Over the past few months, after being given a new novel about Bowie’s life to review for The Collidescope (at which a portion of this post was published a few weeks ago, “Freedom in the Realms of Eccentricity“), I dove headfirst back into the world of one of my favorite artists of all time. David Bowie left us seven years ago, leaving us with Blackstar and Lazarus – two works of art that were clearly meant to be his swan song. His memory is as fresh as it’s always been, however. In the few thousand words that follow, explore with me what I have watched and read, and reflect on the life of a man that his fandom holds so dear. In film, in text, in sonic explosion, a great man jumped into great works and words that hold a mirror to our lives, whether we were ready to see or not, that couldn’t be polished by anyone else.
Walter Tevis’ THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is an exploratory novel that first creates the enigmatic, alien character of Thomas Jerome Newton. It is an interesting allegory that is at the uniquely American identity: otherness, the American Dream, consumerism, alcoholism, the inability to truly know another person, and our obsession with controlling others even when it is apparent through the thinnest veneer that it is unhealthy and damaging to them, money, family, and so much more.
The novel follows Newton through his time on Earth, one that begins with a last-ditch effort to save his planet and family by harvesting water or finding a new place for them to live after a war that happened some time ago… On Earth, Newton finds his existence to be relatively easy free from the demands of money and power. But what happens to a man without a care in the world for earthly necessities as he becomes wrapped up in the spectacle of what essentially makes us American – and human. The carefree days devolve into studying us as a species, as he is a self-admitted expert in the field of Earth scholarship, but he can finally tune in (no pun intended) to the sexual, psychoaddictive stimuli we surround ourselves with and equally distract us from the true avenues and paths we want to walk. To Newton, money is no object, throwing it at failing spaceships and passion projects in which he has little emotional investment much like Elon Musk. He recognizes the futility of building such an empire; all that’s left is the sensory. Of course, the government gets interested, and it turns out no one understands him whatsoever; everyone is willing to go to some brutal lengths to try to figure him out with disastrous effects. And he languishes here, unable to die, knowing his family and home planet are dead. All that’s left are empty bottles and his humanoid suit stuck to him forever because we never asked and didn’t care what he said.
It is a beautiful book, and while Tevis wasn’t around to give us much more than six novels and perhaps four times as many short stories, his work has a magnetism and energy that have all leant themselves to what seem to be endless adaptations in film and music. His work is deeply personal, deeply human, and incredibly structured around the same general motifs. While the stories take other forms throughout his career, the understanding that perhaps we weren’t meant to live the lives we do has never seemed more relevant than they do now.
I hope his work becomes antiquated at some point, only because I wish life wasn’t this way. The Man Who Fell To Earth is easily a parable for the ways in which society truly shackles us to the normalcy and conventions of the past – a past that used these same conventions to manipulate and control the masses but is now a relic of a system of social expectations deeply rooted in oppression for all but the powerful who reap the benefits of it. The Man Who Fell To Earth evoked a great familiarity in me, one of a series of interactions that seem to be entirely based on the need to conform when conformity leads to control and needless lonely suffering. This is ultimately a novel of loneliness and coping with the differences between internal wants and needs when the external life doesn’t compromise. Perpetuating it leads to self-destruction, whether it is apparent or not, and we all lose sight of what was important to us all along, since childhood. The core of who and what we are, as alien to others as it may be. As a semi-pulp author whose books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Tevis’ work doesn’t impress in its volume or vociferousness but spellbinds in its structure, humanity, and tragedy.
“Age doesn’t bother me. So many of my heroes were older guys. It’s the lack of years left that weighs far heavier on me than the age that I am.”
Nicholas Roeg’s THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, Criterion spine number 304 and number 629 on 1001 Films To See Before You Die, is the film adaptation of Tevis’ novel. It is one of the first things that Bowie did as an actor and reflects his dedication to the otherworldly character of Newton that followed him for the rest of his career. Interestingly, Bowie wasn’t even the first person to be considered for the role. Peter O’Toole and Michael Chrichton were rumored to be considered. But it’s arguable that this film would not have been nearly the same if not for Bowie and Roeg’s involvement.
