In our new David Bowie memorial issue, various artists pay tribute to the late singer, songwriter and pop innovator. In this exclusive recollection, Beck reflects on his musical hero, from his first concert to discussions of a possible project together. Beck spoke to Rolling Stone by phone; his thoughts have been condensed and edited.
I first saw David Bowie play live in ’83 on the Let’s Dance tour. At that point, he was in his mid-thirties, but he already had the weight of a legend. It was at the US Festival in San Bernardino, and there were maybe 100,000 people. He really stood out to me even as a child because there was this gravitas and weight that really set him apart; it was like seeing Sinatra or Elvis.
The way he anchored a stage was striking. He could do so much with so little, he could just be there to hold the audience. I don’t hear this mentioned a lot — maybe there’s a hint of it in that clip of him with Bing Crosby — but I always thought of Bowie as kind of a bridge from the era of the crooner to the rock frontman. He somehow straddled those two worlds in a way that nobody else did, bringing that effortless worldliness and marry it with the rock frontman. When I heard Elvis’ song “Black Star,” that reference made Bowie’s “Blackstar” resonate deeper than I could imagine. I can imagine somebody growing up in the Fifties, and that song capturing the sort of Elvis-by-way-of-Hollywood version of an Old West mythic figure, that sort of lone rider on the plains, with mortality hanging above them. Those are some of the most difficult things to express in art.
When I saw that show, I was at that age when girls had David Bowie’s picture on their binder at school. He was a real genuine pop star, but he was more interesting than the other ones. You could sense that there was more going on than just a song that’s on the radio and an eye-catching video. He could extrapolate what was vital and elemental in music, but somehow edit out the things that would make it more dated or disposable, and reduce it down to something that was art, something unassailable and crystalline. Today, you can hear a great ballad on the radio, but then you listen to something like “Changes.” Its a ballad, but it has world-weariness. It has an angst; it has a wistfulness; it has sentimentality; and it has anger. Its really a cocktail of things and, again and again, you find that in his work. Its not just one dimension.
David Bowie started making records around the beginning of my life, and his career kind of tracks with my life. There’s always been a David Bowie record. He’s always been doing something. He’s always been kind of guidepost or gravitational force for me. He’s someone that you set course to or measure what you’re doing against. If you’re working on something intently and you don’t know if it’s complete garbage or a waste of time, there are certain works or artists you look to and go, “How far off course am I here? Because I know that’s good. That’s the top of the mountain, and are we going the opposite way here?”
He was really one of those figures to a lot of musicians. I think that has a lot to do with his singular approach to what he did, which was to take from theater, literature, pop culture, avant-garde and create this modern concept that maybe began with Sgt. Pepper’s, where you’re bringing in all these mediums together and creating something new and three-dimensional. For me, as a working musician, I have always been in awe of how he was able to manage to write these classic songs and create a sort of visual language around each body of music; these ambitious stage productions, iconic videos and imagery. To do one is really a full-time endeavor. You got the idea of a mad scientist, somebody in the laboratory who’s sort of lost all sense of place and time. Believe me, I’ve been there, where you haven’t slept in months and you’re just kind of a mess, but he was able to do it with this kind of calm, effortlessness about it that is really interesting. I’ve worked with people that have worked with him, and I’ve heard he’d come in and just kind of come up with something and sing it once or twice and be done. It doesn’t conjure up the typical struggle and Sturm und Drang of trying to get great art. When an artistic presence infuses so much, when that person’s gone, there’s such a tremendous absence that it almost feels like losing family.
My real entry point was Hunky Dory when I was 12. I listened to it for years, especially when I was starting to play music. But over the years, I appreciated all of it. He really was making art out of his life at every turn. I’ve really enjoyed his personal work, but also the ones with kind of artifice and façade, a song like “Fashion.” I have a real fondness for Let’s Dance, too. Theres something very Fifties about it, but it is also something very modern and exotic and fun. In a lot of his great songs, there’s a plasticity and control, and then there’s a point where he just loses it and his voice breaks and it almost goes a bit manic and punk, and it goes a little farther than you thought it was gonna go. There’s something so gratifying about that, you know. It always made me feel bad when I would see that he would dismiss Let’s Dance. It’s like the work of somebody who works abstract for years and then they go to paint something very simple and something figurative, and it just has an indisputable power that someone just trying to write a straight-ahead radio song wouldn’t have.
Low is another one of my favorites. Its almost like you’re hearing something new being born in that record — out of krautrock and electronic and the sort of nascent punk and all the sounds in that record. I covered “Sound and Vision” a couple years ago with almost 200 other musicians. It was surreal and insane trying to get that many people to play together at the same time. I never heard anything from him about it, but I hope that it didnt make him cringe or anything. I know he was particular, and its always strange to hear one of your songs covered. It can be a great thing or it could be a terrible thing.
I spoke with him a few times. He was one of my favorite conversations ever. He had an electrical conversational wit and was familiar and conversant on so many things. He had an intellect that was so alive and so engaged. It’s very rare. He was just right there on everything: art, music, new bands, comic books, Japanese temples. It was just everything.
I did some remixes for him at one point, and I would have loved to have done more and just been around him more. I wish we could have collaborated. We sent some messages back and forth, and we had some very vague conversations about possibly doing something at some point, and I just figured there would be a right time and place. That would be a dream project for me. Not necessarily because I had anything that he needed; it was just purely a musician wanting to be around a master. His creative energy was something powerful to be around.
As told to Patrick Doyle