Bowie meets Springsteen

by Mike McGrath / The Drummer

26th November 1974

Unwinding in the wee hours at Sigma Sound, Bowie talks about his music, the Philly concerts, Barry Goldwater and flying saucers.

When Bruce Springsteen played The Tower Theater recently, announcements were made of upcoming concerts – when David Bowie’s scheduled Civic Center appearance was announced it was greeted by a large negative roar from the crowd. It caught off-guard a number of startled onlookers, including the announcer, who voiced concurrence with the crowd.

Some weeks later, during the recent Beach Boys concert at The Spectrum, the upcoming pair of Bowie shows were announced and greeted by a contest of boos and cheers from the crowd. It was obviously as fashionable to support Bowie as dismiss him. Also, judging by the crowds attracted, a lot of the booers came to see him anyway.

And at 1am Monday morning the 25th of November, David Bowie met and welcomed Bruce Springsteen while recording his latest album at Sigma Sound. In an open and candid evening he touched on his recent concert performance and spoke of audiences and flying saucers.

The Mike Garson Group

At 7.00 Sunday night a group of about a dozen and half Bowie freaks stood watch outside the main entrance of The Barclay on Rittenhouse Square. Some had orange, Bowie-cut hair; others just stood with their hands in their pockets waiting for a glimpse of someone that would make their vigil worthwhile.

Mike Garson plays keyboards for Bowie, as well as being his musical director. As we left the Barclay for Sigma Sound Studios on North 12th Street, the kids outside called him by name. We stopped and talked to them for a few minutes. One displayed a gorgeous, large matte color close-up of Bowie, possibly from Monday night’s concert.

Mike: That’s nice – you gonna give it to Bowie?

Girl: No, I want him to sign it for me!

Mike is a 28 year old keyboard player who’s been with Bowie for two years, has never been with one act that long before, and has no plans to move on. He comes, very noticeably, from Brooklyn, where his wife is awaiting his return at the end of this concert tour (about a week) so she can drop their second child in his lap. “We planned it so the kid’ll be born the day after I get back.”

He began playing classical piano at the ripe old age of seven (his three year old daughter already plays), went from there to jazz, and then to rock. Along the way he worked for people like Martha and the Vandellas and Nancy Wilson. A lot of influences: Bach, Beethoven, Art Tatum, Chick Corea, Stravinsky.

And, like Chick, Mike is a Scientologist. Not pushing hard for the cause – just mentioning that he was sceptical of it for about six months, took the plunge, and that it’s helped him cope both as a musician and a person.

How did he become Bowie’s musical director? “I was playing a gig, working with an avant garde jazz group, and one night I got a series of phone calls… the third was from Bowie. I didn’t know who he was. I was heavy into jazz and had never come across him. I played four chords for him and Mick Ronson… I was hired for eight weeks… That was a hundred and twenty weeks ago.”

The Mike Garson Band opened up the show Monday night. For them, the Spectrum ShowCo sound was perfect. A tight professional rhythm and blues-jazz-rock set of opening numbers was greeted first with mild indifference and later with boos, catcalls, and conspirational clapping designed to drive the group from stage. Never faltering once, they did their eight warm-up numbers and left the stage to return for one more after the intermission. Finally, after being subjected to an incredible verbal barrage, the group faded into the background and Bowie took the stage.

Bad sound, a weak voice, and shortened muddled versions of older songs interspersed with poor renditions of his new R&B numbers, combined to make this show his weakest yet in the city. Audience reaction was kind, bringing him back.

The next day consisted of bad reviews, bad feelings, and angry phone calls to WMMR-FM from concert goers who felt that the man had not delivered their money’s worth (or as one leatherneck offered during the Garson’s Band’s warm up, “Get those ******* off the stage!”)

Garson: He liked the show – he didn’t know the sound was bad either. You know we can only hear the monitors blasting away on stage and they sounded fine. The audience reaction seemed very very good… In actual fact, the reviews on this tour have been better overall than the Diamond Dogs tour.

On Bowie: “He wanted to do something without the theatrics; he may go back to them, he may not. For this time he wanted to just get our there and sing. He’s not afraid of change, he’s always changing… He’s full of surprises.”

“On a good night his voice is better now than it ever was.”

