INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut MARCH 2016 - by David Cavanagh
DAVID BOWIE: 1947-2016
The extraordinary life and music of David Bowie, remembered by his closest collaborators and Uncut's David Cavanagh
"In the event
That this fantastic voyage
Should turn to erosion
And we never get old
Remember it is true, dignity is valuable
But our lives are valuable too"
In a celebrated 1994 interview, the dramatist Dennis Potter, diagnosed with terminal cancer and drinking liquid morphine to dull the pain, remarked on the peculiar routines of Homo sapiens who have yet to outgrow their use. "We're the one animal that knows that we're going to die," he pointed out, "and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense, and we tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is, and it is now only." Five years later, in a boardroom in the Manhattan offices of Virgin records, David Bowie - fifty-two years old, still smoking Marlboros, but looking astonishingly young and fit - told the journalist David Quantick: "I'm very happy to deal and only deal with the existing twenty-four hours I'm going through. I'm not inclined to even think too heavily about the end of the week or the week I've just come through. The present is really the place to be."
Bowie had just been discussing a song called Seven on his latest album, 'Hours...', which seemed to be about a man given just seven days to live. Wandering distractedly through an unnamed city in the rain, the man thought of his father, his mother and his brother (three people certain to trigger involuntary spasms of psychiatric hypothesis in seasoned Bowie-watchers if the song had been autobiographical), before reaching a sort of measured perspective on his options. "I've got seven ways to live my life or seven ways to die." For better or worse, the present was the place to be.
Almost seventeen years remained in the life of David Bowie when he wrote those words, but the fate he was to share with Potter - incurable liver cancer - drew him back, in the end, to matters of finite days and the urgent present. Both men created their final work in a race against time, knowing that death would come, if not too soon, then soon enough. Both of them chose, surely not by coincidence, the same biblical figure for a title: Lazarus of Bethany, who died and was restored to life by a Christ miracle. Potter's last TV drama was Cold Lazarus, a science-fiction prophecy set in a Britain overrun by ideological terrorists and sinister corporations. Bowie, whose own science-fiction prophecy had begun with fleas the size of rats sucking on rats the size of cats, made his last public appearance on December 12, 2015 at the New York premiere of Lazarus, a musical he co-wrote with the playwright Enda Walsh. Based on Bowie's character in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth, its premiere was followed by a download single (also called Lazarus) and a video, released in early January alongside the new album, Blackstar (★). The video showed a blindfolded Bowie writhing in a hospital bed while a healthier, more energetic David emerged from a wardrobe - the Bowie metaphor to end all Bowie metaphors - and began writing furiously at a desk. He was a man up against an implacable deadline. We now know that he had only a short time to live, and we know that he knew it, too. and that he wanted us to know it after he'd gone.
"David Bowie has died many deaths yet he is still with us," Pitchfork began its review of Blackstar on January 7, as Bowie, unbeknown to the media, gradually approached the end of his life. Pitchfork was referring to the grand parade of Bowie characters (Major tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the thin White duke) which he'd visualised, corporealised, inhabited for as long as they fitted him, then discarded and replaced in the wardrobe as empty costumes. And there were other incarnations that didn't have names: the bleach-blond Bowie of the Let's Dance era; the smouldering redhead on the cover of Young Americans; the long-haired Bowie on the front of 'Hours...' cradling, Virgin Mary-like, the head of his predecessor, the carrot-topped Bowie of Earthling. And on and on they went, back to the hippy tresses of Hunky Dory and the bouffants and perms of the '60s. Bowie, being Bowie, had made a point of changing his image from one project to the next, even before he had a fanbase to notice him doing it. "He is pop music's ultimate Lazarus," Pitchfork declared, a nice way of unifying a theory, an off-broadway musical and a late-period Bowie song. But then, three days after the review was uploaded, the morning clocks chimed "seven" and the news channels reported the headline that chilled the blood. This time Bowie would not be coming back from the dead.
Time, of course, was running out in his songs at least forty years before his fatal diagnosis. Aged only twenty-five, he gave the earth just five years to survive in The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Six months earlier (Changes), he'd warned the insouciant exemplars of teenage virility ("Look out, you rock'n'rollers") that the ageing process would begin sooner than they expected. As early as his fourth single - Can't Help Thinking About Me with The Lower Third in 1966 - a nineteen-year-old Bowie longed to escape his new responsibilities as a home-leaver and go back in time ("I wish I was a child again / I wish I felt secure again.") In 1971, in Kooks, he counselled his son Zowie, newly born and in his crib, to blow his trumpet and face down his bullies while he still had the power of innocence in his lungs. "Soon you'll grow..."
Kooks, that charming song from Hunky Dory, was played again and again on January 10 as tributes to Bowie poured in. It was in many ways the perfect choice of song to bid farewell to him. "Heroes", without question, was the one guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes, and anything from Low, Lodger or Station To Station made the fans of 1976-'79 pause in silent appreciation of his dark, cerebral muse. Others found comfort in Space Oddity, much in the news recently, which had a line that the Daily Mirror and Metro would use on their front pages ("The stars look very different today"). But Kooks, the longer that sad day lasted, seemed to tie together the emotions of the present and the complicated strands of the past. It was a Twitter announcement at 6.54am. By Zowie himself - nowadays better known as the film director Duncan Jones - that confirmed the truth of a statement made at 6.30 by David Bowie Official. Yes. There was no mistake. His father was dead. Jones, forty-four, illustrated his tweet with a photo of him as a baby, bouncing on his dad's shoulders.
