Mojo MARCH 2016 - by Tony Visconti


On January 8, promised a new dawn for David Bowie. Thirty-six hours later it had become his monument. In the raw aftermath of his friend's passing, exclusively for Mojo, lifelong lieutenant Tony Visconti recalled a year of inspirational creativity.

I knew about David's cancer for over a year. In January 2015, he called me for a little meeting in his office and it sounded ominous, like I was going to get the sack. He said, "We're just gonna have a little chinwag." So I met him in his office and I noticed that his eyebrows were missing. I thought, Uh oh.

David said, "I have something to show you," and he pulled his woolly hat off and he was completely bald. And he said, "I have cancer..." - and my life has not been the same since that moment.

I choked up in front of him, and he told me not to cry. And I said, "That's impossible..." I was wiping away the tears, but then we spoke very positively about the album we had planned because we were going to start recording it the following day. We were already keeping the album secret but this added an extra burden. It's been hard to live with.

Everyone in the band was wonderful about it, amazed that he wanted to work. But there seemed to be nothing wrong with his energy. He still had that sparkle in his eyes, and when he got in front of the microphone he was belting like he was on-stage at Wembley Arena. I was seeing that energy way into June this year, when we were still doing odd little bits and bobs for the album, and I thought he was going to pull through, and he did actually go into remission. Then in November it came back.

When I read the lyrics to Lazarus and a few other songs, I knew what he was doing. I think it was clear in his mind that this could be his last album. He was putting all those messages in there. Like that first verse of Lazarus - "Look up here, I'm in heaven". I heard that and I smiled. "I know what you're saying David," and he laughed.

Knowing what we knew, we all felt so responsible for making the best album possible. We left no stone unturned. We made it as perfect as we could. David was growing weak as the year went on, but when he was present he was ebullient, couldn't stop smiling, couldn't be happier.

The Beatles changed the game by giving teenagers an identity. It was cool to have your own music and dress the way you wanted. I think David did the same thing for outsider culture. He opened the world for people who hid in the shadows who thought they were different, too different to fit into society. Look at the way society is now. It's much more open and in a large way I think that's down to David's philosophy, his lyrics, his own lifestyle, his own example of how to be different and how to be courageous about being different.

And he was a unique musician. He was an extremely strong melody writer. He would also use odd changes of time signature. Like the three beats that run up to the chorus of All The Young Dudes - that's so him. I think it all came from his broad musical education. He wasn't just a rock'n'roller. He loved Little Richard but he also loved Gerry Mulligan. He had a way of balancing something old and something new. But his something new was always great. And lyrically he's just one of the great rock poets.

But he always worked at it, and he was always challenging himself. When we discussed using Donny McCaslin's band for he said, "Tony, you have to study them. They're way above us!" So we both had to educate ourselves to get up to the level of Donny. Perhaps that's why David sang every single take that the band did live. Because he was learning it. Refining his vocal along with the music. David and Donny's band were hand in glove. They were The Spiders From Jazz.

Last time I spoke to him was about nine days ago. FaceTime on his Mac. He doesn't like phone calls. He likes to turn the camera on and look you in the eye. Quite disarming - you open your iPad and there's David Bowie staring at you. He was still upbeat. He said he was very weak but he was going for new therapy and he was writing new songs and was actually speaking about recording the next album. I think he thought - we all did - that he had more time.