After playing on 1975’s Young Americans, guitarist and producer Carlos Alomar went onto record with David Bowie– and tour globally as his music director – for the next three decades. In an exclusive extract from a new book, Alomar talks candidly about their artistic relationship.
Let’s go back and think not who we are but who we were.
So I was in my early twenties; David Bowie was in his late twenties. He came to America to do some work with Lulu. I knew Lulu because of To Sir, with Love – she was a movie star who was a blue-eyed soul singer and I thought she was amazing. I met Bowie not doing Young Americans but as a studio guitarist at RCA studio where he was a producer for Lulu. He didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know anything about Spiders from Mars. In my formative years, I was listening to Motown, he was listening to R&B – he was listening to blues, you know, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or whoever’s records he could get his hands on. In Britain at that time, if you could get your hands on American records, that would be the coolest thing ever. And all the British musicians started by hearing American rock ’n’ roll and then forming a cover band: the Rolling Stones did it, he did it, they all did it, because that’s what we all do first. I was trying to learn how to play the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” when I was young.
So I was a Puerto Rican with an Afro, working at trying to become the guitar player at RCA studio – Elvis Presley’s studio – and he was a Brit listening to R&B music all his life and finally coming to America to be in an American recording studio. I was already working the whole R&B thing, and it really had nothing to do with any British music whatsoever. I just thought that anybody who had anything to do with Lulu, who in turn had worked with Sidney Poitier – that had to be cool. So I was three degrees of separation from Sidney Poitier!
When I met Bowie, I didn’t know who he was. He had orange hair and he was white; I had an Afro and I was black. The first thing I did was say, “Come over to my house, have some food and let’s just talk,” because he was a curious guy, he was interesting, and he wasn’t the usual type of guy that I was used to working with. Next thing I knew he took me up on the invitation. We got together and he started asking me about the Chitlin’ Circuit – the same thing happened with Paul McCartney, they wanted to know what it’s like to be a rhythmand-blues guitar player while you’re on the road. They wanted to know what the Apollo Theater was like; they wanted to know, “what’s the black experience?”. I wanted to know, what the hell is Spiders from Mars? What is the Beatles? So, as musicians do, you exchange road tales. And that’s what told me, I feel this guy’s background. That’s the communication musicians have. First we meet in the studio, and we play together and we jam together, and it’s real cool: “Man, that guy really jams real good, he really plays well.” But then you get to know the guy. Why? Because let’s assume they play well, and probably everybody does, or else you wouldn’t even be in that room – but do you want to go on the road with him? Because you’re gonna probably be with him for a long time. And so if you’re a dud or dull or got bad personal hygiene, you’re not going anywhere!
When I met Bowie, I didn’t know who he was. He had orange hair and he was white; I had an Afro and I was black.
At the time I was already married to Robin Clark, who would also end up singing with David; I was already an established musician. Robin Clark was working with the Rascals and Kiss and all that stuff. So we were two individuals who were already established in the music industry in America. We both came from the Apollo Theater; we both had our history. We were not unknown people with no credits: we were formidable New York session musicians. Robin was already doing jingles, background sessions, track work; we were already in the mix, you know, we did not need to be discovered. This was our home town, this was our turf. David was very curious about the Apollo Theater, where Robin and I spent my early years. And so the fact that we would have people like Cannonball Adderley come down to our rehearsals, the fact that we would have Flip Wilson come down… These were stories he was interested to hear. We would have dancing lessons, microphone lessons; we would write songs, we would perform these songs. It’s kind of like the movie Fame. I relayed these stories to David, so it was like he’s backstage at the Apollo. And then I invited him to come down to the Apollo. “Hell, yeah!” Let’s go to the Hunts Point Palace to see the Latin band. “Oh, hell, yeah!” I mean, who says no? And so this is well before I got asked to do Young Americans. We kind of bonded as musicians, just hanging out and having a good time. I wasn’t asking him for nothing; he wasn’t asking me for nothing. It was just cool like that.
There was a certain methodology with David, and, that was, if you want to change the sound, well, why don’t you change the band? I mean, we laugh and we might say, “Hmm, in hindsight, damn, that’s so logical and easy.” Yeah, and that’s what he did. Young Americans is the ultimate example of how that worked.
And, yes, Bowie controlled all of that. Because if you’re going to look at a concept album then you know exactly what the components have to be in order for you to do that…Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had a sound that only a four-piece rock band can give you. Can you imagine background singers and a horn section in the Spiders from Mars band? Hell, no. Let’s use the example of “Fame”. My riff in that song was actually from our cover of an old song called “Footstompin’’ – you can see us doing it in footage of the Dick Cavett show online. We had done it on tour, and it was pretty good live. Some things that feel good on tour, just don’t work in the studio, and if you’re not going to do a song better than the original, don’t do it. Because it would just be a cheap imitation of something that just fell flat. So recording it in the studio didn’t really work and the issue became: how can we salvage it? And so, when I came in, the song had already been stripped down to just the drums and the bass and basically it was just blues. What we call one-four-five, the first, the fourth to the fifth chord of the progression. And that was it, it could have been a great blues song. But then the issue became, what is the particular sound that each musician brings?
If a guitar player like Fripp was there, it would have had different components. I happen to like funky stuff and I’d come from that James Brown school of three guitar players locked perfectly in a perfect rhythm; so instead of playing one part with everything in it, I just broke up all my little ideas into being those three James Brown guitar players. So that’s what you hear on that track.
I knew David loved all that funk stuff. And he’d asked me so many questions about James Brown and about the Chitlin’ Circuit and about black music – I knew there was a reason. With me, if you throw down a challenge and you say lay something down, I’m going to lay it down hard. I was courageous and I just laid down what I thought was good. And he comes in and he says, “Damn, that’s funky, that’s it. The song is done…let me just put this one guitar part down…and that’s it.” And there’s a certain mystery to “Fame”, because there’s not a lot of parts. It’s just very mysterious and almost creepy and it’s got all those little syncopated parts, and that’s what made it funky. And David gave me a writing credit on that song – he was a fair and honest man. The master puppeteer actually did know what he was doing, and not only can you understand that now, but you see it play out constantly on all those albums. To do an electronica album like he did when he started doing the Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno requires a perception of the future of music and technology – which was that more is less. Brian Eno is doodling around with some new contraption that he has; next thing you know that morphs into this scrolling, bubbling background, which creates a soundscape where a whole record of that kind of stuff totally makes sense. When you look at David’s background in theatre and conceptualizing visuals with music and all of the things that he had with the dance troupes – when you look at those things from a bird’s eye view, and if you look at the big picture, it all makes sense.
We had to do something that was a little bit different with Station to Station, and we definitely knew that we would never go back to the whole soul thing; so we had to go back to rock ’n’ roll. But it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll as we know it, only because there are a lot of facets to that album. Man, he let me flex my musical muscle on that album. I worked alone with the rhythm section – me, George Murray on bass and Dennis Davis on drums.
So we would have the basic tracks done and there wouldn’t be anything else (music) there; we wouldn’t have to worry about the guitar players coming in and playing anything, or the keyboard players. That way, when we’re working out 6/8 time and things like that, we don’t have to explain it to anybody. And then they can come in and hear all the stuff and drop it where they can. It makes life a lot easier. And David can control the song more. Some of the songs were classics. Like “Word on a Wing”, or “Wild is the Wind”
But what the hell do they have to do with “Stay” or “Station to Station”? Or “TVC15”? Everybody says Station to Station was so experimental and it was such a rock ’n’ roll album… and all those accolades are given to it. And you’re going to tell me that those accolades are for “Wild is the Wind” and “Word on a Wing”? Isn’t that Somewhat wrong? “TVC15” is a very light little song. It’s almost like a doo-wop song. “Golden Years” is a classic pop song, “Station to Station” is rock ’n’ roll. But “Stay”? “Stay” is a funk song. “Stay” could have been “John, I’m Only Dancing”. Because there’s a G9 in “Stay”; that’s a James Brown chord. G9. What rock ’n’ roller plays G9? They don’t. Earl Slick – I call him Slicky plays rock’n’roll chords. I play 13s and 9s. Arock’n’roll player would play 7s and major chords and power chords. When Slicky lays down his stuff over the rhythm section that was there, it makes sense. And that’s why the combination of me and Slicky is perfect. Because I can work with the rhythm section but I don’t have that gigantic power chords that Slicky can bring to it. But, again, you can’t say that Station to Station was just experimental rock ’n’ roll when you’ve got songs like “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” and “Golden Years”. There’s the oxymoron that is David Bowie.
Of course there were drugs around. Oh my God, when we were doing Young Americans, you would have this bag of cocaine right on the music stand, and once my wifewent in there and knocked it over. And David was so sweet. He was like, “OK, we’ll just get another one.” You know what, we’re musicians. Look, I was raised at the Apollo Theater, where the junkies would be on the street corner, in that weird dance trying to hold themselves up as they nod out from the drug, and they almost fall and they zoom back up again. And certain things didn’t make sense when you were having a conversation with David, but I didn’t care as long as he was doing his music and it had nothing to do with me. And why do you think I invited guys like him over to my house to eat? You can’t live on milk! Powdered or liquid, bro!
When David started getting into the whole Berlin thing, it was just an extension of again trying to step away from himself.
Around the time of Low was a very strange period for both of us. When David was trying to reignite Iggy Pop’s career, he asked me to help him. I went on tour with Iggy, just like David. And so we really started working on this whole trying-to-get-away-from- everything with Iggy in the two albums: Lust for Life and The Idiot.
