David Bowie is still making headlines, six years after he died on Jan. 10, 2016. The shape-shifting musical provocateur had turned 69 just two days earlier.
Bowie’s death from cancer came two days before the release of “Blackstar,” which was his final album of newly recorded music. It remains a haunting elegy by a constantly daring artist who was acutely aware of his impending demise.
His legacy will be saluted in song today, Saturday, at 3 p.m. PST with “A Bowie Celebration.” The all-star online concert, which will stream for 24 hours, will feature various Bowie band alums — led by keyboard wizard Mike Garson — along with such guests as Def Leppard, Judith Hill, Living Colour, Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon and John Taylor, Evan Rachel Wood, Billy Corgan, Noel Gallagher, Gary Oldman, Walk the Moon, Rob Thomas, Charlie Sexton and more.
On Monday, Bowie’s estate announced it had sold the publishing rights to his extensive catalog of songs from 26 of his albums to Warner Chappell Music for a reported $250 million.
Last month saw the release of “David Bowie 5: Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001),” an 11-CD box set. It was followed yesterday by the long-overdue debut of “TOY (TOY:BOX ).” The 3-CD set, recorded in 2000, features revamped versions of pre-stardom songs he had originally recorded between 1964 — when he was still known as David Jones — and 1971.
Bowie did at least a half dozen interviews with the Union-Tribune over the years.
Alternately wry and reflective in conversation, he answered questions thoughtfully and with candor. This held especially true when the topics were ones he wasn’t usually asked about, such as how his approach to songwriting changed in the early 1990s, his abiding love for jazz and his saxophone command (or lack thereof).
“I feel I possibly have the technique of Bill Clinton and the enthusiasm of John Coltrane!” Bowie told me in this 1993 interview. It is one of my favorites and it appears here in full.
Bowie savors personal, musical ch-ch-changes
BY GEORGE VARGA
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 1993
“I have a memory rather like Swiss cheese,” David Bowie said with a chuckle.
Don’t believe it.
In a recent interview from London, the English pop superstar demonstrated otherwise, vividly recalling events ranging from his childhood saxophone lessons and lifelong love of jazz to his wedding last year to Somalian-born model-actress Iman.
The marriage, his second, inspired the music and lyrics to several of the songs on Bowie’s arresting new solo album, “Black Tie White Noise.” The album is Bowie’s first solo release in six years and his first since becoming “just one of the guys” in Tin Machine, the hard-rocking quartet with which he has twice toured and recorded since 1988.
In many ways a musical summation of his entire solo career, “Black Tie” finds Bowie adding new twists to dance-pop, techno-funk, art-rock and several other styles from his distant and recent musical past. It also reteams him with Chic’s Nile Rodgers, the producer who helped make Bowie’s 1983 rock ‘n’ soul album, “Let’s Dance,” the biggest commercial success of his career.
Recorded while Tin Machine is on hiatus, “Black Tie” prominently features horn arrangements by Chico O’Farrill, the veteran composer/arranger best known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and, currently, the all-star Mario Bauza Latin Jazz Orchestra. The album’s featured soloist is equally intriguing — progressive jazz trumpeter/flugelhornist Lester Bowie, a mainstay of Brass Fantasy and The Art Ensemble of Chicago.
‘Angel for life’
“I was and am a fan of both, especially Brass Fantasy,” said Bowie, 46, of the ensemble led by his trumpet-playing namesake.
“Lester’s brother, (trombonist) Joe, turned me on to Lester’s stuff in London in the early ‘80s. Somehow, I knew we’d eventually work together, and this album was pivotal in making that possible.”
The two Bowies spent so much time talking while recording the “Black Tie” album that the studio became “a muso’s (musician’s) hang-out,” the English Bowie recalled with delight.
“Lester is a wonderful storyteller and a great source of anecdotes about what it was like working with Martha Reeves and all the Motown people in the ‘60s,” he continued. “Then we’d just start recording, and he’d blast, he’d just explode on trumpet. And this fantastic stuff would cling to the tape.”
On “Looking For Lester,” an instrumental partly inspired by jazz sax legend John Coltrane, Bowie reteams with onetime Spiders From Mars keyboardist Mike Garson.