The baby had been born on a Sunday morning near the end of May 1971, four days before Bowie recorded a Radio 1 In Concert at the BBC's Paris Studio in Lower Regent Street. He wrote Kooks and debuted it for the Radio 1 audience on a twelve-string guitar. Soon you'll grow. If you stay with us, you're gonna be pretty kooky too. Some Bowie fans, listening to his voice from 1971 and trying to keep up with their social media timelines, would have experienced a disorientating torrent of jump-cuts and flashbacks worthy of man. Here was a tweeted picture of Bowie in voluminous slacks and a silk or chiffon blouse, pushing Zowie around the streets of Beckenham in a pram with Angie. Here was the Archbishop Of Canterbury no less, in the present day, telling Radio 4 listeners: "I remember sitting listening to his songs endlessly in the '70s and always really relishing what he was, what he did, the impact he had." Here were valedictions from Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Madonna, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Michael Eavis, Gene Simmons, Kasabian, Frances Bean Cobain and the Vatican's chief spokesman on cultural affairs. Here was a clever video by an artist named Helen Green that showed a half-century's worth of Bowie's image changes flashing past in three seconds. Here was BBC Radio 6 Music, throwing open its airwaves like a drop-in support centre to any distraught fan with a memory or a story to tell. Here was the European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake, sitting in his tin can far above the world. Here, with ghastly timing, was Angie in the Celebrity Big Brother house, one of the few people in Britain not to have awoken to the news that her ex-husband had died. Here was Tony Visconti, sworn to secrecy during Blackstar's recording but now able to talk more freely, saluting the friend he'd known since the summer of 1967: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life - a work of art."
At first, Visconti's conclusion seemed glib, banal, even indecently worded in the circumstances. But perhaps it wasn't banal at all. Perhaps it wasn't even an exaggeration. Perhaps it was exactly what had transpired in Bowie's final hours. having had his best album reviews since Scary Monsters, the great conceptualist had followed with a critically acclaimed death. His final act had been an immaculate performance of the final act.
And somewhere in the middle of the tweets, the timelines, the tributes and the tears, a Wikipedia editor quietly changed "is" to "was", and Bowie's sixty-nine-year life crossed over into the past tense.
It was clear, even before an official message was sent at 10.41am by the German Foreign Office thanking Bowie for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall, that he'd had a staggering effect on the world around him. Or on several worlds, actually, as he was soon revealed to have been a pioneer in the spheres of music, art, fashion, theatre, film, sexual attitudes, family values and developments in business and technology. Depending on which tendril of his extraordinary, pan-global influence one wished to focus on, it was possible to disregard Bowie's music career completely and hail him instead as an art-world prankster (he and author William Boyd hoaxed critics in the late '90s with a fake biography of a non-existent artist); or as a trailblazer of the information superhighway (in '98 he launched an internet service provider, BowieNet, interacting online with his fans at a time when most of his contemporaries dismissed the internet as a passing gimmick); or as a financial innovator, who, to widespread amazement in 1997, generated $55,000,000 in cash by selling asset-backed securities to investors for a share in his future royalties.
Just as Philip Glass' New York Times obituary of George Harrison ignored The Beatles and concentrated solely on George's passion for Indian music, assessments of Bowie's legacy came from every corner of the culture, every place where a culture prevailed, and when you added up his significance to all of them, he seemed to have had a number of simultaneous lifetimes, much as Aleister Crowley was not just an occultist but also a painter, a poet, a mountaineer, an inventor of a religion and a spy. While one messageboard was describing Bowie in broad terms as the most important man in history, another, more specifically, recalled his influence on the fashion tastes of football casuals in the early '80s. In each encomium his fearlessness was a common theme. his uncanny ability to see into the future - and then promptly shape it - was another.
His January 1972 interview with Melody Maker's Michael Watts, in which he laid the foundations for a new kind of rock star by announcing that he was gay, is remembered as an explosive and far-reaching encounter. But almost as intriguing is a comment Bowie makes to Watts about Ziggy Stardust, the album he's just been recording. Looking ahead to its release, he sounds more than capable of willing the future into being. "I'm going to be huge," he says, "and it's quite frightening in a way, because I know that when I reach my peak and it's time for me to be brought down, it will be with a bump." The thing to bear in mind is that Bowie, in January 1972, had no data or documentation to back up his blasé predictions. Commercially speaking, he wasn't even a face on the horizon. his 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World, for all its proto-metal guitar riffs and Boschian visions, had sold poorly, and its December 1971 successor, Hunky Dory, had been in the shops less than a month when Bowie met the man from the Maker. It was all a bit up-in-the-air, a bit pie-in-the-sky. Since Space Oddity in 1969, Bowie had been out of the charts for two years. Putting it bluntly, he was a one-hit wonder who'd been forgotten.
