Like millions of people all around the world, I was deeply touched by the release of David Bowie's last video, "Lazarus". The opening sight of the once glamorous rockstar now worn and frail, huddled in his bed clothes with eyes bandaged singing
"Look at me , I'm in Heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen..."
is an image aching with vulnerability and loss. Knowing that he filmed this song as he lay dying of cancer adds a further layer of profound poignancy. "A parting gift for his fans", said the headlines of the internet press. What a gift- both haunting and mysterious.
Ever enigmatic and mercurial, David Bowie was never entirely clear nor consistent about his religious philosophy, declaring at one point that he had tried everything from Tibetan Buddhism to Nietzchean nihilism. In his last years he ambiguously announced that he was "not quite an atheist". There are no commentaries ( as yet) explaining why he choose the subject of Lazarus for his final video, but it may well be helpful to muse on the symbolism and significance of this pivotal figure.
In the Bible, there are two characters named Lazarus, In the Gospel of Luke, Lazarus appears in a parable that Jesus tells about a poor beggar who sits covered with sores and begging for crumbs outside of the gates of a rich man's house. In Heaven, the roles of the men are reversed, and Lazarus is gathered into the bosom of Father Abraham while the rich man lies tormented in the flames of hell while he calls for help.
In the Gospel of John, Lazarus is part of a trio of siblings from Bethany who form part of Jesus's inner circle, the brother of Mary (often presumed to be Mary Magdalene) and Martha. Lazarus dies and is buried in a tomb while Jesus is away. Upon his return to Bethany., Jesus is deeply moved at the grief of Mary and Martha and we are told it the shortest and most tender line of the New Testament, " Jesus wept". At the mouth of the tomb, he calls for Lazarus in a loud voice, "Come out!", at which point " the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. " and Jesus order the mourners to “take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Lazarus last appears in the Gospel narratives in John as the host of a feast for Jesus during passover week at which time Mary prepares Jesus for his death, drenching him in costly spikenard, the ancient Egyptian spice used to anoint kings and embalm the dead. In all the Gospel stories, then, Lazarus is a character who stands at the gateway of suffering and death.
What was it from these stories that called to David Bowie in the final months of his life? Did the image of Lazarus give the "almost atheist" a sense of possibility and hope?
In the video, there are two Davids: the one bound in grave clothes in the hospital bed, and another garbed in black who emerges from a wooden wardrobe dancing, takes up a pen and struck by inspiration writes furiously until the page is completely covered while the hospital-bound Bowie sings,
"This way or no way
You know I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain't that just like me"
What struck me most forcefully about this video is that in it David Bowie takes his place in a long line of creative artists who embrace and transform their suffering. Rather than avoiding it, ignoring it or simply trying to escape it, he makes meaning of his pain by linking his story with other figures (historical or literary) of the past- the way Dante did with Virgil in The Divine Comedy, the way Beethoven did by identifying himself as a modern Prometheus. The David Bowie who emerges dancing is one who is offering a testimony of truth, with elements of his own life review ( he "comes out of the closet" with the lyrics "By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king"), an acknowledgment of who he is ( "ain't that just like me?"), and an identification with an archetypal figure of transformation: Lazarus.
David Bowie lived an astonishing life of ch-ch-changes. He adopted and assumed more costumes and virtual identities in his career than Madonna and Lady Gaga combined, celebrating every face he found within himself. His range was extraordinary, from the lost and lonely voice of Major Tom to the upbeat dance party celebrations of his 80's hits like "Modern Love". He wasn't afraid of seeming contradictions. In the 70's he courted scandal by becoming one of the first public figures who admitted to bi-sexuality, while in the 90's, he seemed to become very much a family man with wife Iman and daughter Lexi. He collected modern art, studied classical music, and acted in film roles as diverse as Andy Warhol (Basquiet), Nikolai Tesla (The Prestige) and Pontius Pilate ( The Last Temptation of Christ).
"Lazarus" will stand by itself- but here is a poem I'd read if I were at his funeral.
The Guesthouse by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Thank you, David Robert Jones, for welcoming all of your inner guests out into the world through your songs. May you rest in peace.