Spending the night with David Bowie

We arrived at Sigma Sound a little after eight. Producer Tony Visconti was arched over a mammoth soundboard, pressing buttons, being generally pleasant to the half-dozen engineers and musicians in the control room, and peering into the large windowed studio directly in front.

The album was practically finished. The first rough mix had been accomplished since Bowie recorded the basic tracks some weeks ago, and this week had been devoted to clean-ups and overdubs. This was the final night in the studio for the album – the final touches would now be made.

I’m Only Dancing (She turns me on) was being played back. Pablo was in the studio, overdubbing a cowbell and some chimes onto an already lushly produced cut. Visconti easily shows his pleasure with the final product as Pablo finishes up. The cut is full and rich, almost a Phil Spector R&B wall of sound – Bowie’s voice mixed way into the background.

10:30: and the jokes disintegrate into bad puns and poor taste; Tony explains palmistry to a member of the band – says that the late Bruce Lee’s lifeline (gleaned from a gigantic close-up of his open fist) showed that he should’ve lived till 90.

11:30: Out of the corner of the studio comes an old, small brown guitar amp. Tony proudly announced that it belonged to Chubby Checker and was used to record the original version of The Twist. He sings, “Got a new dance and it goes like this… ” The amps specialty is a fine dirty sound that you can’t get from an amp unless it was made well about twenty years ago. After hearing a few licks played through, every guitar player in the room plots its theft.

Seven minutes to midnight: The door opens and in saunter Ed and Judy Sciaky, escorting the night’s special guest star, a roadweary Bruce Springsteen, fresh off the bus from Asbury Park, New Jersey. Bruce is stylishly attired in a stained brown leather jacket with about seventeen zippers and a pair of hoodlum jeans. He looked like he just fell out of a bus station, which he had.

It seems that one of the tracks Bowie laid down was Bruce’s It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City. Tony Visconti called Ed at WMMR and asked him if he could get Bruce into the studio. Contacted finally on noon Sunday, Bruce hitched into Asbury Park, then via the nine o’clock Trailways to Philly, where Ed met him “hanging with the bums in the station.”

Said Bruce of his Odyssey: “That ride had a real cast of characters… every bus has a serviceman, an old lady in a brown coat with one of these little black things on her head, and the drunk who falls out next to you.”

An hour later, the time passing with some more overdubs and a few improvised vocals by Luther of the Garson band (who sings a fine lead and whose vocal power adds a lot of strength to an already powerful album), enter David Bowie and Ava Cherry, white-haired soul singer for the band.

David breezes in, takes account of the night’s progress, lets his piercing eyes cast across the room a few times, listens to a tape and then leaves Tony to his work so as to chat with Bruce.

Five people hunched up in a far corner of the lobby, looking more like the fans (half a dozen of whom were still standing outside, savoring the vibrations) than the stars themselves.

David reminisces on the first time he saw Bruce – two years ago at Max’s Kansas City – and that he was knocked out by the show and wanted to do one of his songs ever since. When pressed for another American artist whose songs he would like to record (as he did for British artists on the Pin-Ups album), david thinks a while and replies that there are none. A tired but interested Bruce lets a grin escape.

The conversation turns to a common problem: Stage jumpers.

Bowie: It doesn’t bother me so much that they do it; I just wonder: What are they gonna do when they get there?

Bruce: Once I was onstage sweating so hard I was soaked with it. Really soaking wet. And this guy jumps up on stage and throws his arms around me; and I get this tremendous electric shock from the guitar. This guy doesn’t even feel it! I’m in agony and he doesn’t feel a thing; he wasn’t feeling anything anyway; but I’m getting this shock and the guy won’t let go. Finally, my drummer, Mad Dog, comes over and beats the guy off.

Bowie: And the guy went back to his friends saying, “Hey man, Bruce was really wired”… The worst was when a guy jumped up on stage and I saw the look in his eyes – all luuded out – he was gone. Real scary look in his eyes, and all I could think was ‘I been waitin’ for you. Four years and I been waitin’ for one like you to jump on stage.’ And I just smiled at him, and his eyes got okay again; then I looked closer and saw he was holding a brick in his hand…

Bowie is a tall skeletal leprechaun. Red beret tipped extremely to one side, the other revealing a loose patch of orange hair, leaning away from ears that uncannily resemble a Vulcan’s up close. Intense hawk eyes; if they fix on you friendly it warms the room; unfriendly or even questioningly you’re forced to turn away from them. Red velvet suspenders over high waisted black pants and a white pullover sweater complete the bizarre outfit, which, like any other, grows on you as the hours pass.

