- 10 Jan 20
A dominant artistic force for five decades, David Bowie meant so many different things to so many different people. On the fourth anniversary of his death, we revisit our 2016 tribute to Bowie – talking to the Irishman who served as his musical director, Gerry Leonard, and recalling the Hot Press interviews with everyone from Morrissey and Nile Rodgers to Chris Hadfield and Brandon Flowers, in which his talents were celebrated.
It’s arguable as to who had the busier Christmas: Santa or the Grim Reaper. In the space of five extremely depressing days, we lost Lemmy, John Bradbury from The Specials, celebrated Northern Irish musician Mudd Wallace and Natalie Cole. Hopes of 2016 bringing a respite were cruelly dashed at 6.30am on Monday January 10, when it was announced on his website that David Bowie had died at home in New York following an 18-month battle with cancer that only the most innermost of his circle had been privy too.
Irrational hopes that the short message – “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family” – was the work of some sickfuck hacker were quickly dashed when his son, Duncan Jones, messaged a few hours later: “Very sorry and sad to say it’s true.”
So, that was it. The catsuited guy who at a shade after 7.45pm on July 6, 1972 had changed my life by performing ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops with the equally exotic Spiders From Mars was dead. Both the adult and nine-year-old me, whose somewhat monochrome existance had suddenly switched into Technicolour that summer’s night, felt like they’d been punched in the gut.
You’ll finds variants of the same “Bowie on Top Of The Pops” story told by Joe Elliott, Ian McCulloch, John Lydon, Jarvis Cocker, Boy George, Shaun Ryder, Gary Kemp, Dave Gahan, Holly Johnson, Gary Numan, Simon Le Bon, Peter Hook, Marc Almond – and plenty of the non-future rock stars who’d been sat in front of the telly when Ziggy draped his arm over Mick Ronson.
Maybe it’s just me projecting, but the mandatory celebrity tributes to the Jones boy seemed more heartfelt and personal than usual. In the case of the aforementioned Marc Almond, almost unbearably so.
“It’s not often I truly cry at the loss of an artist but I’m devastated,” he said. “He meant so much. Goodbye David Bowie and our youth. We loved you.”
Of course, you don’t have to be male and over 50 to be a Bowie obsessive. The teenage Stefani Germanotta fell in love with her “alien prince” after hearing Aladdin Sane for the first time; being played ‘Heroes’ by her Mum was what hooked the junior school-attending Jannelle Monáe; and seeing Labyrinth made a prepubescent Ke$ha realise that college and conformity were not an option.
“When I fell in love with David Bowie, when I was living on the Lower East Side, I always felt that his glamour was something he was using to express a message to people that was very healing for their souls,” Gaga told the Hollywood Reporter last week. “He is a true, true artist; that’s what drew me to him.”
Bowie’s talents crossed genres as easily as they did generations. Kanye West was also a massive fan. “David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations,” he said. “So fearless, so creative. He gave us so much.” Gaz Coombes, meanwhile, nailed it with his advice: “If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”
He Recited ‘The Owl And The Pussycat’ To My Daughter
Given all the musical wonderfulness that came before it, it’s fitting that the record released just two days before David Bowie’s death, Blackstar, genuinely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as earlier classics Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low and Heroes.
January 8 was also the day David turned 69, a milestone marked by a tribute night in Cork – and a whole weekend of birthday festivities in Dublin where his musical lieutenant of the past 15-years, Gerry Leonard, was among the celebrants.
Like such fellow Bowie intimates as Brian Eno, Reeves Gabrels, Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey and Earl Slick, Gerry had been completely unaware of his illness.
“I got a real shock,” the Dubliner tells Hot Press. “The birthday gig on Sunday night was such a joyous occasion. I hung out with the reprobates until about 2.30am and then went to bed. The phone rang at 7am. It was somebody from a radio station saying, ‘Have you heard the news? David has passed away. Do you want to talk?’ I just mumbled something like, ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to call me back’. I went and had a coffee and tried to get my head around it all.
