by Alan di Perna / Cream Magazine
Tin Machine is a democracy: But one of its members ranks high in the rock aritstocracy. Tin Machine is an equal artistic partnership: But one partner is pop music’s foremost conceptualist, chameleon and charisma man. Tin Machine is a band: But David Bowie’s in it.
….“The only time we notice that David is anybody other than just the singer in the band is when we go out in public,” says Tin Machines guitarist Reeves Gabrels. “It’s humorous really. I always go into a place 20 feet ahead of him, because I know the barricades will close after him. It’s like the parting of the Red Sea. The other day we went to do a radio interview. The woman at the door looks at me and says, ‘I assume you’re with the band.’ I just said, ‘That’s a safe assumption.”
….Bowie’s retreat from artificially constructed personae is a matter of public record. The Thin White Duke – circa 1976’s Station To Station – was his last real “character”, apart from his film roles. After stripping bare his psyche on Scary Monsters, he emerged as just another successful guy in a nice suit – right on time for the Eighties, Let’s Dance and the Serious Moonlight Tour. With Tin Machine, Bowie now joins three more regular guys in nice suits. It’s tempting to see the move as a further retreat from showy self-dramazation. One more way of foreground the songs by backgrounding the singer.
….“Ah, but that would make it sound like a scheme. “David Bowie settles into a sofa at the North Hollywood rehearsal hall where Tin Machine are gearing up for their first major tour. He looks a bit like he did in the “Let’s Dance video – tanned and casual in a bright baggy tourist shirt. The skin around his legendarily mismatched eyes crinkles when he smiles. “I’ve rather got used to the idea of people thinking I deliberately change personas and schemes, so I don’t really say much about it. What I will say is that I’m very, very content and fulfilled working within this context and with these musicians. So for me, personally and artistically, it’s a real up time in my life”.
….Everything about Bowie’s relaxed manner signals that this is no pose. He’s in the midst of what he says is a very stable relationship with supermodel Iman. He’s getting ready to direct his first film script, after the Tin Machine tour. And he recently underwent a psychological overhaul, a 12-step detoxification program.
….“That’s something that just naturally comes in time,” says the 44-year-old Bowie of his need for a reality check. “When you’ve had an avalanche of a youth, with all its being dragged to the edge of the abyss, I think you do find that you want to learn more about yourself psychologically. Find out exactly what your makeup is and how you’re coping with life. One wishes that one had known more about that when one was younger. I wouldn’t have had to go through some of the emotional and spiritual disasters that one goes through. However, I don’t look back with negativity. I think you can gain some insight from any experience.”
* * *
Bowie’s “avalanche of a youth” was careening briskly when he first met up with Hunt and Tony Sales in the early Seventies. Just like Bowie (who made his first record at 17), the sales brothers became professional musicians at very early ages. Hunt started drumming in Todd Rundgren’s Utopia when he was just 14. Tony signed on as Todd’s bassist around the same time. He was 17. Hunt and Tony have a lot to do with Tin Machine’s off-cut-cuff vibe. Pious reverence for Bowie history runs low among these two sons of comedian Soupy Sales. Tony misnames “Space Oddity” when he speaks of the song, calling it “Ground Control,” And Hunt – who shares his father’s Dada Borscht Belt style of delivery – can’t even come up with an incorrect title for the Ziggy Stardust album: “What’s that one – with him standing next to the street? You know . . . wham, bam, chitlins ma’am!”
….Taking a seat on the rehearsal hall sofa, Tony does recall being on the New York State Thruway en route to a session with Todd Rundgren when he heard “Space Oddity” – and David Bowie – for the very first time. “I really dug it and I remember thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, who is this?'” Not long after, Hunt and Tony met the flamboyant young pop star at a Utopia gig at Max’s Kansas City in New York. A few years later, in 1976, they found themselves working alongside him on Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, which Bowie produced. On the subsequent Iggy tour, Bowie played keyboards, staying in the background with Hunt, Tony and the other musicians.
….“That’s how we’ve always related to David – as part of the band, ” says Hunt. “Tin Machine is kind of an extension of that. Okay, so he’s playing guitar instead of piano. He’s singing lead and we don’t have Iggy. Good, now we can really have fun.”
….“The lines of communication we had back then didn’t run as deeply as they do now,” Tony starts to say. “Nor were they as varied.” But Bowie shoots me a wry glance, shaking his head laterally to indicate he remembers things differently. “Oh, they were quite varied,” he contradicts. “But that had a lot to do with the fact that we were stoned out of our gourds! That was an integral part of what we were doing. That was the experimental Seventies. We didn’t know that there were side effects to taking drugs over a long period.”