Viewed in that context, his appearance on Top Of The Pops in July 1972, performing Starman (a Top 40 new entry at Number 29), wasn't quite the last-chance saloon, but it was definitely an opportunity to be seized with both hands. As the June 1971 In Concert had borne witness, Bowie wasn't always the most emphatic of frontmen. however, as about twelve million stunned households watched him cavort and sashay with Mick Ronson, it wasn't just Bowie's multi-coloured jumpsuit and spiked hair that made him unrecognisable. With his blue guitar, feline playfulness, pixie-like otherworldliness and provocative mannerisms, he was like no male pop star Britain had ever seen. In one leap he joined Marc Bolan at the forefront of glam-rock. Starman would reach the Top 10.
Bowie had waited a long time for those three precious minutes on Top Of The Pops. His birth in Brixton and his 1950s childhood as David Robert Jones in suburban Bromley had been anything but glamorous. He dreamed of liberation, adventure, fun, america, Elvis Presley (with whom he shared a birthday) and Little Richard. His formative musical steps included a flirtation with skiffle and an education in modern jazz from his older half-brother Terry. As the '60s got under way, the ambitious Jones, a gyrating enthusiast of blues and R'n'B, attempted to get a foothold as a teenage idol in London. He formed The Konrads, joined The King Bees, dallied with The Manish Boys, flopped with The lower Third and had no luck with The Buzz. Not even a change of surname made any difference. By the summer of 1967 he'd released one album (David Bowie) and nine singles. None had been successful.
But then his life accelerated like a plane on a runway. Once Starman brought him to the British public's attention, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars - the second in a spectacular sequence of albums he made forRCA - become a sensation throughout the summer and autumn of 1972. Ziggy, his doomed extraterrestrial rock star, offered Bowie's young listeners a sexually ambiguous, sartorially outrageous alternative to the peer-pressure superbands like Led Zeppelin, and it wasn't long before a new breed of suburban outsider in Bowie's old stomping ground of Bromley, epitomised by the future Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin, began looking to Ziggy as a saviour and a stimulus. Aladdin Sane, his 1973 follow-up, introduced new characters and changed the setting to america, crashing into the album charts at Number 1. A week later, Bowie walked onstage at Earls Court in a white kimono and knee-length boots to begin an eight-week UK tour in front of eighteen-thousand fans. It was only a year since he'd played the fifteen-hundred-capacity Pavilion in Hemel Hempstead. It was only fifteen months since he'd launched Ziggy to the clientele of the Toby Jug, a pub situated on the A3. He was now within touching distance of superstardom. Sections of the Earls Court crowd, angry at being unable to get a clear view of Bowie on the low stage, caused a riot. A photo would later surface of a sixteen-year-old Sid Vicious, standing outside the venue sporting blue denim and a feather cut. All human life, or very nearly, was at a Bowie concert in 1973.
As he dispensed with the Spiders From mars and explored new styles and methodologies on Diamond Dogs (1974) and Young Americans (1975), Bowie tested his fans' mettle - would they make the transition from glam to soul? and then follow him to who-knows-where? - while establishing his dominance over the '70s and consolidating his status as rock's leading maverick. This was the man whom Madonna, responding to the news on January 10, called a "game changer", an inspiration on her own image-adopting, image-shedding journey through pop. But Bowie changed the game for countless people before Madonna materialised on the scene. The Sid Vicious photo tells a ubiquitous tale of misfit boys and girls who gravitated to the mysterious androgyne Ziggy, and then spent the rest of their teens trusting Bowie as he confronted them with a sudden volte-face, a physical transformation and a new manifestation of his inscrutable unpredictability. Never mind Madonna learning from Bowie how to submit to a full makeover when a new single is scheduled; how about an entire British generation of post-punks who took their cues from synthesisers, dystopian sci-fi, androgyny and the Berlin Trilogy? From Joy Division to Gary Numan, from Duran Duran to Culture Club, Bowie's influence on the late '70s and early '80s was inescapable and unquantifiable.
The Berlin Trilogy, which he fondly alluded to in email he sent to Brian Eno just after Christmas, was the next logical step - or at any rate Bowie and Eno deemed it a logical step - after the lush soul balladry of Young Americans and the psychically frazzled kabbalistic conceits of Station To Station. The latter project had been a hellish ordeal for the cocaine-addicted Bowie, who donned the chillingly aristocratic mantle of the Thin White Duke for the duration of the ensuing world tour. He retained only a vague impression of the recording sessions that had produced the album: even the name of the studio had been wiped from his memory. Fearing for his sanity in 1976, Bowie, increasingly linked with the politics of the far right, decided to leave LA and kill off the Thin White Duke before the Thin White Duke killed him.
The two albums he put out in 1977, Low and "Heroes", were compulsive yet analytical studies in displacement, foreignness, boredom, inertia and gloom. Less than fifty percent of Low had had lyrics written for it; a third of "Heroes", as did the second side of Low, consisted of doom-laden instrumentals. From Fame, to this in eighteen months? Bowie's momentum of radical change was comparable to The Beatles going from Long Tall Sally to Tomorrow Never Knows in two years. The twist he applied to the Berlin Trilogy was to use his regular New York soul and funk musicians - Carlos Alomar, George Murray, Dennis Davis - and get them to play along with the synthesisers and drones. Certain tracks had a bizarre danceability (A New Career In A New Town, The Secret Life Of Arabia) even as others barricaded their doors and refused to venture out of their windowless rooms. Bowie on drugs. Bowie mad. Bowie clean from drugs. Bowie experimenting.
