Rock

Why Rolling Stones Backing Vocalist Bernard Fowler Wants to Bring Spoken Word Back

Bernard Fowler
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Bernard Fowler performs onstage with Kings of Chaos at the Adopt the Arts annual rock gala at Avalon Hollywood on Jan. 31, 2018 in Los Angeles.  

While the Rolling Stones have amassed an absurdity of hits compilations since Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) in 1966, the newly released Honk remains distinct from familiar Stones collections by focusing on the last 30 years of the band's recorded output. Not only is the 1989-2016 era of their catalog the most underrated, it also chronicles the real time evolution of singer Bernard Fowler's role as the Stones' longtime backing vocalist, who began appearing on every LP since Steel Wheels (1989) after working with Mick Jagger on 1985's solo She's The Boss.

As the cosmos would have it, on the very day of Honk's release (April 19), Fowler's own album based around the band's music, Inside Out, also dropped. It's a collection of wildly reconstructed versions of eight tracks from the Stones catalog, half of which were culled from 1983's new wave-evoking Undercover. For Fowler, however, the heavy lean on that record was pure coincidence -- a happy accident that transpired as part of the album's larger picture.

"It was not planned that way at all," he explains. "My goal was to look for songs with good lyrical content, and when I went into the songbook those tunes jumped out at me. I wasn't concentrating on any one album in particular. But I loved Undercover, and I loved the single. Especially the video. It was really good because of what was happening at the time in Nicaragua. We were being bombarded with that stuff on television every day. I took notice, and when I saw the video for the song, I took notice of that, too, because it was particularly strong."

Meanwhile, the weight of two particular tunes -- the Sticky Fingers comedown "Sister Morphine" and "Dancing With Mr. D" off 1973's Goat's Head Soup (which appears twice on Inside Out) -- come across as particularly heavy in light of the current opioid crisis plaguing the United States, which Fowler argues is not as dire as it was back in the Stones' Exile days.

"When I was growing up, it was just as bad if not worse," he states. "Drugs were all around me when I was a kid. Plus, there wasn't the kind of help that people can get these days back then."

Hearing rewired renditions of songs like "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Undercover of the Night" done in a style that's more Gil Scott-Heron than Glimmer Twins brings out the topicality of the lyrics -- especially when channeled through the sounds of an ace studio band of longtime Fowler pals. That crew includes fellow Stones associates Steve Jordan on drums and bassist Darryl Jones, guitar legend Ray Parker, Jr., the white-hot Keyon Harrold on trumpet, Miles Davis' drummer and nephew Vince Wilburn, Jr. and longtime David Bowie pianist Mike Garson, with whom Fowler wrapped a tour with other Thin White Duke alumni entitled A Bowie Celebration in March.

"Nobody knew what to expect from this record but myself," Fowler proclaims. "The idea for this album was in my head for a while. After my last solo record, The Bura, I wanted to do something completely different. I had been toying with this spoken word idea in my head, and this is how it manifested."

For Fowler, who was born and raised in New York City's Queensbridge and spent his early years as a member of The Peech Boys alongside Larry Levan before joining the industrial hip-hop outfit TACK>>HEAD in the mid-80s, spoken word music was something he heard all his life and continues to inspire him in the form of such modern names as Felipe Luciano and Saul Williams.

"I remember hearing The Last Poets the first time they arrived on the scene," he recalls. "Them, Gil Scott, the Watts Prophets. Those were records that were passed around in the community. Back then, there was a PBS show called Soul and these guys would make appearances on there and we'd catch them. But largely, those were neighborhood records that spread down the block with no radio airplay."

The big hope for Fowler, who will be going back out on the road with the Stones once Jagger gets a clean bill of health, is that Inside Out will hopefully shine a light back on the spoken word genre -- so sorely overlooked in 2019 after a resurgence of popularity in the late '90s/early '00s thanks to the Def Poetry Jam TV series and the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City -- and perhaps inspire some young poets to add a jolt of that Gen Z energy into the somewhat dormant fusion of rhythm and prose.

"The outline is there," says Fowler. "There are a ton of young poets, but I don't think they've given thought to taking advantage of delivering their poetry in a musical setting. There's a lot of talent out there, but everybody wants to be a rapper. Nobody just wants to be just a poet. There's not enough political and social dissent, and there's too much of the materialism that goes on in hip-hop these days. And I think the influence it's having on a lot of kids is a negative one."