Of all the celebrities who died this month, David Bowie left the stage with the greatest eloquence. The collective outpouring of emotion at the news when he died surprised me at first. I mean, I remember liking “Modern Love” back in 1980-whatever, but that’s all I knew of him until a week ago, when I watched his two last and latest videos, “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.” Then I said, Oh.
“Lazarus,” intensely personal and inward, shows a mortal human, a desperate man facing his own death. It’s set indoors, much of it with the main character (played by Bowie) lying in a hospital bed. Let’s call this figure Bed Bowie. Sometimes an alternate version of this character (also played by Bowie) appears, standing or sitting, wearing a dark blue shirt and pants with parallel white slashes painted across the front of the clothes, much like Bowie wore on the cover of one of his old albums where he drew a Kabbalah — a magical Tree-of-Life schematic from Jewish mysticism. We could call this figure in the video Old Bowie, because he’s clearly not young anymore and because he represents the Bowie of old. Old Bowie, the aging magician, is Bed Bowie’s image of himself as an artist.
Old Bowie dances and writes in the video, but his dancing seems desperate, defiant, probably painful. He writes at a desk maniacally, a pathetic figure with an exaggerated sense of his own importance. He’s a shape-shifter whose illusions don’t dazzle the way they once did, a trickster whose jokes everyone knows. But at least he can see. Bed Bowie half-floats beneath his blanket, his arms straining to swim through the air, mummy-like bandages over his eyes. Beady black buttons sewn to the bandaging make a hideous parody of vision. Bed Bowie is blind, immobilized, terrified, trapped in a failing body.
The video ends with a chilling image of Old Bowie, wide-eyed and unblinking, shuffling backward with palsied, jerky movements, into the shadows of an empty wardrobe like the one that leads to Narnia. He pulls the door closed behind him. Then he’s gone, even though he was imaginary and unreal to start with. It’s over, it’s all over, and you cry for a stranger you suddenly feel you know so well who doesn’t even actually exist.
But the song is called “Lazarus,” after a man Jesus raises from the dead in the Christian Bible. Lazarus is a man Jesus loves (John 11: 3). A man Jesus says has merely fallen asleep, metaphorically speaking (John 11:11). When Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus walks out with a cloth around his face, reminiscent of the bandages Bed Bowie wears in the video (John 11:44). Lazarus is a creepy, ironic, yet hopeful name to claim.
“Blackstar,” on the other hand, opens wide — as vast and cosmic as “Lazarus” is introspective. If “Lazarus” asks the question, “What goes on inside of me?”, “Blackstar” asks, “What goes on out there?” “Blackstar” is set in outer space, on at least one alien planet, with rocky moonscapes, fields of tall turquoise grasses, a distant silhouetted city of stone. The video takes place after the death of an astronaut, obviously Major Tom, whose body is now reduced to a gem-encrusted skull and a headless skeleton that drifts toward a black star. A star that died. A star whose light shines no more. Just like Bowie.
The otherworldly vocals engage cosmic issues, too: “I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar).” This video is about that which is ever vaster, greater, more unfathomable, that which many people refer to as God. When Bowie appears here, in this mysterious place after and outside earthly life, he wears an old-fashioned black suit coat like a charismatic nineteenth-century preacher-prophet. He holds high an old, worn-out (like him) book of scripture, with of course a black star on the cover, but he’s looking past the book — his expression searches the distance. Once Bowie the Body is gone, what’s left is Bowie the Eternal, Bowie the Prophet. Sometimes, though, this figure also wears the eye bandages with button eyes, like Bed Bowie in “Lazarus.” He alternates between blindness and vision.
“Blackstar” ends with three braided events. A circle of women in plain dresses, led by a priestess with amulets, conducts a ceremony around the gem-encrusted skull, perhaps a ritual to ease the soul’s passage. At the same time, a shamanic figure in a costume of bells, horns, and long ropy hair seems to attack three tortured scarecrows on crosses in the turquoise field, all while Bowie the Prophet, blind behind the bandages again, slowly sinks toward the ground.
So “Lazarus” emphasizes the secular and psychological, “Blackstar,” the religious and spiritual, but really the two intertwine and talk to each other constantly, inextricably, like psychology and spirituality do in real life.
This barely brushes the layers of meaning and detail in these videos. The point is Bowie made them, then he died. His star went out. But when I watch the videos, he seems so present, so alive in all his many guises, in every single scene, that it’s difficult to comprehend he’s actually dead. Reality’s edges blur, in part thanks to the videos’ surreal imagery. Women with cat tails seem real, ghoulish scarecrows writhing on crosses seem real, but Bowie’s death seems impossible, make-believe. That makes death itself seem make-believe, preposterous. At the same time, Bowie truly is dead, so imaginary death feels real too, which makes imagination feel real!
See the rabbit that popped out of the hat? Persuasive images of the unreal drain the persuasive power out of the spell of reality. This phenomenon is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of marketers, politicians, and religious figures, who constantly try to convince us that the things they make up are literally true. But it’s also a tool in the artist’s and metaphysician’s bag of metaphor tricks, suggesting that there’s more to the universe than meets the eye, that reality is bigger and more mysterious that our physical senses admit.
Bowie could not have created these astonishing videos without the company of his own imminent mortality. Their poignancy and urgency draw energy directly from his own process of dissolution and death. I love how Bowie engages with those ferocious forces. His parting gift to the world isn’t so much the music or the images as it is his demonstration of how to express one’s longing, desperation, imagination. By giving voice and form to all that powerful emotion, Bowie had to have loosened some of its hold on him. More importantly, his art introduces a radical, new form of energy into what would otherwise be the quintessential draining of energy. His creativity energizes his death, making what would otherwise seem senseless pregnant with meaning.
In “Lazarus,” Bowie sings, “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free.” He didn’t know how he’d be free, but he knew that he would. He released the album Blackstar on his birth-day, two days before his death-day. The album was born, its maker died. The cover even looks like a stylized headstone, with the big black star and the name “Bowie” spelled out graphically in star parts below. The work and the timing certainly suggest that he wondered how death might also function as a birth, or as in the Lazarus story, a prelude to being woken, in who knows what way, by powers unfathomably vaster than his temporal self.