Bowie’s Saxophone Struggle

by Steve Weitzman / Musician

May 1983

David Bowie has always seemed a most unlikely saxophone player. His style is one of quintessential elegance and the visions of him honking away on a cumbersome tenor sax is a startling one. But then, any vision of Bowie is usually that.

When he entered the ranks of London’s working musicians in the late 60s, he did it as a progressive violinist and sax player. “For me the saxophone always embodied the West Coast beat generation, as I was very enhanced by that period of Americana. It became sort of a token, a symbol of freedom; a way of getting out of London that would lead me to America, which was an ambition at that time. I picked up originally on people like Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman. Somebody who really riveted me was Eric Bostic, just for the tonal quality.

“Then when I started working with it,” he adds, fidgeting with a cigarette, I found I didn’t have a very good relationship with the sax and that lasted right the way through. We’re sort of pretty embittered with each other. It lies there waiting for me to touch it. It defies me to (laughs). I really have to go through traumas to get anything out of it that anything to do with what I want it to say. So it’s not a steady relationship; it’s not a good one. It really is a love / hate relationship.”

“Space Oddity,” recorded in 1969, had Bowie credited with playing a stylophone which he explains “is a tiny computer that produced that eenhh sound. They came out years ago and only lasted a short while. I used one on a number of things but “Space Oddity” was the one it got featured on.”

On Honky Dory, “Space Oddity’s” follow-up, Bowie’s soft-end solo on “Changes” was somewhat reminiscent of David Sanborn, whom he would later work with. “That’s when I was still going through ideas of doing melodic saxophone,” he notes. The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars saw his playing develop a bit more verve.

“I like to do my own line-ups,” he offers, “and I would play baritone, tenor and alto and from a thick wedge of sound very much based on Little Richard’s sax line-up patterns-the typical R&B sax lineup. And I would compress them very tightly.”

How comfortable at times did he feel playing sax? “I’ve always felt grossly uncomfortable playing it. I want it to do one thing and it wants to do something else, and between us, we get something that comes and sounds peculiarly like my style of playing.

Ironically, rock fan music polls perennially have him garner “Best Sax” kudos, and in one national rock magazine recently, he came in first once again. That bit of information nearly put him in hysterics. “That’s glorious!” He roared. “Well, I’ll stand by myself and say I don’t think you have to love something to be able to produce something which is creative out of it. I have the same relationship with paint. It’s a struggle and we hate each other, but it doesn’t have to mean you can’t eventually get something onto a canvas that has a lot of spikiness to it.”

On 1973’s Pin Ups, Bowie’s playing style abruptly changed. On “Here Comes The Night” and “I Can’t Explain” he fills the breaks with riveting barrelhouse sax lines. “That was a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and Earl Bostic, he states. “Some of my favorite stuff is on “Neukoln” (Heroes). I remember being very pleased with that.”

On “Neukoln” his playing seems markedly humorous in contrast to what else was going on musically. “Ill give you some background. Neukoln is an area of Berlin which is primarily Turkish and I had to work out a way of putting a Turkish modal thing into it. It was very hard for me to use that scale against the background, so that probably produced the humorous aspect.” The squawking sax as opposed to the very ethereal basic track…? “Yes, and whole notes where one would take a half note, it goes into whole notes on the Turkish scale. So it was really difficult to keep it going. Yeah (laughs). There’s kind of a lot of Ornate Coleman at the end of it.”

He puts out his cigarette and continues. “There’s another nice piece. I think, at the end of TVC15.” Again, it takes up an Eastern scale. I quite enjoy playing around the Eastern scale with saxophone.”

With David Bowie’s diversity of talents, he’s probably the only actor who’s an accomplished sax player. Did he ever imagine himself doing Robert De Norio’s sax player role in New York, New York?

He grinned broadly, “That would have been a cookie. I’d love to have done that. Yeah.” He shakes his head and laughs. “But I could have never gotten that New York thing down.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Bowie’s Saxophone Struggle

  1. Eva-Maria Hamann

    Thank you for this grandious report and Information!

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