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Pitchfork JANUARY 14, 2016 - by Jenn Pelly
WHAT IT'S LIKE TO PLAY GUITAR WITH DAVID BOWIE
The story of David Bowie and Carlos Alomar begins in New York. By 1974, the Puerto Rico-born Alomar had become a guitarist in the house band at Harlem's Apollo Theater, playing with James Brown and eventually working as a session musician at RCA. To call Bowie and Alomar musical soulmates seems too fitting. Beginning with Bowie's 1975 "plastic soul" masterpiece Young Americans, Alomar was his rhythm guitarist - he co-wrote Fame - and would become his musical director. Their collaborations spanned over thirty years, with Alomar playing on Station To Station and the Berlin trilogy among many other records. We spoke to Alomar this week about their friendship and his hopes of organizing a tribute to Bowie's groundbreaking electronic music.
Pitchfork: What was your favorite album to work on with David?
Carlos Alomar: I have to go back to the very beginning, and that would be Young Americans. In the lead up to Young Americans, David Bowie leaves Spiders From Mars and comes to America and I meet him during production of the Lulu tracks that he was doing at RCA, where I was the house guitarist. I meet him and we hang out, we really hit it off as people.
Then he tells me he wants to do an album. Well, I was already working with the Main Ingredient, so I couldn't do it. A little while later he calls me back: "I'm doing Diamond Dogs" - but I still can't do it. Then he calls me back: "I'm going to Philadelphia, I need to do this record [Young Americans], come on." And I said, "Well, financially I can't do it" - but he said "no problem."
So here I am. When I tried to ask people about him, nobody knew anything, but I figured "this sounds interesting, he is really a nice guy." For Young Americans he wants the real soul singers, he wants the real deal. I married the real deal, Robin Clark. She's already got all her credits. And my best friend was Luther Vandross, the greatest singer I know. Diane Sumler, Anthony Hinton, Emir Kassan, I got all my friends. And he's like "bring them along."
When you're doing an album and your best friend is there, and your wife is there, and all your buddies are there, and boom, first day, we knock out two songs - that's so cool. Although I had a blast doing Brian Eno and the trilogy [1977's Low and "Heroes", and 1979's Lodger], which really affected my life, I think the best was Young Americans. I really appreciate the fact that there was always a little something funky about David Bowie, and that little something funky is Carlos Alomar. So that's the album that made David understand "Carlos is cool, Carlos can deliver it," and we had so much fun. Young Americans will forever live as the springboard to everything else.
You've said that during those sessions, one night David went out to dinner and you stayed behind, and when he came back you'd pretty much finished Fame. What was it like to receive that kind of trust from him?
It is trust, but it is also courage - that you can leave an individual to his own devices and say "explore and experiment" and think, "It's okay, I'll see what it sounds like when I come back." I mean who the hell does that? It is evident all the way through David's career, this issue of exploring the possibility of mixing genres. There's a perfectly fine rock'n'roll song - well, no, let's throw a wrench, let's throw some discordant guitar and [wrench noises] just mess with that damn song! And everybody loves it, so you keep moving. David Bowie's music is a moving target. Just when you think you got the bullseye, it shifts. And to his credit, on to death, it's still shifting. David Bowie is a moving target, even after he's gone.
What else did you learn about music from working on that album?
In hindsight, we could say a lot of things. For instance, James Brown stole Fame from David Bowie - but did he really steal it from David Bowie? Or did he steal it from Carlos Alomar? [laughs] Because there ain't a funky bone in David Bowie's body that would ever create a song like Fame. I have a lot to be proud of on that record and it was all allowed by David. To think I'd bring my best friend - who had never been on a record, never been in a studio, Luther Vandross - and that David would say, "Hey Luther, go in there and see what it sounds like. I know you were just playing around in the lounge, but I like what you were doing, go see what it sounds like on the record." And when he sings Young Americans and you hear Robin and them all singing, "young American young American he wants the young American alllllright" - that man just discovered Luther Vandross! Just like that.
You ask me - which is the album that has the peaks? The album that was done in less than a month and a half? Which album has the components of a jazz David Sanborn wailing well before all the saxophone players were wailing like that? That's Young Americans. That damn album was never supposed to be done by a blue-eyed soul singer from Britain. It's crazy! And that's the way you launch your career in America? Well, welcome to America, David Bowie.
There's a sense of curiosity that you and David shared. Was there a moment where you felt like you'd witnessed the fullest expression of his curiosity?
Being called in to do the trilogy with Brian Eno was - not only for me, but for all the fans, all the record companies, all the audiophiles, all the musicians - that was a leap of faith. To think that you would say "an album has an A-side and a B-side - and what do you care what I do on my B-side?" If that's the case, there's this new thing called electronic music, watch this. And in one fell swoop, you introduce electronic and ambient music to a general public that is clueless to the advent of a new pop form. It was the advent of a new future for music. And so we have to consider that exploration and experimentation really was the core to the future, and David introduced it to all of us in a palatable form.