Alternately edgy and inviting, “Black Tie” finds Bowie playing electronically treated saxophone nearly as often as he sings. And — rather than create a sequel to such highly dramatic Bowie personas of the past as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke — the now happily drug-free Man Who Fell To Earth appears happy to let down his guard and just be himself.
In an unlikely but fruitful pairing, the album teams Bowie with R&B singer Al B. Sure! on its captivating title track, which was inspired by last year’s Los Angeles riots (and briefly segues into Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”). Nearly as good is the CD-only bonus track “Lucy Can’t Dance,” an infectious, up-tempo number with considerable hit-single potential; and “Jump They Say,” a haunting song about the suicide of Bowie’s brother, Terry.
Also featured are two unexpected cover versions: Morrisey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” sung in a Johnny Ray-ish croon that Bowie slyly has described as “Me singing Morrisey singing me”; and “I Feel Free,” the 1960s Cream chestnut-turned-Tin-Machine rave-up, which now features a snappy dance-pop beat and a cameo by ex-Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson.
Most unexpected of all, the 13-song album showcases some of the most unabashedly romantic songs ever written by Bowie, a man who in the past has greatly favored cool irony and cynical detachment over even a hint of warmth or undisguised self-confession.
On “The Wedding Song,” to cite the most overt example, he sings (swoons, actually) that his new wife is his “angel for life.” Elsewhere, he marvels aloud at just how happy he is.
‘Rock and a hard place’
Because of his current romantic bliss, Bowie does not plan to tour in support of “Black Tie” in 1993, although he is scheduled to resume recording with Tin Machine later this year.
“Being the newly married man and all that, I’m being precious about my time,” he said. “The last thing I want to do right now is tour.”
Bowie’s marriage to Iman last April followed a courtship of several years. The couple’s union also led directly to his new solo album, although purely by accident rather than design.
“Funnily enough, the whole thing centers on the fact I had to write music for the church service for Iman and myself,” he explained. “She brought her whole family over from Africa, and they’re all Muslim, and everyone in my family is Protestant, so I was stuck between a rock and hard place.
“I had to make music that would make both sides comfortable and depict the way I felt about the marriage and the process. And I started questioning my commitment: ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Is it real?’ ‘And, if so, why haven’t I made it before?’
“It became analytical and produced a watershed of ideas. Before I knew it, I was writing lots of stuff, not just for the church (ceremony) but for me. And that became the first solo album I’ve done in nearly seven years.”
On several songs on his new album, Bowie sings of his relation with Iman with uncharacteristic elation.
But his elation seems tempered by a sense of disbelief, as if he couldn’t quite grasp being so happy and in love. Or, on the other hand, as if Bowie was afraid his state of joy would suddenly evaporate.
“This was, remember, before the wedding,” he said wryly of the writing of his latest batch of songs. “Now that I’m a very happy man, and very lucky, I think I’m almost taking that as my reality. And my priority is to sustain this state.”
Bowie and producer Rodgers have avoided making “Black Tie White Noise” a calculated, commercially oriented sequel to their multimillion-selling 1983 collaboration, “Let’s Dance.” Instead, they ingeniously combine elements of funk, hip-hop, rap, rock, jazz and World Music with various electronic effects in a deliberately off-beat but inviting manner.
“That’s probably not one of my most original approaches, but it’s one I find satisfying,” noted Bowie.
“As I get older, I want to take advantage of the writing and techniques I’ve used in the past to support the material. Whereas when I was younger, it would’ve been the reverse, where I wrote the music to highlight the techniques I had.”
Technique is something Bowie admits he lacks on alto saxophone, the instrument of his youth that he performed on intermittently in the ‘70s and resurrected in Tin Machine and on his new solo album. To hear him tell it now, his devotion to the instrument is so great, he’s now a veritable sax addict who has no intention of stopping.
“The last time I played sax on record was probably on (the 1980 album) ‘Scary Monsters,’ where I played some background stuff,” he recalled.
“Because of my working with Tin Machine, it was something I started doing quite a lot. And by the end of the (last) Tin Machine tour, I was playing quite a lot of sax — to the disgruntlement of Reeves (Gabrels, Tin Machine’s guitarist), even taking some of his solos.
