As the one-year anniversary of David Bowie’s death from cancer approaches, Hollywood Reporter reached out to various collaborators on the pop icon’s off-Broadway show “Lazarus” and final two albums, gathering accounts of the artist’s final days, which he spent honing his last releases in a flurry of creative energy.
“He was excited to see what other people would do with his work,” says Henry Hey, the musical director of the show. He met Bowie in 2012 after legendary producer Tony Visconti asked if he’d be available for a “hush-hush” project, which became 2013’s The Next Day, Bowie’s penultimate album.
“It was almost like a ball game with him,” Hey says. “He would throw the ball up in the air and see what you were going to do with it.”
“Years ago, he had come to see my band,” says jazz composer Maria Schneider, who helped arrange several songs on Blackstar, Bowie’s final album. “I didn’t see him, but everyone else did.”
“He knew I was very scared [to meet him]. He just encouraged me. He said, ‘If the plane goes down, no one gets hurt. Everyone walks away.’ He just laughed.”
While working on the instrumental backdrop for “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime),” saxophonist Donna McCaslin remembers it took about six hours in the studio to finally get a version that everybody liked.
“At that point, David put down a scratch vocal,” he says. “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. That was a tour de force vocally… ‘Sue was almost nine minutes long!”
(That scratch vocal can be heard on Bowie’s 2014 career retrospective, Nothing Has Changed.)
“He never let [the cancer diagnosis] define him,” Hey says, who was told “necessarily” about the illness. “Even when he was not feeling 100 percent, he kept a beautiful humanity about him.”
Director Ivo van Hove learned about the cancer the day before launching a workshop of Lazarus, during which he’d expected to finally meet Bowie.
“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.”
“Whatever he was going through healthwise had no effect on his performance,” McCaslin says. “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.'”
“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.”
McCaslin also hints that there is at least one brilliant song from the Blackstar sessions that has yet to see the light of day.
Tony Visconti reportedly told her that Bowie had FaceTimed him a week before his death, telling him that he was highly keen on creating one last album and sending along demos of five new songs.
Hey hasn’t heard these demos and can’t confirm they even exist, but he wouldn’t be surprised if there was still plenty of material to hear.
“David was always creating,” he says. He says that following almost a decade with four years of constant creativity was, in the end, “a pretty good trade-off.”
Watch the video for David Bowie’s “Lazarus” here: