David Bowie’s death made the world stop.
He’d done that before, too, singing ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops back in 1972. But, while that influential performance had an impact on a generation finding itself, the news of his sad demise at the hands of cancer genuinely brought social media and around-the-clock news to a standstill earlier this year.
Crowds gathered in Brixton, tributes were paid in New York City and the German Foreign Ministry thanked Bowie for helping bring down the Berlin Wall. In short, we lost a lightning rod. A communicator. A visionary who brought us all together in a variety of disparate and definitive ways.
Earl Slick, however, lost his mate and the leader of his band. “The Boss” is how he refers to Bowie many times during our hour-long chat. It’s a chat that takes in Bowie memories (he was on-and-off with Bowie for 42 years), Slick’s recent BRIT Awards performance, his upcoming tour of the seminal ‘Station To Station’ album and stories of John Lennon. Here I am, on a phone in the kitchen of a Penny Lane house, while the go-to-guitarist of his generation is in New York City, riffing on times spent in the city with both Bowie and Lennon. Slick talks of “going to Strawberry Fields once a year to think about John” while I sit less than a mile away from the real red gates.
Music… it unites us like nothing else. Nothing.
How were the BRIT Awards, Earl?
Fucking great! That band, the last band now I guess, were the best Bowie band I’ve been in. So it was great to come back together… great and sad, obviously. It was all going well until Lorde walked out – that’s when DB’s death hit me like a ton of bricks. I told her after the show ‘you did the boss good’ and she did. But when she walked out instead of David… man, that hit me hard. But David liked Lorde and it felt right. Everybody there was so gracious, too.
You’re touring performing ‘Station To Station’. Is that going to be harder to do every night now David’s gone?
Of course… I nearly called the whole fucking thing off. It was booked last year, however, and we had DB’s blessing so here we are. I’m not an attention hound – and ‘tribute’ shows are not where I’m at at all – but I’m out for blood on these shows and I’m ready to kick some ass and have fun now the initial sting of DB’s passing is going… it’ll be good for the soul.
What’s the plan, then, and who have you got with you?
Terry Edwards (The Blockheads/Madness) has put this together – I worked with him when Yoko Ono did Meltdown and I was involved. He’s picked the band and I trust his judgement. The fans will know that the record is only something like 38 minutes long, so we’ll be playing that top-to-bottom and hitting them with a few different Bowie tunes. We’ll play some Lennon too and I’ve got plenty of surprises lined up…
Bernard Fowler, of The Rolling Stones backing vocalist fame, is singing. You know him well?
Bernard and I go way back. I played with him at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame many years ago and we had instant magic. It proves how durable DB’s music is, too, as there won’t be no skinny white English guy up there singing… just a tough New Yorker with the blues in his blood. I’ve got history with the Stones, too… I just about remember playing on ‘Dancing In The Street’ with the boss and Mick Jagger!
What are your memories of recording ‘Station To Station’? It’s the album’s 40th anniversary this year.
It broke some ground, I know that. Personally, the record contains some of my most iconic work – ‘Stay’, for example – and it’s part of my DNA now. My memories of it are hazy… hey, we were in the studio for days at a time, not hours! I remember working on overdubbing feedback at six in the morning, just me and DB, that was great. That record is just another example of David’s talent for putting a band together. Very often he’d have the shell of a song and days of spontaneity, not perfection, would make it great… DB was great at just letting music take its course.
John Lennon didn’t do a bad job of putting a band together! How did playing with John come about?
John had worked with David and I around the time of the ‘Young Americans’ record and ‘Fame’, of course. I was just a kid then, but he must have remembered me. By the time of ‘Double Fantasy’, when he asked for me to play with him, he was clean and living this macrobiotic lifestyle. I was still a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player out of New York and living hard. I was so nervous on my first day on that record (‘Double Fantasy’) that I got to The Hit Factory early to set up my amps and stuff… but he was already there.
Wow. How did the initial sessions go?
They were fine, you know… John had asked for me so I had to get that into my head. There was a funny moment that broke the ice early on too, when John invited me into a cupboard to share something with him. It was chocolate! Him and Yoko were on diets and he was hiding from her… turns out she was doing the same, too! I learned a lot during those sessions and not just about music… the guy had the wisdom of an old, old man. As sad as it was, what happened – and I still can’t walk by the Dakota – I feel fortunate to have spent time with him.
Bowie and Lennon are not bad names to have on the CV!
You know, I became great friends with these guys and I’m blessed to have played with them. I have great memories of John… and David-was-David-was-David if you know what I mean. The only time things changed in our relationship was around drugs in the early days – and everybody can be an asshole on drugs.
Any last words on the upcoming tour?
You know, to be honest, after DB died and before the BRIT Awards thing, I was a wreck… but when I got back to New York, after it, I realised it had helped me. This tour will be the same and I hope it helps the fans too – it’s a two way street and we’re gonna’ need energy at the shows to deliver something special. We’ll play ‘Station To Station’ and a few surprises… and then I’ll hit ’em with a DB song at the end to send everyone home crying! Like I say, it’ll be good for the soul.
Earl Slick and Bernard Fowler perform David Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’
Thursday 28 April, O2 Academy Liverpool
Pic by Chuck Lanza