“I didn’t know whether to talk or not talk, but they said on RTÉ that Dave Fanning was going to be on the Ryan Tubridy Show and I thought, ‘If he’s doing it, it feels right’. So I gathered my thoughts, and spoke to Ryan and some other stations, which had a sort of cathartic effect until around five o’clock when I just started repeating myself.”
Asked whether he had even the vaguest inkling that Bowie was ill, Gerry shakes his head mournfully. “No, I didn’t,” he says. “David has always been a very private person. When The Next Day came out and he wasn’t talking, I asked, ‘Do you mind me doing interviews?’ and he said, ‘Fine, just don’t mention my personal life’. We were good friends, but not in a ‘I’ll be over for tea, Dave’ way. There was a line. With David there were always concentric circles; the inner circle obviously knew and the rest of us didn’t, which I think is fitting. And what a glorious exit: Blackstar is a work of art!”
Gerry only got to hear Bowie’s latest avant jazz adventure on the day of its release.
“Yeah, I downloaded it from iTunes like everyone else,” he smiles. “It was the same with The Next Day. Even though I was involved with it from the very start, and heard mixes as we went along, I didn’t hear the finished record until the day of release. I suppose I could have gone down to Tony Visconti’s studio or called up the office and said, ‘Hey, remember me?’ but it’s not in my nature to do that.”
How were things left after those The Next Day sessions?
“David had been extremely positive during them, showing up early, working really hard and loving what we were doing, but there was no, ‘See you next year’. There were a bunch of leftover tracks, which he could have added two or three more to and had an album, but I thought to myself, ‘No, that’s not his style. David’s going to do something else’.”
When did Gerry realise that that ‘something else’ was a Kendrick Lamar and Boards Of Canada-influenced record involving musicians Bowie had mostly never worked with before?
“Tony Visconti’s son asked me to be part of the house band he put together for his Dad’s 70th birthday,” he reminisces. “I was honoured to do it and we got to play T.Rex and Bowie and Wings and all that other stuff Tony had worked on. David came to the party – it was great to see him and he gave me a big hug and we chatted. He was like, ‘I’m doing something else. I’m not going to call you for it, but don’t worry, I’ll be seeing you again’. That was really reassuring.
“When he worked earlier in the year with Maria Schneider on ‘Sue’, I wrote to him and said, ‘That’s awesome!’ He wrote back, ‘You like it?’ and I replied, ‘I really like it, she’s a genius’. And very kindly he said, ‘Not unlike yourself, Gerry’. That’s a tremendous compliment – but I also take it with a pinch of salt!”
It’s been widely reported that David and his family had moved to upstate New York but, no, Gerry reveals, he was still a Manhattan resident.
“David had been building a house in Woodstock ever since he was up a mountain there making Heathen, fell in love with the place and bought a property in the town,” he explains. “He spent summers upstate because Iman and his daughter, Lexi, loved the countryside. I think the new house is finally done, but David wasn’t the squire with the wax jacket. He loved the city. I live in Woodstock too, so when we were doing The Next Day, I’d get a call saying, ‘Get the drum machine and the coffee ready, I’ll be over to work on a song’.
“I think he called around three times that autumn,” Gerry continues. “He recited The Owl And The Pussycat to my daughter who was eight at the time, and played with her. They’re both characters, so they had a grand old time. His daughter’s a similar age, so he’s really comfortable with kids.”
Another of his fondest Bowie memories is when they played The Point in 2003 as part of the Reality Tour.
“It was incredibly nerve-wracking for me because it was a sort of homecoming,” Gerry recalls. “I was also really proud because all my family and friends were there, and I was returning as a guitar-player with David. You couldn’t ask for a better situation than that. The two Dublin concerts were being filmed for a DVD, and I was the Musical Director. There were a lot of logistics. I was really trying to stay focused. I practiced some meditation and Buddhism when I went to America and, I tell you. I was pulling that stuff out! There was lots of fun backstage. David wanted an Irish phrase. The one I came up with courtesy of my brother-in-law was ‘Tiocfaidh Ar La’. I said, ‘I got to tell you in advance this is a little controversial’, but he loved it. If you look at the concert film, it’s the first thing he says when he comes out onto the Point stage, and the crowd go crazy!”