Then when David started getting into the whole Berlin thing, it was just an extension of again trying to step away from himself. There’s a lot of frustration involved in the period when an artist transitions from one company to another and they’re trying to accept, “Dammit, I’m broke, and I still have to sustain myself by touring. Where am I getting the money from?” As far as I know, when David went to Berlin he didn’t go to some little, cheap house because he wanted to. It was all he could afford.
People hear about an artist and how he suffers, and people hear them translate their suffering – they’re the spokesman for their own pain. And yet their audience never takes it into consideration. It’s just something that’s in the back of their mind, like, “Oh yeah, Billie Holiday did drugs, but, boy, she sure could sing.” You don’t even think about the fact that she was a junkie, although you know it. But the attitude is: I don’t care what you gotta do, give me that album. And that’s sad. And so in that sadness you gotta sometimes step away from yourself, and him and Iggy were in that same place.
People often forget about the humanity – they think Bowie was always a superstar and an artist, forgetting there’s a person behind it all. And they think wrong. How are you going to write a song called “Weeping Wall”, “Art Decade”? Isn’t he trying to tell you something with songs like “Be My Wife”, “A New Career in a New Town”? But they don’t think about that. It was a transitional time. David was going through a lot of stuff. Times like that are tough: you’re trying to get away from your manager; OK, you got away from your manager, but now you realize in paying him off and in paying everyone else off so you could be clean, you’re broke. Great. You’re now having your marriage come at you, and it’s just so confusing. You’re trying to work things out but it’s all crashing. But you need a new album and the record company’s changed, and you gotta give them what they want. Records during these days had an A- and a Bside. Everybody puts everything on the A-side, don’t they? When was the last time you took your album and flipped it over on the B-side? And yet when you have an album that the company wants, you give them an A-side like on Low, where you have “Speed of Life”, “Breaking Glass”, “What in the World” and these songs that everybody’s singing. And then when you turn it over on the B-side, well, you might as well turn off the lights, because you just went into subterranea and you just went into a soundscape, into a sci-fi movie. And there are no words. Why? Because a musician understands that the integrity of your music is based on the emotional attachment that you have to that. If I’m weeping and I’m feeling bad and you hear a song called “Weeping Wall”, you can hear the lament. You can hear the tears. You can hear it in there, you know what I mean? So why not give them the A-side that they want, but the B-side is all yours?
Brian Eno changed me for ever because he asked me to clean the palette and to start out with new paint. I can do painting fine, but now you’re asking me to go into watercolours? They bleed everywhere, and I’m uncomfortable, and because I’m uncomfortable I resist. But then I realize that as the colours bleed they form these images on their own. All I gotta do is try not to stop them and see what happens when the colours just bleed. And then I realize what I’m seeing is not the colours, what I’m seeing is in the space of white that is not coloured, in between the colours. And what I’m doing is painting the spaces.
During the Eighties it was a little better, because we were going into Scary Monsters and Lodger and things like that. It was a period where his home life and his music were at least controllable. I think under those circumstances that’s a pretty good thing, because you want to have a settled life. During that time Bowie also moved in next door to me. We were living on 26th Street. He had the east wing and I had the west wing. And this was a real fantastic time for us because, like the way we started, it allowed both of us to just be people. And then it was winter time and Lennon got shot, and it just was so shitty. But we were together, and so it gave us a period where we could kind of mourn and talk, and I was just glad to be able to be there during that time.
Brian Eno changed me for ever because he asked me to clean the palette and to start out with new paint.
I didn’t know too much about Bowie’s life as a father, because he kept all of that stuff to himself … Little Zowie was always little Zowie for me; we met him when he was such a little boy and I remember once when we were in the Château d’Hérouville, he was like, “Please don’t forget me”, and I said, “I’ll never forget you.” And then we found out he doesn’t want to be called Zowie and he wasn’t called Zowie any more. Much later, we had already been watching some of the films he directed when we suddenly realized, oh my God, Duncan Jones is actually Zowie. Which was kind of cool. But I’m glad that David kept his private life to himself.
I saw David at Tony Visconti’s birthday party last year, and he was very, very fragile. In hindsight, I can see what was happening. He came by with his friend of many years, Corinne Schwab, and it was just nice to have Corinne, David, Robin and I together again. We talked about old times, and it was good to talk about things, heal old wounds, reminisce and just enjoy our time together. And now I know why we were together again. Now I understand it was that goodbye, you know?
It was a moment just to celebrate and just be glad to be together. When things like that happen, you just take the moment as the moment is. But, in hindsight, when you look at the overall picture and you get the bird’s-eye view, you realize that it was a goodbye. It was that iconic moment when you’re able to see a friend and say goodbye but not in a mournful way. Just, I’ll talk to you later, and not have it be so damn morbid.
Part of what made David so special was that he was a listener and he was curious. All great science, all great scientists, all great people like that, I think that they never outgrow their childhood. A child is fearless in that he wants to know what’s around the corner, he wants to touch that hot stove, he wants to know why is that fire so bright? He knows he’s going to get burned but you can’t tell a kid not to turn that corner.