….“We had all not yet been through the pain that we had in store for us,” Tony concludes.
….Tony Sales came very close to ending his life in an auto accident in 1979. “I was found dead with the stick shift through my chest,” he grimly recounts. “I was in a coma for a long time.” On recovery, he hooked up with Checkered Past, a short-lived band that also included Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison of Blondie and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. When Chequred Past split, Tony packed away his instrument and took up carpentry, disillusioned with rock. The story might have ended there had Tony not attended the Hollywood wrap-up party for the Glass Spider Tour, where he found Bowie sitting all by himself in a corner.
….“We got to talking, and I guess we both voiced our disgust with what was going on in rock – which was nothing at all. But David said he’d met this great guitar player, and would I be interested in coming to Switzerland and having a play with him. He said, ‘Oh, and you’d better call the drummer too, I knew he meant Hunt.”
* * *
The guitar player Bowie had met was Reeves Gabrels, who played with Rhode Island’s Rubber Rodeo and a stack of Boston bands, got friendly with Bowie during the Glass Spider Tour. His wife, Sara, was tour publicist. “I’d known David for about three or four months and never told him I played guitar,” Reeves recalls. “We both came from art schools, so our conversations were more about that stuff.” The low-keyed guitarist might never have gotten around to mentioning his craft to Bowie. Which would have been a pity. A guy who uses massage vibrators and other appliances to wring wild tones from his strings, Reeves is an ideal successor to brainy, experimental Bowie axemen like Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Luckily, his wife slipped David a tape of her husband’s guitar work.
….“Nobody knew what was going to happen in Switzerland,” says Reeves, who had never even met Hunt before their first session together. Bowie relishes the memory of Gabrel’s initial nervous reaction to the demonstrative drummer: “Hunt had a knife in a sheath on his belt. And a t-shirt that said ‘F- you, I’m from Texas.’ Which wasn’t Reeves’ kind of sensibility at all. He’s a cerebral, Boston sort of guy, you know.”
….Bowie is fond of saying that he and Reeves are the introspective intellectual members of the band, while Hunt and Tony are the zanies. Unmatched as they were, the quartet had their first tune, “Heavens In Here,” written from scratch and fully recorded in their first 20 hours together. They then took on John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and Roxy Musics “If There Is Something” – “as and exercise in how we could approach material,” Bowie helpfully volunteers. “Just to see what we are.”
….“We didn’t know if it was going to be a record or if it was just going to end up on a reel of tape in some vault somewhere,” Gabrels emphasizes. “It was something David would have to acknowledge. And he came in one day and said, ‘I think this has got to be a band. Everybody’s got input. Everybody’s writing. You guys don’t listen to me anyway.'”
….Bowie, of course, had the most at stake. The other three Tin Men were playing club dates before the Swiss junket. Their singer was at a crossroad in one of rock’s most illustrious careers. His last couple of albums – Tonight and Never Let Me Down – had met with lukewarm reception, as had the Glass Spider Tour. The general consensus was that his best work was behind him.
….“I think I was thrashing about a bit on the last two albums.” he admits, leaning forward and contemplating the ash on his cigarette. “because I didn’t quite know where my passions were going. Maybe that was the turning point. Maybe I hadn’t resolved what I was passionate about any more. My passion as a young man was for inspiring other people and impressing other people with the content of what I was doing. I knew I wasn’t interested in that anymore – that was something which became very apparent to me. But it certainly wasn’t about impressing myself either. Because I was unaware of the kind of state I was in. So it really resolved itself. I think, with the first Tin Machine album.”
….Okay, so Tin Machine is an expression of Bowie’s “mature passion: the passion to excite and interest me first and foremost.” as he puts it. But what exactly does that entail? Pretty much whatever David and his bandmates feel like whenever they find themselves in the studio. Tin Machine’s self-titled debut album was a manifesto of offhand but heartfelt raucousness, slammed to tape in record time. It’s successor, Tin Tin Machine II cam e together just as quickly. “We don’t do pre-production,” says Reeves. “There are no demos of the songs. Basically the album is the demo.”
….It’s very much like a garage band in a sense,” adds Hunt. “But for some reason, at the end of an eight-hour day, we find we’ve put together one or two complete songs.”
Contractually, says Bowie, things are arranged so that “the band will cease to exist the moment it ceases to be a musical experience for any of us. None of us wanted to get in the kind of situation where you find yourself making albums because you’re contracted to. I don’t think we could do that. Because that’s not how we write. We can’t craft songs like that.”
….Tin Machine is a “more or less equal” financial partnership, according to Tony. Profits are split four ways and each member pays his own expenses. Unlike prior Bowie bandmen, Gabrels and the Brothers Sales are not on salary.
