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
“Lazarus” by David Bowie
In The Book of John, Lazarus of Bethany becomes ill and dies. His sister Mary visits Jesus Christ and tells him “Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died”. Jesus (who is clearly a Stone Roses fan) tells her “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again.” This response should not come as a shock to anyone familiar with Christ’s work but what is interesting is Mary’s accusation. Why would Jesus not help the man the Bible refers to as “the one (Jesus) love(d)”? If the Bible is a book of lessons that we are to learn from, what the hell are we supposed to do with that? What is the lesson here? 2016 came to an end at 12:00 this morning. It was a year that saw people searching for meaning. People brought to their knees asking why no one was there for them. No one representing our best interests. Like Mary, we demanded to know why we were left twisting in the wind like Lazarus of Bethany.
2016 was an extremely tough year. Personally, I suffered more than my fair share of heartbreak. As a patron of the arts, it watched so many talented and influential artists die. This is not about that. This is not a laundry list of famous names who died in 2016. This is not a semi-comic/semi-serious assault on the last 365 days. This is not 2016 personified as a person where it is blamed for everything. 2016 cannot be reduced. It was a complicated year. It was a year that took all of the fear and neurosis that most people carry around like the rock of Sisyphus and placed it under a very public microscope where we tried to make sense of it all. Looking back, so much went down that to try and understand everything that happened seems insurmountable. For me, the best way to look at the past year is to try and make sense of it by examining two albums that came out in 2016 and dealt with all of the good and bad that was: David Bowie’s Blackstar and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.
“Where The Fuck Did Monday Go?”
I was able to hear Blackstar when it leaked online during the last week of 2015. I was immediately struck by Bowie’s vocals on the title track. It sounded like incantation. The chanting, the imagery of the “solitary candle” and the significance of the Black Star which in physics, refers to the “transitional phase created when a … star has died” and “has been transformed into something else altogether”. Sublimation can sum up Bowie’s entire career. This is the guy who, on stage, killed off one of his most famous creations only to come back and redefine what we now call Blue Eyed Soul. The Thin White Duke was never content with being one thing to one group of people. He is the epitome of artist-as-shark. Never stop moving. Never die. Blackstar represented an exciting new chapter in his discography. I thought nothing about the heady lyrics. I assumed it was just Bowie being Bowie. After the second or third listen, I even thought out loud “geez, whatever character he is taking on for this record is dealing with some profound shit. How great would it be if he went on tour?”
Ten days into the new year, David Bowie was dead and Blackstar became something entirely different altogether. It felt dark and heavy. In the span of a week each song on the record became something else. The song “Lazarus”, in particular, wasn’t just a song about dying, it was a song about David Bowie dying. The artist dying, looking back on his legacy and then trying to come to terms with what was staring him right in the face. This is not something new or groundbreaking. Many artists have attempted this while coming to terms with their own mortality but what separates the song “Lazarus” from the flock is that Bowie does not make it easy for the listener. He doesn’t not look at death with rose coloured glasses. He looks at death the way any of us would. There is a fear and anger and that makes his acceptance of it all feel way too real. Bowie speaks about feelings of “danger” He feels “so high it makes” his” brain whirl”. It was this lyric in particular that killed me. It is derivative of a lyric in the song “Five Years” when Bowie as narrator says that his “brain hurts a lot” upon hearing the news that the world will end in five years. 2016 had the feeling to me. There were times where I felt that the world could end at any moment. Everything seemed to be just off kilter. On the the song “Backstar”, the song shifts its time signatures creating an undercurrent of unease. In 2016, there was a perpetual undercurrent of unease.
Considering that he was an artist who was always ahead of the curve, his death proved different. 10 days into the new year, his death set a tone for the year and that came right through the speakers. As Bowie was staring down his own mortality, he knew something was not right. Through the perspective of dying, he can see that everything that holds us together was unravelling. And in the only way he knew possible, he tried to warn us. Some of us listened. Some of us hoped he was wrong.
