just about be heard, perhaps part of vocal warm-up, perhaps simply a result of testing sound levels, perhaps something else entirely. Then there’s ‘Dollar Days’ which is prefaced by papers being noisily rifled through. Again, who can speak for these sheets’ provenance? Are we hearing unused ideas for song, never to be recorded? Who knows. Regardless of their origins, whereas these two intros sound as though they were captured in the studio, small but poignant touches giving the listener with a sense of Bowie at work recording Blackstar, the opening of ‘Lazarus’ is much less obviously domestic.
Between 0:00 to 0:03, before the opening melody begins, there is, very quiet in the mix, a distant-sounding clang, possibly a guitar being fretted or its strings being struck, enveloped in a sort of industrial gust of swirling reverb. Then the bass and drums kick in.
Now, whenever I listen to ‘Lazarus’ I can’t help but notice these three seconds and I can’t help trying to puzzle out what their inclusion in the track means. The significance of the events which came to surround the release of both ‘Lazarus’ and Blackstar – Bowie’s sudden, seemingly perfectly timed death from a private illness – means the listener is, in a sense, on a higher state of alert, detecting elements which demand scrutiny and hint towards some greater meaning. But is this an impulse which should be entertained or is it simply a form of delusion, creating the impression of meaning where there is none?
Let’s look at these three seconds. I’m put in mind of Eraserhead, the most resolutely surreal and bleak of David Lynch’s films. It’s a film which firstly – superficially – shares with Blackstar an experimentalist bent, but it’s also one which is backgrounded by a nightmarish soundtrack which has a loose redolence to what can be heard in these three opening seconds of ‘Lazarus’. Eraserhead’s audio-design (soundtrack seems not quite the right word) is all ambient squalls of white noise punctuated by layers of grinding, crackling, screeching and, very occasionally, bursts of what appear to be conventional instruments. Its purpose in the film is to contribute towards a ramping up the heightened Eraserhead vibe, a vibe which incorporates crowded, industrialised alienation and desolate, predatory emptiness. Just to be clear, I’m not saying Bowie is referencing Eraserhead in these three seconds – that patently isn’t the case – but for me, what they achieve is to give ‘Lazarus’ a touch of that nightmare vibe right from the off. This track, I’m reminded, is not necessarily the elegant, bittersweet grunge-jazz-pop swansong it may at first appear to be. Indeed, this preliminary puff of noise – it sounds a little like something metallic being dropped from high up, hitting the scaffolding on the way down – lingers throughout the intro as a series of abrasive string-scrapes at 0:38, 0:46 and 0:53, something which reappears at 5:34 when the song is beginning its long wind-down from its climax. For me, these opening three seconds serve to quietly alert the listener to a sliver of ice through this song’s heart – existentially hard and unflinching – and it’s there, jutting out from the get-go.
Another cinematic touchstone comes to mind much more readily. One of the less showy of Orson Welles’ innovations in Citizen Kane was his use of an opening credit sequence which eschewed musical fanfare and a full listing of cast and crew, instead favouring a black screen with the film’s title presented in silence. After which come the slow, creeping shots of Xanadu, Kane’s vast crumbling mansion followed – in an echo of the unnerving ‘Lazarus’ music video – by the man himself lying in bed, breathing a final mysterious proclamation before expiring. The intrusion of Kane into my thinking whenever I hear ‘Lazarus’ is perhaps more down to the fact that I recently rewatched the film and couldn’t help but associate Bowie with the film’s main character, but the parallels seem clear. The titular Kane is a charismatic media businessman, plucked from humble beginnings to create a towering empire (newspapers, in this instance, rather than rock ‘n’ roll), endearing and outraging the populace along the way in equal measures. Given to audacity and excess in his younger days, he finds himself increasingly recoiling from the glare of publicity, gathering a vast collection of art as he settles into his senior years. As a character he is defined by complexities and contradictions – the film consists of passages from his life story, framed as flashbacks told by those who knew him, with no two retellings quite marrying up – and given to self- mythologizing, ever alert to how strong a grasp figures such as himself can have on the public imagination. He even has a penchant for lavish theatricality, setting up his second wife as an opera singer in a début performance of Salammbô so outlandishly Grand Guignol it wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place in Bowie’s Glass Spider tour. All of this is coincidental, of course, but from now on, intentional or not, Blackstar will be seen as Bowie’s parting, mystifying utterance, his Rosebud.
