David Bowie Bassist Gail Ann Dorsey: 'He Altered the Course of My Life'

Dorsey looks back at her nearly two-decade run playing alongside the late icon

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Below, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, who worked with David Bowie on and off for nearly two decades, recalls her collaboration and friendship with the late artist.

Sometime back in 1989, David Bowie was flipping through the channels in England when he came across an interview with Gail Ann Dorsey promoting her debut album, The Corporate World. "Years later, he told me he thought to himself, 'Wow, this woman is really interesting,'" says Dorsey. "'When I'm doing the right project, I would love to work with her.'"

It took six years, but when Bowie was putting together a band to go on tour with Nine Inch Nails, he phoned up Dorsey to see if she'd be willing to serve as his bassist. "I was kind of in shock that it was actually him on the phone," she says. "At first, I thought it was somebody playing a prank on me. When I realized it wasn't, I said to him, 'I'm in the middle of making a record; let me speak to my producer and get back to you.' We'd just started the record and we'd spent all this time and money, but he said, 'But that's David Bowie. You have to go.'"

David Bowie; Gail Ann Dorsey
Dorsey with David Bowie in London on September 18th, 2002. "I always thought he had the best singing voice of all the male rock stars," she says. Brian Rasic/Getty

Dorsey started out on a six-week contract but wound up serving as Bowie's touring bassist all the way through his final concerts in 2004. She also played on 1997's Earthling and 2013's The Next Day. About a week after Bowie's shocking passing, Dorsey got on the phone with Rolling Stone to talk about her nearly two-decade run with the iconic artist.

Did you grow up a big Bowie fan?
I won't say I was one of those nutcases that knew every detail, but I had a time period that was my favorite, which was Young Americans and Station to Station. I especially loved Young Americans since I'm from Philly and it was recorded there and it has that sort of soul tinge to it. I did like Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, but I just knew the hit songs from there. The other thing always in my mind was that regardless of what he was doing at any point in time, I always thought he had the best singing voice of all the male rock stars. He had every emotion covered and every range.

Your first tour was the Nine Inch Nails double bill. That must have been tough since so many fans at that show were young and didn't really know his catalog.
What I learned at that time was that a lot of the audience knew him because they knew Nirvana's version of "The Man Who Sold the World." I thought that was funny. We played pretty much all of the Outside record, which was pretty out there at the time. I wasn't even sure I liked it myself at first. But over the years of playing the music, I really became a fan. He really had a God-given gift with music. He made decisions that no one else would see or hear.

Was it stressful playing to those audiences?
No, it was really cool. I think we always won over the audiences. I didn't know Nine Inch Nails at the time. I'd heard of them but didn't know how huge they were until the tour began. We used to do this kind of morphing in the show so it was seamless. Nine Inch Nails played and then we played, but there was never a break between them leaving the stage and us starting. David would come out and do something with Trent [Reznor], and then one member of our band would come and do the next song, and they'd lose two more members of the band for the next one. Slowly, we came onto the stage. It was very, very cool.

How did your six-week deal stretch into so much more?
Well, it just kept going. The Outside tour led into working with Reeves Gabrels on Earthling. We went off the road from Nine Inch Nails and went right into the studio in New York. He got rid of a lot of the extra people and whittled it down to guitar, bass, drums and keyboard, your basic band. And the work didn't stop from there. There wasn't a moment where I could go, "I guess I'll go back to my record now." I just got caught up in the momentum.

It was like you joined the circus or something — it just whisked you away.
Absolutely. And it was a huge learning experience, all of it. I was all of 30 at the time.

What was Bowie like back then? How did he compare to the image you had of him in your head?
I guess he was more normal. Obviously his image is that he would be a freaky guy that dressed funny. We'd all seen the characters he portrayed over the years. But I think what was interesting was that he was a real gentleman. Nothing about him was flashy or ostentatious or over the top. He was very normal. It was just that everything around him was huge, but he was actually just a really gracious, gracious man.