For the most part, the film follows the book almost exactly save for some of the more artistic and disorienting cinematic choices throughout. These choices lend a hypnotic and strange atmosphere to a piece that is already relatively enigmatic. From shots of the otherworldly planet of Newton’s origin and the slow, ignored death of his wife and children, to the paint-soaked, at times terrifying flying sexual moments between Newton and his sexual conquests, to the wastelands and mod architecture that present the dichotomy of our internal and external American identity, there Is much to be enjoyed while watching this film as it completely transports you to a nineteen-seventies version of the future we are living in. Tevis’ reflection of consumerism, in media, material, and drugs is on full display and magnified in the hands of Roeg… and interestingly there is a slant-reality in what we are seeing. Documentaries included in the Criterion edition mention a relentless cocaine addiction that practically paralyzed Bowie throughout filming along with explanations of remarkably inventive jury-rigging of sets and costumes to create effects that were as convincing as they were cheap-last-minute-improvisations using cups and tablecloths from the craft services table. It is simply a great film to watch and works as something to break apart for its inventive use of atmosphere and cinematography, watch with a strict eye toward story and performance, watch on a Friday night with a bucket of popcorn, or simply have on in the background of a party on mute, silently painting its mesmerizing imagery. A great film.
“I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.”
Dan Watters’ THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH graphic novel adaptation was pretty accurate and presented a beautifully and trippily illustrated approach to the film in graphic novel format. This book was not so much based on the book but rather the film where the artist had intentionally emulated their looks, costumes, and settings. It wasn’t a very long book, and I honestly think my favorite part was the way our protagonist was diving deeper and deeper into alcoholism. After the story, there was an excellent essay, concept art, and production photos that took up the last thirty or so pages, which was nice. Probably not revisiting this one but enjoyed it while I spent time with it.
“What I like to do is try to make a difference with the work I do.”
David Bowie and Edna Walsh’s LAZARUS (book and lyrics) is a strange, trippy, confounding play that doesn’t seem to translate well to the stage. Frankly, I understood it, but didn’t quite understand why it exists. This play, a strange sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth, is only manipulatively beautiful for fans of Bowie. In a manner, it is somewhat of a jukebox feverdream that came out just before BLACK STAR was released – in fact, the cast recording began the day we all learned of Bowie’s death which adds this strange, haunting, and mournful angle to the cast recording. Now, it is important to note that I experienced this in a particular order… First, I read the book and lyrics (published by TCG). This sort of separated my experience of the story from being tainted or influenced by the performances or the cast recording – two things that would have easily emotionally swayed my opinion. Having started there, this piece is bizarre and surreal, but I am not sure I mean that in a cohesive, good way. Entering the story with a knowledge of The Man Who Fell To Earth helps, but otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The characters come and go with seemingly no motivation or connection. Thematically this is part of the story of Newton being a strange man stuck on a strange planet, but there is a lot of legwork and missing pieces the audience needs to supply to the story that is glued together by some songs that are inarguably masterpieces… And I think that is where this goes wrong. We get a bowie concert with high emotion but no substance as far as the plot goes. Is anyone to blame for this? Well, let’s listen to the cast album and a ticketed stream of the live show on the internet, shall we?
“I’m always amazed that people take what I say seriously. I don’t even take what I am seriously.”
THE CAST RECORDING OF LAZARUS and IVO VAN HOWE’S STAGED PERFORMANCE OF LAZARUS
Of course, after reading the script it was time to dive into the cast recordings of the show to see if it made any more sense.
