On Daniel Johnston
Girl, come share my dream
Daniel Johnston, the singer-songwriter who has long been, for many people like me, a sort of patron saint of DIY creativity, has passed away at the age of 58.
Johnston is someone who, if you're reading this and you’ve never listened to him, no one YouTube clip or screenshot of lyrics will really explain the appeal. Johnston was a bedroom-dwelling outsider artist who found a huge audience, including Lana Del Ray, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie.
The best way to get into his world (and 'world' feels much more apt a description of his output represents than 'music' or 'art') is to pick out an album or two of his, ideally the early ones with handmade black and white covers, and listen to them all the way through a few times. Soon you'll notice something emerging from beneath the muffled recordings, the tape hiss, the rudimentary instruments, the off-kilter singing - something interesting and addictive. You'll grow to love the glitches and the cheapness, viewing them as equally an essential part of his music as the compositions and their melodies.
I've actually been going through a mini phase of listening to his albums recently and his sudden death has led me to think seriously about his music in a way I've never really done before. I find I'm shocked that it hadn't ever occurred to me before that, despite being quite a big fan of Johnston for quite a long time, there is in fact quite a bit about him and his work which is problematic.
To begin with: Laurie. On his first release, 1981’s Songs of Pain, which like all his early albums was self-released on cassette tape, is an extended delineation of his love for Laurie, a girl who rejected him for a mortician. Johnston's discography, which spans almost 40 years, is replete with songs which dwell obsessively on Laurie, often in the abstract but just as frequently overtly, naming her and detailing his ongoing unrequited love for her. This, coupled with Johnston's other big theme - a naïf's quasi-Christian belief in innocence and purity - belie an unpleasant mindset when it comes to women, stalkerish, controlling and self-pitying - in short, entirely male (a good place to start with Johnston is the cover of his song 'King Kong' by Tom Waits, a songwriter whose own work demonstrates him to be an undervalued critic of masculinity, imho).
Almost any interview or article on him in the past twenty years will have also touched on the fact that Johnston, who suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia, lived with and was cared for by his parents, often seemingly beyond the needs of his illnesses, while he continued recording his own weird music, performing his own weird concerts and creating his own weird artwork. This wholesale dependency on others to support his self-belief feels unseemly.
Finally, there's the issue of my own culpability. Those thousands of us who paid for Johnston's music, artwork and live performances, and essentially bought into his vision, enabling a delusion, but worse, supplied the audience for an unwell man whose unwellness was key part of his life's performance.
So, after all this, what exactly is the appeal of Johnston for someone like me?
First of all, his struggles were clearly genuine - and his music is very much a testament to both that genuineness and to the power of pop. And I mean power here in the not-always-necessarily-positive-and-inspirational sense. Pop music - its themes, its myths, its promises - clearly possessed Johnston and in some ways controlled him.
He's also a figure who went on to become synonymous with mental illness. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how we talk about ‘mental health awareness’ in our current online age. It's undoubtedly something we're a lot more engaged with as a society, and there's no denying this is a good thing. But I find I often baulk at the way mental health is characterised when I see this awareness promoted online, which often sees 'depression' as a form of sadness or anxiety that evaporates on contact with hugs, understanding and friendship. The reality, in my experience, can often be far uglier and more difficult than this would suggest. Mental illness can take the form of anger, aggression, darkness and other kinds of extreme behaviour - in many cases psychotic behaviour - often resulting, ultimately, in the wholehearted rejection of any attempts at understanding or sympathy, and the dismissal of well-intentioned friends. Even if those friends remain, the friendships will most likely be forever marked. The loss of dignity that goes in to engaging with and understanding another's mental health is something no stigma-busting campaign can equip one for.
This, I think, is part of the reason Johnston's low-grade homemade tape recordings feel so compelling to so many listeners. There is little in the way of dignity to his recordings. Quite the opposite: they revel unabashed in their alienating qualities. Each of his songs, no matter how cheery and positive they may initially appear, is a genuine snapshot of a mind at war with existence. Whenever you hear his lyrics approach the usual pop themes of the thwarted lover or the underappreciated artist or the melancholic who bravely overcomes his condition to seize the day, it feels very much as though you're engaging with a piece of scenery Johnston constructed to protect himself from the reality which, going by the accounts of those who knew him, was full of darkness, anger, violence and unpleasantness (he was involuntarily institutionalised a number of times).