He was also very, very smart. I assumed he might be, but he was way smarter than I ever imagined. Very intellectual and a voracious reader, always reading. He retained information so well. I don't know how he could remember all those things, especially after years of drinking and drugs and things he used to do. He did say to me at one point that he was glad I didn't know him in those days. He might have been very different in those days. I don't know what he was doing back then, but in the time that I knew him, he was very sober and very focused. He was also very funny. He had an incredible sense of humor, very witty and quick. He could have been a comedian.

The Reality Tour of 2003–04 was incredibly long, 112 shows. How was that experience?
Incredible. I had the chance to listen to it later when they released the CD [in 2010]. He didn't do any press for that. I remember him saying, "You guys do the press — I don't need to talk about it again." When I listened to the music before the interviews, it all came back. It was just one of the most special projects I've ever been involved with. It was just the whole stage setup, the clothing, the wealth of material we covered. We learned something like 80 songs and rehearsed for three months solid to get all those songs under our belt.

He hated being bored. He did not like to play the same thing over and over again, so it was imperative that we learned as many thing as we could, and maybe even some new ones in soundchecks along the way.

That was unique for him. Most tours before that had relatively rigid set lists, but on this one he's dragging out things like "The Bewlay Brothers" out of nowhere some nights. You guys had to be ready for anything.
Exactly. That's my whole experience with him in a nutshell. He was like this incredible mentor. I feel so privileged to have had this opportunity to learn about music and being professional and stretching and doing things that I didn't think I could do, like "Under Pressure." I said to him, "There's no way I'm going to be able to sing and play that — are you kidding?" He was like, "I'll give you two weeks." And then he walked out of the room, so I had to figure it out.

This was early on during the Nine Inch Nails tour. We got better at it throughout the years. It started with him asking if I'd seen him do it with Annie Lennox for the Freddie Mercury tribute. I said, "Yeah, of course. Everyone saw that." He said, "I have a tape of that. Have a listen and maybe we can do our own version." I said, "Is someone else going to play bass while I sing it?'" It was emotional for me because Queen are my favorite band of all time. Every night before I sang that song, I looked up at the lights and said a prayer to Freddie. I said, "I hope I do you justice, Freddie."

What's emotional for me these days is looking back at that time now. I've just grown so much because of him. I owe him so much as a musician. It all changed my life tremendously.

I spoke to Mike Garson the other day. He said the tour went on a little too long and everyone was worn out near the end.
We were never bored musically or anything like that, but it was tiring. Everybody was pretty ready to go home at a certain point.

Do you remember the second-to-last show in the Czech Republic where he walked offstage and was gone for a few songs?
Very well. That's probably the one I remember the most. I remember him being ill onstage. The venue was very, very hot. The place felt like a big club. It had a very low ceiling and was this long, rectangular room, not very wide, with people going all the way back. I remember myself feeling claustrophobic. It was so hot with all those people crammed in with the lights and everything. I was like, "Gosh, this is gonna be a tough one tonight. There's no air. It's stifling."

I don't remember how many songs we got to, but I remember we were playing the song "Reality." He was supposed to be singing at the very end of the song, and he wasn't. I was kind of watching him from behind. Everyone was soaking wet because it was really hot in there, but his shirt was just drenched. He was just soaking wet and holding the microphone out with his left hand straight out. And he was just standing there, posturing, but not singing. And I was thinking, "Why is he not singing the last bit?"

Then he looked over his shoulder at me and he was just white, pale, translucent almost. His eyes were wide and he was kind of gasping for air a little bit, having trouble catching his breath. And then I remember looking down at the audience, and I could see their expressions in the front row, looking up at him, had changed. They went from joy and dancing to looking kind of concerned. At that point, his bodyguard and helper guy saw the same thing. He ran onto the stage and took him off.

We kept playing. Someone yelled out to do "Be My Wife" and Cat [Russell] took lead vocals. Then we played an instrumental from Low ["A New Career in a New Town"]. After that, we just stood there like, "What do we do? Where is he? What happened?" Then they pulled us offstage and into a holding area, like a cafeteria area. It wasn't the dressing room because they had him in that area and it was blocked off.