Fascinating to behold, Bowie in the '70s was a one-man genre, an artist unafraid to forge new ground by throwing away the maps and smashing the compass to pieces. But there were signs that his emulators alarmed him: he had Gary Numan, his robotic soundalike, thrown out of the building when he snuck into a recording of The Kenny Everett Video Show in 1979. "There's Old Wave, there's New Wave and there's David Bowie," the adverts for "Heroes" had clarified, preemptively disentangling him from any movement that would co-opt him. But Numan had a hotline to a growing audience hungry for the new sounds of synth-pop. It would be Are 'Friends' Electric?, not Boys Keep Swinging, that spent four weeks at Number 1 in the summer.
The following year of 1980, in what might be seen as a display of self-affirmation, Bowie led a quartet of scenesters from Covent Garden's Blitz club in a slow march along an eerie-looking Sussex beach, an enormous bulldozer following ominously behind them. The Ashes To Ashes video cost an unprecedented £250,000 - soon all pop stars would insist on spending that amount - and it propelled the quirky, magical, self-referencing song to the top of the charts in August. A point had been proved. There were Old Romantics, there were New Romantics and there was David Bowie.
Immediately alert to the potential of MTV, Bowie was festooned with platinum discs for Let's Dance in 1983 and mingled with the stadium-rock set. He later suggested that he'd made a misguided attempt to chase after Phil Collins' audience when he ought really to have stuck with his own. Tonight (1984) and Never Let Me Down (1987) were terribly ordinary, even to a Collins fan, and were unfavourably received by the critics, a surprising turn of events for a now forty-year-old Bowie unaccustomed to laying himself open to rebuke. Several times that decade, small but nadiresque occurrences threatened to extinguish in a moment the mystique that had taken years to create. Jazzin' For Blue Jean (1984), a twenty-minute film directed by Julien Temple, had a scene of heart-sinking slapstick in which Bowie slid down a ladder like Robin Askwith in Confessions Of A Window Cleaner. From Lodger to this? Couldn't we reverse the clocks?
Worse criticism was to come when Tin machine, a rather uncharismatic hard-rock four-piece, inspired widespread scorn. Elements of the media now giggled openly at Bowie, wanting to know if he planned to play The Laughing Gnome, an embarrassing comedy song from his distant past, on his upcoming 1990 Sound + Vision Tour. And then a puzzling episode happened in April 1992 when Bowie, appearing at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert at wembley, dropped to his knees and recited the Lord's Prayer in front of seventy-two thousand people. An unimpressed Brian May, who hadn't been warned of Bowie's intentions, was left wondering what the hell he was playing at. He wasn't the only one. "There's an aspect of my personality," Bowie was later heard to say, "which continually asks my audience: 'how long will you tolerate this?'" at least he could be sure that Gary Numan, Boy George, Steve Strange and the Blitz kids wouldn't emulate him this time.
Happily, Bowie's artistic renaissance lay just around the corner. It was there in vivid glimpses on his 1993 album Black Tie White Noise, and it began in earnest with the release, later that same year, of The Buddha Of Suburbia, a companion album to a BBC2 dramatisation of the Hanif Kureishi novel. Rediscovering his old touch, an intrepid Bowie employed risk, chance and other experimental working methods as if the '80s had been a dream. A sadly overlooked album in his catalogue, The Buddha Of Suburbia was reminiscent in places of the sombre landscapes and ghostly atmospheres of Low and "Heroes". There was no misreading the implications. The Bowie of the Berlin period had not expired as feared.
Later in the '90s, appearing fully re-engaged and keen to make up for lost time, Bowie collaborated with Eno (Outside, 1995) on their first project since Lodger; immersed himself in drum'n'bass and industrial music (Earthling, 1997); and saw out the millennium with some introspective lyrics and luminous ballads ('Hours...', 1999). Glowing reviews greeted the elegant, galvanised Heathen (2002), which reunited Bowie with Tony Visconti after a twenty-two-year break. They worked together again on Reality (2003), but the world tour that began in Copenhagen in October - Bowie's aim being to play to more than a million people over a ten-month period - would end prematurely. Already unsettled by an incident in Oslo when he was struck in the eye by a lollipop thrown from the audience, Bowie abandoned the tour in June 2004 after a gig in Scheeßel, Germany. He had suffered chest pains and the diagnosis was a grave one: an acutely blocked coronary artery. It was time for the fifty-seven-year-old Bowie to be serious about his health. There were rumours of heart attacks. He never toured again.
If Bowie was Lazarus at given points during his life, as one or two have intimated, the most improbable of his resurrections took place on January 8, 2013, when his official website suddenly announced a new album, The Next Day, years after the world had got used to the idea of his retirement. In a new era of smartphones and celeb spottings, his ability to disappear on the New York pavements (and keep secret a two-year recording process) almost defied belief. But again, there were rumours. An advance single, "where are we Now?", raised plenty of questions when it reminisced about Potsdamer Platz and old haunts. Bowie gave no interviews. His mystique, once unimpeachable, was now impermeable. It was noticed - for all we had to examine was his face in the video - that he looked a lot older than we remembered.
