David Bowie’s bandmates explain just how he got them to sound like that

“And on keyboard…”
“And on keyboard…”
Image: AP Photo/Bob Child, File
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“He always had a vision, but he never micromanaged,” says keyboardist Mike Garson of David Bowie, whose death shocked the world earlier this week. “Whatever it took to stretch the boundaries, no matter how wild it sounded, David was game. That’s where his genius was, almost like a great casting director. In that sense he was like Miles Davis: He knew who to pick to work with, and he knew if he got out of the way and let them do their thing, he’d get the most out of them.”

Much has been written about Bowie since his death on Jan. 10 from liver cancer. Articles have focused on the undeniable impact of his music on the world, the fact that he was the first major artist to declare himself gay (a claim he later withdrew) and on the almost eerie predictions contained in his new album, Blackstar, released last Friday, on his 69th birthday. Most of all, there’s been a sense of overwhelming sadness from people of all ages and from all walks of life.

To the people who worked with Bowie, his lasting legacy is his uncompromising artistic spirit. That’s something we all witnessed from afar, but which they saw up close. His colleagues insist this quality is what sets him apart from his peers, and offers a lesson to anyone striving to reach the top of their profession.

“The lack of fear that he showed, even in his death, that’s something that went through his whole musical life,” Ken Scott tells Quartz. Scott worked with Bowie on his seminal early-1970s albums and produced his breakthrough albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Hunky Dory. “I think there was a certain amount of fear when we started Hunky Dory, but as things started to come together, and it was obvious it was working, that fear started to disappear. From then on, he felt more and more sure and less and less fearful. That’s why he could go from one genre to another. Most artists, if they’re successful, they stick to that plan, because they’re worried that they’ll suddenly lose their fans. But David’s attitude was always, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do and hope they come along with me, but if they don’t, they don’t.’ That’s truly unique and totally courageous, especially in music.”

Scott also says that Bowie moved fast, and was always ahead of almost everyone around him in knowing where to head next.

“The whole thing with David was that he was never in today, he was always in tomorrow,” Scott explains. “It was only three weeks after recording Hunky Dory that we recorded Ziggy Stardust. That leap from a very understated, acoustic record to a complete rock and roll record occurred over just those three weeks. Then, when we were working together on a track for Diamond Dogs, less than a year later, and David kept on relating everything to a Barry White album he had been listening to. He wanted that Philly sound; that soul sound. He was already thinking toward the American soul thing he’d eventually get to. He was ready to make that change immediately after Pin Ups, while he was working on Diamond Dogs, which is unbelievable to me.”

Recently flush with success, Bowie was completely willing to tear up his formula and to follow his muse, Scott says.

“David was never working towards trying to have a multimillion seller,” Scott says. “We were working towards making music we could be proud of. If people liked it, that would be amazing, but that would just be the icing on the cake. But that’s what David did his entire career. He made records for himself. He knew what he wanted, but he didn’t always know how to get it. That’s where everyone else came into play. We were there to help him achieve his dream of making an album that he could be proud of but that was his.”

Bowie also worked fast, and instinctively.

“He didn’t overthink it,” Garson tells Quartz, recalling the man he worked alongside on 18 albums and countless tours. “If you didn’t have what he wanted by the second, or every once in a while the third time, it was over. You’d have to come back another day. And that suited me just fine, and I think he knew that. We were very different people, but we saw eye-to-eye on spontaneity in conversation, how to create in the moment, and in saying, thinking, and writing how you feel in that moment. I think he looked for people who could switch with him whenever he switched.”

“David demanded your best,” legendary guitarist Earl Slick, who also worked with Bowie from his breakthrough early-70s period until his surprise return, The Next Day, in 2013, tells Quartz. “I started with him in 1974 on the tour supporting the Diamond Dogs album. I was young and on stage with all of these great players, like David Sanborn and Michael Kaman and Mike Garson, so that was really cool. But he knew I could do it, maybe before I did.”

Slick and Bowie parted company after their remarkable collaborations on Bowie’s 1976 album Station To Station, but Slick returned when Stevie Ray Vaughn dropped out of 1983’s Serious Moonlight tour, supporting the smash Let’s Dance album. He returned again in 2000, playing on the tour in support of Hours…, the albums Heathen and Reality and the tours that followed, and finally for The Next Day.

“He’d emailed me out of the blue to see what my schedule was and almost immediately we were in the studio, working,” Slick says of the secretive sessions for Bowie’s comeback album three years ago. “My favorite song from that album is probably ‘Valentine’s Day’, because we cut it as a band, live in the studio. We’d worked together so long that we knew when something was working, and we generally worked really fast. But it was always really good. So it was great to reconnect, and it was great to see him looking so good and hear him sounding so good. It was a really special experience working with David again.”

Bowie also found ways to communicate what he was trying to achieve to the musicians that he worked with in unique and unusual ways.

“He told me a story about each song before we started,” Alex Alexander, who supplied percussion on The Next Day, recalls. “Then he came into the studio to pick out colors he liked in my instruments.”

Bowie was always searching for something new and different, but wasn’t always sure what that was until he heard it. He often had unusual ways of finding those sounds, according to guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who founded the alt-rock Tin Machine with Bowie in 1989 and went on to play with him for 11 years.

“The first time we worked together he said, ‘Maybe you could build German gothic cathedral architecture out of guitar’, and I just kind of went, ‘Okay…’,” Gabrels tells Quartz. “Other times it was, ‘This should be like Jackson Pollock,’ or ‘This should be like ‘The Persistence of Memory’ by Salvador Dali, but with melting guitars instead of melting clocks.’ Or other times he’d say that it should feel like something written by Terry Southern. The reference points were rarely specifically musical. They were almost always visual or about feeling.”