….In a way, Tin Machine are like one of those hobby bands formed by doctors, lawyers and other restless, hippie generation mid-lifers. Four professionals who aren’t out to prove anything; who just wanna rock for rock’s sake, blissfully indifferent to current pop trends. Though with David Bowie and three veteran players down in the basement, the results are guaranteed to be more interesting than your local orthodontist’s rendition of “In The Midnight Hour.”
….“We all liked the aggression and the idea of playing music,” Bowie confirms. “But so much of it is oriented toward teenagers or young people. By virtue of the fact that the range of ages in this band is between the mid-30s and mid-40s, there’s no way we can really, fully have empathy with the degree of intensity of a band like Guns N’ Roses. Although we can admire it from both sides.”
* * *
Are there any new ideas left to be discovered in rock and roll?
Bowie: In rock and roll, no. But in what you can give rock and roll, yes. I think the whole idea of talking about the feelings that you have between your mid-30s and mid-40s . . . there are endless experiences there. The whole weight of having gone through the apocalyptic vision of the Seventies, the greed and the vanity of the Eighties: these are things that none of the younger bands knew about or experienced. So they’re just a result of it. With a band like Guns N’ Roses, lyrically there’s a kind of abandon there. But abandon from what?
Tony: The abandon of a lot of these bands I just perceive as sloppiness. But sloppiness for sloppiness’ sake is bullshit.
There’s no rule that says rock is specifically youth music.
Bowie: Well unfortunately there is an unwritten one. And I think a lot of artists of my generation are intimidated by it. Apart from people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who are still true to their age and writing for their generation. People tend to underestimate the value of that: to have the strength of purpose, the will and character to be able to write for generation in a field which despises that particular generation – especially in America.
….America, of course, is the only country where consumers have to buy disfigured copies of Tin Machine II. Trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face, Bowie unveils his plot to fix the halfwits who insisted that the genitalia be airbrushed from the classical Greek sculptures that adorn the album’s front cover: I wanted to make it so that people who buy the album could send away to the record company for the genitalia. Then they could paste them back on. But the label freaked out at the idea. Sending genitals through the mail is a serious offense.”
….Not that Bowie has ever been very reticent about freaking out his record labels: “It’s been endemic in my career to do that kind of thing. At the peak of the ‘Young Americans‘ success, I was already formulating what I wanted to do again musically, which ended up as the collaborations I did with Brian Eno in the late Seventies (Low, Heroes and Lodger). They were seen as a real no-no by the record company I was with at the time. ‘But for me, that series of records became the most important work that I’ve done. So for me it was a great success – although certainly not a ‘Young Americans’ type of success.”
….Hunt Sales notes that EMI Records “kind of freaked out a little bit at the strident, single less Tin Machine debut. Which helps explain why the band jumped to the smaller, more amenable Victory label. But perversely, on Tin Machine II Bowie seems much less afraid of sounding like David Bowie than he did on the band’s first record.
….“Yeah, the first record’s a real screamer,” he laughs. “And I mean that literally. There was a great degree of jostling for position on that album. Everybody was very aware of the fact that we’d only been together 25 or 30 hours and we were already cutting and album. I think that makes it a very interesting album: the fact that you’re hearing a band forming.”
….“By the time of the second album, we knew one another as musicians,” Reeves adds. “So we didn’t have to throw as much information back an forth all the time. It wasn’t as dense. And we actually left more room, I think for David to come up some interesting melodies. There was more room for vocals on this record.”
* * *
Tour preparations continue at Tin Machine’s rehearsal hall while the band members meet the press. An endless parade of rodies, assistants and children flows through the lounge area. The hubub is exacerbated by an equally relentless conga line of aircraft overhead, their roar amplified by the humid air. A couple of the kids snuggle up to Bowie on the couch, as if seeking a center of calm in all the bustle. Reeves explains the group’s plans to stretch out with the material in concert. “Sort of like cream: you know how you wouldn’t miss the cellos and the other production touches from the album because of the intensity of the live experience?! This prompts Hunt to label Tin Machine “the ultimate lounge band.” “You should hear the bossa nova version of ‘I Can’t Read,'” Reeves confides. David, for his part, explains how all this ties in with Tin Machine’s reasons for playing smallish 5,000 seat venues rather than stadiums and arenas.
….“There’s a fair amount of improvisation in terms of how we approach some songs. And that wouldn’t hold well in a large place – particularly at this stage. First of all, the people don’t know the material at all. I don’t know how many people would be interested in coming to see a Tin Machine show in an arena. I’d imagine a lot might come along hoping I’d be doing old songs or something. We don’t want that feeling at all.”
