From Blondie and Kate Bush to the Broadway producer who watched Bowie struggle to make his final video, friends, collaborators and celebrity fans offer their insights into the extraordinary man behind the music
David Bowie in 1977.
Deborah Harry and Chris Stein: ‘He showed up at our house one night with Mick Jagger – that was pretty great’
The Blondie stars remember supporting Bowie in 1977
Chris Stein: The first time we met Bowie was when we supported him and Iggy Pop [for The Idiot tour in 1977]. We were in awe of him and Iggy right from the get-go. He was always very charming and gentlemanly, but also wary and kind of catty at the same time. I remember we talked about the new wave, and about [Television frontman] Tom Verlaine’s hairdo a lot. He was a little sarcastic and derisive of it, but at the same time I thought he was also kind of jealous of the attention the hairdo was getting.
Debbie Harry: Yes, he had a good sense of humour. It felt casual. It wasn’t like we were trying to be intense or correct about things, we were just hanging out. What was really impressive to me about David was that he had such a terrific sense of being an entertainer and also about the music business. He was a very shrewd, very sharp guy. That was consistent throughout his career: he had the ability to sell this oddity that he was, and make it clear to people who would normally be completely resistant to what he was doing. He reached millions and millions of people. Touring with him took us from being a very New York-based cult band into being possibly a real international music source.
Debbie Harry with David Bowie, photogrpahed backstage during 1977’s The Idiot tour by Chris Stein of Blondie. Photograph: from the book Chris Stein / Negative published by Rizzoli
CS: And he did the same thing for Iggy, to a certain extent. Iggy still had a kind of cult status; he wasn’t a megastar in the A list, the way Bowie was. But Bowie was very generous: he was just at the back, playing keyboards. He was really concerned with the whole show moving smoothly. The show was so professional and at the same time crazy and exciting – he managed to put the two things together.
Bowie was like Andy Warhol: when he walked into a party it would be like the pope had arrived
Chris Stein, Blondie
DH: That was when he had the Low album out, which was received poorly. He got some real heavy criticism for that. But there you go. The whole show was wonderful and energetic. It was our first big tour. We’d never played on such a big stage before. He gave me some technical advice about working the different sides and centre, and advice about finding the light. Theatrical stuff. He worked in mime, and he had a real theatrical background. On the stage he was elegant and such a strong presence: he was very graceful and versatile. His versatility was one of his major points: he was truly a renaissance artist and man.
CS: After that, we hung out a bunch of times over the years and he was always very gracious. I saw him in the summer of 2013 for the last time. We were talking about Lou Reed and how we were worried about Lou. Bowie was like Andy Warhol: when he walked into a party it would be like the pope had arrived. It was a combination of his notoriety and his persona. He came to our house with Mick Jagger one time and that was fucking awesome. They showed up in the evening: the doorbell rang and it was Bowie and Jagger. I got to smoke a joint with Mick – that was pretty great.
DH: They were curious about our new home, and just wanted to hang out, I guess. So they dropped in, and we actually let them in the house [laughs].
CS: In terms of music, Bowie was definitely a big influence on us, especially in the way he was always reinventing himself and his style. And his eclecticism: never being scared to experiment and go in different directions. I’d seen the Spiders from Mars show at Radio City [in February 1973] before I met [Debbie]. Everybody from downtown was at that.
DH: I went to see him during the Ziggy Stardust tour at Carnegie Hall. So we had both been influenced or appreciative [of Bowie] even before we met or started working together.
Alan Rickman, giant of British screen and stage, dies at 69
CS: One time, years ago, we performed Heroes with Robert Fripp live. The song is very simple but so imaginative at the same time – the whole anthemic quality of it. It’s about the glory of being a weirdo. It’s a great sentiment. David Bowie touched everybody, for God’s sakes. It’s crazy. The music and just everything about him has run into so many facets of our society. I think people underestimate the masses. People, especially nowadays, are ready for things that push the envelope a lot more, and Bowie was always pushing it. I mean, in the first images we were seeing of him he was wearing a dress.