“I didn’t stop when the tour ended; I carried on. And when it got to (writing) the wedding music, I was writing with saxophone and keyboards. I found it very useful.”
And how does Bowie rate his own playing?
“I feel I possibly have the technique of Bill Clinton and the enthusiasm of John Coltrane!” he quipped.
“But my approach has been somewhat different. In the mid-’70s, (pop-funk alto saxophonist) David Sanborn was working with my band and doing something real interesting. He was just starting to get into electronics and treating the sax signal and the sound of the sax (electronically), but he backed off soon thereafter.
“I was always intrigued and wondered what would have happened if he’d continued; with his technique, he could have been Jimi Hendrix with a saxophone. Now I’m treating the saxophone (electronically, using) foot pedals. It’s interesting to do it like that.”
It was the saxophone that first drew 8-year-old David Jones (he adopted Bowie as a professional surname in 1966) to music. He credits two records with casting a permanent spell on him — Little Richard’s “She’s Got It” (featuring tenor saxophonist Lee Allen) and jazz alto saxophonist Earl Bostic’s 1951 hit, “Flamingo.”
“Those are two things that were total inspirations about what I wanted to do with my life,” said Bowie, his childhood awe still audible in his voice.
“My father kindly got me a saxophone on what we call ‘hire-purchase,’ which was a little money down and then pay monthly for . . . 15 years! I got a white Ebonite saxophone; (top English saxophonist) Johnny Dankworth used to play one. It was flashy, an alto, and,” he intoned solemnly, “it was a sax.
“For a year or two after that, I delivered papers and did odd jobs to pay my father back. And I got a plastic reed to get something somewhere near the Bostic sound.”
Bowie then took lessons from baritone saxophonist Ronnie Russ, whom he describes as England’s answer to Gerry Mulligan. His formal studies proved decidedly brief, however.
“After seven lessons, I knew I had it under control and said, ‘I know it all; I’m joining a rock band’,” Bowie recalled gleefully.
“The irony is that when I produced Lou Reed’s (1973 album) ‘Walk On The Wild Side,’ I hired Ronnie to play a solo. I walked out with red hair and no eyebrows and said, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but you gave me sax lessons when I was 10.’ ”
A longtime jazz fan who has previously collaborated with guitarist Pat Metheny, Bowie speaks with insight and reverence about the music of Miles Davis, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, the Modern Jazz Quartet and other American music pioneers who inspired him.
And how has Bowie’s own music been influenced by jazz, which he credits for inspiring Tin Machine’s improvisational abandon in concert?
“I think just by giving me an understanding that it’s OK to drift between the spaces created by the melody,” he said. “The melody is a schematic, an outline for what you can do. Sometimes mistakes — or events one can consider mistakes — can actually be spontaneous impulses worth building on. Jazz has helped me realize that the accidents are happy surprises that can give you new insight.
“But the most important thing for me was (learning) that the spaces between the notes are where the action really is.”
Bowie cites his 1974 solo album “Diamond Dogs” as the first time his jazz influence manifested itself to a significant degree. He recalls it as a liberating experience.
“I didn’t feel obliged to work within a straight band format of a stereotypical rock nature, and it opened things up a lot,” he said.
“Coincidentally, at the same time I was doing ‘Diamond Dogs’ — very much single-handedly — at Olympic Studios in London, next door in the adjoining studio was (future Bowie collaborator and ambient electronic music pioneer) Brian Eno doing his ‘Here Comes the Warm Jets’ album in much the same way. It was neat that we were working in the same ‘fragmented’ way right next to each other, (although) Eno and I never knew that until quite a few years later.”
Having publicly and, he has vowed, permanently retired all of his previous solo repertoire on his 1990 “Sound + Vision” tour, Bowie is now free to pursue Tin Machine and his newly resurrected solo career at his leisure. And while he has no master plan for the future, he firmly believes that “Black Tie” marks a well-placed step in the right direction.
“It was important to me that this would be an album that I could safely play for my enjoyment and feel that what I put down was, for me, a personally fulfilling experience,” he said. “Overall, it’s an album I will rest very easily with over the years.”