The details are sketchy, but Bowie’s mother, Mary Margaret Burns, is said to be of Donegal stock.
“I dont know whether that’s true,” Gerry tells us. “It’s not something we discussed. He never seemed terribly concerned with nationalism to me.”
Does Gerry feel he got to know David Jones as opposed to David Bowie?
“I got as much of David as he wanted me to get. He’s not a sentimental ‘Remember that time?’ person. He’s more like, ‘What are we doing now? Have you heard about this?’ Or he’d be checking out my bookshelves. He got very excited when he spotted a Spike Milligan one that he loved. Usually, though, it was very current. David was so illuminating to be around. He was such a great conversationalist.”
During the late ‘90s/early naughties, virtually every hip young band returning from the Big Apple spoke excitedly of Bowie turning up at their gig.
“He would always want to know what you were listening to and debate it, which was a little terrifying!” Gerry laughs. “He’s such a musicologist and also has this razor eye for fashion and art. He’s very discerning and knows exactly what he likes and why he likes it. I’d send him a few songs from somebody new I was into and he’d have no problem saying, ‘No, I’m not getting it...’ David spotted Arcade Fire really early, and was into Mumford & Sons before they broke. He’d have made a great A&R man!”
Did they go to gigs together?
“We went to see his old pal, Robert Fripp, in the Winter Garden; you wouldn’t believe how quickly doors open when you’re with David Bowie! He’s very supportive of the people he’s played with, so we went to Gail Ann Dorsey’s show in Joe’s Pub. He wasn’t in the mosh-pit, but he was a good audience member. We were in the studio one day doing The Next Day, and he said, ‘Do you want to turn it up? I like a bit of loud!’ He’d stand in front of the PA, no bother!”
It’s noticeable that 72 hours after learning of his death, Gerry is still referring to David in the present.
“It’s going to take a lot of us a long time to compute,” he rues. “I’ll miss his laugh. I’ll miss his voice on the telephone. ‘Gerry, Gerry, what do you think about this?’ ‘Gerry, Gerry, I’ve an idea’... I’ll miss those chats about music. He was such an amazing creative force. I’ve played with a lot of great people, but nobody will ever take his place. I knew that from the moment I started working with David. He was able to channel and distill so much from so many different sources and frame it in a way that made it accessible to people.
“He also had that outrageous sense of fashion, yet somehow it didn’t seem out of place,” Gerry adds. “And there were always these arresting images, like the ‘Lazarus’ video he left us with. He had that incredible sense of self, and was able to say, ‘Okay, I know what’s coming and I’m going to put my house in order’. Blackstar is like David speaking to us from the other side.”
Hot Press were fervent admirers of David Bowie’s, and not always from afar. In 1999, he played an intimate gig in the Hot Press-built HQ venue on Dublin’s Middle Abbey Street, supported by Placebo and Talvin Singh, who was entrusted with record spinning duties. It was one of the most prestigious sponsored gigs of all time, organised by Denis Desmond of MCD, and bankrolled by Guinness.
Earlier in the day, yours truly had been granted an audience with the disgustingly well-preserved 52-year-old in Bono and Edge’s Clarence Hotel. Bowie Bonds, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine movie, possible Ziggy theatrical spin-offs, his infatuation with drum ‘n’ bass, Scott Walker, and the song he was most proud of – ‘Warszawa’ from Low, in case you’re wondering – were all discussed in an interview that can be found in full on hotpress.com. The young HQ staffer who brought him his post-soundcheck tea ‘n’ biccies was asked to take a tea-break herself and tell him who her favourite young Irish bands and DJs were. Notes were taken and a minion dispatched the following morning to the Virgin Megastore to stock up on their records. There were around 400 people shoehorned into HQ, all of whom went apeshit when Bowie walked on, sat down at the piano and launched into ‘Life On Mars?’ His Hours... album had just been released, so we got a smattering of tunes from that – the jury was out at the time, but it’s a great record – plus a Tin Machine tune, ‘I Can’t Read’, and factory-fresh renditions of the song he borrowed from Iggy, ‘China Girl’, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’, ‘Drive-In Saturday’, ‘Changes’ and the closing ‘Rebel Rebel’. I’m sure I’m not the only one who cried with joy that night.
