The true meaning of Lazarus, the testament of David Bowie

Lazarus, the symbolic song of Bowie’s musical testament (Blackstar, Columbia Records, 2016), doesn’t seem to be left alone: ravaged, as it has been, by a thousand interpretations and plagued by inexhaustible attempts at decodification. Some attempts have been genuinely interesting, others are weird, blatant clickbait. Disrespectful re-readings that in one fell swoop erase decades of artistic and personal maturation, written as if the artist in 2016 was still at the beginning of his career – mid-70s LA, to be clear – among esoteric quotes and (attributed) myths of Übermensch.

In facts, if at the beginning of the 70s he was The man who sold the world, only ten years later he could very easily have bought that world back, and without anyone being able to object: just arrived in New York in 1980, David Bowie was the King: “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a King, then I used up all my money…”.

A kingdom claimed in Heroes (“I, I will be king”) and constantly rising from Hunky Dory to the Berlin trilogy: years that culminated in Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) in 1980, a bridge between two irreconcilable eras. Once defined his “perfect balance”, it was a musical work of high synthesis between art rock and pop which offered a decisive contribution to the best sound aesthetic of the following decade, a decade devoted to the cult of image and possession, in which everything was joyfully trade and business. Devotion from which not even our hero escaped: “I was looking for your ass” confessed Bowie in 2016; but in those days everything really was Fashion.

Personally I don’t think it’s proper to criticise that dance-pop period – certain things really were remarkable – but in a 1995 interview Bowie himself was very strict about his 80s:

“I didn’t know what I was doing anymore; intoxicated with success, I had lost my natural enthusiasm for things. I thought I had nothing more to say and thought only to earn as much as possible; I was afraid of being near the end. The meeting with Reeves Gabrels made me realise that I could not continue like this.”

Scary monster: Lazarus, the monster and its scars

El’azar, the one who is assisted by God. It almost seems that in Lazarus, Bowie’s unearthly talent wanted, once again, to represent himself bivalently: both a scary monster covered with scars, and a greedy millionaire with the world at his feet.

He seems to want to quote not the risen Lazarus, but that of a lesser known parable, whose narrative is as innovative as this song, unfolding almost entirely in the afterlife.

In the Gospel of Luke (16, 19-31) we find the two characters that the White Duke would incarnate in parallel, as the master of theatre (Drama) that he was: a Lazarus that is a wounded beggar, a marginalised, suffering human monster that immediately after death is brought by angels right “into the bosom of Abraham” (“in Heaven”), and at the same time the opulent antagonist who, having ignored the wounds of others, is in anguish (“in Danger”) before divine judgement.

Resuming the model of otherworldly dialogue, even Bowie brings us straight into “the bosom of Abraham”, straight to the afterlife with a dry, striking phrase: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven”, exactly the beginning of the song. Paradise immediately stained by the shadow of his scars hidden under the layer of glam: “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”.

He plays with the similarities to allude to himself, between scars and scary. He has never ceased to consider himself a “scary monster”, but now, with his earthly clothes undressed, his mask fallen, everyone recognises him (“Everybody knows me now”) and he feels in danger in the face of a definitive judgement, perhaps like the Rich Epulone from the parable: “Look up here, man, I’m in danger”.

Drama: theatre in the veins

I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen”. Bowie’s farewell carries his great Theatre, his innumerable faces that, deeply rooted in his being, cannot be stolen. His career was the perfect application of melodrama, the theatrical art applied to singing.

From ambiguous dandy to Ziggy; publicly killed to progressively change into a White Duke who will conquer the resonant heart of Central Europe to then cross the Atlantic indomitably and land in the Big Apple to record his crazy, romantic clown masterpiece.

There, already disillusioned, Major Tom’s a junkie who recites Ashes to Ashes with the knowledge that “we were made from dust, and to dust we will return” and the main phrase “Strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low” was the anticipation, the depression (low) of his Drama: an ambivalent and ambiguous word, like those heights (heaven’s high) that reflect the tragedy of his brother’s mental illness (Jump they say, 1993) and the fear of sharing it with the genetic heritage of their mother. A schizophrenic brain that spins madly as if it were hallucinated (“I’m so high it makes my brain whirl”), frightened by the rarefied air up there, at the height from which he made that fatal leap, and “Dropped my cell phone down below” sounds too similar to “Dropped myself…“.

Bluebird: flying over the rainbow

It is fascinating to see how this Lazarus ends circularly where his career began, flying free on the wings of a Bluebird, the little blue bird first mentioned by Judy Garland in Over the Rainbow (The Wizard of Oz, 1939, directed by Victor Fleming): “Somewhere over the rainbow, Bluebirds fly”. Ziggy, singing the word “Star-man”, performed the identical octave jump of that “Somewhere”: and knowing David Bowie, that’s a direct reference!

From that song onwards (and not before), his career really took off, and that Bluebird once materialised in the blue guitar at Top of the Pops, now definitively closes (“This way or no way”) the Lazarus testament.

So, in the end Bowie whispers “You know, I’ll be free. Just like that bluebird” to tell us that at the last deadly breath he will be just like that little blue bird; in fact, he is just like it right now (“Now ain’t that just like me?”). Free.

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