The cast recording ignores much of the script in terms of the spoken elements and skips out on the context of the performances. Is it a great cast album? Yeah, it is. The performances on this recording are raw and important – the cast coincidentally learned on the day of recording that Bowie took his final breaths only hours earlier. I could see this moment and information having a huge impact on the emotion and performances in what they produced in the studio. It is absolutely apparent, and between the performance piece itself and the emotional momentum of the days they spent recording the cast album, one can hear how heavy this moment is that moves the cast so deeper than what would otherwise be a cover album. We hear the grief, the hope, the extraplanetary screaming into the void as we all realize what a gift we lost with the loss of Bowie.
The staged performance I saw was a ticketed streamed show of the original cast filmed at King’s Cross Theater in 2016 (whose proceeds were entirely donated to charity). The run of the US and British versions were short, and revivals remain so with only one upcoming event in Brooklyn next month. Why, with such a score and explosivity from Bowie’s final work to be presented publicly, was it so short-lived? It was likely because the show itself was a video-projection triptych that was confoundingly abstract and far from the lollipop stand work we have come to expect in theatrical productions – in short, Bowie, Walsh, and Van Howe set out to make art, and art is what we got. It is wildly enigmatic and disorienting, all occurring on a stage with a design that looks like it belongs more in the MOMA than presenting a musical. Enter the strange and lost Thomas Jerome Newton, later in his life, navigating being here well after his anticipated departure and just as disoriented as ever.
The performance made the script make a great deal more sense, in fact, it was different from the printed script in many ways as the script was rushed out in hardcover before they even began previews. It isn’t the same show. I found the first half hour grating and disjointed – and as much as I absolutely love Michael C. Hall’s performances every time, there was a strange accent he had at the beginning that seemed to drift away by the end. That seems to be my only complaint, though, because by the time we get to Changes about a third of the way through, the production gets its bearings and I found myself astonished with what happens for the rest of the show. Don’t underestimate the desire to shut it off the first half hour or forty minutes; the payoff, however, presents performances that are incredible, video and stage work that feels magical, and Sophia Anne Caruso really brings some powerful moments to her interactions with the other characters. It seems ahead of its time for both what they were trying to do and the audiences that saw it… and perhaps the point is that it always will be and doesn’t seem to know what it is. Is it a sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth? Is it a jukebox musical? An art installation? A show that even wants an audience there to see it? Something that is making a statement about relationships, abandonment, alienation, alcoholism, mortality, and conflict? Is it a statement about anything or just an experience, like observing a painting in a museum that with a glance you take in, examine, and then quietly leave and accept it for what it is?
I am not sure I have an answer to any of those questions – or whether the piece is successful in doing what it set out to do besides telling a story with unclear boundaries. I really enjoyed it, however. Before watching it, fresh with the sadness of Bowie’s passing, I feared that my enjoyment and experience with it would be hampered by nostalgia rather than objective enjoyment – unearned nostalgia being the only thing I think makes jukebox musicals successful at all… They make no sense on paper despite reinvigorating a love for whatever artist is the flavor of the week on Broadway. But this isn’t a piece like that, and in a lot of ways it stands apart from Bowie and the character of Thomas Jerome Newton… Bowie is inseparable from Newton, but Michael C Hall and Broadway is very much separated from Bowie, and this might be why I thought it was so successful for me… except the first third.
“As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?”
The last eighteen months of David Bowie’s life were an enigma to his fans, his death and hidden diagnosis coming to us just as shockingly as it did to his closest friends, family, and collaborators. As he was aware of his terminal end, he continued to quietly work on his swan songs, Blackstar and Lazarus. Lance Olsen’s ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR is a fictional exploration of Bowie’s consciousness and interactions in his final months reflecting a collage of narrators, including our main narrator Alec Nolans, Bowie’s lovers including Angie Barnett and Iman, fans, and others.
