Bowie meets Springsteen
Mike McGrath • The Drummer • 26 November
Unwinding in the wee hours at Sigma Sound, Bowie
talks about his music, the Philly concerts, Barry Goldwater and
When Bruce Springsteen played The Tower Theater
recently, announcements were made of upcoming concerts - when David
Bowie's scheduled Civic Center appearance was announced it was greeted
by a large negative roar from the crowd. It caught off-guard a number
of startled onlookers, including the announcer, who voiced concurrence
with the crowd.
Some weeks later, during the recent Beach Boys concert
at The Spectrum, the upcoming pair of Bowie shows were announced
and greeted by a contest of boos and cheers from the crowd. It was
obviously as fashionable to support Bowie as dismiss him. Also,
judging by the crowds attracted, a lot of the booers came to see
And at 1am Monday morning the 25th of November, David
Bowie met and welcomed Bruce Springsteen while recording his latest
album at Sigma Sound. In an open and candid evening he touched on
his recent concert performance and spoke of audiences and flying
The Mike Garson Group
At 7.00 Sunday night a group of about a dozen and
half Bowie freaks stood watch outside the main entrance of The Barclay
on Rittenhouse Square. Some had orange, Bowie-cut hair; others just
stood with their hands in their pockets waiting for a glimpse of
someone that would make their vigil worthwhile.
Mike Garson plays keyboards for Bowie, as well as
being his musical director. As we left the Barclay for Sigma Sound
Studios on North 12th Street, the kids outside called him by name.
We stopped and talked to them for a few minutes. One displayed a
gorgeous, large matte color close-up of Bowie, possibly from Monday
Mike: That's nice - you gonna give it to Bowie?
Girl: No, I want him to sign it for me!
Mike is a 28-year-old keyboard player who's been
with Bowie for two years, has never been with one act that long
before, and has no plans to move on. He comes, very noticeably,
from Brooklyn, where his wife is awaiting his return at the end
of this concert tour (about a week) so she can drop their second
child in his lap. "We planned it so the kid'll be born the day after
I get back."
He began playing classical piano at the ripe old
age of seven (his three year old daughter already plays), went from
there to jazz, and then to rock. Along the way he worked for people
like Martha and the Vandellas and Nancy Wilson. A lot of influences:
Bach, Beethoven, Art Tatum, Chick Corea, Stravinsky.
And, like Chick, Mike is a Scientologist. Not pushing
hard for the cause - just mentioning that he was sceptical of it
for about six months, took the plunge, and that it's helped him
cope both as a musician and a person.
How did he become Bowie's musical director?
playing a gig, working with an avant garde jazz group, and one night
I got a series of phone calls… the third was from Bowie. I didn't
know who he was. I was heavy into jazz and had never come across
him. I played four chords for him and Mick Ronson… I was hired
for eight weeks… That was a hundred and twenty weeks ago."
The Mike Garson Band opened up the show Monday night.
For them, the Spectrum ShowCo sound was perfect. A tight professional
rhythm and blues-jazz-rock set of opening numbers was greeted first
with mild indifference and later with boos, catcalls, and conspirational
clapping designed to drive the group from stage. Never faltering
once, they did their eight warm-up numbers and left the stage to
return for one more after the intermission. Finally, after being
subjected to an incredible verbal barrage, the group faded into
the background and Bowie took the stage.
Bad sound, a weak voice, and shortened muddled versions
of older songs interspersed with poor renditions of his new R&B
numbers, combined to make this show his weakest yet in the city.
Audience reaction was kind, bringing him back.
The next day consisted of bad reviews, bad feelings,
and angry phone calls to WMMR-FM from concert goers who felt that
the man had not delivered their money's worth (or as one leatherneck
offered during the Garson's Band's warm up, "Get those ******* off
Garson: He liked the show - he didn't know the sound
was bad either. You know we can only hear the monitors blasting
away on stage and they sounded fine. The audience reaction seemed
very very good… In actual fact, the reviews on this tour have
been better overall than the Diamond Dogs tour.
On Bowie: "He wanted to do something without the
theatrics; he may go back to them, he may not. For this time he
wanted to just get our there and sing. He's not afraid of change,
he's always changing… He's full of surprises."