In fact, Bowie grows and fleshes out as the hours pass. From the secluded, mysterious figure portrayed by the press into a man of odd habits, but more personable as some time passes between you.

Mike Garson, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Visconti and Bowie

After an hour, I couldn’t understand how Mike Garson could say he was easy and friendly to work with; very short and direct in his instructions to the band as he stands with Visconti at the board, overseeing some back-up vocals. After a few hours, a break, and some chatter about flying saucers, the person seeps through. A real person.

The studio is a warm, fur covered cavern at 3am. Heads and bodies sway in time to a slow one. Yellows, blues, reds, and greens dimmed as low as possible light the control room and studio. The control room is a starship with endless banks of futuristic controls; punch panel, mixing decks, tape decks, blinking lights. A starship manned by a motley bunch of pirates. Obviously hijacked.

The talk turns toward the sound last Monday at the Spectrum. (Bowie: “It’s the pits. The absolute pits.”) Visconti is assigned to work on its improvement. A five o’clock sound check will be of little use since it’s brought up that the acoustics change tremendously when the place fills with fourteen thousand sound absorbing bodies.

If anyone can look tired and energetic at the same time, it’s David. Part the curtains in the studio and the silent sentinels below come to life and wave frantically; their big moment – contact with the event.

Bowie tried to record a vocal solo. It sounds terrible, the voice is hoarse and tired. “It’s much too early yet – I’m not quite awake… I won’t be able to record anything till about half past five.”

He re-enters the studio and wraps a set of incredibly long, slender fingers around a cold steak sandwich (never having encountered one before, he was taught the correct hold and given seven different explanations as to what a hoagie was).

More on the Spectrum: “I was dreading it really. Everybody whoever played there warned me how terrible it was. I don’t think you can get good sound there, but we’ll try.”

After a promise to meet again and talk further in New York, Bruce heads off with Ed and Judy for a 5am visit to the Broad Street diner. Max’s Kansas City had been his first professional gig. Bowie was in from the start. Bruce leaves without having heard his version of Saint. The feeling is that it’s not ready yet.

Flying saucers

Bowie: “There’s one that you people probably haven’t even heard of here, ’cause the U.S. government threw a blanket over it. It’s all over Canada though… happened about three, four weeks ago in Akron, Ohio. Same sort of thing that Prof. Carr is saying happened at Patterson Air Force Base. There was a decompression accident and they have a ship and four bodies: three feet tall, caucasian, although weathered all over to make up for it, same organic stuff: cocks and lungs and such, but different, bigger brains.

“You know Barry Goldwater is resigning from politics to become President of a UFO organization… he’s not really resigning from politics, he just realizes they can’t keep it all secret much longer and he wants to be at the top when it breaks. It will break soon.”

Next on the Bowie agenda is a long voyage down the Amazon; David will not fly and his next concert tour is in Brazil in January. Maybe the long boat ride will ease that throat. On some tracks of the new album (a single record which may include the Springsteen tune) his voice is clear and firm. On others it’s mixed way back, so that Garson’s group and the full production overpower a weak, hoarse attempt.

There is however, not a bad cut on the album. Hell, you can even dance to it.

As the sun came up and David talked on a bit of the Russians and their 3,000 flying objects sending communicative signals into space (Klaatu Barada Nikto?), the room took on the warm perspective of the remnants of an all night talk-rap-fantasize session. The kind where you come away fulfilled, for no other reason that you felt you got to know a handful of people a bit better.

A warm room, hard to leave. But work was about to resume, the sun was getting higher, and the deadline for his resume becoming tighter and tighter. A firm handshake, as firm and strong as Bruce’s; they are much alike.

Outside, a dozen sentinels are huddled in cars, standing on the sidewalk, sitting on the steps, waiting for a little of the magic to pour out. This is Bowie’s final night in the studio. When he leaves, they’ll get into their cars and beat him to the Barclay. One last look at the man who makes his albums in Philadelphia.

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