The “Lazarus” Effect: What We Pay for Artists’ Work After We Love & Lose Them
Full confessional disclaimer: I am an unapologetic David Bowie worshipper. My mantra to fill the gaping hole of Bowie’s death is borrowed from Bowie influencer Bertolt Brecht: “Don’t be afraid of death so much as an inadequate life.” But even I have learned that it’s not worth going broke to demonstrate my devotion.
I’ve found some solace in the global group mourning that manifests on Facebook feeds and tributes, small and massive, across the world. And thanks to the diligence and devotion of my playwright husband Mike, I saw the spectacularly strange “Lazarus” at New York Theatre Workshop last Friday. Mike gifted me tickets as a Christmas present, not knowing how profound and enduring an experience it would become in the wake of massive and shocking loss.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed Wednesday “David Bowie Day.” It coincided with NYTW’s last performance, a benefit planned before Bowie’s death, and ticket prices went unchanged after he died.
Had Mike failed at attaining the holy tickets the minute the very short extended run was announced, I would have objected to paying $2,504 for that performance. Besides my Bowiemania and Mike’s Brechtian tendencies, we’re avid patrons of experimental theater, but we’re not millionaires; it would have been more absurd than the show’s story itself to shell out a small fortune. After paying a babysitter, we’d have been out a minimum of $5,248, and that’s assuming we walked in the below-freezing weather and didn’t eat or drink anything.
I monitored the NYTW website, as the 8:00 p.m. show time neared, watching only seat E3 linger just before 7:00 p.m., awaiting its $2,504 patron. An hour before show time, NYTW posted a message: “We are sorry but this event can no longer be booked online.” It closed its sold out run with a full house of elite benefactors.
For decades, my excessive infatuation knew no cost. As a pre-teen and teen I casually traded a week’s wages from retail and other menial jobs for limited edition boxed sets, picture discs with awkward interviews, and a slew of paraphernalia from gigs, films, and other Bowie endeavors. My best teen job, from before I could legally drive a car, was working at a Massachusetts outpost of the now-defunct Record World Chain during the early years of the CD because I oversaw import orders. Naturally I secured many for my own purchase.
Today, the focal point of my family’s cozy West Village living room is an oversized Italian movie poster for “Furyo,” known to English-speaking audiences as “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” which I bought shortly after the film’s release in 1983. It followed me from childhood bedroom to college dorm and to New York, where it was too big for any wall in a Manhattan apartment I inhabited alone. When my husband Mike learned I had this precious object stowed away, he spared no expense to have it framed in a manner worthy of its value to me.
Our nearly six-year-old son Michael Alexander is well versed in all things Bowie, especially that stunning larger-than-life-size image of Bowie and the great Japanese musician, activist, composer, record producer, writer, singer, pianist, and actor Ryuichi Sakamoto in the “Furyo” promo.
But it was one thing for me to burn through my paychecks as a very young person who hadn’t yet processed abbreviations such as 401(k). Life is different now. In recent years, Mike and I have grown up so much as to open a 529 Plan for our son and modest brokerage accounts.
My husband’s very generous and thoughtful gestures — framing the massive “Furyo” poster, scoring “Lazarus” tickets, and scouring the Internet to find a Beckenham Arts Lab T-shirt — have been greatly appreciated. But they’re gestures, not routine. (Mike ordered the T-shirt weeks ago and had hoped it would arrive before the show. It didn’t. I love it no less, and wore it on David Bowie Day. Besides, I wanted to be sparkly and glam for the bizarre and brilliant theatrical experience, and it evoked more emotion than I’d even anticipated.)
If we had remained ticketless like the majority of the Bowie-adoring masses, I’d rather have waited to see “Lazarus” until it went to London. It would be such an un-Bowie thing to dip into savings to join a benefit intended only to pinch at the coffers of the uber rich. After making a dismal deal in the 1970s, Bowie quickly learned his lesson and became as savvy a businessman as he was diversely talented artist. His innovation helped fuel a legacy that’s generally estimated at $230 million in terms of net worth, and that’s clearly climbed quickly in the days since his death drove his popularity to an all-time high.
I was bummed when the Bank of England rejected a Change.org petition I signed and circulated along with 37,913 other fans asking for Bowie’s image to be placed on the £20 bank note. But as much as I’ve always wanted to see every Bowie show and own myriad paraphernalia, even I didn’t invest in Bowiebanc.com. Sure, I wanted a Bowie ATM card, but I restrained myself. It wasn’t Bowie’s first foray into finance. At 16, I lacked the capital to even consider buying “Bowie bonds” when he offered investors in 1997 a chance to profit from future sales of his back catalog.
While I (sort of) wanted Bowiebanc.com to succeed, I knew it was destined to fail. It’s like that song “Red Money” from “Lodger”, Bowie’s thirteenth studio album, that nobody (else) seems to remember.
Can you hear it fall?
The real value of Bowie is how his art endures. With “Lazarus” the musical, he breathed new life into his old songs, proving that decades of his own discography are timeless and immortal by lending the voices of an immensely talented cast to his words and a live band to re-orchestrate completely new sounds.
And “Lazarus” succeeded at every level: as powerful theater that compels the audience to emote; as a way to help raise funds for NYTW; and to prove that his last days were his most prolific, and that the spirit soars even when the body deteriorates. “Blackstar,” the album Bowie released on his 69th birthday, the day before he died, became his first chart-topping album in the U.S.
“At the centre of it all, at the centre of it all.”
Natasha Gural is an award-winning journalist, storyteller and writer of many things including a novel-in-progress tentatively titled Lubachka, a factual tale of survivor’s guilt based largely on her Russian mother’s early childhood as a prisoner in concentration and labor camps in Poland and Germany. Follow Natasha on Twitter @natashagural.