David Bowie’s in a Coffee Shop in New York Talking to Me
It’s telling that in the 25-years I’ve written for Hot Press, no other artist, Michael Jackson, Elvis or John Lennon included, has come up for interview discussion as often as David Bowie. He really is the quintessential musician’s musician.
Morrissey’s not a man to throw compliments around, but he was gushing in his praise for David when Paul Nolan met him in 2008.
“Weirdly,” he revealed, “the very first time my name was printed in the press was in 1972, because I’d entered a competition in Sounds magazine to win the forthcoming David Bowie LP – which was Ziggy Stardust – and I won. I’d bought ‘Starman’ but didn’t know anything about David, and hadn’t even seen a picture of him. I know it’s difficult to imagine for very young people now, but Bowie cropping up on BBC’s Nationwide in 1972 alongside Arthur Scargill and elderly people trapped in their own maisonettes was jaw-dropping.
“He was so important to me because his vocal melodies were so strong and his appearance was so confrontational,” he continued. “Manchester, then, was full of boot boys and skinheads and macho-macho thugs, but I saw Bowie’s appearance as the ultimate bravery. To me, it took guts to be David Bowie, not to be a shit-kicking skinhead in a pack. He just did not care. And all people care to a ridiculous degree – we’re all so frightened and boxed-in. Bowie would roll into Doncaster and Bradford in 1972 looking as he did, and if you had a problem with it then it was your problem, not his. He wasn’t persecuted by anything. It was the people who objected who were persecuted. I was very grateful, even though it wasn’t in my instinct to dress like him or imitate him.”
Asked by yours truly in 2012 whether he’d ever been starstruck, The Cure’s Robert Smith got straight to the point. “Only once,” he said, “which was when David Bowie asked me to play at his birthday party concert in Madison Square Garden. When I walked on to rehearse ‘Quicksand’ with him, it felt like I was dreaming. When he started playing guitar, I thought, ‘This guy’s been my hero since my early teens and it’s just the two of us on this huge, big stage. How the fuck did that happen?’ The stuff you’re into as a kid is always what makes the biggest impression. Bowie, Tommy Cooper, punk exploding... those are the memories you carry with you through life.”
A fan who became a close friend is Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins.
“I saw him last year, when he played in Chicago,” he told Paul Nolan in 2005. “He was incredible, the best I’d ever heard him sing. It was fantastic, I just loved the shit out of it. He certainly made some phenomenal records, but the thing was that he was a big influence on bands that I love. So I guess you could say that he’s been an indirect influence, in that I love Joy Division as much as I love David Bowie.
“I’ve known him now for 10 or 12 years, and find that the more I run into him, the warmer he gets. Each time you get a little closer to the man. He’s very well-read, he always keeps himself up on culture, and he always has something to say about everything, and that’s my favourite kind of guy. You can talk to David about politics, you can talk to him about Gene Vincent. He’ll hang with you on whatever. He’s very inspiring in that way.”
The profound influence Bowie had on other artists was highlighted again in 2013 when Joe Elliott talked to Roisin Dwyer. “Everything Bowie touched was genius,” he ventured. “He gave Mott a career, he gave Lou Reed his only hit and he helped Iggy along. There was a period when he was influencing everybody. The first song that Def Leppard ever played, when we got together in a rehearsal room, was ‘Suffragette City’.”
When Joe and Bowie’s paths crossed, it was usually on Irish soil.
“The first time, god bless Bono, was when David was in Dublin on the Sound & Vision tour and he came to a party in Bono’s house. He knew I was such a fan, he must have said to David, ‘Give Joe five minutes’. There were about 100 people there, so I had my little meet and greet, like when people meet The Pope or something. He was really sweet! Then I saw him in the Baggot with the first Tin Machine album, and the next time was in the Factory. He remembered me from Bono’s house so we talked and he introduced me to his wife Iman.
“People will be reading this thinking, ‘Oh, he’s Def Leppard, surely he should be talking about Led Zep or Sabbath?’” Joe concluded. “Trust me, I’m more Bowie, Bolan, Mott and Roxy. All that art-rock stuff that blew my mind when I was 12. I just ended up in a rock band!”
