by David Wild / Rolling Stone
21st January 1993
The Thin White Duke returns with his first solo album in six years
“WELCOME TO SPOCK’S PLACE,” says a chipper David Bowie as he ushers
a visitor into Studio B at the Hit Factory Studios, in midtown Manhattan. The room indeed bears a passing resemblance to the starship Enterprise, but what’s more striking is the fact that the star trekking behind the boards is none other than Major Tom himself.
It’s early on a crisp fall morning, and Bowie – looking fit and unsurprisingly stylish in black jeans and a gray sweater – is anxious to get to work on the mixing for his upcoming album, his first solo effort in six years. “I’m so proud of this record,” says Bowie, breaking into a little tap dance of excitement. “At the risk of blowing my own horn, I don’t think I’ve hit this peak before as a performer and a writer.”
In fact, Bowie blows his own horn – saxophone, to be precise – all over the new album, the title of which he wishes to keep secret for the time being. That’s just one surprise that comes from a sneak preview of some of the new material Bowie selects to play this morning. The album – to be released by the new BMG-distributed Savage label in March – finds Bowie reteaming with producer and Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, with whom he collaborated on Let’s Dance, the 1983 soul-inflected smash that remains the biggest album of Bowie’s career. It’s also the first new Bowie offering since he signed up with Tin Machine, in 1988; publicly retired his old song book on the 1990 Sound + Vision tour; and married Iman, the model, actress and, most recently, outspoken advocate for Somalian relief, in 1992.
Combining some deeply personal, almost confessional writing with an eclectic musical approach – touching on both funk and jazz and featuring appearances from old pals like Mick Ronson and new ones like Al B. Sure! – the intriguing new music sounds worlds away from the aggressive guitar rock Bowie’s been making with Tin Machine. It’s also no Let’s Dance rehash.
“If Nile and I wanted to do Let’s Dance II,” Bowie says, “we would have done it years ago, when, perhaps, it would ave made some sense. Working together again, we avoided falling into that trap at all costs.” If anything, Bowie says, the music he and Rodgers are making reminds him more of his experimental work with Brian Eno during the Seventies.
“For us to repeat ourselves would be about as exciting as a director making Friday the 13th Part VII or something,” says Nile Rodgers, arriving from work in another studio. “Half the fun of working with David is that you never know what the fuck he’s going to come up with.”
After Let’s Dance, Bowie drifted through much of the mid-Eighties. He says his subsequent experiences with Tin Machine got him back on course creatively. And though the public has failed to embrace the band, Bowie reports that the group is “still alive and well, living in various parts of America.” He also reports he’s not desperate for a hit. “Frankly, I’ve made a lot of money over the years,” he says. “If I want to make music outside of the mainstream, I can’t expect massive sales, so there’s no self-pitying to go on.”
The new album features a unique, dramatically different approach, with guitar largely taking a back seat to Bowie’s own sax stylings (many of which are electronically treated) and the trumpet, cornet and fluegelhorn work of the distinguished jazz-man Lester Bowie. “The Fabulous Bowie Brothers together again for the first time,” Bowie says with a chuckle. Both Bowie and Rodgers were interested in exploring music with elements of jazz but without the elitist jazz sensibility they both find deadly.
Asked to rank himself as a sax player, Bowie offers Tin Machine guitarist Reeves Gabrels’s description: “the Neil Young of the saxophone,” an instinctive, not technical, talent. Contacted later, Lester Bowie gives a different comparison: “David’s a saxophonist kind of like Bill Clinton is,” he says with a laugh, “but it works. The music is really good.”
As Bowie cheerfully bounces around the studio, it seems clear marriage is agreeing with him. “I have someone who loves me for me,” he announces in a mock-cockney accent. “Seriously, it really helps.” Two songs inspired by his marriage to Iman frame the new album. “The Wedding” – which opens the record – is a joyous instrumental complete with church bells that Bowie wrote for his nuptials, then reworked in less dreamy, funkier form for public consumption. The album closing “Wedding Song” – an ultraromantic number that finds Bowie crooning to his “angel for life” – sounds, according to the singer, “every bit as saccharine as you might want it to be.”
Decidedly less celebratory is “Jump, They Say,” an intense yet infectious track that features a backward sax solo, which lends the song an eerie Middle Eastern tone. Bowie confesses that the haunting song is loosely autobiographical in that it deals with the suicide of his stepbrother. “It’s the first time I’ve felt capable of addressing it,” he says.
Bowie’s Spiders from Mars-era sidekick Mick Ronson – with whom he’s stayed in touch – offers an inspired guitar solo on another track, a wild, funked-up cover of a well-known Sixties FM chestnut, the identity of which Bowie wants to keep secret. “The dear old thing plays great,” Bowie says of Ronson, who has been battling cancer recently. “He’s got the willpower of all time.” Bowie was impressed with Ronson’s production of Morrissey’s recent release, Your Arsenal, so he also recorded “a totally camp” cover of “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” from that album. “It’s me singing Morrissey singing me,” says a grinning Bowie, adding that the result sounds like an Aladdin Sane outtake.
Also joining the core band – the Bowies, Rodgers on rhythm guitar, Sterling Campbell on drums, Barry Campbell on bass, Phillip Saisse on keyboards and Richard Hilton on synthesizer – is former Bowie pianist Mike Garson, who returns for “Bring Me the Disco King,” which Bowie describes as “a depressing song summing up the sad late Seventies with a Philip Glass refrain running through it.” Gabrels, meanwhile, appears on “You’ve Been Around,” a powerful rocker he and Bowie co-wrote.
One potent track sure to draw attention is “Black Tie White Noise,” a complex, Marvin Gaye-influenced duet with Al B. Sure! inspired by the Los Angeles riots. “Iman and I arrived in L.A. from Europe the day the [Rodney King] decision came in,” Bowie says. “The whole thing felt like nothing less than a prison riot by people who had been caged up for too long with no reason.” The song has a tough, edgy quality that Bowie wanted. “I didn’t want it to turn into an `Ebony and Ivory’ for the Nineties,” he says.
Bowie says he has no regrets about retiring his old hits and no plans to tour behind his new album or take on any new acting roles. After completing the album, he’ll spend time with his wife and get ready to record with Tin Machine later in 1993. Still, asked if he ever has a hankering to return to the days when every record meant a new persona, Bowie admits: “It has been gnawing at me, the idea of one more time developing a character. I do love the theatrical side of the thing – not only do I enjoy it, I also think I’m quite good at it. But for the time being, I’m quite happy being me.”