Publicly, Bowie never regretted the Lord's Prayer at wembley. It was a sincere gesture, he told anyone who asked, not a cynical one, and he did it for a friend who was dying of aIDS and in a coma. He may also have done it for Mick Ronson. Sharing a stage that evening with the Spiders from mars' guitarist for the first time in many years, Bowie could see that Ronson's pancreatic cancer - which had been diagnosed by his doctors as inoperable - was taking a ruinous toll. Ronson, who'd played the platinum-haired foil to Bowie's louche, limp-wristed master of ceremonies in the life-changing Starman performance on Top Of The Pops, made no further live appearances after that Freddie Mercury tribute at Wembley. He died in 1993 at the age of forty-six. "In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer," Bowie once commented. "But I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God's existence. For me it is unquestionable."
If the video he made for Lazarus is any indication, Bowie on his deathbed would have reached up with both hands to feel heaven's embrace. His furious writing at that desk paid off; Blackstar was and is a brave work and a sublime epitaph. In a wry piece of social media post-modernism meant to be pored over after his demise, the last person Bowie followed on Twitter was 'God'. ('God' followed him back.) And so up he went. Give me your hands. The final curtain. You were wonderful. He has become, with cruel symmetry, the third man in the Starman clip to die of cancer - The Spiders From Mars' bassist Trevor Bolder succumbed to it in 2013 - but he's the first, and will remain the only, to generate more than three and a half million tweets in twelve hours as faltering, grieving fans wished him goodnight and God speed in eighty languages. "I'm going to be huge," he drawled in 1972. He didn't know the half of it.
Down here among the damned, meanwhile, we have to get used to not having him around again. Bowie's 'anthems for the alienated', as someone alliteratively called them the other day, have played all day and all night at shrines in London and Berlin, in bedroom shrines, in private. The memories and confessions will always pour out. There was a unity in the prayer of his songs. He made it all right to be an outsider, they say, but look around. Look at the millions of outsiders. No wonder Bowie found it easy to disappear on the pavements of Manhattan. All those Bowies, just like him.
"It feels kind of garish to talk about oneself at a time like this," the singer-songwriter Lorde wrote on her Facebook page, "when the thing that has happened is so distinctly world-sized. But everything I've read or seen since the news has been deeply intrinsic in tone, almost selfish, like therapy." At nineteen, Lorde may be the right age to talk about Bowie's importance in the interior monologues of a fan. "That's who he was to all of us." and he's bound to leave a big hole in the universe. Everybody's universe.
Biographers of Bowie have stressed his reliance on artifice and detachment. He misdirects and dissembles. Don't take him at his word. As with his fiercely guarded privacy, some of his songs came with padlocks attached. Even "Heroes", in which a boy and a girl kiss, had its title placed between inverted commas to cloud its original motives. "Because I have been an elliptical writer," Bowie said in 1994, "I think people have - quite rightly - gotten used to interpreting the lyrics in their own way. I am only the person the greatest number of people believe that I am."
After providing the consummate soundtrack to millions of lives, Bowie is not going to be allowed to get away with a sleight-of-hand exit like that. First you see him, now you don't? No, he was too sympathetic to leave so slyly. Too affectionate, too ever-present in the conversations we have with ourselves. Whatever layers Bowie needed to hide behind, and however his agile brain may have rationalised life's discourse, his legacy is not some intellectual treatise. The outpouring of emotion tells the real story. No postmodernism or detachment in the sing-songs at the Bowie mural in Brixton. No glacial stares or hollow cheekbones. Though the Thin White Duke would sneer at Hunky Dory, you can't help thinking of Bowie in 1971 with his tiny son on his shoulders. Soon you'll grow. That applies to both of them. And then, as Lorde says, we apply it to us. "We are all Bowie's children," read a statement from the Pet Shop Boys, not being arch for once, and when they put it like that, he really was a wise and exhilarating parent.
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #1
He employed people to help him make perfection" - Herbie Flowers (bass guitar: 1968, 1974)
"When we travelled around America in 1974 on the long, long Diamond Dogs tour, I sometimes managed to wangle my way to travel with David in his limo, because I wouldn't fly in those days and nor would David. It was a great privilege for me, sat in the back with him, hardly saying two words - because singers on tour don't want to talk all day, they want to rest. It was comfortable looking out of the window at cactus plants, mountains, this, that and the other. We kind of got to know each other pretty well.
"We did Madison Square Garden. In the afternoon Sly Stone got married, Doris Day had been invited to play the organ, and she sang Que Sera, Sera, as she'd had a hit with it and so had Sly & The Family Stone. And then, straight after the wedding, in rolled the Diamond Dogs lot, and it was completely, beautifully absurd. People of all nationalities, all styles, like a huge beehive. I felt very proud, very safe, I couldn't believe my luck.
"I knew David from doing BBC sessions in the late '60s, and right from the start I knew he was onto something. There was a handful of musicians who were kind of jazzers. David was a bit amused, and bemused, by the startling things we were coming up with. Not just me, but Rick Wakeman with his little Stylophone on Space Oddity, Mike Garson with his groove for Latin music; it wasn't 'pop' music.