Garson, who played the remarkable, jazz-infused piano solo on the title track to Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album, agrees that Bowie was open to all ideas and constantly moving.

“On the first take I did a blues-based solo, and David asked afterward why I didn’t do any of the ‘crazy jazz’ he’d heard I’d been playing in New York City before we met,” Garson tells Quartz. “I asked if he was sure that was what he wanted–because that’s exactly why I wasn’t working when I met him, which he laughed about–and the rest is history. For ‘Time,’ on that that album, it felt to me like an avant-garde ragtime piano from the ’20s, but twisted a little bit. He pulled that out of me. Then, on ‘Lady Grinning Soul,’ I felt this really romantic, very Franz Liszt virtuoso thing, with all these runs, almost like Liberace playing. You throw in that with some of the rock piano on the tunes, like the intro on ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together,’ and he got the essence of everything I had been working on prior to meeting him, and he pulled all that out of me on one album. Considering that he was coming off the Ziggy album, which was all guitar-based, just a few months before, and now he was onto something piano-based and really unusual, it’s really extraordinary for an artist who was just starting to have hits to rip up his formula and create something totally different.”

After a commercially fruitful but artistically barren 1980s, Bowie reconnected with some of the musicians he felt the most kinship with.

“His exact words to me when we reconnected were, ‘Mike, I wasn’t happy with a lot of the commercial things I did in the ’80s. I was being pressured by the record company, and I ended up compromising my integrity. So what I would like to do now is this wild, improvised kind of album where I pick all the people who have been my strongest influences, to take me out of my comfort zone,’” says Garson. “He chose me, Reeves Gabrels, and he chose Brian Eno, and we went over to Montreux and we improved for hours a day. We just played and played and played. We could do whatever we wanted. Day after day it was the wildest kind of creativity you could ask for. That became the album Outside, which most people don’t know. He left us a lot of great music, and some of it people have never heard. Maybe now people will start looking at his back catalog. I sure hope so.”

By 2000, Bowie’s creative output was again solid. His albums Heathen and Reality were considered returns to form, and his live shows drew on his deep catalogue rather than just the hits. Garson says the period rivaled the halcyon days of the Spiders From Mars.

“Everybody talks about the ’70s, but they don’t have a clue what they saw,” Garson says with a chuckle. “I’m hoping those things ultimately get released, because the reason he’s known for Ziggy, and that it’s his ultimate contribution, has to do with the concept of zeitgeist. It was in the consciousness of the planet, whatever he did then. It was something to do with timing. That’s why that stuff is so well known. But on that last tour the band was tight like crazy. We were at our pinnacle. Sadly, people didn’t realize how great it was.”

Guitarist Gerry Leonard, who co-wrote several songs on The Next Day with Bowie and was on those final tours, also has fond memories of playing with a legend who was remarkably collaborative.

“David had a profound effect on my life, and I can see that now,” Leonard says, reflecting on his work with Bowie. “He was a master and I was an apprentice and I learned a lot from him. But he was very generous with that relationship, and never treated you like the apprentice. When you were making music with him, he wanted it to be a level playing field. He wanted you to behave like an equal, or to try at least. That’s an incredibly generous way of working with someone, to make them feel that they’re wanted for what they bring to the table.”

Ultimately, though, Bowie was the legend in the room, and will be remembered keenly by those who worked most closely with him.

“David was always focused on his art,” says Alexander. “He always looked to the horizons for inspiration, setting a great example for us all. He was a gentleman and was always humble about his legacy, too. He was a true giant at his craft, smart and witty, always.”

“We had our glory years, short-lived, but they will be a part of history,” says Scott. “It’s something I look back on with such fond memories. The way David trusted me to help him achieve his dream is just astounding.”

“Ten months ago, some writer in England wrote a biography about me,” Garson says. “He asked me to listen to 50 songs I’d played on with David that he felt had a lot of impact on his music. So I did that over the course of a few hours. That’s not something I’d normally do and I was so blown away, because I was compressing 30 years into two hours. It was overwhelming. I wrote David an e-mail, immediately, saying I couldn’t believe what we’d accomplished. He immediately wrote back: ‘We did some great work together.’ I can’t begin to tell you how final that communication felt, though I didn’t realize that was why he sent it. He knew we were never going to work again. But it was a beautiful note, because he knew.”

He also turned his final artistic statement, his album Blackstar, and even, in many ways, his death, into a beautiful work of art.

“His death was a work of art,” Gabrels insists. “David was a big Warhol fan, and saw life as a work of art. We always joked that we’d be old men sitting on a porch in Vermont–because he loved it up there–arguing about obscure art and literature, but mostly I’m glad he was able to bring it in for a landing on his own terms. The loop feels closed, and for those of us who knew and loved him, I think that’s everything.”

“I don’t think anyone in music history has ever been able to do what David did,” Scott agrees. “He recorded that album that basically prophesied his passing. When he completed that album, with those songs, he couldn’t possibly have known when it was going to happen. But he had such an absolute mastery of his art. It’s phenomenal that he thought so much about the public that he would do that.”

“He kept his privacy intact and was doing great work right up until the end,” Garson says. “He went out doing art. He even got to have his birthday and see through the new album and off he went. Only David could have achieved in death as much as he did in life. That’s truly a testament to how great he was.”