Tony Visconti and Jeff Slate Talk David Bowie at Brooklyn Museum: Here Are 5 Highlights
In honor of the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, legendary producer Tony Visconti spoke with music journalist Jeff Slate, sharing stories from his 40-year friendship and creative partnership with the late David Bowie.
Visconti managed to touch on nearly every era and album he and Bowie collaborated on, but his viewpoint was never bogged down in production or engineering detail. Rather, he painted a detailed portrait of Bowie as if the audience was hanging out with him, too.
The MO of the evening was to humanize a larger-than-life figure, putting just as much emphasis on intimate details like Bowie’s silly in-studio impressions, or his legendary love of sushi, and the experiences of working on classics like Low and Heroes.
The result was a moving, funny portrait of the man behind the costumes, hairstyles and familiar hits -- a creative obsessive who nonetheless was obsessively detailed and unprolific, a formerly grim-as-death dabbler in WW2 imagery who could nonetheless take the piss out of you.
Here are five highlights of what we learned from this illuminating talk between Visconti and Slate.
On the First Day of Their Friendship, Bowie and Visconti Caught a Roman Polanski Flick Together
Obsessed with the Beatles, Visconti fled from Brooklyn to London at a young age. (“A psychic told me I was going to meet an Englishman who offered me a job,” he remembers.) Visconti was then taken under the wing of Denny Cordell, producer for The Fugs and Procol Harum. It was he who essentially hooked up the young producer with an equally wet-behind-the-ears Bowie, playing some cuts from the singer’s recently-released debut album and, referring Visconti’s client Marc Bolan, saying, “You seem to work well with weird people.” It was a well-intentioned set-up; Bowie was in the next room for the whole interchange. The two ended up spending an entire day together, realizing they had a lot in common in underground and “weird” culture, eventually taking a stroll to a local art-house theatre to see Roman Polanski’s film A Knife in the Water. “We ended up saying goodnight at about 10 p.m.,” Visconti remembered.
Label to Bowie: “Please Write ‘Young Americans 2’
Bowie took one of his signature left-turns by decamping to Philadelphia with a bunch of soul musicians, including an 18-year-old Luther Vandross, to write and record Young Americans. Once he’d gotten that sound out of his system with Americans and its accompanying Philly/Soul Dogs tour, he was done. “He just cast it aside. He wasn’t interested in the style of ‘Fame,’” remembered Visconti from this period. He would not be tied down to a style. RCA wanted him to do ‘Young Americans 2.’ That was exactly what they said.” By then, the mercurial Bowie had fled to L.A. under to dabble in esotericism and cocaine and record Station to Station -- a record Bowie later claimed he had no recollection of making.
Mick Jagger Played Mind Games, Jokingly Sabotaged Lodger in the Mixing Process
The sessions for 1979s underappreciated Lodger were beset by problems both logistical and creative, with Visconti remembering the sessions being “Stuffy and hot… I’ve got so many pictures of Brian Eno topless.” Mick Jagger dropped by the studio while the two were mixing Lodger, and proceeded to pick it apart at every turn. “Mick continued to put it down -- ‘Oh, that drum, oh, that fill isn’t any good.’” When asked by Visconti to quit jabbing at their work, Jagger’s reply was genius: “Well, okay, I guess I’ll go down the road and sabotage Joni Mitchell’s album.”
Bowie and Visconti Got into Buddhism by Being Hoodwinked by a ‘Tibetan Lama’ Author in Their Teens
Bowie and Visconti would go on to absorb sincere lessons from their Buddhist studies, but it all began with a false Tibetan Lama author, Lobsang Rampa. “He was actually a German journalist who wrote all these stories about Tibet and presented it as an autobiography. We read all these books in our teens and were like, ‘We’ve got to meet Lobsang Rampa.’ It was authentic, except that he wasn’t a real Tibetan Lama.” Visconti joked about the real identity of the author who, in real life, turned out to be a plumber in Devonshire -- “His name was actually Fritz Kriesler!”
Bowie Tried to Put a Lid on Visconti’s Personal Anecdotes to the Press
Near the end of his life, it was increasingly important to Bowie to keep personal details about himself or the recording process under wraps, insisting that everything the public should know about him was in the songs. “I was one of the few people who, when articles came up, he would say, ‘Tony, you do this, but keep it to the music.’” Visconti would occasionally let go of trifling details, like the fact that they watched a “funny video from England while having lunch,” but Bowie would blow up at even those inconsequential details being leaked. “That is private,” he’d say tensely, about anything slipping from his well-curated wall between his temporal life and his famous public sphere of space oddities and character reinventions.