"We worked fast and when we did a recording, there might have only been David with his acoustic guitar, and a rough, screwed-up piece of paper with lyrics on, and a drummer and a bass player. We'd put down the rough track, then go home. But David would go onto step two, and get the right musical director to overscore strings, or get the great Ronnie Ross, who was actually David's sax teacher, to come in and play the sax solo at the end of Walk On The Wild Side.
"David believed in costume and theatre, choreography, set design, lyrics, the right producer and engineer. He could do everything. He studied everything, and used people - well, he didn't use them, he employed people - to help him make perfection. David was always one step ahead of everyone else. And he was the sweetest man.
"The last time I saw David for a few hours was on the last episode of Marc Bolan's mini-series that he did in Manchester, Marc. They did a little duet, but they ran the end titles over it, because Marc slipped and fell off the stage and broke his ankle. The series finished with David looking at him, smiling. I've got a photograph of David and Marc, and myself in the background, and it's the only photograph that I've got that I treasure.
"Sixty-nine is no age. I'm nearly eighty, and when I think of, probably, another dozen albums and projects that David might have presented to the world - it's a great loss. It hardly seems fair."
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #2
"He got down on one knee in front of me" - Ken Scott (engineer/producer: 1969-1973)
"David had come in and recorded Space Oddity with Gus Dudgeon producing and then, of course, the label wanted an LP, so between myself and one of the other engineers at Trident, Malcolm Toft, we recorded the album. I recall thinking how much of a nice guy David was, and what a good singer he was. But at that point I never considered him a superstar in any shape or form.
"Tony, David and the guys cut The Man Who Sold The World in another studio, then came to Trident and I did overdubs and mixed it, and once again it was the same feeling. But then, after he took a break for some time, because of the lack of success, he came back into Trident to try to produce a friend of his, Freddie Burretti, and I'd reached the point where I wanted to move into production. During one of the breaks I mentioned that to David, and he said how he'd just signed a new management deal, and they wanted him to record an album. He was going to produce it but didn't know if he was capable of doing it; would I co-produce it with him?
"So this scenario of working with David, who would never be a superstar... I could actually make mistakes and not worry about people hearing them! Then he and Angie and his publisher Bob Grace came round the house, so that we could start going through material. And, as David was playing demos, suddenly it was obvious that, when he was in charge of his own music, it was a whole different ball game. Once he realised his ideas were good, then he just kept on building from there. His charisma grew.
"David got bored in the studio very easily. And so with the Spiders, they had to get everything fast, which gave an energy. They were nervous as hell they wouldn't get a track in time, as David would just say 'Nah, enough, we're moving on.' Of the four albums I did with him, he was there for only two mixes. As soon as he'd finished what he had to do, he was onto the next thing. The leap between Hunky Dory and Ziggy was three weeks. He said, 'I don't think you're going to like this one, it's much more Velvet Underground.' I had no idea who the Velvets were, but he was wrong - I did love it. But he didn't know me very well, and I didn't know him very well. I don't think anyone ever really knew him.
"We'd email from time to time, very infrequently. But I feel like I've been in contact with him every single day. Just after Aladdin Sane, we were going to dinner one night, and I was over at his place, and before we left he got down on one knee in front of me and presented me with this gold bracelet. On the clasp it's etched KS/DB, with the lightning bolt from his face. I've worn that every single day since."
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #3
"We went through many highs and lows together" - Carlos Alomar (guitar: 1974-2003)
I first met David at the RCA Studio when I was a session musician and he was a producer for Lulu. My first impression? his oddity! at that time, I had an afro, I was heavily into James Brown's Say It loud - I'm Black And I'm Proud, I was on the Chitlin' Circuit, doing the whole R&B thing with the sound Of Philadelphia. David was still in his spiders From mars period - he had orange hair and his complexion was pasty white. He'd use phrases like, 'Hey, man' and 'That's cool', all these little things said in his strange British accent. But when I started talking to him, I could see his humanity. He was this guy from London who was trying to act cool and hip and didn't know anything about the underbelly of New York City and the scene. We got on really well in the studio, so I invited him to come to my house in Queens. The next thing I know, the limousine rolls up and there he is. So we started going to the Apollo Theater and hanging out, long before I got the phone call for Young Americans saying, 'look, you've gotta come and do this record with me.'
"Myself, Dennis Davis and George Murray - how do I say it? - we redesigned David Bowie's rhythm section. David was kinda funky for a while there! after Young Americans, I was shocked when I was called back for Station To Station. When I got called back for Low, for "Heroes", for all of those records, I've always been shocked. I never took my relationship with David for granted. Even all the way up to Heathen, when he called me up and said, 'Hey, I need that Carlos Alomar flavour.'
"How did we work together? sometimes we had to pluck some music right from thin air. Other times he'd come to me with a few ideas he might bang out on the piano or strum on the guitar, or that he's singing free into the room. Other times he didn't have a clue and I'd say, 'I've got these ideas, what do you think of these?' He'd say, 'Ok, let's work on that.' When I was up there performing with him, I was having the time of my life. He'd turn around and look at me. I'd look at him, we'd smile, and man, consider yourself paid. That's all you need.
