David Bowie is doing no interviews or appearances of any kind to promote his upcoming LP, The Next Day. Thankfully, he’s allowing everybody else involved with the record to talk publicly. In recent weeks, Rolling Stone spoke with producer Tony Visconti, drummer Zack Alford and guitarist Earl Slick. At the risk of going completely overboard, we also chatted up guitarist Gerry Leonard earlier this week. He’s been Bowie’s musical director and guitarist on all of his recent albums and tours.
The guitarist is more optimistic than many about whether or not Bowie will tour. “I would say that it’s 50-50,” he says. “A couple of times, when we played back one of the more kick-ass tunes from the new record, he’d be like, ‘This would be great live!’ Of course, everyone was like, ‘What? Did he just say that?’ But other times he’d just roll his eyes if someone brought up playing live.”
He continues, “If he gets the bug in him to do it, it’ll happen. His voice is sounding great and he’s looking great, too. He could totally do it. You never know with David, though. I feel he might want to make another record before he plays shows. He’s being really prolific right now.”
Rolling Stone also spoke with Leonard about his earliest days with Bowie, the premature end of the 2004 Reality tour due to Bowie’s heart condition and the secret sessions for The Next Day.
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How did you first come into contact with David Bowie?
I’d always lived in Dublin, and I moved to New York around 1997. I just worked my way up as a guitar player and I got to meet all of these wonderful people, like Laurie Anderson and producer Mark Plati. It was through him that I met David, since they were working together at the time. He knew my kind of ambient guitar style and asked me to play on a track for Bowie’s [ultimately shelved] Toy record. Then he called me in to play on a few tracks on [2002’s] Heathen.
Then David asked to me audition for the [touring] band. I do a solo thing called Spooky Ghost and he came down to see me in a tiny club with about 50 people. They need a guitar player to cover the Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew parts. . . the more kind of wacky stuff. David turned to Mark and said, “Can Gerry rock?” I do this kind of very improvised thing with looping and textures with a little trio. He really liked it and he invited me into the band.
Your first show was at Roseland Ballroom in 2002 when Bowie did Low straight through. That’s a pretty intense way to start.
Yeah, it was very intense. We played Heathen and then Low straight through. I had talked him into letting me play this very elaborate loop on one of the Heathen tracks. I set the whole thing up and then the band comes in around me. I’m just about to walk onstage and he taps me on the shoulder and says, “Don’t fuck it up, Gerry.”
How well did you know Bowie’s catalog at that point? That’s a lot of material to learn.
Yeah, I had my gaps. Growing up in Dublin, some of that stuff filtered through, like the Berlin trilogy, and the earlier records were around. But I didn’t have much money, so I had cassettes of my friends’ records. When I got the job, I had to do some brushing up. When I took over as his musical director, I asked him to send me a bunch of records. I had just bought this old house and I had this table I knew was eight feet long. I had two rows of CDs laid out on this table. That’s sixteen feet of CDs, just to start out with. That’s a lot of songs.
I’m sure it was surreal to find yourself onstage at Roseland playing Low straight through.
That was really fun. We went on and played a few shows and I remember one night, we were playing at this tiny place in Berlin, maybe 1,200 people or something like that. It was a real pressure cooker. We’re getting called back for a second and third encore, and after that David goes, “Let’s do the Low record.” We were like, “Sure!” The audience just freaked out. Can you imagine it’s the third encore and he just comes on and said, “We’re gonna play Low?” It was totally spontaneous, but we had it in our back pocket by that point.
By the time you launched the Reality tour the following year, the repertoire had really grown.
We’d work up new songs in soundcheck all the time and work them until we were ready to have him sing with us. We got to do [1970’s] “The Supermen” and all this stuff that was really left-of-center, but really great album tracks. The fans were really going crazy for it.
Every period of his career got some love. You’re doing “Station to Station” and “Loving the Alien” and “The Motel.”
Yeah, we did “Suffragette City” and “Blue Jean,” “Bewlay Brothers” and “Fantastic Voyage” and then we’d do “All the Young Dudes” and “Changes” and all his hallmark songs. We were all over his catalog. He had a love/hate relationship with “Let’s Dance,” but when we hit Australia and he hadn’t been there in years, he would do it. If we were playing Britain or something, we’d focus on more obscure stuff.
Do you remember the Oslo show when a fan threw a lollipop and hit him real hard in the eye?
I do. Somebody else said that it somehow contributed to the demise of his touring at the time, but it was just a little speed bump. My understanding is that it was a Korean girl and she threw it as a form of affection. But it hit him right in the eye. We eventually laughed about it and carried on.