DH: It always seemed very important to have talked with him and to have met him. One thing that really surprised me about him was he was chameleon-like, which is obvious in the transition of characters he developed over the years, but you’d never notice him if he was out walking in the street. He was very clever, he was very good at that: he walked around the city streets wherever he was and no one ever really recognised him.
CS: Musically, I’m amazed at this last bit of stuff, I’m just starting to get into it. It’s interesting that he chose to go in a jazzy direction. He references passing in these videos and music that he’s put out. And I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’ve been struggling to try to think of something similar and I really can’t. Maybe Byron, or Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer, who killed himself very dramatically, but that was more sloppy than this thing that Bowie has done now. It’s just amazing that he pulled this off.
DH: It’s like a Romantic poet. The thing that’s really great about this is that – putting myself in his place, and thinking, “wow, what a great idea this is, to hold on to” – instead of lying around being sick and miserable, he took the energy he had left and was creative, doing this thing that he liked the best. So now I think that that’s the most admirable part of it, although it’s a little hard to take right now. It’s a great tribute to his strength and creativity. He had a totality to his vision, and he carried it through to the end.
Kate Bush: ‘He was wonderfully eccentric – and he was ours’
The singer-songwriter recalls a musical icon
David Bowie had everything. He was intelligent, imaginative, brave, charismatic, cool, sexy and truly inspirational both visually and musically. He created such staggeringly brilliant work, yes, but so much of it and it was so good. There are great people who make great work but who else has left a mark like his? No one like him.
I’m struck by how the whole country has been flung into mourning and shock. Shock, because someone who had already transcended into immortality could actually die. He was ours. Wonderfully eccentric in a way that only an Englishman could be.
Whatever journey his beautiful soul is now on, I hope he can somehow feel how much we all miss him.
Carlos Alomar: ‘He wanted to be hip so I took him to see some Latin bands’
The guitarist played on many Bowie albums
The first time I met him he had finished with the Spiders from Mars. It was the mid-70s and he was recording with Lulu. I was one of the session musicians and when I got to the studio a pasty, 98lb, orange-haired man covered in white pancake makeup came through the door. He was really sweet, dropping all these Americanisms like [adopts British accent]: “Hey man” and “That’s really cool”. He wanted to be hip so I took him to see some Latin bands and then to the Apollo theatre to see Richard Pryor. Can you imagine what it was like backstage after the show? Pryor was like “Who’s this white guy?”
David wanted me to work with him. He asked me to play on Diamond Dogs and tour with him and I couldn’t do either. Finally he asked me to do an album with the theme of “the sound of Philadelphia” and I agreed. I brought this troupe of amazing musicians to the Young Americans (1975) album sessions, like my wife, Robin Clark, my best friend, Luther Vandross, and the bass player Emir Kassan. It took three weeks to record the album. He’d never done that before, his albums with the Spiders took three to four months to make. It was in the cocaine days and he needed to stay up because the recording would happen all through to night. We worked 20- to 24-hour days on that album. They would wake me up to do a guitar track at three in the morning and Luther Vandross at 4am to lay down a backing vocal.
My favourite memory of working with him was when Tina Turner came in to record Tonight (1984) with us. I’d never seen him so nervous, not in front of record companies, not in front of managers or anybody.
But, man, he was like a little school kid trying to make sure everything was just right. He said, “We’re going to go out for dinner and you’ve got to come!’ I said, “She’s Tina Turner, she’s not going to bite you! Get some man balls.” He was so nervous. In the end, it was a wonderful meeting. We found out that she’s a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist. David was a Buddhist and I’m a Buddhist, so we ended up speaking about our life philosophies. The conversation was fuelled by drink, so it went from heaven to hell pretty fast [laughs].
The last time I saw him was at Tony Visconti’s birthday party. We were having a great time but he looked a little bit frail. I just figured, we’re all getting older. There was no indication that anything else was going on. But the master had planned it a certain way: he had his birthday which he celebrated like crazy, then he released Blackstar and then, oh by the way, he died. The sequence of events doesn’t give you enough time to process them because your brain is trying to decipher the message that’s in that great record. David was like a comet, blazing brightly into the sky. That comet travelled too fast for us to see it and take it all in at once.