He created this atmosphere for me where I walked into the studio thinking the old way, and walked out with a set of tools that I didn't even know what to do with. This goes to the core of things I did with Bowie that changed me forever. When he introduced me to Brian Eno, he introduced me to the concept that you don't have to be a proficient musician. Technology can make it so that if I press this one key or strum this one note, the machines can do everything, if I know how to program them. That is totally - 2050-million, that is so far advanced and yet look at where it is right now. One keyboard can be a full orchestra.
My heart is frozen. I don't know how to deal with his death right now. It doesn't make any sense. So I'm suspended. In my world, the only way I can release is to do music.
I need to do a concert to celebrate David Bowie's electronic music. And in so doing, I'm not taking a step back, I'm taking a step forward and presenting it in its entirety so people can understand this type of visionary. It doesn't happen often. It's genius and it needs to be proclaimed as such. I ultimately want to do a simple thing. There was a trio that we worked with called the DAM Trio, and DAM means Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar, and George Murray. We did all those Bowie albums as the rhythm section. Man, if I can get that DAM trio back together again - "get the band back together" [laughs] - and put on a concert of David Bowie's electronic music, that's the way I want to remember David, moving forward into the future of music. Musicians have to do what they do and express it musically. All the blah blah blah will get lost in the dialogue.
I think people would love that.
I gotta figure out a way to make it free - oh my god, that's the tribute to David. I'll pay the fans one dollar each if they come to the concert [laughs] that's what it should be. I think that's the way to go - dive into the music and don't think, stay frozen, why don't we all stay frozen in time for awhile?
I just need a quiet moment with the fans. They don't need superstars, they don't need no guest singers. Let's just bring the fans and students of music together. All of us will close our eyes and when we close our eyes we're all back there, and that's all anybody wants. I think David would have liked that. Once I go into bandleader mode, that's where I'll get closer to David.
I was listening to the electronic stuff, I think it was Warszawa, and quite honestly, it was the only stuff that touched my heart. It's the only stuff that is ambient enough to let me also be in the music. It allowed my thoughts to be in the music, it didn't stop me from thinking. I wasn't hearing David's voice, I wasn't hearing some great lead guitar coming at me, I wasn't thinking about "who was that?" And if I'm going to do a tribute, I just want fans to be alone in their own thoughts. That's a tribute to the personal relationship that fans have with an artist. Fans don't need all the crap that corporate America wants to feed them for twelve dollars, they just need to be together.
That makes a lot of sense to me - it sounds peaceful and emotional.
Exactly! Even talking to you, it is generational. If the young people that just discovered Bowie lament his loss so much... the older crowds that knew him as a sophisticated Duke, they understand the chess piece moves. We all know a different Bowie, and isn't that cool?
Let's hear side B of Low.
Look - I feel low, goddamnit. I feel low as hell, and I don't wanna hear no uptempo shit, I just wanna be alone in a room. When I got Low, I turned off all the lights in my apartment and I turned up the systems and man, I was in space. It was awesome. And you can't do that when you're tapping your feet and wanting to shake your butt. When I started thinking about special moments, it wasn't about hunting for the number one single, it wasn't about appeasing the record companies. It was about the exploration and experimentation that moved the bar. And that trilogy was the bomb. Some people don't understand, but the fans will get it.
I think people are wondering right now what they can do to honor Bowie.
You should be courageous. When we look at the human experience and the human revolution and what's necessary for us to progress, we have a mentor. We have someone. We have a prophet, we have somebody that showed us the way. We had a person that traveled a lonely road all by himself - and of course he dragged us kicking and screaming along the way. Nonetheless, if we're all courageous and we understand that life is a moving target, then we'll never be satisfied with accomplishments. Accomplishments have nothing to do with anything. It's not the destination, it's the journey. It's what allows us to think like Bowie: "I'm a pioneer. Well, what the hell am I pioneering? I already got a number one hit, why am I still there? Everybody's copying what I just did - how the hell am I supposed to compete with myself? I need to jump the tracks and take the next train, going in the opposite direction." So that's what I would say to everybody. Take a page from his book, have courage, pave your own path.
Are there any other especially vivid memories you've grasped to?
There are too many. His life was the most fabulous moment. The fact that David Bowie and Carlos Alomar met - I was twenty-three, he was twenty-nine. We were young - people just don't get it.
When you first met, you took him to Harlem. What was his response?
[laughs] He was scared and excited. First of all, you don't come out of a limousine with orange hair and a fedora hat and walk past a whole line of African-American people waiting to get into the Apollo and just walk straight through. You gotta have a lot of cajoles to walk into Richard Pryor's dressing room and say, "Hi, I'm David Bowie" knowing that he has all the right to say "Who the fuck is David Bowie and what the fuck are you doing in my dressing room?" This is Richard Pryor [laughs]. He'll curse you out! Richard Pryor of course is a comedian, and, like many comedians, is light-hearted on-stage and a dark lord off-stage. So you know what... welcome to America. I loved it, and I thought he did. In a strange way I was trying to just: "Here's some after-hours joints, here's some Latin places, here's some black places." Nothing fazed him, so I was like: "You know what, you're cool, dude. I like you. We can hang."