Also among the 250 people who managed to blag their way into that legendary 1991 Tin Machine gig was Jerry Fish.
“He’s just the most unassuming, down to earth bloke you’ll ever meet,” Jerry told us a few years back. “That’s kind of a surprise, because you expect him to be some sort of alien. I remember hearing Bowie for the first time, I was a T.Rex fan as a kid in the ‘70s, and Aladdin Sane was in the shops the same time as The Slider. I would’ve been very young, maybe nine or 10 at the time.
“What I love about the modern-day David Bowie is that he embraces technology. You never hear him giving out about it. He’s a today man, he’s a now person.”
Julie Feeney agreed that Bowie’s creative well had never run dry when we rang round in 2013 to find out what Irish musos made of The Next Day.
“He’s touching the core of some very, very deep sadness that he can’t even describe,” she said of his comeback album. “It’s like he’s channeling something from somewhere we can’t even get to. It’s that thing Johnny Cash has on the last ones before he died. I know that’s weird to say because Bowie is the most sprightly person, whatever age he is. I’m not being ageist, but there’s definitely something he’s reaching. You can’t quite put your finger on it. There’s a poignancy and a deep sadness there. I don’t really know any other music that affects me that way.”
Julie’s praise was muted compared to the double Macca-style thumbs-up Noel Gallagher gave it when we met last year in London.
“No word of a lie, until The Next Day came out I didn’t think he’d made a great album,” he insisted. “Like The Who and The Jam, I’d listen to the singles but not the LPs. Bowie did have 15 years to make it, I suppose, but it’s a masterpiece.”
Noel had met Bowie, but only virtually.
“He won a Brit Award for, I dunno, being the Best David Bowie of Alltime, couldn’t be there and asked me and Kate Moss to say something on his behalf, which we did,” he explains. “The next day I’m recovering on the sofa going, ‘Owwwwwwwwww, me head!’ – I hadn’t got back ‘til nine in the morning – and get an email saying, ‘Hi, it’s David. Thanks for the shout out the other night’. I reply going, ‘Fucking nice one, man, blah blah blah’ and we have a kind of 15-minute real-time conversation. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, David Bowie’s in a coffee shop in New York somewhere talking to me. I can live with this!’”
Noel loved the way that David Bowie had taken us all unawares – it’s a trick he was to repeat, of course – with the top secret February 2013 release of The Next Day’s flagship single, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’.
“I came downstairs and my missus, Sara, said, ‘David Bowie’s got a new single out’. I’m like, ‘Are you sure it wasn’t ‘Heroes’?’ She shoots back: ‘I know what fucking ‘Heroes’ sounds like and it isn’t that!’ Nothing will match the jaw-dropping moment of going online and playing ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ for the first time. I’m lying on my bed listening to it, get to the end and think, ‘Hang on, it can’t be that good, I’ve got to listen to it again!’ I must have played the album 20 days in a row when it came out. I obsessed over it.”
Nile, Darling, Listen To This...
Astronaut Dr. Chris Hadfield caused a global sensation in 2013 when during his stint aboard the International Space Station he got his acoustic out and covered ‘Space Oddity’, a favourite song dating back to childhood.
“It started out as a project with my son,” Major Chris told Hot Press the following year. “It then turned out to be far more beautiful and musically interesting than either of us thought it was going to be. From there, it grew into some kind of viral, worldwide – how would I put it? – phenomenon. It has been exactly a year since I laid down the first vocal track. Even now, watching and listening to it, I’m really delighted with how it turned out. It is inherently beautiful and interesting.”
Hadfield admitted to getting a bit teary when Bowie responded with a ‘Hallo Spaceboy...” tweet.
“Well, I’ve been a musician my whole life,” he resumed. “I’ve fronted bands since the early ’90s, in and around the Houston area. I’ve played countless pubs. I’ve sung solo in front of huge crowds. But there’s something bizarre about having the music that I did recognised by someone who is in the upper echelons – the highest rarified atmosphere – of musical art, as David Bowie is. And not only that, but to receive compliments from him! Ya know, he said it was the best cover of the song he’s ever heard. For me, it’s really just heartwarmingly delightful that he liked it.”