We sat there for maybe 30 minutes or so, if I recall, and then they were like, "He's going back on." We still didn't know what had happened other than he was having trouble breathing. We went back on and played a few more songs. He asked for a stool and he sat down. He just hated to cancel shows. There were some nights he was so sick he had a bucket on the side of the stage where he'd go between songs to puke, but he never wanted to cancel anything. And we didn't know he was having a heart attack until four or five days later.

Right. You even played another show after that.
I think we had the next day off. We went from Prague to Hamburg, Germany. He went to a doctor before the show and they gave him painkillers or muscle relaxers or something. The pain was coming from his left shoulder and he was waiting to have surgery on his rotator cuff, so he assumed it was that flaring up. It was from an old ski accident. He had a cortisone shot and when the tour ended he was going to finally have surgery on it. They didn't think it was a heart issue.

The show in Hamburg was a festival, so it was a shorter set. I remember walking down the stairs behind him after we finished. When he got to the bottom, he actually collapsed. He was so tired and so sick. They rushed him to the hospital and we sat and waited in Hamburg for a few days, and that was the end. The last show.

Did he seem distressed onstage during that final show?
Nope. He was a trouper. Before we went on he told me he was on these pills or muscle relaxers or whatever they were. He said, "I hate it." He didn't like doing drugs because he was sober. Those things are addictive and they bring back memories of being stoned. He was ready for the show, but he was feeling weird.

When was the next time you heard from him?
Hard to remember exactly. We'd email and talk about a book or a movie, or he'd call me at Christmas. We'd get lunch every once in a while. I saw him upstate once or twice and he looked much better. I don't know what medication he was on, but he was kind of heavy. Not fat, but a little bloated for him since he was always so thin. He had a little round face. But other than that he was fine, in good spirits and seemed really healthy.

Do you know what kept him busy during all those years before The Next Day?
I don't know. He was a father to his daughter. I asked him one time and he said, "I'm doing charcoal drawings and walking my daughter to school." I said, "Good for you! That's what you should be doing."

I'm sure you were surprised to get the call about playing on The Next Day.
Yeah! Then I had to work on it for two years without telling anyone. I've been playing on the road with Lenny Kravitz for the last four or five years. In the middle of that, I had to try and get to the sessions. He'd always be like, "When are you coming back?" I'd run in and do some work. I'm not on the whole record because I wasn't always around.

How did he seem during that time?
He looked great! He was doing really, really well. He must've only gotten sick right at the end because he didn't seem ill at all. He seemed very, very well. He was happy and enjoying the music. He worked from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then [he'd] go home and have dinner with his family.

I take it there was never even talk of another tour.
No. Definitely not a tour. He said he didn't want to tour anymore, forever. He just wanted to make records. At one point, he said to me that he didn't want to take his daughter out of school. He said, "She has a life. She's doing her own thing. I just can't take her on the road. My wife and daughter have lives. I would rather be there for them than be out on the road."

Touring is grueling, even if you do it on a high level where you have all the comforts you could possibly get. You still aren't at home. You could be flying on a jet, staying in a castle on a mountaintop, but if you don't have your wife and children, it just doesn't mean anything.

Did you knew he was sick in these past couple of years?
No. Not at all. I'm still completely in a state of shock. Hearing the news was a total shock.

Do you recall the last time you heard from him?
I emailed him on his birthday [January 8th], and he didn't answer. He usually emails me every New Year's, but that didn't happen this year. That didn't really surprise me, though. I know sometimes he turns off his computer for a few weeks at a time. I invited him to my 50th birthday a few years ago and he didn't respond. I was like, "Is he mad at me?" Then a week after the party, he emailed to say, "Oh, my God, I'm just getting your message. I'm so sorry I missed the party. I would have been there. I'm going to make it up to you." So he sent me a really nice gift.

It's gotta be amazing to think of just how he changed your life. You probably wouldn't be in Lenny Kravitz's band or ...
So much of my life wouldn't have happened. I wouldn't know where I would be, but he completely, single-handedly altered the course of my life.

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