Art of the Front Man # 3: DAVID BOWIE "The Man Who Fell To Earth"
If "they "walk among us, David Bowie was definitely one of them. My first collaboration with David Bowie was two remixes for the track Little Wonder. The original version had a drum and bass groove and Reeves Gabrels pyrotechnic guitars.
As I listened to the track imagining where I might take it, I could tell I would have many options. The amazing thing was when I stripped it all away; Bowie’s vocal was so rich I could actually hear a finished piece of music behind it in my head. I’ve always enjoyed the process of getting a vocal and rebuilding a new piece of music around it, but a soloed Bowie vocal has an otherworldly quality to it.
I grabbed an acoustic and literally played the song down in one pass. It was like the guitar was playing itself. One of the great things about working with someone like Bowie is you can draw on all the things you want to hear as a fan and put it back into what you're working on at the moment.
Reeves used to joke its like playing cowboys and Indians. Whenever I’ve worked with a rock and roll hall fame calibre artist, I’ve always come at it as a fan trying to make the record I would like to hear. I’ve been fortunate to put this philosophy into practice with several artists, which always seems to bring great results. In this case, my "SOUP" was gonna be one-part Space Oddity, a taste of Tony Visconti strings and a pinch of Eno - and of course a handful of Mick Ronson.
From this point on, my Bowie story reads like a fairy tale.
After delivering the two Little Wonder remixes, I got a phone call from David himself; he wanted to meet me. Evidently, a batch of remixes had been done previously to me taking a crack at it. I guess they were pretty underwhelming, so when David and his band (who were gathered together in a studio) were told the Danny Saber remixes had arrived, they weren't expecting much. From what Reeves told me, by the end of the first mix, everyone laughed at how good it was, so to get a call from David Bowie saying he heard my remixes and wanted to meet me… Well, it doesn't get any better than that.
He was performing on The Tonight Show and invited me down to hang out. I got there and was hanging in the Greenroom, and David lit up a smoke, so I lit up a smoke, then Jay Leno poked his head in the door and said "Smokers!” with his Leno-like enthusiasm, then pulled a cigar out and lit up.
Ohh, those were the days.
After Little Wonder, David came back to me to work on a track called Fun-house. He was on the road, and had recorded the basics at a soundcheck onto "ADAT." He sent me the tracks, and I built it into a finished song. Another great thing about working with Bowie was that I became close friends with Mike Garson and Reeves Gabrels. Both are unbelievable musicians and two of the funniest people on the planet.
Mike gave me tremendous insight into Bowie’s genius. I think one of the things that get overlooked is what an incredible COMPOSER he was. Listen to 'Life on Mars' or 'Changes.' He had a way of putting chords together that was completely his own, which is really at the core of who he was to me - a true individual. There were ingenuity and uniqueness in every facet of his being.
When I work with singers, I encourage them to find characters and apply them to the different voices they create. There is absolutely a no better example of this than Bowie. He was like a one-person opera; the way he constructed his vocals was incredible. I got to witness this first hand.
Reeves was working on a solo album and needed some last-minute studio time, so I hooked him up to go into Westlake Audio. The session was amazing. Along with Reeves was Dave Grohl on drums, Frank Black on vocals, Mark Plati on bass and David on vocals. Once the basic track was laid down, Frank and David each disappeared to write their verses. David came back 15 minutes later and proceeded to lay down his tracks. It was amazing! I remember just looking at Dave G, and we didn’t have to say anything, it was telepathic; we were in a fucking recording studio with David Bowie, and he's recording vocals!!!
I always say there is a magic component in any endeavour that’s done at the highest level. David Bowie tracking vocals was probably similar to getting to watch Michelangelo sculpt or Dali painting.
The last time I saw David was at the Wiltern Theater. I hadn’t seen him in a few years and went backstage after the show. It’s always a little mind-blowing for me to say hello to David Bowie and hear him answer back. Even with all the people I’ve worked with, I’ve never totally got over the fact that these guys know my name, let alone I got to work with them.
I guess that’s what contributed to my success with that generation of artists. There’s nothing more rewarding than to get to give something back creatively to someone that’s given you so much. Once you get past the fact they are who they are, they’re just like any other artist in the sense that they’re just trying to do their best and get the most out of whatever’s in front of them at that moment.
In this case, it’s David Bowie we’re talking about, and he was pure genius personified. He cast a creative shadow that will continue to inspire and influence artists forever. I’m very proud to know that I contributed to that legacy in some small way and most importantly got to know the man himself.
He was an amazing person and the likes of him we will never see again.