Long­time David Bowie col­lab­o­ra­tor Tony Vis­conti looks back on 50 years of unique cre­ative part­ner­ship

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

er at the very end of mak­ing it, and this per­son told him he should fire the band, that he didn’t need us. So we never played the al­bum live, we went our sep­a­rate ways, Mick and Woody went back up to Hull and I con­cen­trated on work­ing with T Rex. It was tragic for us.”

When TMWSTW was re­leased in the win­ter of 1970, it con­tin­ued Bowie’s then ob­sti­nate lack of chart suc­cess. Per­haps adding to this was the UK/Euro­pean al­bum cover, which fea­tured Bowie wear­ing a dress (de­signed by UK fash­ion de­signer Michael Fish, fa­mous for the atro­cious kip­per tie, and rather more fan­ci­ful shirts for Jon Per­twee’s five-year role as Dr Who). Around the same time, Bowie was fea­tured in UK gay mag­a­zine Jeremy (a sub­scrip­tion-only pub­li­ca­tion be­cause newsagents re­fused to stock it), a sig­ni­fier for his sub­se­quent ac­knowl­edg­ment, in a 1972 Melody Maker in­ter­view , of his bi­sex­u­al­ity.

I ask Vis­conti about Bowie’s life­style at this time. Known to cherry-pick from var­i­ous sources as a means to rouse cre­ativ­ity and other stim­uli, by this time he was mar­ried to Angie Bar­nett, an Amer­i­can ac­tor/writer who had a size­able in­flu­ence on him. “She was al­ways en­cour­ag­ing him to be more out­spo­ken, more out­ra­geous. He told me he was bi­sex­ual right after I met him in 1967, but kept it a se­cret from the pub­lic un­til that in­ter­view. I ad­mired him for this. It was a coura­geous thing to say, and the pos­i­tive ef­fect on peo­ple still in the closet was over­whelm­ingly lib­er­at­ing.”

As for Bowie’s life­style, Vis­conti adds, money ac­crued from the suc­cess of Space Od­dity was spent buy­ing an­tiques on the Old Kent Road and ex­pen­sive clothes in up­mar­ket ar­eas of Lon­don. Within a short space of time, di­vi­sions arose.

“We took turns buy­ing the weekly groceries. The bud­get was £8, and we could buy enough lentils, car­rots, rice – you know, hippy food – to last. When it was David and Angie’s turn to spend that £8, the posh food they bought would last only a day. We had one ma­jor row about that, but apart from the dif­fer­ences in af­flu­ence we usu­ally had a great time. Al­most ev­ery evening turned into a party.”

The wheels kept turn­ing, but in Bowie’s case brakes weren’t used – no sooner had he fin­ished one al­bum than he was on to the next. In quick suc­ces­sion came Hunky

Dory (1971) and the loosely con­cep­tual The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars (1972). The roll­out of al­bums from 1970-1980 (which also in­clude Aladdin Sane, Di­a­mond Dogs, Young Amer­i­cans, Sta­tion to Sta­tion, Low, He­roes, Lodger, and, fi­nally, Scary Mon­sters and Su­per Creeps) con­sti­tutes the most ad­ven­tur­ous se­quen­tial stretch of mu­sic by any con­tem­po­rary pop/rock mu­si­cian. Vis­conti doesn’t dis­agree.

“It was a won­der­ful time of growth and ac­com­plish­ment for him. He made a point of not re­peat­ing him­self, and his suc­cesses now made it okay for him to be all over the place. He didn’t stay in a par­tic­u­lar genre for more than one al­bum, yet he gave birth to gen­res the world had never heard be­fore and that other mu­si­cians made a whole ca­reer from copy­ing any one of them. Al­though he seemed pro­lific, he was slow at writ­ing songs – he wasn’t the type of writer that can sit with a gui­tar or at a piano for hours and come up with the goods. He came to the stu­dio and played ideas to the mu­si­cians and al­lowed the great tal­ent in the room to come up with some­thing he couldn’t imag­ine, but when we got mag­i­cal takes from the mu­si­cians he knew he had some­thing by which to write lyrics and melodies. It was of­ten frus­trat­ing, but it didn’t take all that long to get to a good place.”

Tug at the heart­strings

Com­ing up to four years after his death, there is no doubt that Vis­conti and Bowie had be­come much closer friends and gen­uinely em­pa­thetic col­lab­o­ra­tors, par­tic­u­larly from 2002’s Hea­then and 2003’s Re­al­ity on­wards. Cue a se­ri­ous tug at the heart­strings.

“I miss David dearly. We fin­ished his last two al­bums, The Next Day and Black­star, in my New York stu­dio. He was very com­fort­able in that con­tained, cosy space, of­ten bring­ing with him as many as three books that he would read whilst I would be do­ing tech­ni­cal stuff. The sofa where he sat has be­come a shrine, with a portrait of him over the place where he used to sit. When I work with other artists, they take turns sit­ting there.


He didn’t stay in a par­tic­u­lar genre for more than one al­bum, yet he gave birth to gen­res the world had never heard be­fore and that other mu­si­cians made a whole ca­reer from copy­ing any one of them

“Some­times I get a lit­tle tear­ful about him and think about how he was also a great friend with whom I’ve had some of the best dis­cus­sions ever. Some­times, es­pe­cially around now when I’ve been remix­ing some back cat­a­logue of his, I turn to the portrait and ask him what he thinks. I’d like to think he hears me, but I’m not daft, you know.

“He was a joy to work with,” con­tin­ues Vis­conti, with­out prompt­ing. “He’d light up a room and ev­ery­one in­volved knew they were part of a great record. There was al­ways a feel­ing of ad­ven­ture in the air. Mu­si­cally, too, we were al­ways on the same page – we’d reach a point in a de­vel­op­ing song and say, ‘now how do we throw a span­ner in here and make it some­thing no one’s heard be­fore?’.”

Holy Holy per­form at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, Satur­day, Jan­uary 11th. Billed as The Men Who Saved the World, Tony Vis­conti (with Woody Wood­mansey) is in con­ver­sa­tion with Tony Clay­ton-Lea at Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons, Sun­day, Jan­uary 12th. Both events are part of the Dublin Bowie Fes­ti­val. dublin­bowiefes­ti­val.ie


Left: Mu­si­cian and pro­ducer Tony Vis­conti. Right: Vis­conti with his Holy Holy band­mate, drum­mer Woody Wood­mansey. Be­low: David Bowie pro­mot­ing the re­lease of Space Od­dity in Novem­ber 1969 in Lon­don, Eng­land.

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