‘THERE WAS ALWAYS A FEELING OF ADVENTURE IN THE AIR’
Longtime David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti looks back on 50 years of unique creative partnership
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.