"David and I went through many highs and lows together, the gamut of all human emotions. I remember when John Lennon died. David wanted to get numb. He said, 'Carlos, get me something.' I said, 'Sure, give me some money.' So he gave me all his money, and then I went to sleep. Why? I wanted to make sure I took all the money he had in his pocket so that he couldn't get anything, that he don't get numb, that he felt the pain of loss. In a family, you go through it all - even the sorrow of loss - and the first thing that happens is numbness. That's the way the world is right now, it's just a little numb."
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #4
"He said, 'Do you know the Stravinsky Octet?'" - Mike Garson (piano: 1973-2004)
I was a jazz musician. I didn't know who David was when I got a call from Tony Defries. Can I be in Manhattan to audition at RCA Studios? Bowie's looking for a pianist. Mick Ronson was at the piano, David was looking at me through the studio glass. Mick gave me the music to Changes and said, 'Can you read this?' I played no more than seven seconds and Mick said, 'you've got the gig!'
"I only played ten songs out of about twenty on that first tour, so when I wasn't playing I snuck out to the audience. David never knew this, but I'd sit in the first row and watch him. After the first show, I knew he was a genius. I was only hired for eight weeks, and I ended up with him for so many years, on and off. I did eighteen albums, and God knows how many tours, ten or fifteen.
"When we first met, we talked endlessly, for weeks, driving through the States in his limo while he was creating music for Aladdin Sane. He played the baritone sax and he loved Stan Kenton. He loved Charles Mingus, too. We talked about all this stuff, and it's very unusual that a rock musician would know so much about jazz - and a lot of other things besides. One day, he said to me, 'Can you learn this Vaughan Williams piece and insert it in the intro of one of my songs tomorrow night?' or later, when we were recording Battle For Britain (The Letter) for Earthling, he said, 'Do you know the Stravinsky octet? Can you play something like that in your solo?' I ran downstairs to the record store, listened to the piece again - I hadn't heard it in thirty years - then I played this crazy solo and he was thrilled. He was very well informed about philosophy, books, music, sculpture - he edited an art magazine, he was good at singing, songwriting, producing... It was endless, y'know?
"He was funny, too. We played Glastonbury in 2000, the closing act after two or three days of all these kids in the rain and mud. We're about to go onstage. David got nervous and he said, 'Er, Mike. Go out and play five minutes by yourself, will you? To test the water?"
"The last time we played together was in 2006 at the Manhattan Centre. It was just me and David. We did Wild Is The Wind and Fantastic Voyage. Alicia Keys came on and sang Changes. We stayed in touch electronically, though. About three months ago we emailed about Nina Simone. We were laughing 'cos when we did Wild Is The Wind at the Manhattan Centre, he made me listen to her version first. She played great piano. He said, 'Check this out. Absorb her thing, then add your own.'"
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #5
"I realise now he was saying goodbye" - Brian Eno (producer: 1976-'79; 1995)
"David's death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him. I feel a huge gap now.
"We knew each other for over forty years, in a friendship that was always tinged by echoes of Pete and Dud. 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.
"About a year ago we started talking about Outside - the last album we worked on together. We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that. "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. 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."
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #6
"He whipped out a picture of Little Richard!" - Nile Rodgers (producer/guitarist: 1982-1993)
"I met him at an after-hours club called The Continental in 1982. I walked in with Billy Idol and we spotted David at the same moment. I went directly over to David and started chatting with him because I knew that he lived in the same building as a lot of the players on Young Americans, who were all friends that I grew up with - Luther Vandross, Carlos Alomar and his wife. We started chatting about our favourite jazz artists. I grew up in an era where fusion jazz had come into play, and also bebop jazz. David not only liked that, but he also liked Stan Getz and the 'smoother' side of jazz.
"We had just one other subsequent meeting; that was it. Next thing I know, he says: 'Hey, can you come over to Switzerland and work on some songs?' So I go in to the studio one day and he had written out the basics of a song that wound up being Let's Dance. But what he'd written sounded like a folk song to me. I thought that that was bizarre, as I thought he wanted to make a jazz album.
"Then he came to my apartment. He had something behind his back, and he says: 'Now darling, I want my LP to sound like this!' He whipped out a picture of Little Richard, in a red suit, getting into a red Cadillac convertible. And he says, 'You see that? That's rock'n'- roll!' He didn't want a record that went - 'Doo doodoo doo doodoo, good golly me!' He wanted an evergreen LP that's R&B-based, 'cos in those days rock'n'roll was called race music, Little Richard's music was race music, it was black music. He wanted music that was on the cutting edge, that made people feel uncomfortable, but compelled them to listen. All of that stuff was in that photo, and I got it.
"I had six flops in a row, so I couldn't understand why David told me, 'Nile, I want you do what you do best. I want a hit.' At that point, I was like The Terminator: I wouldn't stop until it was a hit. Let's Dance was the fastest LP I'd done in my life. Seventeen days from start to finish, mixed and all. David called me a few years later and we cut a song for the film Cool World [Real Cool World]. Then we did Black Tie White Noise. When we started, it was called The Wedding Album, as he was getting married to Iman. We wrote 'Black Tie White Noise' at the end. David explained to me how he and Iman were flying over LA and saw the riots and the city burning.
