David Bowie and the Artful Calculation of Death

RIP to The Man Who Fell to Earth, and to all the other Bowies

When Dennis Potter, the great British television writer (The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven), was dying of cancer in the mid-1990s, he continued to work hard on a number of scripts. His energy was limited, he was interviewed on television while taking morphine for the pain, and yet he didn’t stop working. With characteristic mordant humor, he named one of his final two scripts Cold Lazarus. Better yet, it was a work of science fiction: Ever aware of his limited mortality, Potter wrote something that would take place in a distant future he’d never live to see — none of us will, as it’s set several centuries down the road — and titled it after a man synonymous with being brought back from the dead. Potter died in 1994, less than a month after his 59th birthday.

Apparently, we now know, David Bowie had similar things in the works as his death from cancer approached. Bowie’s “Lazarus”is both a song off his new album, Blackstar, and the title of a musical he developed with co-writer Enda Walsh (of Once). The musical Lazarus is, like Potter’s Cold Lazarus, a work of science fiction, drawing inspiration from Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film version of which Bowie starred in back in 1976. (The movie was directed by Nicolas Roeg, who also directed Track 29, based on a Dennis Potter script. Bowie was reportedly the first choice for the male lead in Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, but the part eventually went to Sting.) Bowie died yesterday, just days after his 69th birthday, which coincided with Blackstar’s release.

A friend once told me, wisely, that when you cry you’re never crying about one thing. The sudden death of Bowie, at such a public moment, when his brand new Blackstar was getting such positive reviews, was not just a shock but an artfully calculated one. Not just a consummate singer, performer, composer, and musician, Bowie was theatrical to the core. His death was, we now know, as much a production as were so many aspects of his career. Thinking about his productivity during such hardship naturally had me think about Dennis Potter, a major hero of mine, and from there the various connections made themselves apparent.

When many contemporary popular artists die, they leave behind a totemic, iconic figure, a singular image. Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson come to mind immediately. But others, like Bowie, mean such different things to different people. One of the phenomenal things about Bowie is that so many of us who focus on different types of music all mourn different Bowies, their own Bowies. “My”Bowie is the ambient-minimalist-progressive Bowie, the one who collaborated with Brian Eno for the “Berlin trilogy,” the one who employed not one but two different King Crimson guitarists (Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew), the one whose Eno-era work was later revisited in a classical setting by composer Philip Glass. (I’d bought my first Bowie album, Hunky Dory, while wandering around Greenwich Village as a slightly fearful teenager. Why Hunky Dory? Because Rick Wakeman played keyboards on it. I was a big Yes fan at the time.)

Listening back to those works, watching live performances, and re-reading interviews, I take some solace in the sheer dedication inherent in those collaborations. In retrospect, we perhaps should have seen Bowie’s death coming, so clearly were ruminations on mortality written into his recent songs. Dennis Potter succumbed to cancer publicly, while Bowie chose to do so privately. Bowie had written in a science fiction mode for so long, we can forgive ourselves for not realizing sooner that his own future had come to an end. It took someone like Bowie to make death feel vital — not an absence, but a force. Like a black star. As he sang on Hunky Dory’s “Quicksand,” the song that closes the album’s first side: “Knowledge comes with death’s release.”

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