Bowie’s film director son, Duncan, has tended to shy away from talking about his megastar dad. But in 2009, he did talk to then-Hot Press film critic, Tara Brady: “There have been times in my life when I’ve struggled with it, but I am my father’s son. I was brought up by him and I was surrounded by the things that he loved. We bonded over literature and movies. We watched films together all the time.”
When I spoke to him in 2005, Moby seemed to believe that Bowie was immortal. Sadly it’s proven not to be the case.
“The thing about David is that he’s a survivor,” he opined. “No matter what life throws at him, he comes back stronger than before, which is a quality I very much aspire to myself. When I was growing up, my heroes were Bowie, The Clash and New Order. The records he made while he was in Berlin, Low and Heroes, are among the most influential of all time.”
I asked him to compare and contrast Bowie with Bono, both of whom Moby had encountered during his – and their – partying days.
“With Bono you get the feeling that there’s no artifice,” he ventured. “When you hang out and talk to him he’s just being himself. David’s very guarded. You always get the sense that there’s a slight detachment. The key difference being, he’s made a career out of playing characters, while Bono’s made a career out of playing himself.”
Placebo’s love of Bowie came with a side-order of jealously, as leader Brian Molko explained to Hot Press in 2001.
“You see him with a beautiful wife, a gorgeous baby and all that money, and think ‘bastard!’” he deadpanned. “He’s someone who stared into the void, and somehow managed to pull himself back without ruining his body. Being around Bowie teaches you a great deal about what it means to be a star. The guy’s worth hundreds of millions of pounds, yet there’s no trace of arrogance. He says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and knows more about music than you, me and everybody we know put together.”
The NME famously arranged in 1993 for Brett Anderson, the pupil, to meet the master. Asked 20 years later by Hot Press what Bowie was like that day, the Suede singer said: “Very sociable. Very friendly. Very supportive. All the very-s!”
Brandon Flowers also had his world comprehensively rocked in 2004: playing at Irving Plaza in New York, he looked up and “saw David Bowie singing along to ‘Mr. Brightside’. I couldn’t believe it! Afterwards he complimented every single one of us individually, and said that he could hear the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll in our songs. He’s a hell of a musician and a hell of a nice guy.”
Shortly after that 2009 interview with The Killers’ mainman, I got to sit down with Nile Rodgers, who eagerly recalled his first 1982 encounter with the Thin White Duke.
“Billy Idol and I popped into this after-hours joint in New York called The Continental – it opened at three or four in the morning – and sitting all by himself at the back of the room was David Bowie,” he beamed. “I’d been a Bowie fan ever since I’d dropped acid with a girl in Miami Beach years before and she turned me on to The Spiders From Mars.”
To underline his devotion to the Jones boy, Rodgers switched into Dick Van Dyke ‘god bless you Mary Poppins’ mode and treated me to a rousing, “Ziggy played geeeetar/Jamming good with weeeeeeird and Gilly/ And the Spidaaaaas from Maaaars!”
He then resumed: “I knew David lived in the same building as myself, Carlos Alomar and Luther Vandross, so I went over and said, ‘Hello neighbour!’ We talked about the friends we had in common – all the Young Americans musicians were people I’d played with in my Apollo Theater and Sesame Street house band days, so there was an instant connection. David called me a few days later and the next thing you know I was flying over to Switzerland to demo this new song he’d written called ‘Let’s Dance’. The first time I got to hear it was when he walked into my bedroom and, brandishing a 12-string folk guitar that only had six strings on it, said: ‘Nile darling, listen to this!’ It was a cool little ditty, but as of yet didn’t have that dancefloor thing going on, so I asked him to let me do an arrangement on it and the rest, as they say, is history!”
The last word fittingly goes to Gerry Leonard who, reflecting on the Bowie legacy, says: “He wove the tapestry. Right to the end he made his own rules. There’ll be a lot of musicians in the future asking, ‘What would David do?’ He’s the library, the reference book, our Oxford English Dictionary.”