2. Get me to a doctor's. Get me off the streets.
After three seconds, we have the song itself. ‘Lazarus’ begins with the drums and a riff played high on the bass until 0:32, at which point the it slips to the low notes and we hear the mournful saxophone refrain for the first time, a three note pattern which gives the song its distinguishing overall texture, somewhere between New Orleans jazz funeral and wailing Greek epicedium chorus. Bowie’s vocals come in at 1:03 and it’s around this time that I always notice a muted, dampened keyboard track, very quiet in the mix which will flicker in and out of audibility throughout the rest of the track. As soon as you notice it it’s gone, washed out of hearing at 1:07 when we hear the key refrain again, this time with clanging, doomy guitars replacing the sax.
Is there something loosely analogous to the experience of what we know Bowie was undergoing here? The contrast between the hard, loud certainty of death and the quiet, intangible mystery of that experience’s undertow? The pairing of clashing, at times irreconcilable elements such as these are a part of what gives ‘Lazarus’, its parent album and Bowie’s general career as a performer and artist their enduring appeal. The opening line of the song would suggest that the lyrics are at home to such incongruities: ‘I’m in heaven,’ the very much alive Bowie intones whilst, in the song’s video, he languishes fretfully on what would be appear to be his decidedly un-heavenlike deathbed.
When listening to, or even thinking about ‘Lazarus’ it’s now impossible, for me at least, to fully separate the song from this video, directed by Johan Renck and released, with a curiously biblical providence, three days before Bowie’s death. I’ve listened to the track a lot since Blackstar came out and whenever I do so, even when I’m not watching the video, I’m never able to shake its imagery fully from my thoughts, imagery which, while clearly informed by artistic intuition and a kind of personal, eliding nonfigurativeness, nevertheless feels unwavering in its focus on death and dying, so much so that, even after repeat viewing, it makes for an uncomfortable YouTube experience. In fact, watching it now, it seems almost embarrassing that on the day of its release it wasn’t seen as the unambiguous farewell it is now.
After a pair of opening shots of a wardrobe (its door opening, a hand emerging and then a woman’s face), the camera then tracks across the bed. The first we see of Bowie is his hands clutching timorously at the sheets – the liver spots and pronounced veins in lurid, strip-lit relief – and then the meagre, stalklike muscles along his neck, and then his mouth, downturned and thin-lipped. Bowie, I think it’s safe to say, has always been a performer whose obsession with surface and imagery, although wielded as an artistic weapon, has habitually incorporated the maintenance of a youthful appearance. So this is something of a shock. He’s never looked so frail and so vulnerable – and so old – as he does here.
The same is true of Bowie’s voice, here and throughout Blackstar. The Next Day, remember, was released only three years previously, and features tracks like ‘Valentine’s Day’ on which it almost sounds like Hunky Dory-era Bowie is behind the mic. Here, again, he’s an old man, strained and unsure. And that isn’t to disparage the album. Vocally, you’d be hard-pressed to conclude that Blackstar is anything other than a compelling performance, but, at least for me, it’s a compellingness which derives chiefly from hearing Bowie’s instantly recognisable voice –the mock-earnest croon, the shaky vibrato, the cockney inflection – marked for the first time with an age-scarred candour.
In the video, the camera pans further and we discover that Bowie is his Button Eyes garb, first seen in Renck’s ‘Blackstar’ video. The top half of his face is bandaged as though injured during warfare or perhaps blindfolded to face a firing squad, and there are what appear to be buttons sewn over his eyes, no doubt intended to resemble a pair of obol coins, those traditionally placed on the eyes of the deceased in order to pay their way into the afterlife. As he writhes, singing the lyrics, a hand reaches up for him from beneath the bed, that of the woman – dark-eyed, black-haired, her expression manically rigid – who was spotted emerging from the wardrobe at the start of the video. Precisely who this woman is remains unexplained but her presence has more than a touch of the predatory – doubtless she’s the source of poor Button Eyes’ anguish – and as we spy her at other points in the video I’m strongly reminded of the Scottish word wraith, which specifically refers to a type of ghost who comes to claim the living. She huddles under the bed, glaring at the mattress above her; she hunches beneath the desk where Bowie writes; she stands away from the bed, her arms outstretched as he levitates, swaying inches over his bed’s surface.