* * *
How important is it for you to have hits right now?
Bowie: Not at all. Absolutely not at all. That’s never mattered to me. Of all the artists I can think of, that’s probably been least on my agenda. Being artistically successful was always a big thing. That’s what I really needed as my food. And it’s something I had to learn to wean myself away from. Now I need to be artistically successful for me and me alone.
Could you have handled being in a band at prior stages in your career?
Bowie: No, I don’t think that would have been possible.
Does touring get easier or harder as times goes on?
Bowie: I’m terribly ambivalent about it. Because I know it so well; I’ve done it so long, so often. I find the process of touring so vegetative and mindless. Going from Hotel, traveling as an individual, on a tourist basis. But I have no love for the touring process, apart from doing the shows. It’s hard to fathom: Each time I’ve been out, it’s gotten better over the last few years. Working with Adrian Belew last year was great. It was socially the nicest bunch of people I’ve ever toured with, Adrian and his band. And we all had a lot of mutual interests. There of us got up really early in the morning – about five or six – and we’d spend a lot of time going around to see the cities we were in. Which is one of the first times I’ve really taken that in hand. We got off to look at the art gallery or whatever the national gallery was in each city. Especially in Europe. So I suppose that is the way to cope with the insane boredom of the logistics of touring. It’s frightening how dull it gets after a couple of hours. I mean how much can you read?
Do you read a lot on the road?
Bowie: Yeah. That becomes life. I read a lot anyway, but it becomes enforced reading on the road. You got another three hours, you grit your teeth and get back into a book. See how much time you can lose.
What are you reading right now?
Bowie: Let me see . . . right now, I’m reading a biography of (museum curator) John Pop Hennessay. That’s pleasant: sort of slow, and old-worldly. He’s in his 80s, talking about how he perceives sculpture.
…...Oh, and the London Fields, Martin Amis. That’s the throwaway. He’s my favorite English author. Very funny. He’s got all his father’s (Brit Lit Lion Kingsley Amis”) cynism.
Have you ever met him?
Bowie: Yeah, I like him a lot. He reminds me very much of Brian Eno. Very similar type. Very witty and cerebral. A small, mobile, intelligent unit.
What’s your take on current youth fashion, or the lack thereof?
Bowie: Well, I understand it but . . .I don’t know. . . I’m not really concerned with it. I like the person inside the clothes. I look at my son and what he does to himself. He’s now 20 and right in the middle of all that: dreadlocks one minute and then hippie abandon the next. He fluctuates between Marley and Hendrix. That’s an interesting thing about his generation. I don’t know how prevalent it is here, but in Europe, there’s a definite swing to the more strongly lyrically based music of the Sixties. Hendrix and Cream are very dominant with 20 year-olds. Especially if they’re college kids. Rap seems to go hand in hand with it. If you like rap in your 20s, you’re also likely to like mid-sixties and late Sixties music.
Tin Machine II has fewer songs of social and political outrage than the first album.
Bowie: Yes it does. Lyrically I’m starting to grapple with and understand what makes me work. So there’s a lot more interior kind of writing.
I guess “Shopping For Girls” is that exception to that.
Bowie: Yes it is. That song actually came out of an investigative magazine article that Reeves’ wife wrote on child prostitution around the world. And one of the places she went to was Thailand. Reeves had the rather unsavory job of hiring the children and then getting them out of the brothels to Sara, who could then interview them. We were just talking about those experiences one night. And I’ve also been in Thailand and witnessed the same kind of thing. The actual approach of how to write the song was quite devastating. ‘Cause it was so easy to slip into sensationalism. I tried all kinds of ways of approaching it . . . the moral point of view . . .and I just ended up doing it straight narrative. That seems to make it stronger than any other approach.
Bowie: I guess there’s some kind of family history there. My father has all his life worked for children’s home. So I was fairly subject to stories of the awful, inhumane treatments people lay on their kids. That’s always stayed with me: strong reflections on how kids should be raised.
Can a person be completely sane and well-adjusted and still do art?
Bowie: Yes. I fundamentally believe the truth in that.
But the idea of the tortured, self-destructive artist is such a prevalent myth in our culture.
Bowie: It’s a big thing have to try and break down. But I say, “Try it, you’ll like it.” I still find there is the same degree of disturbing passions on the last two albums that we made. Things that are quite as disturbing and thought-provoking as stuff that I made when I was out of my skull – in terms of what it does to your sensibility. So I know the truth that you can still write quite potently in a sane, reflective state.
…..No longer a lad insane, David Bowie flashes a conspiratorial smile that says his sights are trained on the career ahead of him, not the one he’s left behind. Premeditated or not, he’s reinvented himself again.