Gail Ann Dorsey: ‘I thought his call was one of my mates playing a practical joke’
Played bass in Bowie’s band 1995-2016
In my case, it was not a matter of being “introduced” to David Bowie, but somehow, by the fickle and unfathomable laws of the universe, I happen to be one of the extremely fortunate musicians in an endless sea of amazing musicians to be “chosen” by him. It was the spring of 1995 and I was in Bath, writing and recording music for a solo album project with Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears. A telephone call came completely out of the blue one afternoon. I naturally assumed it was one of my London mates playing a practical joke on me! Ha ha! It took me a minute or two of embarrassing myself to finally realise it was indeed Mr Bowie himself asking if I would be interested in playing bass in a band he was putting together for a tour with Nine Inch Nails that coming fall. Obviously, my answer was not “no”, and so it seems, from where we find ourselves today, the rest was history…
Watch: David Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, Under Pressure.
In the 20 years following that life-changing phone call, some of the mystery of how he stumbled upon me became a bit clearer. Bowie was an astute observer. He was a man who was constantly seeking the new, the now, and had a voracious appetite for devouring the sweet seeds of the future. As a human being as well as an artist, he was able to see the potential for creative expression in virtually everything and everyone around him; perhaps the God-given aptitude that set him apart from the rest. Through his work, it feels like he knows us, even better than we know ourselves. That certainly proved to be true in my case. To watch David work, to be witness to his brilliant and nimble mind, and to be a member of his extraordinary team for the realisation of his unparalleled artistic visions is just as educational and exhilarating as one would imagine. [Working with] an artist of his calibre and stature could have been a disappointing, nightmarish charade of ego and hierarchy, but there was always an atmosphere of professionalism, respect, endless humour, and love… While no one can claim to be “perfect” as a human being, as an artist, he was.
Sadie Coles: ‘He invited us all to see him play in Hanover Street one night’
Gallerist whose first space features on a Bowie album cover
The first address of Sadie Coles HQ was 35 Heddon Street, London. I think Sarah Lucas pointed out it was the site of the cover of Ziggy Stardust and that seemed to us to bode well for our new venture, particularly as Bowie then turned up unannounced at our Sarah Lucas show, The Law (1997). He called the [Heddon Street] gallery and chatted to director Pauline Daly, inviting us all – Sarah and a host of YBAs to see him play in Hanover Street one night. He was an inspirational example of how an artist can choose to protect themselves, and their work, from the polluting noise of the unnecessary. When we were seeking permission for music rights for a documentary on Sarah Lucas it was a revelation to realise how super-minimal David Bowie’s management was. Meaning his extraordinary output was truly pure, truly his vision and not filtered through a host of PR agencies, managers and business people: an artist living the life he wanted to live, on his terms, making the work he wanted to make. That can teach us something. His was an elegant life, work and exit.
Edwyn Collins: ‘He was never aloof. He was easy to fall in love with’
The Scottish singer-songwriter first fell for Bowie as a teenager
We were so lucky, to be adolescent when Bowie burst on to the scene. We got him in real time, when we were forming, and the yearning for each new record from him was so thrilling. Then it arrived – who got it first? Who could afford it, had saved up? Congregating in bedrooms, devouring it, no talking. A side, B side, flip it over, needle to the start, again and again. Our Bowie rituals. For quite a long time, in Dundee and then Glasgow, most of my waking hours were spent thinking about Bowie.
I know David made himself seem alien and strange, but he was never aloof. He was easy to fall in love with. He was warm, you could walk around with him in your head all day and it comforted you. I read he was asked about teenyboppers liking him and he said something like his mind was at its best when he was 14. I don’t know if mine was, but when I started writing songs, it was Bowie lyrics that made me think I had to improve my early dismal efforts.
At the fag-end of the Orange Juice days, a good memory – on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl, at a GLC-funded all-dayer. I sang Memory of a Free Festival. Kind of taking the piss, but the truth is, I didn’t have to learn the words. I knew them then and still do now, even though I’ve forgotten the words to many of my own songs.
In return for all he’s given me I wished him a long and happy old age with his family. I’m very sad he didn’t get it.
