In his downtime from his recording sessions for Blackstar, David Bowie was working on his off-Broadway musical Lazarus, a sequel of sorts to his cult classic movie The Man Who Fell to Earth where he played the lead Thomas Jerome Newton.
The show opened in New York in December 2015 and this is the only song from the production that is also on the album.
Speaking to the New York Times, the musical's director Ivo van Hove said: "Lazarus focuses on Newton as he remains on Earth, a man unable to die, his head soaked in cheap gin, and haunted by a past love."
Lazarus is a character in the Gospel of John that was restored to life four days after his death by Jesus Christ. It is not clear why Bowie referenced the Biblical name in the song title (the word "Lazarus" doesn't appear in the lyrics). Maybe it is a metaphor for the resurrection of the Thomas Jerome Newton character or possibly Bowie was reflecting on the revival of his own career with the release of 2013's The Next Day after years of self-imposed silence.
New York sax player Donny McCaslin is key to the sound of Lazarus. He recalled to The Sun: "I was listening to the song that's now called 'Lazarus,' which is probably the second or third one we recorded. I remember hearing that 'the sax had a prominent role', which is a line that David had written."
"Hearing him sing it was emotional because I was like, 'Oh my goodness!' There he is and there I am."
The song took on new meaning after Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016, two days after the Blackstar album was released. Bowie had cancer, and apparently knew that his life was coming to an end, indicating that in this song, he was coming to terms with his death. The opening line makes it clear what's on his mind:
Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
Bowie died peacefully, surrounded by family. Perhaps this is his message to loved ones:
This way or no way
You know, I'll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain't that just like me
The day after Bowie's death, his longtime producer Tony Visconti, who worked on the album, issued a statement that read: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."
The video for this song was posted on January 7, 2016 - the day before the album release and three days before Bowie's death. It was directed by Johan Renck, who also did the video for the album's title track
In the "Lazarus" video, Bowie sings from a hospital bed, a wrap covering his eyes. He is also seen standing up, dressed in black, desperately singing his lines. The video ends with Bowie walking into a wardrobe and closing the door behind him. It would be Bowie's final scene.
In the 24 hours following the announcement of David Bowie's death, fans flocked to VEVO and streamed his music videos a total of 51 million times. This song's clip was the most popular, managing to achieve 11.1 million views within the day.
The song debuted at #40 on the Hot 100 in the week following Bowie's death. It was the late English star's first top 40 Hot 100 hit since "Never Let Me Down," which reached #28 in September 1987.
The drummer on the track was Mark Guiliana, who has also played with Meshell Ndegeocello
Guiliana recalled to Modern Drummer
magazine: "I remember that we played a really nice first take—everyone played very musically, but politely. David said something like, 'Great, but now let's really
do it.' He was always pushing us. The version on the record is the next take, where we are all taking a few more chances. The intro didn't exist on his demo, but after the first take we kept playing and Tim (Lefebvre, bass) started playing this beautiful line with the pick, which David liked and thought it would make for a nice into. He was very much in the moment crafting the music."
Johan Renck insists he came up with the video's concept before learning of Bowie's final diagnosis, and the images of the singer in a hospital bed were not meant to clue fans in to his impending death. According to the BBC2 documentary David Bowie: The Last Five Years, Bowie didn't even know the treatments were going to be stopped until they already started filming.
"David said: 'I just want to make it a simple performance video.' I immediately said 'the song is called Lazarus, you should be in the bed,'" Renck explains. "To me it had to do with the biblical aspect of it ... it had nothing to do with him being ill... I found out later that, the week we were shooting, it was when he was told it was over, they were ending treatments and that his illness had won."
On Blackstar, Bowie was doing what he loved most, leading the band on the studio floor and making music. At the beginning of this song, Bowie beckons gently, "Look up here, I'm in heaven."
"He was," insisted Tony Visconti to Mojo. "His human spirit was extremely strong in those last years. And he knew that music was his real strength."