For me, it’s this final appearance which is the most disquieting. It’s in the onscreen composure of two figures’ body language, her extended arms echoing Bowie’s. Is she the still shadow of his flailing, tortured posture? Is she his puppet-master? Or are their wide-apart limbs are a pair of magnets, demanding resolution, connection? Most disturbingly, it’s hard to tell whether his expression in this shot is one of agony or rapturous joy. Is this an embrace which is being welcomed or fended off?
The answer seems obvious. When we see Bowie shuffling backwards into the darkness of that ominous wardrobe, shaking with, one presumes, resistance to whatever it is that compels him, not only does he not look happy, he looks caught. There’s a painful gravity to his expression and his eyes dart around. Is he hunting out all the possible corollaries of what’s about to happen to him? Seeking help? Or, sheepish and embarrassed, eyeballing the witnesses of his demise, knowing his time is up? The thematic meat here is not simply death in a goth-band abstract but its very real experience of dying in all its complexity, murk and ignominy. As though directing our attention toward this, ‘Lazarus’ takes a full minute of its 6:22 running time (the track is edited for the video) to power down and come to its end. At 5:13 the saxophone cuts out; there’s a wonky arpeggio from the guitar followed by the bass climbing back to the opening riff accompanied, at around 5:38, by a dim synth swirl. By 5:43 the mix is dominated by the decisive, stabbing guitar chords which are going to kill off the song, the bass suddenly reduced to a single low note. The instruments bow out one by one as the song gutters: at 6:04 there’s the final reverberation of sax, the keyboard stumbles out at 6:07, and at 6:13 we have the closing guitar crash followed only by the track’s final fret squeak as the chord is released.
Lyrically, a preoccupation with this slow, final snuffing-out stage of things can also be detected. ‘I’m so high it makes my brain whirl,’ Bowie sings. ‘Dropped my cell phone down below. Ain’t that just like me?’ There’s kind of a sluggish chemo-fug logic to Bowie’s phrasing here – fragmented yet flowing – and, listening toa song like ‘Lazarus’, it’s all but impossible to free one’s imagination from what must almost certainly have preceded and accompanied its recording – the pain and the nausea, the CT and MRI scans, the fever and the diarrhoea, the boredom and the hospital clothes. Similar flourishes – faltering physicality with a woozy touch of the medical – dotted here and there throughout Blackstar become visible the more familiar one becomes with it, their inclusion made significant with hindsight: ‘Sue, the clinic called / the x-ray’s fine… I’m falling down… It’s all gone wrong but on and on… the blackout’s hearts with flowered news… I’m dying to / I’m trying to / I’m dying to…’ That he was documenting and cryptically broadcasting his imminent demise seems all but irrefutable.
3. The days fell on their knees. Maybe I'll take something to help me.
Or perhaps not. The announcement of the arrival of Lazarus, an off-Broadway sequel to Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth which was to feature new material from Bowie, came at the end of August 2015 (around the same time it was revealed he was to contribute towards an upcoming SpongeBob Squarepants musical). In an interview shortly after Bowie’s death, Tony Visconti, producer of Blackstar and long-time collaborator, mentioned that Bowie’s liver cancer had first been detected 18 months prior to his death. For the majority of last year he was, according to Visconti, in remission, and although he remained ‘apprehensive’ about his future he was also nonetheless ‘optimistic’ that the chemotherapy would continue to work its magic. It was only in November 2015, a month after the release of Blackstar had first been announced, that he learned the cancer had spread and his diagnosis was now terminal. One would presume that ‘Lazarus’ was written prior to the announcement of the stage production with which it shares a title, which leads one to speculate that Bowie actually composed this song, and possibly recorded it, at a time when he believed his illness to be manageable.
This casts ‘Lazarus’ in a different light. Do we have a song which, in spite of its surface morbidity, was actually written in the spirit of optimism? Before we’ve got to the song’s final closing down, there’s a shift in gear in the song at around 2:33, with the foreboding guitars dropping out of the mix to make way for the ‘By the time I got to New York’ section. The saxophone swells, playing in a more buoyant scale and holding the notes, becoming the platform for the track’s vocals rather than its ornamentation. The song then lifts off with Bowie singing, ‘This way or no way. / You know I’ll be free.’ Is it possible that ‘free’ means not some airy freedom found in death, but a much more tangible freedom? It’s kind of depressing to countenance, but there’s a convincing argument for ‘Lazarus’ to be construed as being about the treatment he was undergoing, the means (painful, demeaning, potentially fatal) justified by the ends (recuperation, recovery, freedom).
