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David Bowie gains immortality with Lazarus, the boldest character of his career

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

"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."
— David Bowie, "Lazarus," Jan. 8, 2016

It's a rare thing to be immortal. So many attempt to scratch their names into the history books so that generations beyond theirs will know their name, but only a few manage to pull it off.

David Bowie was concerned about his immortality. You could say he spent his entire life securing it. Over a career that spanned more than 40 years and 25 albums, ranging in everything from otherworldly art-rock to pop to soul to jazz, always while being on the edge of the avant garde, he refused to be pinned down. A huge part of his allure was that he went so far as to create as many characters as he did albums — Bowie’s admitted to being an actor first, a singer second — never giving fans a chance to grow tired of him.

The shaggy-haired and innocent-looking folk singer who debuted in 1967 would morph into countless characters, each one iconic on its own. There was Major Tom, the hedonist astronaut who served to truly introduce Bowie to the world. Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous everyhuman with the iconic lightning bolt on his face, drastic red hair and one-legged unitards, which led to Aladdin Sane, a pun on "a lad insane." The Thin White Duke followed, a sexually liberated sartorialist and emaciated, drug-dependent rock star. But it’s his most recent character, Lazarus, who will stand as Bowie's greatest creation, the ultimate artistic expression from beyond the grave.

"His death was no different from his life — a work of art," longtime producer Tony Visconti posted to Facebook. "He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry."

Blackstar was released mere days before his death at the age of 69, following a year-and-a-half long battle with cancer. It took all of us by surprise, but Bowie knew it was coming. On his album, we hear the artist staring down his deathbed, reflecting on his life, but also ruminating on his future. His immortality.

"Something happened on the day he died," he sings on the title track. "Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ somebody else took his place, and bravely cried, I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar."

Bowie thrived on surprise. In 2013, after a 10-year hiatus, he released The Next Day on his 66th birthday, shocking a world that was convinced it would never hear from the man again. He even managed to keep it from his own people, who admitted they "were as shocked as everyone else."

"The only thing that shocks now is an extreme," Bowie told Playboymagazine in 1979, articulating what would become the blueprint for his career. "Unless you do that, nobody will pay attention to you. Not for long. You have to hit them on the head."

Bowie, however, saved the biggest shock for the very end, releasingBlackstar, an experimental free jazz/art-rock album that astounded fans and critics and doubled as a requiem on his own life. As a testament to his inimitable vision, Bowie not only managed to hide his sickness from the world, but he convinced us all that he would live forever. In a way he will. Four days after the album's release, his body would leave this Earth behind, but Bowie could rest peacefully knowing that his final artistic vision would be the grandest statement he could ever make. 

Viewed in this light, the video for "Lazarus" is as chilling as it is genius. It opens with a blindfolded Bowie in a hospital bed, writhing in pain before elevating above it. Then, the man’s spirit, reborn, rises like Lazarus and begins to frantically scribble his parting words onto paper. Dressed in a black jumper with white diagonal stripes, it ends with the man backing into a coffin-like wardrobe and closing the door.

"Oh I’ll be free," he sings. "Just like that bluebird. Oh I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me."

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG