Inside David Bowie’s Final Years
How Bowie stepped away – and came roaring backFeatures, News & Updates January 11, 2017
When the pain hit, David Bowie was singing a song called “Reality.” It was just another concert on a tour that had stretched on a little too long, bringing him to a stiflingly hot arena stage in Prague, on a late-June evening in 2004. “Reality,” the title track to his album of the previous year, was about facing mortality and putting illusions aside, and at age 57, he had been busy doing just that. He was sober, and had finally quit smoking. He was taking medication to lower his cholesterol, working out with a trainer. That night, as usual, he looked agelessly, extraterrestrially great: lean, with longish blond hair spilling onto his unlined forehead, a fluorescent scarf around his neck. But as he stood in the spotlight, yowling lines like “Now my death is more than just a sad song” – a reference to his doomy Ziggy-era renditions of Jacques Brel’s “My Death” – he found himself struggling for breath. Bowie clutched at his shoulder and chest, leaving the song’s final words unsung.
“He looked over his shoulder at me,” recalls bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, “and he was pale, translucent almost. His shirt was drenched. And he was just standing there, not singing. I could see the audience’s expressions in the front row change – from joy to kind of looking concerned.” A bodyguard rushed onstage and helped Bowie off.
He somehow managed to return for a few more songs that night, before seeing a doctor who misdiagnosed him with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, prescribing muscle relaxants. Bowie pushed through one more shaky show at a German festival two days later, ending with the last version of “Ziggy Stardust” he’d ever sing in concert. He hit every note, made it down the stairs leading off the stage, and promptly collapsed. At a local hospital, doctors realized that he had a blocked artery in his heart, and performed emergency surgery.
That night essentially marked the end of David Bowie as a public figure. He never toured again, never gave another in-depth interview. He grew so secretive that he chided one of his closest collaborators, Tony Visconti, for revealing that they watched British comedy during studio breaks. By the time he made his surprise re-emergence in 2013 with his first album in a decade, The Next Day, he had pulled off a feat that no other rock star has quite managed, regaining all of the heady mystique of his breakthrough years, and then some. He was a legend, a living ghost, hiding in plain sight, walking his daughter to school, taking cabs, exercising alongside ordinary humans in workaday gyms in Manhattan and upstate in Woodstock. With his family, he said, he was David Jones, the person he had been before he assumed his stage name. He had, at last, truly fallen to Earth, and he liked what he found there.
His final three years, though, were an extraordinarily fertile period of creativity. In 2014, he began work on another, even better, album, Blackstar, while also helping bring to life an ambitious off-Broadway show, Lazarus, based around his old and new songs. But he had kept one more secret: Bowie maintained focus on these last creations while battling cancer (of the liver, according to one friend). He died on January 10th, two days after the release of Blackstar, and a month after the opening of Lazarus. His passing occasioned the kind of worldwide grief not seen since the deaths of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
Visconti, who knew of Bowie’s illness, noticed the tone of some of the Blackstar lyrics early on. “You canny bastard,” Visconti told him. “You’re writing a farewell album.” Bowie simply laughed. “It’s so inspirational how he lived his last year,” says Visconti, pointing out that Bowie wrote some of his most amusing lyrics (“Man, she punched me like a dude,” “Where the fuck did Monday go?”) while terribly ill. “He kept his sense of humor.”
In the worst moments, Visconti would try to reassure him. “Sometimes he would phone me when he just finished treatment,” he recalls. “He couldn’t talk very loud. He was really pretty messed up, and I would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going to live.'”
“One hopes,” Bowie would shoot back. “Don’t get too excited about that.”
The last weeks of the “Reality” tour had been dark ones. Seven weeks before Bowie’s heart attack, a stagehand suffered a fatal fall from a lighting rig; weeks later, a fan threw a lollipop at the stage, hitting Bowie in his already damaged left eye – an incident he found deeply unsettling. Even before his health issues ended the tour, Bowie told his longtime keyboardist, Mike Garson (the man behind the bonkers “Aladdin Sane” piano solo), that he planned to step back to spend more time with his family: his wife, the supermodel Iman, and daughter Alexandria, born in 2000. (Bowie had raised his other child, Duncan Jones, born in 1971 and now a successful film director, amid the tours, albums, debauchery and persona-switching of the Seventies.) Bowie adored Iman: Touring Japan with his short-lived band Tin Machine in 1992, the year they married, Bowie got what his bandmate Tony Sales describes as “a tattoo of Iman riding on a dolphin on his calf with the serenity prayer underneath it. It was based on a drawing he made.” (Bowie had also begun attending alcohol-abuse recovery meetings with Sales around then.)
