By Tom Walsh
It is of great poignancy that the last music video David Bowie performed in before his death was called Lazarus. That very week he was given the final terminal prognosis on his cancer and the song looks forward to what lies after death. His vision seems equally unsure and hopeful. Throughout his final years, the themes of rebirth and posthumous influence played central roles in his art. The recent BBC documentary ‘Five Years’ depicts this expertly, especially through providing insight into his musical, also called Lazarus. Although most of the actors and production team did not know it yet, this was a play about coming to terms with death. As always, Bowie used his own style of subversion in order to reinvent the essence of many of his classics. The most notable of these is the final song, Heroes, generally seen as an anthem of hope. Via changing the mood to one of extreme melancholy, it was almost as if he was consolidating himself with the knowledge that his work has and will continue to influence so many people. It is unsurprising then, that he released the EP, No Plan, even after his death.
Death is something that none of us really know how we feel about and the title track builds on this uncertainty. This was also present throughout his final album Black Star. No Plan is a simple, stripped down, jazz-influenced exploration of the emptiness of death. When you see the word emptiness you don’t immediately think of positivity. The music video would appear to contend with this, displaying the lyrics on battered old televisions behind a rainy shop window. Nevertheless, there is this recurrent synthesis of consolation and despair. It is almost as if there is a genuine peace that he is trying to convey; finally out of the public eye, finally free from his regrets and from the “gold fish bowl of fame”.
David Bowie always struggled with the fame he achieved. He desired it originally as a means to the end of catalysing his productive potential and the reach of his art. This is perhaps one of the reasons why he was always in a state of flux, from Ziggy to the White Duke. Bowie’s most fervent desire was to constantly reinvent himself and not be tied down to genres, images or public perceptions. He described fame as like being “in a very luxuriant mental hospital”, and found the obsession that he engendered exhausting and chaotic. For many years before his death he withdrew completely from the public eye and refused to give interviews. He didn’t even perform live after 2003.
This allowed him to take a step back and take stock of where he was and where society was. The 2013 album, The Next Day, encapsulates both of these meditations. Although the subject matter of the song ‘Where Are We Now’, a nostalgic glance back at his best years in Berlin, is deeply introspective, the outlook of the core lyric can be seen as far more widely applicable. In his later years he became deeply upset by issues such as gun crime and released songs especially about these such as ‘Valentine’s Day’. Perhaps the tension between hope and despair is most apparent in his view of the society he has left behind. He seems to be proud of his creative legacy but deeply distressed with the way the world is.
We can never be truly sure of what was going on in David Bowie’s brain, as most of his songs were incredibly cryptic. The one thing we can be sure of is the range of his influence, the fieriness of his personality, and the quality of his music. As he said himself, “What I am used to doing is being very stubborn, obscure, confrontational… and enjoying every second of it”.