"On a good night his voice is better now than it
Spending the night with David Bowie
We arrived at Sigma Sound a little after eight. Producer
Tony Visconti was arched over a mammoth soundboard, pressing buttons,
being generally pleasant to the half-dozen engineers and musicians
in the control room, and peering into the large windowed studio
directly in front.
The album was practically finished. The first rough
mix had been accomplished since Bowie recorded the basic tracks
some weeks ago, and this week had been devoted to clean-ups and
overdubs. This was the final night in the studio for the album -
the final touches would now be made.
I'm Only Dancing (She Turns Me On) was being played
back. Pablo was in the studio, overdubbing a cowbell and some chimes
onto an already lushly produced cut. Visconti easily shows his pleasure
with the final product as Pablo finishes up. The cut is full and
rich, almost a Phil Spector R&B wall of sound - Bowie's voice
mixed way into the background.
10:30: and the jokes disintegrate into bad puns and
poor taste; Tony explains palmistry to a member of the band - says
that the late Bruce Lee's lifeline (gleaned from a gigantic close-up
of his open fist) showed that he should've lived till 90.
11:30: Out of the corner of the studio comes an old,
small brown guitar amp. Tony proudly announced that it belonged
to Chubby Checker and was used to record the original version of
The Twist. He sings, "Got a new dance and it goes like this… "
The amps specialty is a fine dirty sound that you can't get from
an amp unless it was made well about twenty years ago. After hearing
a few licks played through, every guitar player in the room plots
Seven minutes to midnight: The door opens and in
saunter Ed and Judy Sciaky, escorting the night's special guest
star, a roadweary Bruce Springsteen, fresh off the bus from Asbury
Park, New Jersey. Bruce is stylishly attired in a stained brown
leather jacket with about seventeen zippers and a pair of hoodlum
jeans. He looked like he just fell out of a bus station, which he
It seems that one of the tracks Bowie laid down was
Bruce's It's Hard to be a Saint in the City. Tony Visconti called
Ed at WMMR and asked him if he could get Bruce into the studio.
Contacted finally on noon Sunday, Bruce hitched into Asbury Park,
then via the nine o'clock Trailways to Philly, where Ed met him
"hanging with the bums in the station."
Said Bruce of his odyssey: "That ride had a real
cast of characters… every bus has a serviceman, an old lady in
a brown coat with one of these little black things on her head,
and the drunk who falls out next to you."
An hour later, the time passing with some more overdubs
and a few improvised vocals by Luther of the Garson band (who sings
a fine lead and whose vocal power adds a lot of strength to an already
powerful album), enter David Bowie and Ava Cherry, white-haired
soul singer for the band.
David breezes in, takes account of the night's progress,
lets his piercing eyes cast across the room a few times, listens
to a tape and then leaves Tony to his work so as to chat with Bruce.
Five people hunched up in a far corner of the lobby,
looking more like the fans (half a dozen of whom were still standing
outside, savoring the vibrations) than the stars themselves.
David reminisces on the first time he saw Bruce -
two years ago at Max's Kansas City - and that he was knocked out
by the show and wanted to do one of his songs ever since. When pressed
for another American artist whose songs he would like to record
(as he did for British artists on the Pin Ups album), david thinks
a while and replies that there are none. A tired but interested
Bruce lets a grin escape.
The conversation turns to a common problem: Stage
Bowie: It doesn't bother me so much that they do
it, I just wonder – what are they gonna do when they get there?
Bruce: Once I was onstage sweating so hard I was
soaked with it. Really soaking wet. And this guy jumps up on stage
and throws his arms around me; and I get this tremendous electric
shock from the guitar. This guy doesn't even feel it! I'm in agony
and he doesn't feel a thing; he wasn't feeling anything anyway;
but I'm getting this shock and the guy won't let go. Finally, my
drummer, Mad Dog, comes over and beats the guy off.
Bowie: And the guy went back to his friends saying,
"Hey man, Bruce was really wired"… The worst was when a guy jumped
up on stage and I saw the look in his eyes – all luuded out – he
was gone. Real scary look in his eyes, and all I could think was
'I been waitin' for you. Four years and I been waitin' for one like
you to jump on stage.' And I just smiled at him, and his eyes got
okay again; then I looked closer and saw he was holding a brick
in his hand…
Bowie is a tall skeletal leprechaun. Red beret tipped
extremely to one side, the other revealing a loose patch of orange
hair, leaning away from ears that uncannily resemble a Vulcan's
up close. Intense hawk eyes; if they fix on you friendly it warms
the room; unfriendly or even questioningly you're forced to turn
away from them. Red velvet suspenders over high waisted black pants
and a white pullover sweater complete the bizarre outfit, which,
like any other, grows on you as the hours pass.