There is no denying that Olsen has his finger directly on the pulse of what made Bowie and his persona so insatiably magnetic. Here, he massages and magnifies the undercurrent of the fully-aware mortality Bowie carried throughout his life, embodying the essence of Walter Tevis’ Thomas Newton (or The Thin White Duke), Ziggy Stardust, and Major Tom. These characters are present in the confounding final days. Bowie is the person who is not quite entirely here, or is all things here at once or has difficulty being anything here at all with the way most of us operate. Did the people around him entirely know him? Who did they know? What resentments and difficulty did they face navigating their relationship with such an internal, private man? Was he of this planet? Born fully compiled? Or did he grow organically from the legendary 400-1500 volume personal library that never left his side?
There are no new revelations or answers to any of this. In fact, Olsen explores the difficulty in loving a person operating so wildly on the outskirts of man. It isn’t fiction to imagine that even those that loved him hated him but loved him even more for not compromising his dedication to living as completely and utterly himself for all his days. Bowie’s final musical Lazarus seems to do this quite well, albeit in a strange feverdream through a mirror of yet another Thomas Newton… what awe there is to live in a world that can somehow divergently adore you and also reject what you are. Olsen shows us those around him analyzing, interpreting, remembering, and crying over a man we all loved, giving us the wake before the funeral. The memories, the stories, the forgiveness, and the absolute catharsis remain in the words of others, and we even get to swim ever so briefly in his whirlwind chemo dreams.
But there was no funeral. Bowie was directly cremated, without anything even resembling a funeral, just as he wished. In many ways, he blasted off into the stars from whence he came. Olsen’s narrators help to bring us into his inner circle in his novel, albeit an extensively researched novel with an extensive bibliography in the acknowledgments at the end. Olsen’s Bowie is everpresent in these pages, grappling with a past that followed him his entire life like a fog hanging over his body in his final breaths, and what words may have been uttered with them, and who was even there to hear them. It is a novel of delicate, surprising mourning for all of us who loved him. We were lucky enough to be alive in the same universe, on the same planet, in the same years to love him, after all.
To experience Always Crashing is to embrace and believe his constant reminders of where he would eventually end up… “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” *
Finally, I read David Bowie’s Bookshelf by John O’Connell and Bowie’s entry into Melville House’s The Last Interview series. O’Connell tasked himself with exploring the top hundred books that Bowie blogged about on his website. Again, Bowie was famously a voluminous reader and legendarily traveled with a giant portable library that contained up to 1400 books at any given time. It is no surprise that writing about the hundred books and contextualizing them in the time they were written, what they contain, and the way in which they contributed to the life and art of such an important person is not only an important task but an enormous one. What’s even cooler is that O’Connell added an additional complimentary selection and musical Bowie accompaniment with each essay. Worth the read – I am going to start chipping away at the surprisingly long list of books I haven’t read yet on the list. Of course, I will be writing about that experience as I go, hoping that some of his magic rubs off on me. The Last Interview is a great book that not only contains the last interview (spoiler: it isn’t even that much of a remarkable one), but also contains his first at only sixteen years old pulling a social experiment prank that the BBC covered, a great interview between Bowie and Alexander McQueen, and several others at various points in his career (including one in essay-form) that show a man who is artistically explosive, interpersonally sound, terribly funny, and honestly the truly great human being he was known to be. He is a normal guy who prioritized his passions and went for it in everything he did. He would just as quickly work with other famous musicians as he would pull in smaller unknown artists simply for the experience, and as such, reflected quite a bit on his humanity, his mistakes, his refusal to compromise, and his overall exploration of everything his one life had to offer. After reading both, I am certain we would have gotten along magnificently, and miss him and his work even more than ever. Watching him step through that door one more time for a visit was a beautiful experience, and as more comes out, I will greedily gobble up whatever I can.
For the moment, the Duke will rest in the stars. We will look up with gratitude that we walked the earth at the same time, in awe and appreciation for the art he brought to us.
* This review of Always Crashing In The Same Car originally appeared at The Collidescope.