by Cole Morton / Ottawa Citizen
28th January 2013
David Bowie is not sick, says his close friend Tony Visconti.
“People thought he was dying. He’s not dying anytime soon, let me tell you,” says Bowie’s longtime collaborator, who produced the comeback single that shocked the world last week.
Where Are We Now? was released online without warning in the early hours of Jan. 8, taking Bowie’s fans by complete surprise. It came with the promise of a new album, his first in a decade – which was news even to people at his record company, Columbia. That day was Bowie’s birthday. As he turned 66, the singer had been written off by the media as a recluse, a rock ‘n’ roll Howard Hughes living secretively in Manhattan with his wife, Iman, and his 12-year-old daughter, Alexandria, allegedly shunning the limelight because of ill health.
Visconti insists those rumours are not true. “He couldn’t have done two years of work if he was a sick man. He’s very healthy, he’s very fit. He had the heart operation and that’s it. He’s long since recovered from that.”
Bowie was a heavy smoker and serious cocaine user who put his body under strain over many years, performing tirelessly in pursuit of album sales that now amount to 130 million.
Then he collapsed after coming offstage in Germany in 2004 and was flown by helicopter to hospital, where he had emergency heart surgery. After that, the singer appeared to retire. Fans who could not bear the thought of the great innovator living quietly preferred to believe that he had withdrawn from the world.
Lately, there have been rumours that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Visconti, the Brooklyn-born Italian-American who has been one of his closest allies since the Sixties, refutes this, too. “He is as sharp as a tack. He is sharper than ever. This boy has not lost a single brain cell.”
This can’t be tested because Bowie is refusing to give interviews, leaving the talking to Visconti. If what he says is true, the melancholy new track might even be seen to be playing with the rumours.
“Where are we now?” sings Bowie in a cracked voice in the chorus, after verses that take the listener on a walk through Berlin.
The city is where he produced three of his greatest albums in the late Seventies: Low, Heroes and Lodger.
In the video, grainy black-and-white images give a sense of nostalgia as he sings about aging and feeling lost.
Bowie’s face is projected eerily on to the head of a rag doll, one of conjoined twins.
The face on the other head was a mystery at first, but turns out to be Jacqueline Humphries, wife of the multimedia artist who made the video, Tony Oursler. The set was assumed to be in Berlin, but is actually Oursler’s studio in Manhattan, scattered with strange objects, including a diamond and a giant model of an ear.
Bowie’s doll head looks sad, even tearful, and at one point he puffs his cheeks, apparently at the effort of getting the words out.
When the singer does eventually appear in person, he is leaning against a wall with a notebook in his hand, gazing silently into the middle distance. His T-shirt bears the name of the Song of Norway, a ship which is listed online as having “retired from international cruises”. Much like Bowie himself.
These new sights and sounds have had a powerful effect on fans who grew up with Bowie. They are as drawn to him as the previous generation was to Elvis, but this icon is growing old as they do. Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, for example, said he wept when he heard the record.
So did Herbie Flowers, the bass player on many of Bowie’s early hits.
“It did make me cry,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “It’s what the song is about. I totally identify with what he has done. I know exactly how he feels. It’s like a lament.”
Flowers, 74, is still playing and had just come home to Sussex from a long tour when he heard the single.
“I think it’s wonderful. I’m glad he’s well. His voice goes right to me, as it does to millions of people. I love him, and I love the effect he has had on the planet.”
Tony Visconti is adamant, though, that the song should not be seen as evidence of Bowie’s frailty.
“That’s a vulnerable voice he has used time and time again. Fantastic Voyage [on Lodger], for example. It’s part of his technique, to sing that way. He put that voice on like he’s vulnerable, but he’s not frail.”
Bowie’s last live performance was actually a brief moment on stage at Madison Square Garden in May 2007, when he introduced the comedian Ricky Gervais by singing Little Fat Man, the song they had writ-ten together for Extras. The absurdity of ending his live career like that might actually appeal to Bowie, who was born in Brixton in 1947 and has a sharp, south London sense of humour.
But it is silly to suggest, as many have, that he went into hiding completely after giving up the stage.
Bowie lives in a $4 million apartment in a former warehouse building in the Soho district of New York, and has often been seen in bookshops and art galleries in the area, on his own or with Iman. The former supermodel runs a multi-million dollar cosmetics business of her own.
Their daughter, known as Lexi, was yet to start school when Bowie became ill. As he recovered, they spent a lot more time together. Bowie is close to Duncan Jones, the son of his first wife Angie, who is a successful film maker, but he was away for much of the boy’s childhood and did not want to make that mistake again.
For all the talk of being a recluse, Bowie never actually stopped making public appearances. He was at the premiere of Duncan’s film Moon in Utah in 2009, for example, and with Iman when she received a fashion award in 2010.
Still, Tony Visconti thought his friend had given up writing songs, so was “totally surprised” to receive an email from Bowie in November 2010, while he was producing the Kaiser Chiefs’ album in London. “He said, ‘When you get back, do you fancy doing some demos with me?’ This was the first time since Reality [in 2003] that it was even suggested that we do anything in any studio, so I was quite taken aback. There was no preamble, no warning. It was really weird.”
A few days later, Visconti found himself in “a small, grimy room” at 6/8 Studios in Manhattan, close to Bowie’s home.
“Sterling Campbell was on drums, I was on bass, David was on keyboards, Gerry Leonard was on guitar. By the end of five days we had demoed up a dozen songs. Just structures. No lyrics, no melodies and all working titles. This is how everything begins with him. Then he took them home and we didn’t hear another thing from him for four months.”
Why was that? “He wanted to listen and be certain he was on the right track.”
They returned at last to a more upmarket studio called the Magic Shop, also within walking distance of the Bowie home. Now the drummer Zachary Alford and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey were involved. The guitarist Earl Slick joined in later.
“We only recorded for two-week periods and then we would take months off again while David analyzed it all,” says Visconti.
“I was walking around New York with my headphones on, looking at all the people with Bowie T-shirts on – they are ubiquitous here – thinking, ‘Boy, if you only knew what I’m listening to at the moment.'”
Everyone involved in the project had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“For the older members of his tribe, we didn’t really need to do that.”
It suited them very well that nobody was expecting anything. “Bowie was photographed many times, very close to the studio, carrying lyrics,” says Visconti, laughing, “but people preferred to believe that he had retired, after the speculation of the last few years.”
They were in the studio for a total of three-and-a-half months spread over an 18-month period. Surprisingly, they worked office hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. “The last time we did all-nighters was Young Americans,” says Visconti. “We work intensely for those hours. We don’t take a break, except to eat some lunch and watch a little bit of Harry & Paul.”
So what does it sound like, this album which is due out in March and called The Next Day?
“This is a serious record. Half of it you will need to listen to a couple of times. There are some very strange songs, a new direction. He’s tapping into his jazz roots. The song called If You Can See Me has very wide, beautiful, crunchy jazz chords, with time signatures that Dave Brubeck would be proud of.”
Despite all reports to the contrary, Visconti reveals that Bowie may actually perform these songs live.
“He doesn’t want to tour any more. He’s had enough of it. But he hasn’t ruled out that he might do a show. It was a relief to me to hear that he was open to that.”