Hence the title, one could argue. If what we’re hearing is music which was intended to be a posthumous I-was-ill-all-along confessional, why reference the man who came back to life, recovery’s archetype? Naturally, there’s a malleability when it comes to what Lazarus can be said to represent. Although illustrative of the supposed triumphant power of Christian redemption, the Raising of Lazarus remains the bible’s dark miracle. Lazarus’s body is left in its tomb for four days before the stone is removed and he stirs. Eerie in itself, of course, but also eerie in how it foreshadows Christ’s death, burial and apparent resurrection. This most public of miracles also immediately leads Caiaphas, a local priest, to set about orchestrating Christ’s murder, which in turn leads directly to the crucifixion. Life in death, death in life. Très Blackstar.
This malleability of meaning underscores how hard it can be to interpret art created by someone on the outer limits of the living. Television writer Dennis Potter spoke of a tranquil wisdom conferred upon him by knowing his death was imminent, a heightened present-tense ‘nowness’ alien to the healthy-bodied hoi polloi. ‘That nowness,’ he said in an interview broadcast two months prior to his death, ‘becomes so vivid to me now, that in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. I can celebrate life.’ The pair of interlinked miniseries he was working on at the time, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, although treated kindly by critics, were informed by a mindset difficult for the average viewer to connect with and are now remembered not so much with fondness, more with mystified appreciation.
A serene Lazarus figures in one of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue poems, ‘An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician’. The strange experience in question is that of a middle-aged man who tells Karshish, a roving scientist writing to a friend back home, that ‘he was dead and then restored to life / By a Nazarene physician of his tribe’. Lazarus, it seems to Karshish, is something of an idiot. ‘Discourse to him of prodigious armaments / Assembled to besiege his city now, / And of the passing of a mule with gourds,’ snarks Karshish, ‘’Tis one.’ He remains sceptical of Lazarus, but the man’s tranquil bearing and his story’s sheer impossibility also provoke in Karshish a teasing flicker of what if belief: has Lazarus indeed attained an otherworldly enlightenment through death? How are we to know what constitutes someone whose ‘heart and brain move there’ but ‘his feet stay here’?
This spooky duality is played out in the ‘By the time I got to New York’ part of the ‘Lazarus’ video. It’s here that we first see Bowie in his non-Button Eyes guise, dressed in black, popping with creativity, all showy gestures and cabaret dance moves. My take is that he’s the final burst life, this black-clothes Bowie, the last flash of Blackstar artistry made flesh. We see him sit at his desk and take up a pen, desperately thinking what to write. He hits upon an idea and then, under the aegis of the skull from the ‘Blackstar’ video, works frantically his writing continuing off the page and off the desk. Then he finds he’s compelled into the wardrobe-coffin, his time up, his song over.
4. I like the dirt that you dish.
As has been noted, those black clothes are the ones worn by his Thomas Newton character in the original The Man Who Fell to Earth. This isn’t entirely surprising because the song was composed for a musical sequel to that film, but also because, as any keen Bowie listener will attest, this is par for the course. Since the ceremonial burial of Major Tom in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Bowie has continually loaded references to his own history into his recordings, at times – the title track of 1993’s Buddha of Suburbia goes out of its way to include the riff from 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ – with little obvious point beyond pencilling correlations into the Bowie mythos for their own sake. At other times, such as 2013’s ‘Where Are We Now?’ with its flotsam of Berlin-era memories, there’s a genuine poignancy and insightfulness. But aside from a recycled costume and a harmonica line in the final track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ which is either very similar to or sampled from Low’s ‘A New Career in a New Town’, Blackstar has little space for nostalgia, sounding for the most part so unlike anything found in the Bowie back catalogue, or indeed anyone else’s, that it serves as a decisive uncoupling from his past. So much so that it’s hard not to wish Blackstar had come about three years earlier when The Next Day was released. Although there’s a great deal to champion in The Next Day, the seemingly miraculous manner of its release – the unheralded overnight appearance of an album, a lead single and a music video after a decade of silence and suspicions of ill health – ascribed a weightiness to it which its slick pop-rock contents (Climate of the Hunter-esque final track ‘Heat’ excepted) might not necessarily have carried on their own. Pop-rock music is important too, of course, and Blackstar, with its fractured lyrics and jazz mêlée may well have been lost on the listening populace if it hadn’t ridden the more radio-friendly tide of its predecessor. But that fracture and mêlée, much more than any arch looking backwards or the immediate events surrounding its release, are a big part of what give Blackstar a seriousness and a heft of its own.
