Inside Bowie's last secret project: Aliens, fake-Bob Dylan songs, and Mexican folk music

Pulitzer Prize-winning author recalls his surreal experience working with David Bowie

Inside Bowie's last secret project: Aliens, fake-Bob Dylan songs, and Mexican folk music

Anthony Devlin PA Wire/PA Images

When David Bowie passed away two years ago, fans were left with two major projects to digest - his brilliant final album Blackstar and the off-Broadway hit 'Lazarus.' Both were released with little notice just before his death.

Writing in GQ, American author Michael Cunningham (The Hours, By Nightfall, A Wild Swan) has revealed that he was involved in the first draft of the play which spawned the record.

Sworn to secrecy, he began drafting the musical with the British pop star in the early 00's.

Bowie told him that the concept was a follow-up to The Man Who Fell to Earth - the story of an alien stranded on earth which he immortaised on the silver screen in 1976.

The plot was to centre around, "a stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died" - and David Bowie planned to write these faux-Dylan tracks.

The writer looks back at this period: "As weeks turned into months, I couldn’t entirely shake my sense of him as a member of a species similar to, but slightly different from, mine. It remained difficult, sometimes, for me to concentrate on our work - for me to be a genuine collaborator - in the light of David’s sheer brilliance."

The 'Thin White Duke' had other strange note during the initial meetings discussing the play - Mexican mariachi folk music would feature prominently in the piece.

After months of collaboration the project stalled when the musician suffered a heart attack in 2004.

Mr Cunningham reflects on that period: "The death of a project is often difficult to diagnose. David was so weak for so long. Maybe our ardour cooled over all that time - maybe we lost faith in the lunatic disparities we were trying to render intelligible. Maybe David didn’t want further contact with a reminder of what had become a dark and frightening time."

"Maybe he just didn’t want to tell me that he’d been losing interest even before the illnesses struck, that my sensibility wasn’t quite edgy enough for him. He was the kind of person who’d have had trouble saying something like that."

Cunningham got on with other projects and forgot about the collaboration until he saw a poster for the opening of Lazarus in New York over a decade later.

The musical shares its title with Blackstar's lead single. While it appears to be a reference to the Biblical figure - Mr Cunningham reveals that during his meetings with Bowie he had a lingering interest in the poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote "The New Colossus" - the poem which appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

It particular he was interested in the fact that her verse ("Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses...") has been made immortal while so many other great works of literature have been lost.

The final version of the musical was developed by Bowie with Irish writer Enda Walsh and director Ivo van Hove.

The impressionistic piece did continue the The Man Who Fell to Earth narrative - taking up the story 40 years after the film.

It was an instant sellout and was described by The New York Times as a "great-sounding, great-looking and mind-numbing new musical" in which, "Ice-cold bolts of ecstasy shoot like novas through the glamorous muddle and murk of Lazarus."

Dexter star Michael C. Hall played the staring role.

The play's opening performance on December 7th 2015 was Mr Bowie's last public appearance.

The production featured no mariachi music or fake Bob Dylan songs.