I found out that he died on a Monday and as I spent the day walking into walls, one lyric from the record kept ringing through my head: “Where the fuck did Monday go?” If only I knew then what I know now: 2016 would be a whole year of Mondays.
“This Is A God Dream”
Kanye West’s seventh studio album The Life of Pablo begins with the sample of four-year-old Natalie Green proclaiming “we don’t want no devils in the house”. This was sampled from an Instagram post where she prays for her family before they leave on a trip to Atlanta. This the first thing that the listener hears on the record. It is not West’s voice nor is it his production. It is a four-year-old African American girl praying for the safe return of her family because 2016 was a year where people needed to be reminded that Black Lives Matter. This sample sets the tone for The Life of Pablo. Kanye West is an artist who may not wear his politics on his sleeve like some of his contemporaries but even Kanye could not let certain things slide in 2016.
At its centre, The Life of Pablo is about struggle. Kanye West may be the most famous person in the world. Kanye West is most definitely a megalomaniac but he speaks to some very universal themes. He struggles with wanting be a good person. Now he is a father and a husband. And being a father and a husband means he has so much more to lose and that is part of the struggle that he deals with on The Life of Pablo. He wrestles with fear. The fear of not being able to protect his family.
And there is no shortage of impending danger on Pablo. Whether it is being “surrounded by the fucking wolves” which a direct reference to The Gospel of Matthew which warns; “Watch out for false prophets. They come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” How do we protect the ones we love? How does one maintain honesty in dishonest times? How do we create a legacy when everything around us is so disposable? The Life of Pablo is one big rhetorical question. At the end of the day, we know Kanye far too well demand answers from him.
The Life of Pablo is more than a Hip Hop record. It is a gospel record that spends the majority of its runtime dealing with faith. Where do we find faith and if we are lucky enough to find it, how do we hold onto it? The first song on Pablo “Ultralight Beam” addresses this head on. Once again, when it comes to Kanye, it is no quarter asked and no quarter given. He plainly states, “I’m trying to keep my faith but I’m looking for more. Somewhere I can feel safe and end my holy war”. The key word in that lyric is the “my”. Kanye wants to end his “holy war”. Kanye does not speak for anybody but Kanye. He doesn’t pretend to. That is what makes him successful. He is an artist who is honest. He speaks for himself because he doesn’t know how to speak for anyone else. He does not take on characters like David Bowie did. Kanye West is a character in and of himself. But through his selfish and psychotherapeutic approach to making and releasing records, he speaks in the universal, which broken down to its simple truth, speaks for all of us. Kanye West released an album that felt like 2016: Songs that ended abruptly, songs about searching for redemption and then making outlandish statements that make him irredeemable. TLOP is about the duality of man. People tend to enthral and then disappoint. For all of the controversy that came as a result of West name checking Taylor Swift in the song “Famous”, the song opens with Rihanna (one West’s many femAle conduits) singing a lyric originally sung by Nina Simone (another conduit for West), “man, I can understand how hard it might be to love a girl like me”. This tells us everything we need to know about Kanye West. He is difficult to love but he is living in the same fucked up times that we are and at the end of the day, he is “trying to keep his faith” while “searching for more” and that is every single one of us. Holding on for dear life.
So what does this mean for the rest of us who have to live in the world? David Bowie has departed and Kanye West is flies in private jets. I guess our only upshot is that we get to wake up to a 2017. We get a brand new start. As each year rolls into the next we are promised a new beginning. A do over. A mulligan. A chance to rise from the ashes, shake off the embers of the previous year and start anew. In the song “Lazarus”, Bowie leaves us with the image of “that Bluebird”. A symbol of freedom where anything, including rebirth, is possible. At the end of the day, isn’t that all that anybody wants? I sure hope so because 2016 left us with very little wiggle room.
Brian Foster is a founding member of Suitcase In Point Theatre Company where he is a contributing writer and performer.