Considering that he has recorded with two of rock’s biggest legends, it’s sort of strange to hear renowned guitarist Earl Slick relay that for the better part of the 1990s he completely stopped playing music.
Forget about recording sessions or even live shows, for more than five years Slick didn’t even partake in a little casual picking or strumming around the house.
Burnt out and bored after two decades in the biz — the first of which saw him flank David Bowie and play guitar on John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” — he simply unplugged and moved to Northern California’s Lake Tahoe area where he planned to permanently retire from music.
“I wasn’t enjoying it any more,” Slick says. “I wasn’t writing good stuff that I liked. What I was playing was the same thing that I had been playing. Just not inspired, and it went on quite a while. I wasn’t sure what needed to be changed, or what I needed to do. It just wasn’t coming to me.”
But his thoughts of retirement haven’t gone quite according to plan. Slick, 52, is now enjoying a rebirth, a second chance, if you will. Since reteaming with Bowie some three years ago, his creative juices are again flowing. And in a sense, his return to music was officially marked this month with the release of his first solo record in years, “Zig Zag” (Sanctuary).
The album features guest appearances by Bowie, the Cure’s Robert Smith and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, among others — each of whom wrote the lyrics for their respective tracks.
In the ’90s, Slick says he simply hit a brick wall, burnt out on the blues-rock style that had become his trademark.
“Every time I got called to do anything, or when anybody was going to get involved with me, it was for that-more of the same,” he says. “And I remember going onstage doing another, yet one more blues rock solo, and just thinking, ‘Man, this is not fun.’ And at the time, I don’t think I was conscious of whether I was bored with what I was doing, with that kind of guitar playing, or if I just started hating music. I didn’t know where I was at.”
Slick appeared on several Bowie albums in the mid-’70s, sets by both Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as Ian Hunter records. After that, the guitarist says desperation began to set in because he wasn’t getting much work. “So you start calling up everybody looking for work at it’s very demeaning. And finally I went, ‘F*** this, if it’s this difficult to keep my career going, maybe I need to take a step out of here.'”
And it wasn’t just the music, he says. “I think a lot of it is just my head just got whacked on me, my head just took a turn. I think it was the life thing. Sometimes s*** happens. So the whole process was about clearing my head out.”
Slick’s return to music began to take shape in 1999, when former Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale asked him to appear on his new solo record. Around that time, the guitarist created slickmusic.com, which enabled him to sell his earlier recordings over the Web.
The site ended up playing a key role in where he is today. After a staffer in Bowie’s office did a Web search for Slick, the address came up and it wasn’t long before the Webmaster of slickmusic.com received an E-mail asking the guitarist to contact the singer, whom he hadn’t seen in some seven years.
With a laugh, Slick says that it wasn’t what one might expect-that, all of a sudden, after all those years apart (he left Bowie’s band after 1976’s “Station to Station”) the two were reunited professionally.
“When I called, the girl in his office goes, ‘David wanted me to get in touch with you because he’s producing an artist that he thinks you could play guitar with very well.’ That was the opening line.” And that sounded fishy to Slick immediately. “It was bull***, and I knew it was, but I played along with it for a while,” he says, laughing. “Why would he call me out of the clear blue sky to play on somebody else’s album? He could have gotten anybody to do that.
“So I played along with it, and the next thing they wanted was a picture and I’m going, like, ‘This guy cares what I look like?’ Finally, I said, ‘Come on, I got the number on this thing.’ The poor girl. She was instructed to do one thing by David, and I was giving her a hard time, and finally push came to shove and everybody got their cards on the table and I flew to New York and I sat with the band and had a great time.”
It wasn’t long before Slick was back in the Bowie band full time, performing first and then recording again with the Thin White Duke.
“It gets exciting because David’s not the kind of guy that is going to be artistically and musically like other people are,” Slick says. “The only thing predictable is that he’s unpredictable. And it’s the way that he goes about doing the process, it’s everything, it’s the whole package.
“And it’s the creativity part of it, where I’m not working with people who are expecting just the normal stuff. Even though I probably cover the most normal of what he has, it still pushes me.
“I’ll play something and he hears it, but he hears it a little twisted and he feeds that back to me,” Slick continues. “So I take what may be my original idea, with his twist on it, and now I got something that I like even better.”
After convening with Bowie in 2000, the band took a break, during which Slick began to become inspired again. It was then that “Zig Zag” began to take shape. “The sparks started to fly again,” Slick says.
The title track, for example, came about one day after Slick had spent a day chilling out in a secluded stretch of forest near Portland, Ore., with his two Newfoundlands. After coming home, he started playing that lick, and voila, the song (named after that actual stretch of forest) was born.
“I didn’t actually start writing to make an album, I was just writing, and it was really cool, and then, all of a sudden, I’m going, ‘Wow, I got three new things, I got four new things, I got nine things, I got 10 things, not even finished things, but just really good start-up pieces. And I’m going, ‘Ya know what, I think I could do something.’
“What I was writing and the mood of what I was writing was much different than anything I had written before, which made me happy. I’m going, ‘OK, there’s a part of me in there that’s different than what I’ve done before.’ “
The elation led to a call to producer Mark Plati, who began to make plans for recording sessions. It was through Plati that Smith took part in the record. Plati was helming a remake of the Cure track “The Forest” for a movie soundtrack when Slick reached out to him. A mutual friend of Slick’s hooked him up with Elliott, while Bowie slyly invited himself to take part.
“He overheard a conversation I was having with Mark, asked to speak to him, and said, ‘I guess you’re not interested in me maybe doing a little something on the record.'” It was of course just the opposite.
Slick, who is about to strike out on a North American tour with Bowie, says that he’s so rejuvenated that he’s planning to resume writing in April, when the tour takes a bit of a break.
“[I’m] fully back and then some,” Slick insists.
“I gotta to be honest with ya, I think as far as my career goes, I’m happier I now than I ever was. And I think I can chock that up to a bunch of reasons, first, having hit the point where I gave it up and then getting it back and getting it back at this level, and in the process of getting it back, getting my creativity back as well and also getting my lust for it back as well.”