In fact, Bowie grows and fleshes out as the hours
pass. From the secluded, mysterious figure portrayed by the press
into a man of odd habits, but more personable as some time passes
Mike Garson, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Visconti and Bowie
After an hour, I couldn't understand how Mike Garson
could say he was easy and friendly to work with; very short and
direct in his instructions to the band as he stands with Visconti
at the board, overseeing some back-up vocals. After a few hours,
a break, and some chatter about flying saucers, the person seeps
through. A real person.
The studio is a warm, fur covered cavern at 3am.
Heads and bodies sway in time to a slow one. Yellows, blues, reds,
and greens dimmed as low as possible light the control room and
studio. The control room is a starship with endless banks of futuristic
controls; punch panel, mixing decks, tape decks, blinking lights.
A starship manned by a motley bunch of pirates. Obviously hijacked.
The talk turns toward the sound last Monday at the
Spectrum. (Bowie: "It's the pits. The absolute pits.") Visconti
is assigned to work on its improvement. A five o'clock sound check
will be of little use since it's brought up that the acoustics change
tremendously when the place fills with fourteen thousand sound absorbing
If anyone can look tired and energetic at the same
time, it's David. Part the curtains in the studio and the silent
sentinels below come to life and wave frantically; their big moment
– contact with the event.
Bowie tried to record a vocal solo. It sounds terrible,
the voice is hoarse and tired. "It's much too early yet - I'm not
quite awake… I won't be able to record anything till about half
He reenters the studio and wraps a set of incredibly
long, slender fingers around a cold steak sandwich (never having
encountered one before, he was taught the correct hold and given
seven different explanations as to what a hoagie was).
More on the Spectrum: "I was dreading it really.
Everybody whoever played there warned me how terrible it was. I
don't think you can get good sound there, but we'll try."
After a promise to meet again and talk further in
New York, Bruce heads off with Ed and Judy for a 5am visit to the
Broad Street diner. Max's Kansas City had been his first professional
gig. Bowie was in from the start. Bruce leaves without having heard
his version of Saint. The feeling is that it's not ready yet.
Bowie: "There's one that you people probably haven't
even heard of here, 'cause the US government threw a blanket over
it. It's all over Canada though… happened about three, four weeks
ago in Akron, Ohio. Same sort of thing that Prof. Carr is saying
happened at Patterson Air Force Base. There was a decompression
accident and they have a ship and four bodies: three feet tall,
caucasian, although weathered all over to make up for it, same organic
stuff: cocks and lungs and such, but different, bigger brains.
"You know Barry Goldwater is resigning from politics
to become President of a UFO organization… he's not really resigning
from politics, he just realizes they can't keep it all secret much
longer and he wants to be at the top when it breaks. It will break
Next on the Bowie agenda is a long voyage down the
Amazon; David will not fly and his next concert tour is in Brazil
in January. Maybe the long boat ride will ease that throat. On some
tracks of the new album (a single record which may include the Springsteen
tune) his voice is clear and firm. On others it's mixed way back,
so that Garson's group and the full production overpower a weak,
There is however, not a bad cut on the album. Hell,
you can even dance to it.
As the sun came up and David talked on a bit of the
Russians and their 3,000 flying objects sending communicative signals
into space (Klaatu Barada Nikto?), the room took on the warm perspective
of the remnants of an all night talk-rap-fantasize session. The
kind where you come away fulfilled, for no other reason that you
felt you got to know a handful of people a bit better.
A warm room, hard to leave. But work was about to
resume, the sun was getting higher, and the deadline for his resume
becoming tighter and tighter. A firm handshake, as firm and strong
as Bruce's; they are much alike.
Outside, a dozen sentinels are huddled in cars, standing
on the sidewalk, sitting on the steps, waiting for a little of the
magic to pour out. This is Bowie's final night in the studio. When
he leaves, they'll get into their cars and beat him to the Barclay.
One last look at the man who makes his albums in Philadelphia.