“Three-quarters through the Reality tour,” recalls Garson, “he said, ‘You know, Mike, after this tour, I’m just going to be a father and live a normal life. And I’m going to be there for Lexi while she grows up. I missed it the first time.'”
Before the tour, Bowie had told Visconti, his friend and frequent producer, of ambitious plans to follow 2003’s Reality. “We had plans to make three more albums, at least,” says Visconti, who had just renewed his creative partnership with Bowie, beginning with 2002’s Heathen. “We were talking about an electronica album, for instance. And he’d make up a group name. He wanted to have more fun and not have the pressure of releasing another David Bowie album for a while. He said, ‘When I get off tour, we’ll do that.'”
The two men were renting a studio in Philip Glass’ New York complex, and Visconti kept it going for a couple of years after Bowie’s heart attack. Eventually, though, Bowie told him, “I’m going to give up my share. I don’t think I’m going to be using it for a while. I’m gonna take some time off.” He meant it: Bowie wouldn’t begin work on The Next Day until 2010.
In 2005, Bowie briefly re-emerged, playing two short sets over a single week with what was then his favorite new band, Arcade Fire. “I feel great,” he told a reporter during rehearsals. But he would perform only two more times, both in the following year. In May 2006, he paid tribute to a formative influence, Syd Barrett, by joining David Gilmour onstage in London for the Barrett-penned “Arnold Layne” (and, for good measure, “Comfortably Numb”). Six months later, Bowie delivered a three-song performance at a charity gala, backed by Garson, closing his set by dueting with Alicia Keys on “Changes.” It was the last song he ever sang onstage.
Also in ’06, he joined another young band he admired, Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, in the studio, singing harmonies on their song “Province.” His persistent advice to that adventurous group was, according to band member Dave Sitek, “Don’t bend. Stay strange.”
Around that time, Bowie told a reporter who approached him at a party that he was “fed up” with the music industry. “I go for a walk every morning,” he said, “and I watch a ton of movies. One day, I watched three Woody Allen movies in a row. I like going out to [downtown movie theater] the Angelika: If the first one’s only OK, I’ll sneak into one after the other. It’s so easy.” In another brief interview, he said, “I love seeing new theater, I love seeing new bands, art shows, everything. I get everywhere – very quietly and never above 14th Street.” He told a friend that an ingenious trick rendered him invisible in Manhattan: He’d carry a Greek-language newspaper around, aiming to convince any curious onlookers that he was a Greek guy who happened to resemble David Bowie. When he wasn’t surreptitiously taking in culture or hanging out with his family in his modern-art-filled apartment, he was making visual art of his own: painting, sketching with charcoal.
Bowie, Iman and Lexi split their time between the city and Woodstock. He had fallen in love with the “spirituality” of the Catskill Mountains while recording an album at Visconti’s studio there, and ended up purchasing a 64-acre plot of land, intending to build a house. In the meantime, he’d rent a local bed-and-breakfast over the summers, and eventually bought another house nearby, renovating it to add a huge library, according to local lore. “I love mountains,” he said in 2003. “I’m a Capricorn. I was born to be gallivanting on a peak somewhere … I was never a Woodstock-y kind of person, at all, ever. But when I got up there, I flipped at how beautiful it is. There’s a barrenness and sturdiness in the rugged terrain that draws me.”
In 2007, Bowie helped curate New York’s Highline Music Festival, which announced that he would play a “large outdoor concert” as part of the event. When he quietly pulled out, rumors swirled that he was experiencing renewed health problems. But Visconti, for one, says he saw no evidence of that.
“When I met up with David in 2008 or 2009,” he says, “he actually had some weight on him. He was robust. His cheeks were rosy red. He wasn’t sick. He was on medicine for his heart. But it was normal, like a lot of people in their fifties or sixties are on heart medication, and live very long lives. So he was coping with it very, very well.”
Bowie was never a recluse, either. He accompanied Iman to society events, becoming a cheerful, nattily dressed but silent red-carpet presence. He popped up at the 2009 premiere of Duncan Jones’ sci-fi film Moon, standing proudly alongside his son for photos. He made quirky choices for extramusical exploits, including an uproarious 2006 appearance on Ricky Gervais’ Extras, a voice-over for Lexi’s favorite cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants, and roles in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (as inventor Nikola Tesla), in 2006, and in the 2008 indie film August (as a fearsome corporate executive). Though Nolan had to implore him to take the former role, Bowie actually sought out the latter – he had a movie agent actively reading scripts for him. But his offer to act in August came with unusual preconditions. “He would show up, he’d know his lines, he’d do the role,” recalls the film’s director, Austin Chick. “But under no circumstances was I allowed to direct him.” Chick more or less agreed, but Bowie ended up accepting some direction anyway for the tiny part.