But what an absorbing, addictive vision it is, insistent on its own logic and drama, Bosch-like in its repeated motifs: frogs, ducks, toy instruments, monsters, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Frankenstein, boxers, floating eyeballs, Satan. For those of us who have engaged in similar behaviour, creating the world which best suits us, regardless of how it effects those around us, rather than adapting to the world we live in, an artist like Johnston - single-minded and industrious - will always be something of a touchstone. His music channelled his personality and transmuted his obsessions into something fascinating and, despite that war its creator was engaged in, was always utterly committed to leaving its own weird but indelible mark on the world he left behind.
Fall Down the Hole
'It is cruel and blind
And does not compensate
The brutal fracture.'
I used to get anxious about running into Mark E Smith.
Generally, the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’ is taken to mean: you probably have a rosy yet simplified image of your heroes which difficult, nuanced reality will be unable to match. That couldn’t really be said of Smith, who passed away last week at the age of 60. Smith, in his 42-year capacity as frontman/ringleader of The Fall, was known for many things: profuse drinking, difficult music and turbulent relationships with almost everyone he came across, not least his fellow band members (66 in total), many of whom were abruptly fired and few of whom have anything good to say about their time in the group. Whether someone like this has been a ‘hero’ to me is difficult to say.
It was when I first moved to Manchester that I started to get anxious about running into Smith. This was due to a convergence of facts: I now lived in Manchester, Mark E Smith lived in Manchester, I played guitar, Smith was known for recruiting musicians into The Fall from chance meetings. I knew that if I did find myself in the same room as him I would feel compelled to speak with him, and possibly to fish for that magical opportunity. Although the precedents are foreboding - with the experience uniformly reported as unpleasant, often traumatic - who truly would turn down the chance to join The Fall?
For those on the outside, understanding the appeal of this group (never ‘band’) is impossible: they make jarring, inconsistent music marked by off-keys singing and gibberish lyrics, fronted by someone whose life’s work seemed to be to alienate or at the very least annoy. But attempting to understand is how people end up getting into The Fall, finding themselves first listening out of curiosity, then growing interested in re-hearing one or two musical ideas, then finding a fragment of lyrics has taken root in their thoughts. Next thing they know, they're up front at Manchester Academy, with a wish-list of rarely performed tracks they're sweatily hoping to hear.
I remember someone once described Nico’s weird druggy albums as ‘not so much music you get into, more a hole you fall into.’ The same is true of The Fall. Indeed, their appeal has something virus-like to it, striking down at random regardless of the individual: any Fall gig had more than its share of blokey serious musos, but also kids in tracksuits and middle-aged accountancy dads who’ve rushed from their offices, all there to worship at the altar of this northern weirdness.
It’s seeing them live that the anti-appeal of The Fall is at its starkest. Their gigs could famously often be chaotic events, but they were reliably tense. Almost any recording will corroborate this but this performance of ‘Latch Key Kid’ is fairly representative.
You never see anything like a smile pass between band members, let alone eye-contact. Instead they simply try to play the song, keeping their heads down while Smith prowls the stage like a revenant, shouldering them out of the way. interfering with speaker settings, jamming his hand into the keyboard, before shuffling off-camera. There’s something menacing to the proceedings, but it makes for compelling viewing.
This is a microcosm for what Smith and his group stood for. He was a laureate of tension, duty-bound to jam a spanner into the works whenever an opportunity presented itself, whether it was a performance, a recording, an interview, his line-up or his personal life.
His passing away has left me sad but the manner of his passing has also left me feeling slightly guilty. In the wake of his death, lots of people have been sharing Mark E Smith interviews and anecdotes in which he is, in common parlance, a ‘legend’. Which is to be expected: he had a knack for being bitchy and blunt when drunk in a way which struck a chord, and seems to be remembered as much for his batty pronouncements as he is for his music. But all the interviews take place in pubs, in most of the anecdotes he’s drunk - sadness and the threat of cruelty are always in the air. But alcoholism, or at least drunkenness, seemed such an important part of the creativity that produced the music I and many others have found important, in a way which music isn’t usually important, that simply wishing it away is difficult. It’s instinctive to argue that there was some self-mythologising going on, some meeting of expectations, playing the role which pays the bills. But beneath that suspicion is a nagging sense that being a Fall fan probably meant you were in some way complicit in something destructive, that you were doing your bit for the crutch for someone’s publicly played-out illness. It is problematic.
