David Bowie's Final, Imaginative, Awesome Year
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

David Bowie's Final, Imaginative, Awesome Year

As the anniversary of his death approaches, collaborators on the music icon's off-Broadway show 'Lazarus' share accounts of a cancer-stricken artist productive and engaged until the end. Says one, "He never let it define him."

Henry Hey, musical director of the off-Broadway show Lazarus, was struggling late last year to find a date to record a cast album. Unconventional, impressionistic off-Broadway musicals don't always go to the expense of making cast albums, but this one was a no-brainer: Its book was co-written by David Bowie, its score featured 18 of his songs and its cast was headlined by actors Michael C. Hall and Cristin Milioti, both well known to theater aficionados and TV audiences (for Dexter and How I Met Your Mother, respectively). Hey's problem was the show's limited run: It had opened Dec. 7, 2015, at the New York Theatre Workshop and was going to close Jan. 20, 2016 — a narrow window. "We found the one date that worked for the cast," says Hey. "It just so happened to be that day."

That day was Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. News would break early that morning that Bowie had died the previous day. He had been fighting cancer for a year and a half but kept the severity of his illness so private that his death shocked some of his closest collaborators. "None of the cast knew about David's situation," says Hey, who had been aware of Bowie's illness, though not necessarily that the artist was nearing his end. But there was no thought of cancelling the studio date. "I wrote to the cast and said, 'Look, we have to do this thing because this is what he wanted.' And everybody showed up and gave it their all."

The passing of an iconic star always devastates fans, but given that Bowie was in the midst of a late-career renaissance, his death seemed unusually cruel. Adding unintended drama, he had released a new album, Blackstar, three days earlier, on his 69th birthday. Recorded with a group of jazz musicians, Blackstar had earned wildly positive reviews even before Bowie's death gave it a sentimental gloss. Lazarus, meanwhile, was a deeply personal work of musical theater — Bowie's first as a creator. It was a sequel of sorts to the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, about an alien stranded on Earth, a character that had obsessed Bowie since he played the part in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film adaptation. The show had instantly sold out its run, drawing rapturous audiences and mixed but respectful reviews.

You normally can't say that a 69-year-old man has been cut down in his prime, but maybe this time you could. Blackstar, Bowie's 25th studio album, had followed a strong 24th — The Next Day, which came out in 2013. If Blackstar seemed shadowed by Bowie's death, The Next Day consciously marked a rebirth. It was his first new music since 2003, ending a decade of silence in which he for the most part had kept out of public view, a sabbatical apparently prompted by an onstage heart attack in June 2004 in Prague. Bowie had recovered, but aside from rare appearances at charity or tribute concerts and a few small acting gigs, he seemed content to live quietly in downtown Manhattan with his wife, model Iman, and their daughter, Alexandria, now 16. It was almost as if he were emulating his old friend John Lennon, who had quit music for half a decade of house husbandry during the 1970s.

The Next Day and Blackstar bookended a fertile four-year stretch, a creative run all the more remarkable given that over the previous year and a half Bowie was fighting the illness that would kill him. And yet, while his final works grapple with mortality and existential despair, madness, identity and violence, his collaborators knew him as an artist who was fully engaged and reveled in the sometimes sweaty work of making music and theater. By all accounts, this last act was as vital and joyous as it was haunting.

•••

Hey is a keyboardist, arranger and composer who has played with the likes of Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart and Ariana Grande. In 2012, Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer, asked him whether he had a couple of days free for a hush-hush project. Sworn to secrecy, Hey showed up at Visconti's studio and found an instantly disarming Bowie lounging on a couch. It was the first time they had worked together, and Hey discovered in Bowie not only an artist who brought a strong, consistent vision to the studio but also a musician eager to collaborate: "He was excited to see what other people would do with his work. It was almost like a ball game with him. He would throw the ball up in the air and see what you were going to do with it."

The sessions that led to The Next Day were so productive and so fulfilling for Bowie that they continued past the March 2013 release of the album, resulting in nearly another record's worth of music that was released on various deluxe versions of The Next Day. During downtime in the studio, Hey and Bowie talked some about Bowie's fallow period. "I think he just didn't feel inspired to write," says Hey. "It wasn't of interest to him. He was enjoying living, and I don't think anyone can necessarily fault him for it."

Interest and inspiration clearly had returned in force. In the fall of 2014, Hey received an email "from David's people" asking if he could set aside a week to meet with Bowie on another secret project. It turned out to be Lazarus.

