As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the world lost David Bowie this past Sunday, January 10th, finally succumbing to cancer after an 18 month battle. As a result, a great amount of attention has been paid to his final release, Blackstar. I want to draw your attention to the final video from the lead single Lazarus. Check it out below ; I’ll wait.
Now take a breath and dry your tears. Given the timeframes involved, it’s very clear that he worked on this video in the midst (perhaps near the end) of his battle with cancer. The video begins with a frail, infirm Bowie huddled on a hospital bed in a cold, white-tiled room, reminiscent of a sanitarium.
He has a thick bandage wrapped around his eyes, with two black button eyes. Bowie sees his end, but can’t see the future, what lays beyond the grave. Or can he?
Soon, another Bowie emerges, dressed in black, still able to cavort and shoot out a hip fabulously. He uncaps a pen and starts to scribble furiously, miming a ponderous, furious, manic creative process. Inspiration doesn’t so much strike as possess him.
Meanwhile, a female figure hides beneath his bed, reaches for him from the walls, but ultimately can’t touch him. This is Death, frustrated that she can’t claim him.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Bowie recedes back into the wardrobe from whence he came.
The video posits Bowie as a dying man so full of life that death can’t claim him. He doesn’t die – he puts on black and becomes the proverbial monster in the creative closet, waiting to emerge again and inspire another generation of weirdos, freaks, gender benders, and glam rockers.
(Sidenote: the video itself is shot in a very narrow frame, with black bars on either side. Anyone who’s ever owned a smartphone recognizes that aspect ratio as the “wrong” way to shoot videos. Right or wrong, it’s an extremely modern look, and one that suits Bowie extremely well. The narrow aspect ratio functions as a metaphor for a thin white duke chased by death. Even 50 years after his debut, the man continued to innovate.)
Lazarus felt strongly reminiscent of Cash’s video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. (Please forgive the lousy quality – it’s the best I could find.)
Widely considered his epitaph, Cash was plagued by health problems around the time of the filming of this video; in many shots you can see his old hands shake. Cash has aged significantly worse than Bowie. There will be no hip-shooting or shimmying for country’s Man in Black. Instead, he sits before a uneaten, sepia-toned feast intercut with footage from his life and career as a musician, movie star, and prisoner. Shots flash by of empty shelves, records behind broken glass, and a chintzy roadside museum called the House of Cash. The way the video portrays it, everything from Cash’s past is broken down, hollow, and empty.
One of the most powerful sections involves Cash searching around the beaten up old house where he grew up. In the face of death, is that poverty-stricken home really any different from this decayed feast he now sees before him? At the end of the video, Cash quietly closes the piano and rests his hands upon the polished wood – a song and a life completed.
Now, Hurt is not Cash’s song. It was originally written by Trent Reznor, for The Downward Spiral album. But Reznor was a young man in the throes of depression. He was in pain, certainly, but Cash owns a weight that the young can’t know – that of regret. Is this a life well lived? Who can really say?
At the end of his life, Bowie asked himself if he could create one more masterpiece. As Tom Reynolds posited in his book “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die”, Cash asked himself if he mattered. From a fan’s perspective, let me offer a quiet, certain “Yes” to both.
In their lives, these rock stars carried us through. In their deaths, they teach us how to live forever.