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The Telegraph MARCH 4, 2007 - by Lynsey Hanley
THE MAN WHO TURNED MERE MORTALS INTO ROCK GODS
The Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti
"All in all it's a very nice occupation," writes the record producer Tony Visconti in the prologue to his good-humoured autobiography of six decades spent twiddling knobs and phasing flangers (or flanging phasers, depending on the sound effect he was after) on albums such as David Bowie's classic Berlin trilogy, Iggy Pop's The Idiot, and T.Rex's Electric Warrior.
This might be the first time the word "nice" has been used to describe a career that laid waste to three marriages and gave the author, at thirty, a cocaine-induced near-heart attack that could only be averted by ingesting a dozen Mogadon downers. But Visconti, an Italian-American carpenter's son born in Brooklyn in 1944, has otherwise done well out of rock and roll. Ambitious and fidgety, he came of age just as the world was going topsy-turvy, which enabled him to make a living out of following his passions.
He avoided the Vietnam draft by exaggerating, if only slightly, his use of heroin - an occupational hazard in his early profession as a jazz bassist. Relieved of duty, he instead married young and embarked on a regime of weekly LSD use and hippy shenanigans involving the formation of human daisy chains in Central Park. If I'm making the young Visconti sound like an amoral cad - his father had hoped that the US Army would "make a man" of him - his riposte would be that he was entirely the product of his times.
The 1960s were crazy, man, and while he's far from the first person to make this claim, his anecdotes of the time are funny and engaging. Shortly after his arrival in Swingin' London in 1967, he took a Tube train with a gaudily dressed rock drummer named Viv Prince. "As we were passing a fragile OAP, Viv pulled a rubber spider out of his pocket and waved it in front of the old man. He retorted quickly in his London accent to Viv, 'They don't frighten me. I've seen 'em before, you git!'"
There are photos of Visconti entertaining his visiting parents in the living room of one of a succession of hip and groovy Kensington flats, his mum perched on a settee housing a nineteen-year-old David Bowie and his girlfriend Hermione Fotheringale. The Brooklynite seemed to attract young British talent, seemingly because he had studied our rock bands and producers before leaving New York to learn how to make records Sgt. Pepper-style.
Visconti's wish to have the same collaborative role in record-making that George Martin had when producing the Beatles came true with his discovery of a fusilli-haired folk singer called Marc Bolan at a gig in late 1967. It took the pair several years to come up with a winning formula for chart domination, but once they did, knocking out such glam-rock perennials as Get It On, Hot Love and Metal Guru, the producer's reputation was sealed for life.
No matter that he would also, increasingly reluctantly, bow to Bolan's desire to "make one more record for the kids", even when the kids didn't want another record by him. Visconti's even temper and eagerness to please - particularly those pesky cats who insisted he partake of their cocaine supply - insulated him against the ego trips of his rock-god collaborators.
The producer comes down firmly on the side of Bowie in the battle of the glam-rock behemoths, seeing Bolan as a manipulative narcissist to Bowie's noble artist. His most recent collaborator, Morrissey, is a cross between the two, given to gnomic pronouncements such as this, from his gushing foreword: "Bolan's life ended with death." Did nobody tell him that that is how life tends to end?
The tales are Pooterish at times, for which Visconti can be forgiven: they add to a sense that, despite the drugs and the binned relationships, he remains as thrilled with the possibilities of music-making as he did the day he stepped off the plane.
There is enough discussion of guitar pedals and 16-track consoles to please the most retentive muso - too much, perhaps, for the average fan - but Visconti is a record producer, after all, whose job is to make his too-human charges sound godlike using any means necessary.
Name another job, bar Einstein's, where you can do that.