By January 2013, Bowie had lulled the world into thinking he had long since retired from music. So when he celebrated his 66th birthday with the out-of-nowhere announcement of his first album in a decade, The Next Day, the response was close to ecstatic. “People were so delighted,” says U2’s Bono, who traded e-mails with Bowie around that time, “and he was so delighted that there was so much interest in it.” For once, Bowie joked to Bono, he wasn’t overshadowed on his birthday by Elvis Presley, also born on January 8th.
The project began with a casual question to Visconti: “How would you like to make some demos?” Bowie wrote 30 or so songs for the album, in wildly different styles, recording at Soho’s Magic Shop studio, around the corner from his apartment building. They’d lay down the basic tracks live, with Bowie playing some guitar.
It was the beginning of what turned into a final flood of productivity. “I can’t stop it,” he wrote in an e-mail to Floria Sigismondi, who directed clever music videos for two Next Day tracks. “It’s coming full force and I’m just creating and creating and creating.”
In March 2013, Bowie visited London, where he brought Iman and Lexi along for an off-hours visit to “David Bowie Is,” a well-received, career-spanning exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum that included everything from his sketches for stage setups to famous costumes to an old coke spoon, all drawn from the Bowie organization’s own extensive, carefully maintained, 75,000-item archives. “We arranged it as a private, self-led family visit,” says exhibit co-curator Victoria Broackes. “They spent a good amount of time there. I think to see it all on show must have been a very unusual experience for him, and quite overwhelming, in a sense.”
During that same London trip, Bowie told an old friend, theater producer Robert Fox, that he was thinking about a musical based on the 1963 book The Man Who Fell to Earth – he had starred in a movie adaptation of it in 1976, and had long been haunted by (and identified with) its main character, stranded alien Thomas Newton: Even the eerie instrumentals on 1977’s Low were in part an attempt to capture Newton’s mentality. Fox hooked Bowie up with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning adaptation of Once. First draft in hand, they recruited avant-garde theater director Ivo van Hove around April 2014. Van Hove was a Bowie fanatic, but he had scheduling issues. “I felt with David, from day one, a huge urgency to do it,” van Hove says. “I wanted to postpone it, and he said, ‘No, no, we have to make it now, it has to happen.'”
By November that year, they were workshopping the show, known as Lazarus. In the show, an older Newton was isolated in his apartment, guzzling gin, heartbroken, calling himself “a dying man who can’t die.” His only salvation comes in the apparition of a 13-year-old girl who helps him believe that he might somehow find a way to some version of home. The little girl revives the jaded, alienated Newton, playing Jesus to his Lazarus. Van Hove acknowledges that “of course it’s not a coincidence” that the character is the same age as Bowie’s daughter was when he wrote it.
As they cast the show, Bowie had the novel experience of hearing his songs sung back to him. When he heard co-star Cristin Milioti, of How I Met Your Mother and Fargo, perform a dark, anguished version of “Changes,” he smiled. “I’m so glad I wrote that song,” he said. As a teenager, Bowie had imagined writing musicals, and he took particular pleasure in seeing Lazarus take shape. “What I always saw in him was the face of a delighted and amazed child,” says James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, which produced the show, “who was seeing something come to life that was unexpected and joyful.”
Bowie was also writing new songs – some of them destined for Lazarus, some for his next album, some for both. In the summer of 2014, Bowie and Visconti had recorded a single song, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, which he released on the greatest-hits comp Nothing Has Changed. It was a jazzy, orchestral epic unlike anything he’d recorded before, and among the featured musicians was jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose eclectic, jazz-schooled band would form the musical core of Bowie’s next album.
When Bowie showed up for Blackstar recording sessions in New York last January, he had no eyebrows, and no hair on his head. He had begun to tell a handful of friends and collaborators that he had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. “He just came fresh from a chemo session,” says Visconti. “And there was no way he could keep it a secret from the band. He told me privately, and I really got choked up when we sat face to face talking about it.” Bowie informed the band members that he was ill and asked them to keep it a secret. It was never discussed again.
“He was so brave and courageous,” says Visconti. “And his energy was still incredible for a man who had cancer. He never showed any fear. He was just all business about making the album.”