Where does ‘Lazarus’ look if not to the past? ‘Look up here,’ is how the lyrics begin. Then later, repeated: ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ Who is it who is being addressed? Although, as I said earlier, there’s what seems to be an obscure artistic intuition which inform ‘Lazarus’’ riddle-like tone, here a familiarity can be detected, a touch of affection. This spills out into something more than mere affection when the song surges. ‘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 ass.’ The first time I heard ‘Lazarus’, I thought it seemed more than a little at odds with the song’s gravity that the whole thing peaks on the word ass. It seemed a little silly. Bowie has always had a knack for contrast and the counterintuitive (think of The Next Day with its driving radio-friendly rock tunes with lyrics of war and devastation). But there it is, ass, its protruding emphasis demanding attention, if not interpretation.
Bowie had sunk into a creative doldrums by October 1990 when he first met Iman Abdulmajid, a recently retired model, at a party in LA: he’d just completed the Sound+Vision greatest hits tour; his two most recent albums, Tonight and Never Let Me Down, had both sold well but were critical disasters; a pattern which continued (without the sales) with his two releases with Tin Machine; he was living a low-key life in a mansion in Lausanne, a cliché rock-star-cum-tax-exile. Within a year he and Iman were living together, within two they were married and had relocated to Manhattan, and by 1993 Bowie was embarking on an artistic and critical comeback with Black Tie White Noise, a high romance mishmash of off-kilter rhythms, instrumental digressions and chart-topping dancey pop. From then on, of course, Bowie assuming what was routinely cited as his final character role, settling first into statesmanlike middle-age, then fatherhood and finally semi-retirement.
This ass crescendo of ‘Lazarus’, as I see it, isn’t simply Bowie recognising her instrumental role in his rebirth both artistic and personal, but also giving emphasis to the meaning he found in long-term sexual fidelity.
One tends to imagine cancer as a disease which nullifies any sexual impulses in its victims, as though they have been forfeited from such indulgences by the power of a purifying bodily mutiny. In truth, of course, this isn’t the case. Cancer, no more a bodily expression of the sufferer’s character than any other illness, has no direct effect on their sex drive, unless the course of treatment happens to be particularly intensive. And Blackstar has an erotic streak, a more prominent one, certainly more carnal, than Bowie’s albums have had since his early days of provocative androgyny. Think of the R&B-ish ooh’s towards the end of ‘Blackstar’, accompanied, in that song’s video, by shots of the writhing hips of scarecrows (‘kind of sexual’ is how Renck, also the director, claims Bowie described them); think of the pulsing Polari-Nadsat puzzle of ‘Girl Loves Me’; think of ‘‘Tis a Pity She was a Whore’ with its plaintive lyrics – kisses, cocks and stolen purses – nestled amid the piston-like rhythms. It’s striking, and actually rather touching, that someone afflicted with a bodily disease should be so direct in paying tribute to the physical aspect of eros, the act of fucking.
Perhaps a serious illness is what it takes to make statements such as these, ones which are serious yet risk inviting ridicule. Another literary Lazarus which comes to mind is perhaps, outside of the bible, the best known. In T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ the nebulous speaker of the poem, a bundle of repressed Victorian-hangover passions, imagines himself to be the biblical figure, yearning to convey his passions but prevented from doing so his entanglement in the buttoned-down social mores in which he lives. ‘Would it have been worth it,’ he asks, ‘After the cups, the marmalade, the tea / Among the porcelain,’
To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’ –
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it at all.’
Perhaps Bowie, for all the stately respectability he found in the distance that grew between himself and his early days of revolutionary debauchery and provocation, found in illness that he was once again liberated from such concerns, free to indulge in physicality and disregard not only the respectful torch-song niceties with which ‘Lazarus’ otherwise seems so replete, but also the behaviour expected of both a reputable senior family man and someone with a serious diagnosis. Composed in the thick of what would appear to have been a frantic creative period, ‘Lazarus’, it seems to me, is the fruit of an artist toiling beneath death’s shadow, working to parse the important, final things: family, sex, life.