Things changed when he started getting that chest pain [a few days later]. We were onstage in Prague [on June 23rd, 2004] and I could tell. I saw him walk off after four songs and I was like, “What the hell is going on here?” We played a couple of instrumental songs from Low. Then we played another one where Cat Russell was able to sing the lead. Then he came back and we did “Station to Station,” which is a monster kind of song. He was like, “You know, I can do it.” He just didn’t feel well. It was kind of a mystery.
I guess nobody knew how serious it was.
He’s been working out with his trainer. The general consensus was, “Oh, maybe he overdid it.” They would do some of this boxing, sparring stuff as part of his training. I think he felt like he pulled a muscle in his shoulder.
A couple days later we did the Hurricane Festival in Germany. Afterwards we were holed up at a hotel and somebody said, “We’re going home, taking a break.” It was a huge disappointment. Everybody felt like David was at the top of his game.
What do you remember from that final show in Germany? Was he in pain?
I’ve seen some footage from it and it feels like a very relaxed show. It feels almost like we were in the rehearsal room. I don’t remember him being in pain, but it was more of a mellow show. I didn’t really see him afterwards. I think he took some painkillers and got through the show, but he was exhausted afterwards. Then, obviously, they did some more tests and found the real culprit, which was a blocked artery. They put the stint in and that was it.
He announced a comeback concert in 2007 as part of the Highline Festival. Did he contact you about that?
We’d hear these rumors, but he never contacted us directly. We’d hear a little bit from the office, but with David, stuff is always really under wraps.
How did you first hear about this new record?
I got an e-mail from him in November of 2010. The subject line was “Schtum.” That means “keep quiet.” It was a little e-mail saying, “Are you available to come work on some new demos? I just want to get together in this little room. Please keep it to yourself. Don’t tell a soul.” It was obviously one of the most exciting e-mails I got all year. I was like, “Whoa! He’s going to do something? Amazing.”
It was myself, Tony Visconti, Sterling Campbell and David. We went into this tiny, tiny little rehearsal room downstairs in the East Village. It was like a little dungeon. We went there from Monday to Friday one week. He would pull these songs out of a hat. He’s very old-school. He had this book bag with a legal pad and a little four-track recorder where he’d cut these little scratch demos. He would pull out a song and we’d chart out the chords and try to figure it out. We’d play it through a few times, kind of extend it a bit, come up with a form, and then put it away. By the end of the week, we’d cut all these demos, just for him.
It was really exciting, but it was totally under wraps. We just went there, put our heads down and worked on the new music. I was really thankful he was writing again, and he was in great form. He was really excited as we brought all these songs to life. On the Friday, I said goodbye and he went, “See ya!” That was it until May of 2011 when I got the call saying, “Okay, we’re going into Magic Shop. Are you available these two weeks?” They did two weeks in May. I was involved in about eight days where we basically tracked live.
That summer, he came up to visit me in Woodstock. He asked me if I had a drum machine. He said, “Okay, I’ll come over for coffee and maybe we’ll do a little more writing.” I didn’t actually have a drum machine, so I ran over to my friend’s house. He has a nice old Roland TR-808. I said, “Ed, I’m borrowing your drum machine. I can’t tell you what for, but I need to take it right now.” David came over and we wrote a couple of songs together. Then we went back into the studio and did two of those songs. It was such an honor. This session was over two weeks in September of 2011.
What happened in 2012?
I heard they were doing vocals and a little bit of strings or saxophone or piano. He would disappear for a few months and then call up Tony Visconti to book another couple of weeks. I went back in March of 2012 for a couple of days to do more guitar over drums.
This is all taking a really long time. Did you worry he was going to wind up shelving the whole thing?
Absolutely. All the time. When I went back in 2012 they played me some partially mixed stuff. I’m always the one who fears the worst, but at that point I realized it was actually going to happen. Before that I was thinking, “Maybe he’s going to scrap it, or maybe he’s going down to Zimbabwe and make a record with people down there.”
Why do you think he’s been so quiet? It doesn’t seem like he’s going to promote the record by doing any interviews.
I think he’s reinventing the wheel. He’s in a world where everybody is Tweeting and Facebooking. He’s doing the complete opposite, and then he comes completely out of the blue with this thing. The silence is part of it. He’s letting the record come out, letting the artwork out, letting the video out. In his mind, those are the artistic statements – not getting on the phone with everybody and setting it up with all kinds of chatter. So I really think it’s just part of his aesthetic right now.