Other people had other idols. I repeat, we were the lucky ones. We had Bowie.
Julien Temple: ‘He talked often about his need to engineer an elegant exit’
Film-maker, directed Bowie in Absolute Beginners (1986)
I first saw Bowie at Glastonbury in 1971 as a golden midsummer dawn broke over the do-it-yourself version of the Pyramid stage. His voice and acoustic guitar were complemented by what seemed like a celestial dawn chorus of birds and I thought he must be singing to us from another dimension.
That may have had something to do with chemicals in the air at the time but, extraordinarily, I’ve experienced exactly that same extra-dimensional feeling of spectral, spellbound awe when listening to him (stone cold, Spotified sober this time round) singing Lazarus from beyond the grave.
It’s proved more difficult than any of us could have imagined to process our collective sense of loss but surely if any death can be seen to be something positive it has to be David’s. In transforming his own death into a provocative and mysterious work of art, he has left behind a haunting and disorienting final masterpiece that ensures he will remain in communication with each one of us as though he were still alive.
Bowie in Absolute Beginners (1986)
When I knew him well in the 1980s – we worked together on Absolute Beginnersamong other projects – David talked often about his compelling need to engineer an elegant exit mechanism from the circus of pop stardom and fame. A Houdini-like disappearing act. A velvet parachute floating down and away from the public eye. He was obsessive about it even then and it is beyond extraordinary that he has now managed to pull it off with such breathtaking ingenuity and precision. A Garboesque process that began with him invisibly evading the rabid buzz-hounds of the Twittersphere has ended with what seems like a magnesium flash, a sudden trick of the light and a triumphant vanishing act.
As he confides to us in Blackstar, he was operating way beyond the confines of a pop stardom which for him was always only the means to a bigger end. We should remember Bowie as a great human emancipator on the Bolívar or Mandela scale. An emotional liberator of people. He was the patron saint of the outsider, the uninvited and the misfit. All those lonely teenagers in each generation, unsure of who, or what they could possibly be – or become. In other words all of us.
Like the mirrored gallery of personas at the end of The Lady from Shanghai, he appeared capable of being anything he wanted to become and he challenged you to think about yourself in the same way.
When I met him I was expecting theMan Who Fell to Earth but what I got instead was more like the insecure guy next door. Initially shocked by that, I soon realised he was very aware of this strange tension between the weird and the normal within himself. He knew it was refracted somehow through his brother [Bowie’s half-brother, Terry Burns, who suffered with schizophrenia and killed himself in 1985] and recognised it as the wellspring of his creativity. The Blue Jean film [Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, a 21-minute short film released in 1984] we made together was based upon it.
His ordinariness was the secret behind the uniquely intimate relationship that exists between him and his audience and explains his ability to reach people on such a universal scale. To touch them, teach them, like his brother taught him, and turn them on to the stranger aspects of themselves. To watch him transition from normality into something completely incandescent as he stepped on stage was something miraculous to behold. He contained within him a kind of Blakean star power that he seemed to be able to summon up and unleash at will.
We should be profoundly grateful that someone standing on the edge of nothingness could send out and bounce back thoughts and feelings from beyond the limits of mortality to confound and catalyse us all over again. As he first did a lifetime ago when he beamed down that band from Mars…
It’s hard to think of him as history, because he was always the future.
Robert Fox: ‘He looked exhausted but made not one complaint’
Theatre producer who worked with Bowie on his stage musical Lazarus
Bowie in the Lazarus video, filmed when he was very ill.
I met David Bowie over 40 years ago. I can’t remember the exact date. It was at a small party thrown by mutual friends in a flat off London’s Fulham Road.
Somehow I found myself talking to him about Bryan Ferry – he was joking that I should be his manager for some long forgotten reason. Over the ensuing years we saw one another infrequently, but it was really after he moved to New York that we spent more time together when I was there producing various plays. He would come to see the shows and loved to talk about all aspects of the theatre.