Bowie had bought the stage rights to The Man Who Fell to Earth in 2005, but it wasn't until 2013 that he got the project rolling in earnest. A producer friend introduced him to Irish playwright Enda Walsh, a Tony winner a year earlier for writing the book to the musical Once. Together they began to flesh out Bowie's four-page treatment for a musical sequel — visiting the hero, Thomas Newton, 30 years later, still stranded on Earth, living on gin and Twinkies in a New York loft and confronting the downside of immortality.

By the spring of 2014, things had progressed to the point that a director was needed, but Bowie was adamant that Lazarus be nothing like a conventional jukebox musical. One candidate was Ivo van Hove, an Amsterdam-based director known for innovative visual shows who then was represented on the West End by his revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, which later moved to Broadway.

As it happens, van Hove is a passionate Bowie fan; he had traveled to New York in 1980, when he was 19, to see Bowie on Broadway in The Elephant Man. Bowie's producer, Robert Fox, whom van Hove previously had met, first reached out regarding Lazarus. "I got this email from Robert, pretty short, like, would you be interested in a project with David Bowie?" says van Hove. "I thought sincerely that someone was making a joke. So I let it sit in my email for a few days. Then, without any enthusiasm, I wrote, 'Well, of course, we can talk about it.' Robert immediately called me, and I said, 'Robert, is this real?' He said, 'Yes. David would like to meet you.' "

Three weeks later, van Hove flew to New York for a Saturday morning meeting at Bowie's place on Lafayette Street. Bowie declined to reveal much about the project — not exactly coy in van Hove's telling, maybe more cryptic or elliptical.

Three weeks later, with Bowie apparently having approved of him, van Hove was back downtown, sitting with Bowie and Walsh but still in the dark. "That was the most scary moment for me in the whole process," admits van Hove. "They didn't give the script to me the day before. It was just there on the table, and then they started to read it" — aloud, the full first act, with Bowie playing all the characters. "Of course," says van Hove, "I knew that they would ask afterward, 'What do you think?' What if I hated it?" Happily, he didn't.

•••

Partly at Van Hove's urging, Bowie would write four new songs specifically for Lazarus, including the title song, which helps establish the hero's anguish as he seeks the transcendence of death while being unable to die literally. The tune, which also appears on Blackstar, features a melancholy saxophone line and lyrics that begin, "Look up here, I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen/I've got drama, can't be stolen/Everybody knows me now."

Those songs were just a small part of Bowie's output that year. In April, jazz composer and bandleader Maria Schneider got an "out of the blue" Facebook message from someone in Bowie's office asking if she would be interested in collaborating with him. The two had a tenuous connection. "Years ago, he had come to see my band," says Schneider. "I didn't see him, but everyone else did." When they first met, she says, "he knew I was very scared. He just encouraged me. He said, 'If the plane goes down, no one gets hurt. Everybody walks away.' He just laughed."

Bowie, Schneider learned, was a lifelong jazz fan, an aficionado in particular of arranger Gil Evans, with whom Schneider had worked early in her career. Bowie would bring Schneider an unfinished song, and they'd sit side by side at the piano in her apartment bouncing ideas off each other as they developed what became "Sue (or in a Season of Crime)." The version recorded with Schneider's orchestra — another would be cut during the Blackstar sessions — is a long, complex song with a brooding instrumental passage and lyrics that suggest a murder ballad as filtered through Bowie's often splintering sensibility.

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin is a member of Schneider's group and leads his own quartet. He recalls that it took something like six hours in the studio to get an instrumental track for "Sue" that everyone liked. "At that point, David put down a scratch vocal," says McCaslin, referring to the quick take a singer often will do to ensure the track's timing and arrangement work before later returning to record a more polished vocal. "What was amazing about that was, I don't remember him doing any vocal warmup. He sang a few notes, like 30 seconds for a mic check, and then did a scratch vocal from start to finish." Bowie was 67 at the time, an age when most singers need to coddle their larynxes, and near the end of an already long day. "That was a tour de force vocally," continues McCaslin. " 'Sue' was almost nine minutes long!" More impressive, that scratch vocal ended up on the finished version, released as a track for Bowie's 2014 career retrospective, Nothing Has Changed.

Even before "Sue" was recorded, Bowie had told Schneider he wanted to collaborate further, but she was committed to making her own album. She suggested he work with McCaslin's quartet, and she brought Bowie to see the group at 55 Bar, a basement jazz club in Greenwich Village. "I saw him out of the corner of my eye," recalls McCaslin. "I tried to stay focused on the music, but I knew there could be some kind of interesting outcome of him hearing us live." Indeed, Bowie was impressed, and not long after they finally met at the "Sue" sessions, Bowie sent McCaslin an email proposing they record "two or three" songs together.