5. You sold me illusions.
This may be hard to believe, but I’m not an especially forensic Bowie fan: I like his music of course, but I like it as music – songs, melodies and lyrics rather than components of some grand ology. And yet, when listening to ‘Lazarus’, I can’t escape the sense that there is some submerged meaning to the song, or something akin to a meaning, which is there to be excavated.
And I’m not the only one. Far from it. In the wake of Bowie’s final album, the internet has been awash with readings, theories and conclusions, many as esoteric and crackpot as they are eerily credible. A ‘black star’ is a name for radial scarring, a kind of cancer lesion; Blackstar is, it’s claimed, an alternative name for Horus, the Egyptian god of the rising and setting sun, and the album a Crowley-inspired Thelemic tract, as hinted at by its suggestive artwork; ‘Black Star’ is the title of an Elvis Presley song, recorded for the soundtrack to Flaming Star (the film from which Andy Warhol’s iconic Double Elvis reputedly originates) the subject of which is the unavoidability of death.
I have an uneasy relationship with this sort of theorising. Its tenuousness aside, there’s an inanity to taking a complicated piece of creative work and viewing it as a kind of puzzle in this way, something with a simple, manageable end point. These people, goes my touchy and rather snobby thinking process, simply aren’t used to experiencing the emotional and intellectual responses art is able to generate.
The truth, however, is that I’m actually one of these people, unpicking coded seams where I see them. Of course, I think, listening to ‘Lazarus,’ this is a song not about death but about recovery. ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ opens with the sound of Bowie breathing as an existential documentation, as prelude to his corporeal undoing. He’s leafing through his unused lyrics at the opening of ‘Dollar Days’ so that, even though he never got to record these songs, they are committed to tape. But who’s to say whether any of this is even remotely the case? Art is necessarily mysterious and so is often also mystifying.
I’ve been couching all of this in cautious, qualifying adverbs, keeping commitment at an arm’s length. It seems to me. What would appear. Maybe. Possibly. Perhaps perhaps perhaps. The personal element to ‘Lazarus’ – what seems to be a personal aspect – makes it feel presumptuous to talk about what Bowie meant. A man cannot be plumbed for meaning, and this man is dead, his creative process unknowable.
But the urge is there. In the weeks following Bowie’s death there were, in addition to the conspiracy theories, countless tributes, features and think pieces, each as much as about their authors as they are about their subject. Bowie is simultaneously an anti-racist hero, a feminist icon, a mental health champion, and a pioneer of overcoming the countless other obstacles people find obstructing the true course of their lives. He created catchy pop music and memorable imagery, but this catch-all veneration, speaks of a stature far beyond most of his peers. Taking a step back and assessing his career as a whole, it becomes clear that Bowie’s strange, quasi-divine status doesn't rely on 'Lazarus’ or Blackstar – nor ‘Space Oddity’ or Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane or Low or "Heroes" nor any one release – but this peculiar power to take on a life in people’s imaginations.
This life exists not merely in the songs and albums themselves but also in both their cumulative authority and the endless contradictions they present. Who was David Bowie? He was an otherworldly strangeling but also a chatty, down-to-earth interview guest; he released records filled with lengthy instrumental experimentation and records of slick, arena-friendly pop tunes; he was the iconoclastic drug-driven sexual terrorist who was also a loving family man with a formidable work ethic. The gaps between these seemingly solid streaks of identity are where the imagination comes alive, colouring in the blank spaces, figuring out what joins one to the next, what it is that constitutes the whole.
This, to my mind, is the sum of Bowie’s accomplishment and the reason he’s come to have such a unique standing. I can think of few other artists with such a popular reach who have bequeathed the experience of being, replete with not just the spectrum of sad songs and happy songs, but also with the vital bustle of tensions, cryptic non sequiturs, correlations and inconsistencies that constitute the living of a life.
I have a new story out. It's called 'Hamartia'
He watches. Every now and then he gets out of his car and wanders briskly round the block and back, slowing as he passes their house, peering into the windows. The curtains have been drawn but there is a thick chink between them. Through it he can see a small section of their front room, dimly lit, the television occasionally casting a coloured glow which lights up a dishevelled throw across a sofa, food packaging strewn across a coffee table. Occupying the far wall are, he can make out, a triptych of three large photographs, black and white but too dark for him to see.
I have a short story entitled '=VLOOKUP(E2,‘[Turnover year end 2015.xls]Q1SalesLeads’!$E$2:$F$1001,2,0' in a new anthology titled Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood.
You can buy a copy here.