Throughout the autumn of 2014, Enda and David continued to work together. For Robert Fox, it was a question of being patient: “Once they got together, they just got on with it. I just waited. I’m not sure how exactly they worked together and I never asked what they were up to. I knew they were getting along, I would get encouraging emails from David saying he was loving working with Enda and that it was going well.”
For Enda, the work was exhilarating but also “So strange. When I met him in New York that [first] time we started talking then I decided to stay over, for about four days and we met a few more times. Then he said, Listen, this is some music. He gave me 68 [catalogue] songs, maybe more – it must have been more. And he said, Maybe you can come up with a first draft. But while we were working, as the first draft came in, he said, I want to start writing new songs for this. He brought the first one, maybe that was Lazarus.”
As that wonderful first song appeared, and the first draft was completed, Bowie and Robert Fox started to talk about a director. Fox: “It was at that point that I was introduced to Ivo [Van Hove] concerning a film project he wanted to do and I went to meet him at the Young Vic, where he was working on A View From A Bridge. He talked about what he was doing, and immediately I loved what he had to say. When I went to see it I was totally blown away. I was emailing David as soon as I got home to say, This is the guy.”
As so often in David’s life, some crucial decisions were delegated to others. It was Enda who was sent to see A View From A Bridge, to confirm Ivo Van Hove was the right choice. He, too, was “blown away.” When the trio floated the proposition to the Belgian director he told them that, not only had he already used David’s music in his own productions, when he’d first left Belgium, along with partner (and set designer) Jan Versweyveld at the age of 19, they had flown to New York to see Elephant Man. Soon, Ivo was in New York for his first run-through of the reading draft: “It was wonderfully bizarre,” says Walsh. “David read him the first act, playing all the characters.”
Henry Hey, who had played keyboards on The Next Day, was already on-board by this time. He was in contact with David and, it seems, hearing sketches of the new songs even as the first draft was being honed: “David was active from the beginning. He saw the workshop, which happened in November 2014, and he and I got together. I know Enda was working on script revision and Ivo was involved. Michael wasn’t involved at this point. We started working on the music and getting it together. But David, he was always involved. He would put people on a path, see what happens and then maybe come back and see it.”
It was in this time frame, of November 2014 (or December 2014, according to Fox) that he, Ivo and Walsh were made aware of a vital part of the context: “David told us that he wasn’t well. He couldn’t be around for certain parts of the workshop and wanted us to know if he wasn’t around it was because he couldn’t, not because he’s lost interest. That’s when he said, We’ve got to do this. And crack on with it.”
It’s not ghoulish to wonder at what point David knew his illness was terminal. It seems, from Ivo’s published comments, that David’s illness was cancer of the liver. This is a serious disease – the prognosis is generally that about 30 per cent of those with it live five years or more. But that meant, of course, there was a decent chance of survival. Fox seems to suggest that, even before the bulk of the cast were onboard David “knew it was going to happen. But he didn’t know when. He was optimistic the treatment he was having would prolong things.”
The charged nature of the work added force, power to the preparations, especially for the core quartet. But for those who were in close contact with him, like Enda, there was a lightness to the proceedings, too, because, “he is one of the most personable people, so it was always about you, or the project – not about him. So it was way in the back of my mind, because there was so much going on, and he was working on Blackstar too, and still seemed to have this extraordinary energy.”
As far as David being ill, says Enda, “we never discussed that. We discussed the character.” They discussed how a character might change “when he’s pumped with morphine, or when he isn’t. What happens to the brain then. What’s the person feeling, what is the person seeing? We talked about [Dennis Potter’s] The Singing Detective, how when you watch it you are so unsure about what the fuck is going on.”
Yet, while at some times the pair would discuss the nature of consciousness, how the brain would respond in such extreme situations, at other times, their conversations would be funny and silly, Bowie and Coco taking Enda around MOMA, with David commenting on art, or the aesthetics of New York stairwells, in a grating Derek and Clive voice – “he was bloody funny,” says Walsh.
Michael C Hall was, it seems, the first cast member to be recruited, after being checked out by Van Hove in the closing days of his run in the Hedwig and the Angry Inch, probably around January 2015: it was a brilliant decision, for in the play he carves out his own Newton, and somehow steps from loss and self-pity to delivering Bowie songs in an unmannered, effortless baritone. Today, Hall talks about that loaded period with careful precision; but still, I don’t think I’m imagining the watering in his eyes. He credits Bowie with making this intimidating task approachable: “I was so nervous about meeting him. But once he walked in there was just something that gave me permission to relax. He’s magic in a lot of ways.”
Enda Walsh puts it best, perhaps, describing what it’s like to perform David Bowie songs, in front of their creator: “ You need massive balls to do it. But you know, actors. It can be, Fuck it ,I’m gonna do it. Nothing to do with being consciously doing, this is a brave thing to do. It’s simply, of course I’m gonna do it.”
It seems that Ivo went to see Michael sing in one of his last performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which would be around the end of January 2015. Hall knew right from his first discussions that this was something loaded and crucial. “Ivo definitely made a point of indicating to me how important this was for David. Without saying anything about his illness. That was something I knew even without knowing about his illness,just by absorbing his enthusiasm. His gratitude to all of us for bringing us to life.”
Like the others, Henry Hey was given a welcome autonomy, working on the basis that David wanted “a 60s R&B Stax sound, dark and dirty.” The four new songs came gradually as the play took shape, with Enda usually the first to hear them. Hey seems to agree the first was probably Lazarus, which he first heard as a demo. “The song was originally called The Hunger, so I have a demo from before the Blackstar band touched it. This was what our arrangement is based on, so it’s closer to that original. I think it might have been Tony Visconti on the demo, too.” In many cases, the cast worked from demos made by guitarist JJ, Appleton although Hall at one point remembers David reaching into his bag for a CD of his own rendition, “and said, Would this be useful? And I said, Well… yeah!”
All those involved, Henry, Michael, Enda, share their sense of joy at the privilege of being able to hear these works in progress, as new songs like The Plan were slotted in. But in the context of Lazarus, this supremely loaded work, it’s important to stress one thing: David was enjoying himself. Enda: “I think he enjoyed being in the room. He was excited by this mashup, people chatting, then breaking into song, the oddness of it all. I think he… he felt really, really comfortable.”
Thanks to MOJO magazine. All this interview is © Paul Trynka. Please don’t quote without permission or attribution.