David Bowie died from liver cancer he kept secret from all but a handful of people, friend says

Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove says he was one of the few people who knew the extent of the singer’s illness

David Bowie managed to keep the scale of his supposed liver cancer secret from all but a handful of people close to him.

Legendary producer Brian Eno – who last worked with Bowie on his 1995 album Outside – paid tribute and revealed the musician emailed him a week ago, in what he now realised was a goodbye message.

“David’s death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him. I feel a huge gap now,” Eno said. “I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. 

“Over the last few years - with him living in New York and me in London - our connection was by email. We signed off with invented names: some of his were Mr Showbiz, Milton Keynes, Rhoda Borrocks and the Duke of Ear.

“[This time] it ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, Brian. They will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’. I realise now he was saying goodbye.”

The singer was last photographed in public at the world premiere of Lazarus, the off-Broadway musical Bowie co-wrote with playwright Enda Walsh and inspired by Walter Tevis’s book The Man Who Fell to Earth, about a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. It was adapted into the 1976 movie starring Bowie. In a rare public appearance on 12 December outside New York’s Theatre Workshop, he happily greeted fans and signed autographs, giving nothing away.

Following news of his death, critics poured over the lyrics from his swansong album Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday last Friday, looking for clues as to whether Bowie realised the end was near. The title itself is associated with breast cancer - a radial scar on a mammogram can give a black star or dark star appearance.

One man who apparently did know the truth was the Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove, who worked with Bowie on the new stage musical

“Bowie was still writing on his deathbed, you could say,” Van Hove told the website, dutchnews.nl. “I saw a man fighting. He fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all. I had incredible respect for that.”

The website quoted van Hove, saying Bowie was suffering from liver cancer and that he was one of the few people who knew about the singer’s illness, after Bowie explained to him why he would not always be able to attend rehearsals. Van Hove was with Bowie at the premiere of Lazarus last month.

“He told me more than one year and three months ago that he had liver cancer, just after he had been told this himself,” Van Hove told another Dutch news website, nos.nl. “He said that because he knew that he may not always be able to be around.”

The video for the song Lazarus, from the new album, shows Bowie trapped in a hospital bed with bandages covering his eyes.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings in perhaps the most poignant of the many songs hinting at the terminal nature of his condition. 

Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti suggested the artist knew for a year that his cancer was incurable, describing Blackstar as his “parting gift”. He added that Bowie had made his death - as he did his life – “a work of art”. 

Rumours of ill-health had been touched on ever since his decade long, temporary retirement, which came after a health scare in 2004 when he collapsed when coming off stage in Germany during his Reality tour. He was flown by helicopter to hospital where he had emergency heart surgery.

Given his rock star excesses – he was a long-time smoker and heavy drug user – Bowie put his health under strain for many years.

When the iconic single Heroes was used as the backdrop throughout the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony and Bowie turned down the chance to appear, the rumour mill began again and the following year there were claims he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

However, Bowie returned with a new album, The Next Day, in 2013 and Visconti said the star was “not dying anytime soon”, but with Bowie refusing to do any interviews, the rumours never really went away.