David Bowie Guitarist Carlos Alomar: 'He Was So Damn Curious'

"David was very easy to connect with," says 'Young Americans' and 'Low' collaborator. "He was happy"

David Bowie performs with Carlos Alomar in 1983. Here, the singer-songwriter's longtime guitarist pays tribute. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

Carlos Alomar has been playing guitar professionally since he was 16, backing the likes of James Brown, Chuck Berry and Luther Vandross at various points of his formative years. In the mid-Seventies, he met David Bowie, who recruited Alomar to play on his funk- and soul-influenced 1975 album Young Americans. It would serve as the foundation for one of Bowie's most consistent musical relationships, spanning his Berlin trilogy through albums in the early 2000s.

Alomar has gone on to play on albums by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop and Alicia Keys, among many others. He's also the director and founder of the Sound Synthesis Research Center for the Performing Arts at Stevens Institute of Technology, a post he attributes to working with Bowie on experimental albums like Low and Lodger. "Thank God for Bowie, and all these other rockers that are still out there killing it," he says. "Why? We really have no choice." Here, with the news of Bowie's passing still fresh, the guitarist looks back on the most significant collaboration of his life.

My first impression of David Bowie was that he was slightly odd. He had come from London from the "Spiders From Mars" days, so he still had orange hair, he was pasty white and he weighed 98 pounds. I met him when I was recording a song he'd written for Lulu, "Can You Hear Me?" I was a professional musician, and he was a producer, and you've got to respect a man for being the producer.

But then the humanity of David showed up. He said all these strange, little American sayings that sound so ages ago: "Hey man," "Oh, that's real cool." But he was trying, so we started hanging out. "You want to see what's cool? Let's go to a few after-hours joints, let's go to Spanish Harlem. Let's go to some salsa. Let's go to the Apollo Theater." And that's how we actually met, well before Young Americans.

He was very easy to connect with. He was happy. He and I shared one gigantic, human thing: We are so damn curious. I wanted to know about everything from his Spiders From Mars; he wanted to know everything about what working with James Brown was like. I wanted to know what the hell is up with all that orange hair and all that glam-rock stuff; he wants to know about the Chitlin' Circuit. He listened to jazz; I played jazz. It was a meeting of the minds.

He eventually said, "What kind of guitar do you play?" And I said, "I play any guitar that pays." So when you start a relationship like that, you see that it's professional. As always, you have a need and you have a want, and when they meet, great music is made.

I came into the situation with an open mind. On all of the records I played on, when they took a left turn, I was open to any turn he wanted to take. David Bowie had this odd way of being rock & roll, but still being funky. When he'd bring me songs, they all sounded a bit like "Chopsticks" in the beginning. But I come from a world where if that's the chord that you like, allow me to show you 15 substitute chords that you could play leading up to that. And he would say, "Oh, that is clever! Oh, I like that. Let's do that!" Then he'd do something else, and I'd say, "How about this?" He always used to compare writing to a Chinese menu: "Give me one from column A, two from column B, three from column C, and there's your song." It made it easy. For some reason he kept me in the rhythm section for the longest time.

Our friendship lasted all those years to the end because whatever he wanted, he got it. It's very rare to be able to go to one person or one place and always be able to find something new. So in the same way that his bands found that about him, I think that he found that about me. We were able to adapt. Also, I knew there's only one chief on that stage: David Bowie. And as long as you understand that, you honor that, I think anyone would get along with David Bowie.

The last time I spoke with David was at Tony Visconti's birthday last year. We had a great time.

Working with David, and specifically working on his Berlin trilogy, has carried me to where I am now –  specifically with the way we worked with electronic music. The act of saying, "If I'm an artist, I can present my music to my fans and not present it to my record company" was very important.

The record company guy would say, "What are we supposed to do with this?" And the answer is, "Herald a new genre," as David did.

We realized one side of an album can be rock & roll, but the B side could be anything: landscapes, soundscapes. The emotional attachment to music that David Bowie felt was in that. He led with his emotions. He always wanted to turn off all the lights and listen to the record in the dark, so that emotionally you can just be taken on this journey. In the beginning, I fought it, because of the methodology Brian Eno had to use in order to get the equipment to respond to his needs, but then I realized it wasn't the equipment. It was the emotional attachment that you have to music that, left without any lyrics, was an amazing journey. It was kind of a sci-fi soundtrack.

During those years, nobody did anything like that. It was unexpected. The record company guy would say, "What are we supposed to do with this?" And the answer is, "Herald a new genre," as David did. We had a period of new-age music, new-wave music, electronic music, rock & roll, blue-eyed soul, plastic soul, glam-rock, punk. These are all genres of music that have solidified under the umbrella of one man. Who does that?

It gives me hope that new artists might be able to look at themselves and think about, "What are my changes going to be?" Because if you stay there, you're only going to be good for five years.