The Blackstar sessions were loose and experimental, with Bowie and Visconti taking some inspiration from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which came out after sessions were well underway. Bowie would eat lunch in the studio lounge with the band each day, ordering in from a local sandwich spot called Olive’s. “It was a vibe-y, cozy environment,” says keyboardist Jason Lindner, whose array of vintage sounds helped define Blackstar’s ambience. On his 68th birthday, Iman stopped by with sushi from Nobu, and the band members made him a surprise recording of their outré take on “Happy Birthday.” Muffin, his assistant’s dog, was around a lot, and “always made him smile,” adds Lindner.
In addition to the seven songs on Blackstar and the three extras used in Lazarus, Visconti says there are five strong outtakes, including a Hunky Dory-ish track called “When Things Go Bad.” Visconti expects them to come out soon on a deluxe edition.
All the while, Bowie was undergoing chemo, and at one time, his prognosis seemed bright. “He was optimistic because he was doing the chemo and it was working,” says Visconti, “and at one point in the middle of last year, he was in remission. I was thrilled. And he was a bit apprehensive. He said, ‘Well, don’t celebrate too quickly. For now, I’m in remission, and we’ll see how it goes.’ And he continued the chemotherapy. So I thought he was going to make it.”
But Bowie still embedded enough intimations of mortality into his lyrics – and majesty in the music – that Blackstar seemed very much like a fitting goodbye. “I think he thought if he was going to die, this would be a great way to go,” says Visconti. “This would be a great statement to make.”
Bowie was well aware that Lazarus, too, served that purpose, with its existential themes and its summational use of his entire catalog. But even as he engineered twin artistic departures for David Bowie, he was doing everything he could to stick around as David Jones. “I deeply felt that he really didn’t want to die,” says van Hove. “It was a fight not against death but a fight to live. And living, for him, was being a real family man. He loved to go home, to be at home with his daughter, with his wife, his family.”
Bowie was also working on yet another project: two extraordinary music videos, directed by Johan Renck. The clip for the otherworldly 10-minute-long title track of Blackstar is a complex, cryptic valedictory statement with nods to Aleister Crowley and old Bowie iconography – most blatantly, a long-dead astronaut who may well be Major Tom. The song has distinct sections, and in the video they’re sung by brand-new Bowie personae: the eerie Buttoneyes (Bowie with buttons placed over bandaged eyes); a preacher; and the charismatic, sassy trickster who sings the song’s swaggering middle section: “You’re a flash in the pan/I’m the Great I Am.” Almost all of it began with drawings Bowie sent to Renck.
It was Renck’s idea to film the Buttoneyes character lying in bed for the “Lazarus” video – a setting that now evokes a deathbed. In November, about a month after he shot that video, Bowie’s cancer came back, according to Visconti. This time, doctors told him it was terminal. “It had spread all over his body,” says Visconti, “so there’s no recovering from that.”
Bowie wasn’t feeling well enough to attend previews of Lazarus, but he made it to opening night, enduring a gauntlet of press photographers on his way in, one last time. He had about a month to live, but he told van Hove that it was time to start working on a second musical. At the end of the show, he collapsed backstage, for the second time in a decade.
In those final weeks, he still somehow found time and energy to record demos for five entirely new songs. A week before his death, just before Blackstar’s release, he FaceTimed Visconti and told him he wanted to make one more album, a follow-up to Blackstar.
“I was thrilled,” Visconti says, “and I thought, and he must have thought, that he’d have a few months, at least. So the end must’ve been very rapid. I’m not privy to it. I don’t know exactly, but he must’ve taken ill very quickly after that phone call.”
The news of Bowie’s death surprised even the collaborators who knew of his illness. Others, like the actors in Lazarus, had no idea he was sick. In the first show after Bowie’s death, Michael C. Hall, who plays Newton, was so conscious of his lines’ new resonance that he could barely get them out.
Renck knew that Bowie was ill, but he was unaware that he had taken a turn for the worse. Like other viewers, he’s newly focused on the end of the “Lazarus” video. Bowie, dressed in a Man Who Fell to Earth/Station to Station-era costume – black with diagonal stripes – backs into a wooden wardrobe that resembles a coffin. As the song’s final guitar chord fades, he pulls the door shut behind him and disappears into darkness.
The exit wasn’t Bowie’s idea, but he embraced it. “Somebody on set said, ‘You should end the video by disappearing into the closet,'” says Renck. “And I saw David sort of think about that for a second. Then a big smile came up on his face. And he said something like, ‘Yeah, that will keep them all guessing, won’t it?'”
Additional reporting by David Browne, Patrick Doyle, Andy Greene and Simon Vozick-Levinson.