And yet I fell down the hole. Brix Smith, his first wife and the musician widely credited with transforming The Fall from a provincial weirdo band into something grander (the role of women in The Fall deserves an essay of its own), recently described their music as something fans projected onto as much as they drew from. And that’s true, at least for me. The Fall’s music feels as though it has an importance beyond lots of other bands’ music because of a signature objection – musically, lyrically, existentially – to clarity, answers, neatness, resolution. There have many artists who have been as committed to their artistic vision as Smith but few so unswervingly and so satisfyingly so. So many loose ends tease at the imagination.
And so I would fret about meeting Mark E Smith, half wanting it, half dreading it. It’s embarrassing, but I’ve even had dreams about meeting him – they have always been anxiety dreams, in which I’m almost craven, keening for respect, for recognition, awaiting a vicious rebuke. Such dreams are a hangover, shadows of an awkward boyhood, a teenage fantasy gone to seed, but one of the more disquieting aspects of Smith’s death has been reading the interviews which have resurfaced. Invariably, they take place in Manchester pubs I’m more than familiar with – The Crown and Kettle, The Castle Hotel, Gulliver’s. In one recent piece I even read the following: ‘Mark chose an All Bar One-style after-works drinks place in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester. "I like to watch the freaks. They’re fucking weird. Who the fuck are they?" he later told me, while staring into a pub filled with the most normal people imaginable.’
There’s only really one All Bar One-style place in Piccadilly Gardens: Missoula, which has recently been turned into a Slug and Lettuce, and which is a couple of hundred feet from the office building where I work. I’ve often gone there after work for a drink, one of the freaks, fleetingly aware of the occassional outlines of old men, pissed, lonely, looking on from peripheral tables.
Now that he’s gone, it turns out that magical, dreaded opportunity was there in the corner all along.
Here is my (very much personal) ranking of The Fall’s studio albums
1 - Fall Heads Roll
2 - Bend Sinister
3 - The Unutterable
4 - I Am Kurious Oranj
5 - This Nation's Saving Grace
6 - New Facts Emerge
7 - The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
8 - Hex Enduction Hour
9 - Re-Mit
10 - Your Future Our Clutter
11 - Cerebral Caustic
12 - Imperial Wax Solvent
13 - The Frenz Experiment
14 - Grotesque (After the Gramme)
15 - Light User Syndrome
16 - Live at the Witch Trials
17 - Extricate
18 - The Wonderful and Frightening World Of...
19 - Levitate
20 - Dragnet
21 - Middle Class Revolt
22 - Perverted by Language
23 - Ersatz GB
24 - Shift-Work
25 - Room to Live
26 - The Infotainment Scan
27 - Code: Selfish
28 - The Marshall Suite
29 - Sub-Lingual Tablet
30 - Reformation Post TLC
31 - Are You Are Missing Winner
(I’ve seen the most recent record, New Facts Emerge, referred to as the 32nd studio album, presumably by people including Slates, which was technically an EP)
On Leonard Cohen
When my daughter was tiny, for about six months, I used to give her a bath every single night (parenthood makes you superstitious about routines) and as I did so I'd always sing 'One of Us Cannot Be Wrong', the final track from Leonard Cohen's first record. It's a song I'd first come across when I was 15. Like all suburban teenagers I was a big Nirvana fan and had investigated Cohen after hearing him being name-checked in 'Pennyroyal Tea' (this was the days before algorithms when learning about music required this kind of serendipity).
From then on I periodically loved him, got bored of him, rediscovered him, drifted away, came back, buying and listening to to each one of his records, seeking out and reading his books and, once, spending a truly appalling amount of money on a gig in a castle.
In this way Leonard Cohen became, for me, more of a long-term fixture in my life than any other artist I can think of. There's musicians and albums and songs I've loved more fiercely but never with the same longevity and dependability: love, death, sex, war, religion, faith - he's always been there in the background, ready to come forward during those times when music needs to be serious.
Lately, it's felt very much like one of those times. I've had his latest record, You Want It Darker, on nigh constant circulation for the past three weeks and that Cohen style – weighty yet ironical, unapologetically literary yet unashamedly pop, thematically dependable yet restlessly inquisitive, sophisticated yet unflinchingly existential – which served him so well for fifty years is so richly abundant that it's almost impossible to countenance it being the work of an artist who would deteriorate and die so suddenly after its release. It shows how, although the flesh was failing, the mind and its fearsome artistry were as sharp as ever.
Although I'm obviously sad he's passed away I'm not sentimental about it, or at least not unduly so. He was, after all, Leonard Cohen. He'd reached a ripe age, lived good life in every possible sense and departed knowing that he would leave behind something substantial and lasting: serious songs which will continue to be sung to children.
A Long Hard Look at Lazarus
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.