About a week before his death, with Blackstar nearing release, David Bowie called his longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti via FaceTime, and told him he wanted to make one more album. In what turned out to have been the final weeks of his life, Bowie wrote and demo-ed five fresh songs, and was anxious to return to the studio one last time. Bowie had known since November that his cancer was terminal, according to Visconti, but if their final conversation was any indication, he had no idea he had so little time left. “At that late stage, he was planning the follow-up to Blackstar,” says Visconti, that album’s producer, in an interview conducted Wednesday for a Bowie memorial package in the next issue of Rolling Stone.
“And I was thrilled,” Visconti continues, “and I thought, and he thought, that he’d have a few months, at least. Obviously, if he’s excited about doing his next album, he must’ve thought he had a few more months. So the end must’ve been very rapid. I’m not privy to it. I don’t know exactly, but he must’ve taken ill very quickly after that phone call.” Visconti has been working with Bowie on and off since 1969’s Space Oddity, producing numerous key albums, among them 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, 1977’s Low, 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and 2013’s surprise comeback The Next Day.
Visconti first learned of Bowie’s illness a year ago, when he showed up for Blackstar recording sessions in New York. “He just came fresh from a chemo session, and he had no eyebrows, and he had no hair on his head,” says Visconti, “and there was no way he could keep it a secret from the band. But he told me privately, and I really got choked up when we sat face to face talking about it.”
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“In November, [the cancer] had spread all over his body, so there’s no recovering from that.”
Around the middle of 2015, however, Bowie’s prognosis seemed to improve. “He was optimistic because he was doing the chemo and it was working,” says Visconti, “and at one point in the middle of last year, he was in remission. I was thrilled. And he was a bit apprehensive. He said, ‘Well, don’t celebrate too quickly. For now I’m in remission, and we’ll see how it goes.’ And he continued the chemotherapy. So I thought he was going to make it. And in November, it just suddenly came back. It had spread all over his body, so there’s no recovering from that.”
Bowie had already finished Blackstar by November. But even before then, Visconti noticed the tone of some of the lyrics and told him, “You canny bastard. You’re writing a farewell album.” Bowie simply laughed in response. “He was so brave and courageous,” says Visconti. “And his energy was still incredible for a man who had cancer. He never showed any fear. He was just all business about making the album.”
As far as Visconti knows, rumors of additional health problems between Bowie’s 2004 heart attack and his cancer diagnosis 18 months ago are false. “When I met up with him in 2008 or 2009,” he says, “he actually had some weight on him. He was robust. His cheeks were rosy red. He wasn’t sick. He was on medicine for his heart. But it was normal, like a lot of people in their 50s or 60s are on heart medication, and live very long lives. So he was coping with it very, very well.” In the time between the heart attack and the 2013 release of The Next Day, Bowie even took boxing lessons.
When Visconti learned of Bowie’s death, the producer was on the road with Holy Holy, a Bowie tribute project that includes former Spiders from Mars drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. “We deliberated whether we should continue the tour because we were all knocked sideways,” Visconti says. “Monday was the worst day of my life. I gotta say. But we talked about it and said, ‘We’re musicians, this is what we do. David would like it.’ We played for the first time since his death last night to a very, very enthusiastic Toronto audience. There were people crying, but there were people smiling and clapping and jumping around. Listen, it was a wonderful experience to be able to acknowledge him, to celebrate his life.”
Visconti and many other Bowie friends and collaborators reminisce about the musician in the next issue of Rolling Stone.