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David Bowie Reportedly Didn’t Know He Was Dying Until After ‘Blackstar’ Was Completed

Bryan Bedder, Getty Images
Bryan Bedder, Getty Images

Throughout the past year, we’ve been under the impression that David Bowie recorded Blackstar with the knowledge that he was dying. However, we now learn that he wasn’t aware that his cancer was terminal until after sessions had concluded.

A documentary called David Bowie: The Last Five Years, which is airing on BBC2 this Saturday (Jan. 7), includes an interview with Johan Renck, who directed the video for “Lazarus.” As recounted in the Guardian, Renck said that Bowie learned his final diagnosis as they were filming, by which time the concept had been determined.

“I found out … the week we were shooting, it was when he was told it was over,” Renck said, “they were ending treatments and that his illness had won.”

The morbid imagery of the video, coupled with the opening lines of “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” prompted speculation that Bowie knew the end was near. But while the lyric may have found Bowie thinking about death as he fought the disease, Renck adds that the video was more about drawing the parallel to the biblical story of Lazarus, whom Jesus brings back from the dead.

“David said, ‘I just want to make it a simple performance video,’” Renck added. “I immediately said, ‘The song is called ‘Lazarus,’ you should be in the bed.’ To me it had to do with the biblical aspect of it. … it had nothing to do with him being ill.”

But the question of when Bowie was first diagnosed with cancer remains a mystery. “I still don’t know if he started making Blackstar before he knew he was ill, or after,” director Francis Whately told the Guardian. “People are so desperate for Blackstar to be this parting gift that Bowie made for the world when he knew he was dying but I think it’s simplistic to think that. There is more ambiguity there than people want to acknowledge. I don’t think he knew he was going to die. However, he must have known there was a chance he wasn’t going to recover, so, to do an album with a certain amount of ambiguity in it, is Bowie playing the cat and mouse game that he always played.”

Still, Francis Whately’s documentary isn’t entirely serious. Pitchfork revealed that, in one scene, longtime producer Tony Visconti plays some studio chatter in which Bowie says, “Little mouse fart,” causing Visconti to burst into laughter.

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