"I used to call David's office when Chic were doing a show in the area, to see if David would sing a couple of songs with us. A few years ago, I received an award. I was asked who I'd like to present it, and I said David. He couldn't, because Iman was getting an award that exact same day in San Francisco. But he did a fabulous film for me. It was so warm and gentlemanly. That was David, all the time."
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #7
"We spent hours taking turns with a hacksaw" - Reeves Gabrels (guitar/co-producer: 1988- 1999)
"David was ten years older than me. I have no siblings, so he was like an older brother. I met him through my ex-wife, who did press for him for a few weeks, backstage on one of the first US shows in 1987. We just started talking. I had gone to Parsons School Of Design and School Of Visual arts. I never said anything about playing music, and he just assumed I was a fine-arts painter. The first time we hung out, we were in his trailer watching Fantasy Island, and we started making up our own dialogue. My point is, we met as humans. After six or seven months, my ex-wife gave David a tape. He called me out of the blue and said, 'Why the fuck didn't you tell me?'
"One of the things I enjoyed most was making him laugh. He had a very large chest cavity. You could find him in a movie theatre - he'd whisper and you could hear this low rumble. I remember the funny times, the practical jokes. When we were working on Outside in Montreux, Eno would go into this chemist every day to buy a box of twenty-four condoms, as there was a very attractive woman behind the counter and he wanted to see what would happen. Every day, we'd hear about it. Eventually, David got an actor friend of the studio assistant to burst in and claim he was the woman's boyfriend. Brian told this guy he was a keyboard player and had to put condoms on his fingers because he played so hard they kept them from getting bruised and bleeding.
"Another time, we were working on backing vocals. We were trying to come up with a particular sound. David looked at the water cooler bottle and said, 'What if we cut the bottom out of one, put it over my head and put a mic in the hole?' So we spent what felt like two hours taking turns with a hacksaw cutting the bottom out. It fit over his head and shoulders, we put a mic through the top and he tried singing backing. It sounded like shit! But I learned the clock wasn't to be looked at in the studio and that what it took to get the song, or the work for the day, to appear could mean sitting around smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, reading The Times. 'Did you ever notice how capers are really funny-looking?' This could go on until one of us would pick up a guitar and David would go, 'hey! Do that again...' That way of working, it's almost like the old café society. More often than not, the studio felt like a lounge with a bunch of gear in it.
"We'd email back and forth. The last heavy exchange was after he had his bypass surgery. He swore me to secrecy about having chest pains. This was in '98. I'd tried to get him to go to the doctor. So we had a bit of 'I told you so...' One of the emails he sent was, 'I don't get to my computer much, but they let me have crayons here.'
"It's very easy to put David on this pedestal, to turn him into an icon. But it's important to remember what a regular guy, what a lad, what a human, David could be."
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #8
"His beautiful and warm humanity sets the bar for how anyone should live their life" - Henry Hey (pianist on The Next Day; musical director of Lazarus)
We had A lot of dialogue, talking about how the songs should fit in their place within Lazarus and how they should feel. There were several meetings where David and I would sit at my apartment and go over the intention of what the song arrangements would become. He was always very articulate about the concept, but very open to new ideas. As we went forward and I was developing arrangements, I'd send demos to him and we would talk about them some more. It was always an open discussion and an enjoyable process. He was always excited for new territory - thrilled with exploration, even in songs that were well-worn paths for him.
"David was quite hands-on about the show. He saw and approved every actor and band member who was presented to him. He cared a lot and it showed. He and I talked about the rehearsal process and we elected to have a week with just the band so we could get the music right. I believe it made a substantial difference. Everyone knows David was a visionary artist. His art transcended genre and medium, and so in working with him on Lazarus I had the rare fortune to witness a lot of these incredible cross concepts. However, perhaps the most impressive thing about David was that in spite of international fame and iconic stature, he was the most humble and gentle human. His beautiful and warm humanity sets the bar for how anyone should live their life."
ROCK'N'ROLL WITH ME #9
"It was like he'd teleported in" - Donny McCaslin (band leader: 2015)
The last time we spoke, I was about to hook up with David to listen to Blackstar for the first time. It was a wonderful day, and I was walking across Washington Square Park, heading over to his office not far from there. I got there and talked to him on the phone, and he said he was on his way, so his assistant put on the lP and I just sat back and listened, and... Oh God, it was so amazing to hear it. A part of that was a testament to David and Tony Visconti and the way they worked to comb through all the details. How they'd put everything together was really special.
"I was trying to take all that in, eyes closed, thinking, 'This is great', and then I opened my eyes and there's David Bowie in the room with a big smile on his face, like he'd teleported in while I was, y'know, having some tears or whatever. Something that was so exciting for me was seeing the joy in his face when he was pleased with a take. That must have been the last time I saw him. He was so vibrant and engaged from the moment he walked in the door, through the whole process, for all the time he put in. That's something I'll take with me for the rest of my life. It sounds like a cliché, but he was living life to the fullest, right? Recording with us during the day, then going to Henry Hey's place and working on Lazarus, then at night combing through what we'd cut that day or writing new music. He trusted us, and it meant the world to me. 'Gracious' is the word I come back to a lot when I try to describe him - and very generous. In the studio, and outside, too. I haven't been able to put Blackstar on since David passed away. I'm just about ready..."
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