On 20 October 2015, the first day of rehearsals for the musical Lazarus, just after the cast had gathered together, I got a call from Coco Schwab, David’s longtime friend and colleague, asking me to go to a studio on Ingraham Street in Brooklyn. I knew that I would see David there, but I didn’t know anything else. When I arrived I was taken by Coco through the studio that was being set up for a film shoot, into a dressing room at the back of the building to find David sitting quietly, dressed in what looked like Victorian pyjamas, having hair and makeup done. He was cheerful and talkative, explaining the physical set up for the shoot and his character for the video of his new song Lazarus, the title song of our musical.
I was surprised that he wanted to undertake such an arduous task, knowing as I did that he was very unwell. I knew this not because I was part of some elite inner sanctum, but because he had to tell a small group of people working on Lazarus, so that we could understand why he might be unavailable for certain periods of time.
He was soon called on to the set and I went and sat with the director of the shoot, Johan Renck.
David climbed into a bed that was hung vertically to give the impression that he was defying gravity which allowed him to lift off a “flat” bed. He also had by now had his head wrapped in bandages with button eyes preventing him from seeing anything.
I had got off a plane only the night before after a 21-hour flight and was beginning to think that I was tripping as Johan Renck and his lighting cameraman jabbered away in Swedish, discussing the complexity of the shot. Then “action” – the first take – and then a second and so on up to 10. The camera was on the end of a crane, which was attached to a track, being operated to move by remote control and being required to end on a close-up circling David’s bandaged head. By take 10, I was wondering how in the name of God David could tolerate this seeming torture, but he did so with jokes and good manners, until he quietly said that he needed a bit of a break while they all prepared for the next set-up. And so he went back to his dressing room and I followed shortly thereafter. He looked exhausted but made not one complaint. He asked for a salad and said he’d go and sit quietly on his own. I left to go back to Manhattan, realising yet again that nothing was going to stop David from finishing all the work he had undertaken. This involved spending the rest of that day completing the shoot. It also meant, in the weeks that followed, attending rehearsals, band calls and run-throughs of Lazarus and appearing on opening night, 7 December, to lend his support and encouragement to everyone involved.
I have been fortunate to have worked with a number of huge creative talents, and David was as great as, if not greater than, any of them. He had one quality that was unique in my experience – he had his ego completely in check. Not for one second did he behave with anything other than impeccable manners, humour and grace and a desire to collaborate on an entirely even playing field. He had nothing but support and encouragement for his colleagues and his highly tuned and immensely well disciplined brain inspired others to try to achieve their best.
The extraordinary outpouring of love and sadness over these past few days is, of course, to do with him being a great artist, but it is also as much to do with him having been a great man.
Nicola Tyson: ‘You felt in safe hands with him. He made it OK, made you want to make art’
Painter who was a regular at the influential Bowie Nights at Billy’s, Soho, in the 1970s
It would be easy to start this by saying: “For my generation, Bowie was a defining influence”, but his influence didn’t stop – or even begin – with my generation. Bowie’s influence spanned the last 50 years, in which he consistently surprised and inspired us anew, with different and unpredictable creative co-ordinates.
The very early punk scene of ’76-’77 had a dark Roxy Music/Bowie/Warholian glamour component. It wasn’t yet purely about moronic ugliness, uniformity and gobbing. After hours – once the gigs were over and the pubs had shut – the then small London punk scene took safe haven in the handful of West End gay clubs, where anything went already and creative outsiders were welcomed. When punk went mainstream in ’78 and the underground thrill was gone, inevitably it was from within that milieu and in those venues that the next scene would develop. Inevitably, too, Bowie – pop cultural magician, androgyne, fount of subversive creativity, master of flamboyance and understatement – would be its muse. In 1978, I was 18, still a teenager like most of the Bowie Nights’ crowd. We hadn’t wanted punk to end – it had only just got started, most of us having only found our way to it in early ’77. So to fill the void we needed to invent a new scene and Bowie Nights was a start. It meant self-expression, self-invention, pushing on out beyond your comfort zone and, most importantly, beyond that of everyone else.
It’s shocking to think he’s no longer there. You always felt in safe hands with him – he’d make it all OK, make it into art, make you want to make art. It feels like another anchor with the past has been pulled up and we’ll have to drift on into the future now without his singular, sophisticated guidance.
Bowie in his own words: highlights from his TV interviews – video