Swerve, David Bowie and Musicianship


The philosopher Epicurus speculated that, despite the overwhelming regularity of nature, atoms traveling in a straight line, in a moment of sheer unpredictability, might deviate from their course – or swerve. From this he gathered that we possess free will.

“It was an astonishing act of thought.” –  Melvin Bragg.

* * *

Once while in Moscow I came upon a searing violin solo in a cavernous stretch of subway. I was struck silent and still. It brought tears. It transported. This is what music can be. No constraints.

At the graveside of my Irish mother the penny whistle piped Danny Boy – out of tune (Buffalo weather is unforgiving to metal). But the worn melody surprised: painful, soulful. Respectfully and appropriately off-key.

Summer evenings and brass players suddenly appear on Rivington Street to make rowdy upbeat sounds, just for the thrill of it. An un-careful explosion of joy and noise.

* * *

“Gems hidden in the recording” – David Bowie

Steve bumped into David Bowie in line at the store. They started talking- about health, raising children – a dad conversation. They walked down the street and as they were saying their goodbyes David called out – “I’ll be in touch about something. If you don’t hear from me right away, don’t worry, it’s going to happen”.

A year or two later, a call came from Tony Visconti. “Do you remember me?” Steve laughed and said, “Yes, I remember exactly when I first met you!” He recounted that it was Tony who had been sent to stall him as they prepared a birthday party for Steve during Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” tour.

“I’m recording this young English blues musician – David Jones- are you interested?” Steve said of course. After he hung up it dawned on him who “David” was. A call a few minutes later from Bill Z confirmed his suspicion. The project was hush-hush.

The day of the recording Steve walked over to the Magic Shop with his baritone sax and a few other instruments. Bowie was strumming a guitar in the back, Tony and the engineer were nearby. David came out and gave Steve an affectionate hug. They talked for a while as Steve got out his horns. They worked on a few of the songs. They had working titles and some reference vocals. David had ideas of where the horns should be. Tony and David would make suggestions and Steve played.

“Tony and David have done a bunch of records over the years. Tony has ideas and gives direction and was handling the technical side of the day with the engineer. He creates the ground on which this gets built. He knows Bowie well enough to interpret when needed,” Steve recalled.

They started recording very quickly. “Frequently in the studio you spend time trying to figure out this line and that line and where it should go. Not this time.” Steve said later, “You can tell within the first couple of minutes how the day is going to go. And you could tell this was going to be a good day.”

It seemed they wanted more edge, not the accessible playing that is frequently asked for in session work. “They were interested in quirky, adventurous things. The more I took it out, the happier we all got,” Steve said. “They were interested in early takes. Often in session work time is spent refining solos, making them smooth. They weren’t interested in smooth.”

It was the same when Steve did that iconic solo on Modern Love. Bowie wanted first takes or early takes. “More the way jazz players do it. You get what you are going to get”.

For this new release Bowie’s directions were clear: “Just play” “Don’t be contained” ”Farther out” “Don’t even think about what key we’re in”. …

Steve: “We stopped for lunch and watched/listened to some Rhythm and Blues players on YouTube. We talked about Johnny Otis a little bit and about Dr. John and Little Richard.”

Steve had played with Johnny Otis and knew it wasn’t about subtlety. “It wasn’t about a lot of notes or a lot of chops. The lesson working with Eddie Cleanhead Vincent, Big Jim Wynn, and Shuggie Otis was ‘play nothing extraneous’. They were all great players, but it wasn’t a virtuosic display – ever. It was about being there. It’s similar with Bowie. I think he’s interested in being in the present and being musically straightforward. Trusting gut feelings, no covering up with frills. With Johnny it was always first take – you were playing live. But with David too, I think there is something about that first thought. What comes to you out of playing the music, right then and there.”

Years ago, Steve remembered David talking about leaving things in, “so you might find, in a record, things that only happened that one time maybe – just to show we could do it. David called them ‘the gems hidden in the recording’”.

“A recording studio can be a sterile environment, but there was something about having the headphones on, David in the control room, singing ideas kind of back and forth. It felt as spontaneous as it gets. Not contrived. And I don’t think it’s ever ironic. Playing R & B with Johnny was never ironic or coy and I don’t think it is with Bowie. It’s never “playing at playing music”. You’re playing music.

At one point, listening through my headphones, I was thinking: ‘here is this beautiful voice I’m hearing’. It’s very intimate, we’re singing ideas and he’s a few inches away from his microphone. He’s playing his guitar. He’s singing, your playing, he’s giving direction.” A year and a half later when Steve heard cuts from “The Next Day” he was struck again by “how vulnerable and honest Bowie’s voice is”.

The way Bowie set the session up secretively insured there was no pressure from the business end of music on him or anyone else. “He got to work on what he cared about. No pressure from the outside affecting the creative process. He seemed at peace. Slowed down and funny, really in the room, really there. David’s known as a ‘chameleon’, but whenever I’ve worked with him I always felt he was himself. Just himself at that moment. There was no time pressure. That’s the place you want to make records from. No one had to prove anything – just people working on getting some low horn sounds onto this project.”

Steve remembered other record dates that went like that: A recording session with Fred Wesley –James Brown’s trombone player- at a friend’s studio in the East Village. “A couple of hours, a couple of songs. But it felt like every idea locked-in perfectly – it felt like ‘that’s how it’s supposed to be’. And I’ve played with great trombone players all my life. But there was something about the phrasing and the feeling – this is what you want. When things click, when people are in the room together.

When we finished the last song Tony said how well it had gone. I had no idea whether any of it would make it on the record. But in a way, I thought, it didn’t matter. I get to be alive making music with a brilliant mind.”

Maybe that’s the point. The chance to reinvent the world with like-minded musicians – a valiant effort to flex our free will.

As they left the studio, Tony said, ‘I’ll never forget today.’


With thanks to Steve Elson

K Webster is a writer and community organizer.

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