Which Lazarus was Bowie really referring to in his mesmerising swan song?

Mysterious: Lazarus artwork. Scraben (via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Death always raises questions. David Bowie’s death, for example, has led to widespread and fevered interpretation of his last album, ★ Blackstar and the recent release of his second single from the album, Lazarus.

Lazarus certainly is an intriguing track. The key image in the video is of Bowie, confined to a bed, his eyes covered by bandages on which buttons have been sown to represent eyes. The man talks as if from the afterlife, exploring his experience, his scars, his fame, but also his inability to communicate – “dropped my cell phone down below”.

Most commentators so far have proposed that the biblical reference is to Lazarus of Bethany, raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11:1-44. Could Bowie be calling for a resurrection, some wondered? A Daily Telegraph article referencing sources close to Bowie claimed: “The title of Lazarus refers to the biblical character who was raised from the dead four days after he died by Jesus.”

In the Independent, meanwhile, Jess Denham offered a longer connection to the resurrected Lazarus, arguing that Bowie was referring to a hoped-for post-mortem resurrection of his musical career – certainly Blackstar is proving a huge commercial success.

But there’s another candidate

In his final months, however, David Bowie also co-wrote a musical – called Lazarus (incidentally, the last account he followed on twitter was also “God”). Rolling Stone’s preview of Lazarus suggests that the play would be an extension of his film The Man Who Fell To Earth, the continued life of the alien named Newton, a character unable to die – wealthy, but soaked in gin and dissolution, rather than one who is somehow resurrected. The subject matter of this Lazarus seems to focus on immortality and desolation rather than resurrection – in fact, resurrection has no part to play in the production.

Again in Rolling Stone, Andy Greene notes that the song, Lazarus, opens the theatre production: “The tune appears to have been written specifically for the play since it’s told from the perspective of a formerly wealthy, lost man living in New York that yearns to fly away, which is essentially the plot of Lazarus.”

But let’s think about that: A former wealthy man, in torment, seeking resolution. Does that really describe the Lazarus of Bethany? In fact, there seems to be little in the play, the video of the song, or the song itself that points us directly to the Lazarus of John 11 – or even to bodily or commercial resurrection. Indeed, the problem in The Man Who Fell To Earth is that Newton cannot die in order to be raised! He appears to remain young despite his miserable – albeit wealthy – plight on Earth and the passing years.

So are we chasing the wrong Lazarus?

Cue: the other Lazarus

BowieWorld’s own messageboard has already queried which Lazarus is being referenced. And there is, indeed, another candidate – for the New Testament has a second Lazarus, the poorer Lazarus of Luke 16:19-31.

This Lazarus lives as a beggar, covered in sores, outside the door of a rich man, waiting for the rich man’s cast-offs and the food he lets drop from his table. He is so poor that dogs lick his sores.

But there’s a twist. Lazarus dies and angels carry him to Abraham’s side, while the rich man dies and finds himself in the afterlife, in torment. A reversal has taken place. The rich man begs Lazarus to go back and warn those left behind to amend their lives in case they too end in torment. Abraham rejects his request, saying that not even someone raised from the dead will convince them to change their ways.

When we look at the lyrics of the first two verses of Bowie’s Lazarus, it is this second story about the beggar Lazarus which seems to be reflected:

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

Look up here, man, I’m in danger

I’ve got nothing left to lose

I’m so high it makes my brain whirl

Dropped my cell phone down below

So could the patient in the Lazarus video, his face covered in grave-clothes in a hospital bed, sheets pulled up to his chin, his eyes covered with bandages and buttons signifying death, be speaking of himself as though he is the rich man after death with “scars that can’t be seen”, “in danger”, with “nothing left to lose”, and no means of communicating to those left behind, “dropped my cell phone down below”.

Perhaps Bowie, like the rich man, wants Lazarus to call us to follow a different path, to rethink what we’re doing down here on Earth.

The Prodigal Son

But there’s more. The third verse reflects neither Luke 16 nor John 11:

By the time I got to New York

I was living like a king

Then I used up all my money

I was looking for your ass

Instead, these lyrics seems to jump back a couple of stories in Luke’s Gospel to Luke 15 and the story of the Prodigal Son – a son who goes to the city and lives like a king, but who loses everything; a son who goes back to his father to find forgiveness and acceptance.

Together, the three verses suggest a sense of longing for a life lived a different way – a questioning of celebrity lifestyle, a realisation that the eternal prospects of the beggar Lazarus were so much better than those of the empty rich man.

Bowie’s Lazarus ends with an anthemic chorus: “Just like that bluebird, I’ll be free” – a line which reminds Tim Jonze in The Guardian of Charles Bukowski’s poem Bluebird about a bird imprisoned within a man’s despondent heart, only released briefly, occasionally, in the night.

Clearly, only Bowie, and perhaps those close to him, will know which Lazarus he really meant. Perhaps, as most commentators are saying, this is a strange and empty reference to the resurrected Lazarus of Bethany. But it might also be a reflection of a closer reading of the stories of Luke 15 and 16. A realisation that wealth and luxury is not all there is to life. A fear of what is to come in the afterlife. A desire for the rest of us to think about our own lives. A hope that even the prodigal might find freedom and acceptance in his father’s house? Whatever the truth, Bowie has left us an intriguing swansong worthy of his extraordinary life.