•••

During the summer of 2014, with Lazarus underway and Blackstar beginning to take shape, Bowie was found to have cancer. (The diagnosis reportedly was liver cancer, although his family has not confirmed this.) Whatever the initial prognosis, Bowie kept working, telling few people about his illness. One person who did know was Visconti, who, when he first heard Bowie's demos for the Blackstar songs, told his friend (according to the producer's interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year): "You canny bastard. You're writing a farewell album." Bowie just laughed. (Visconti politely declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Hey says that when he began working with Bowie on arrangements for Lazarus' songs, he was "necessarily" told about the illness. "He never let it define him," says Hey. "Even when he was not feeling 100 percent, he kept a beautiful humanity about him."

Van Hove learned about the cancer later that fall, the day before launching a workshop of the still-evolving Lazarus. The director and his creative team had been expecting to meet in person with Bowie to go over plans. "But then he wasn't there," says van Hove. "He was on Skype, and he was clearly sick. Then he told us. I was blown away. I don't think I uttered two words because it was totally unexpected. But did it influence the work? No. Because I felt from the first time I met him that this project was for him very urgent and very important. Of course, it then became even more urgent to tell that story, to finish it, hopefully with him alive."

Bowie had lost all his hair from chemotherapy when sessions for Blackstar began in January 2015. He asked the band to keep his secret, a request they honored. "Whatever he was going through healthwise had no effect on his performance," says McCaslin. "He was totally on point from start to finish. I was struck by how, when he walked into the studio, he was really just present, enjoying the process. After that first rehearsal, he sent me the funniest email. He said, 'I haven't had this much fun since my heart attack.' "

•••

By Visconti's account, Bowie's cancer had gone into remission by the middle of 2015. "Don't celebrate too quickly," Bowie reportedly said, hedging his bet.

Rehearsals for Lazarus began that fall. Bowie, says van Hove, went out of his way to make the cast comfortable. A highlight of the production was Milioti's rendition of "Changes," which begins slowly and regretfully, almost like a Billie Holiday ballad, before building to a cathartic angry finish. "The first time I sang 'Changes' in front of him, I actually didn't know he was in the room because I didn't have my glasses on," says the longtime Bowie fan. "He sort of crept in while I was singing it."

But if he didn't often assert himself, Bowie enjoyed the process and camaraderie, sometimes hanging out with cast and crew long after formal work had ended. Hey recalls an early run-through of the show when, after the band finished, Hey asked Bowie, "Is everything OK? Would you like anything else?" "Yes," replied Bowie. "I think I'd like a sing." He and the band then performed the song "Lazarus" together.

By November, however, Bowie's cancer had returned. "No one from the cast knew anything because he only came when he was feeling well," says van Hove. "But I could see, when he looked at me, in his eyes there was really a troubled man, anxious about dying and also about leaving a family behind. You could see a heartbroken man in his eyes, if you knew it."

Bowie attended the Lazarus premiere Dec. 7, taking an onstage bow with a big smile on his face, but he was "very fragile," according to van Hove, and didn't have the energy to attend the opening-night party. A little more than a month later, he was dead, and the stunned cast was assembling to record their album.

"There was no better way to get through that day," says Milioti. "We all held hands and curled up on the couch in the recording studio. I think all of us just cried, all day. It was so hard to sing those songs. And yet it was so intense and beautiful because it just felt like we were celebrating him."

There also were eight more days of performances to confront. The cast reassembled the night after the album had been recorded for its first performance following Bowie's death. "We could barely get through that show," recalls Milioti. "I was crying throughout the entire thing. It was just very intense. But it was the energy in the audience as well. There was this sense of every audience member sitting on the edge of their seats and asking for an explanation. It was like nothing I've ever experienced."

McCaslin's quartet was scheduled to open a weeklong stand at the Village Vanguard — its first at New York's venerated jazz club — on the 19th, the night before Lazarus' final performance. It was a gig meant to celebrate the group's contribution to Blackstar, but it now took on a more elegiac aura. As a tribute, they performed the Bowie song "Warszawa" (co-written with Brian Eno) during every set. You can hear a powerful, mournful, deeply felt take that grew out of those performances on McCaslin's recently released album, Beyond Now.

The saxophonist says there is at least one great song from the Blackstar sessions that has yet to surface. According to Visconti, only a week before Bowie's death, the performer had FaceTimed him and said he was eager to make at least one more album, sending along demos of five new songs. Hey, when asked whether he has heard the demos or can even confirm their existence, says he hasn't and can't but that the existence of new songs wouldn't surprise him. "David was always creating," he says, then adds, balancing Bowie's near-decade of silence against his outpouring of work over the past four years, "That's a pretty good trade-off."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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