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David Bowie: Soul of New Machine

The fledgling band is more than David Bowie’s latest invention

David Bowie Tin Machine

Tony Sales and David Bowie of Tin Machine, 1991.

Kevin.Mazur/WireImage/Getty

You know, fellows, when I look out on all this splendor spread before us and consider all that we’ve accomplished in our short time together to bring us here — well, I’m sorry, but I can’t help but feel a little bit choked up.”

His tongue firmly in cheek, David Bowie is addressing his Tin Machine band mates as he stands by the window of room 1724 in the Marriott Hotel, just down the road from the Los Angeles International Airport. From his vantage point in the barely deluxe confines of this cramped mini-suite, Bowie has an excellent view of the Marriott pool and outdoor recreation area, as well as a reasonable perspective on some of tonight’s local air traffic. Tin Machine — Bowie, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, drummer Hunt Sales and bassist Tony Sales — finds itself in this unglitzy holding tank eagerly awaiting the opportunity to play for several hundred conventioneers from the Wherehouse record-store chain who are currently gathered downstairs in the Marquis Ballroom Salon II.

The scene unfolding here tonight seems a bit odd and unsettling to the outside observer. After all, this is David Bowie we’re talking about — a genuine, groundbreaking rock legend, a full-blown pop-culture icon and not exactly the kind of person one normally expects to be spending his Wednesday night playing a convention at an airport hotel, much less being forced to wait around at length for the privilege of doing so.

Yet, the truth is that Tin Machine seems anything but indignant to be here, even if Bowie and Gabrels do keep singing the words “tarnished cranky people” to the tune of R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” Bowie — who spent much of last year playing stadiums around the world on his nostalgic Sound and Vision Tour — does, however, seem somewhat concerned about how to work this particular room. “We saw the place where we’re playing during sound check earlier today,” Bowie says. “And the thing is there are tables in there. I’m not sure if I really know how to play a room with tables.”

But it is Tin Machine that’s appearing tonight, not David Bowie, noted rock chameleon and occasional platinum-selling solo artist. After all, Tin Machine is a band, and a relatively new and commercially unproven one at that. And like any other new group today, Tin Machine is confronting the question of how to most effectively push the product, how to find its audience, how to make its mark. And sometimes that means you wait.

“Can we consider our dues fully paid now?” asks Hunt aloud.

Well, perhaps not quite yet. In a time when the ability to meet and greet can be just as important as the ability to sing and play, few are exempt from playing the schmoozing game. To look at things more positively, tonight’s gig in fact represents something of a step up from a similar show done for the Musicland chain a few days earlier in Minneapolis that actually saw the group opening up for the Kentucky HeadHunters. Here in L.A., at least Tin Machine is headlining.

Tonight also represents a chance for the group to light a fire under some retailers who will be bringing the band’s new album, Tin Machine II, to the public. These particular retailers will be bringing their customers a bizarrely censored version of the album’s original cover, in which traditional kouroi statues have been rather perversely neutered. Much of the press the band has received recently has been as a result of the cover, though it seems unlikely that, as some have suggested, the whole thing was simply a publicity stunt. “The irony is that the new cover really is totally obscene,” says Gabrels. No matter that the cover comes without the intended genitalia, for as Gabrels and Bowie agree, tonight Tin Machine will definitely be performing “with penis.”

This information segues naturally into a discussion of Gabrels’s habit of playing guitar with a vibrator. Recently ABC opted not to show some offending footage of Gabrels using the object in question. And England’s Top of the Pops program forbade him to use it altogether, so he decided instead to play with an eclair.

“This band is gradually slipping into a mire of sexual innuendo,” says Bowie. In truth, the scene is entirely wholesome, with the band members accompanied by their significant others, except for Bowie, whose girlfriend, the model Iman, is in Africa. “She’s an amazing lady,” reports a contented and domestic-sounding Bowie, “and I’m a very happy boy these days.”

Despite the fact that the band plays some truly mind-altering rock, there are no recreational excesses in evidence. This is a wacky but clean and sober crew. “Up until the early Eighties, I had absolutely no doubt that I wouldn’t be able to do anything good musically if I stopped doing cocaine,” says Bowie. “I now think that’s absolute bullshit. It’s the great lie.” These days, Bowie, does his experimenting musically, not chemically.

Within the context of Tin Machine, Bowie manages to blend in quite naturally with the rest of the gifted veterans in the band, as if he’s relieved to be part of something bigger — and something he believes in. On the way to the hotel this evening, for instance, the 44-year-old Bowie seems almost bubbly. “Do you realize we have accumulated 74 years of touring experience in this band?” Bowie says excitedly. “We do?” says Hunt, sounding less than thrilled by the calculation. “Shit.”

“Well, that’s something to think about, isn’t it?” says Bowie. “That means that collectively we’re like Muddy Waters. A very poor man’s Muddy Waters.” As the band kibitzes the time away, one only occasionally remembers that the bright and altogether charming regular guy male-bonding so comfortably with his band mates is none other than the Thin White Duke himself, that mysterious rock figure long assumed to be bonding with only-God-knows-who or-what in the old days. “The thing is we all treat each other like equals,” says Hunt. “David’s only human. He’s going to be a schmuck sometimes, but so am I. I mean, it’s upfront that there are some big fucking egos in this band.” “Even if I wanted to pull the trump card of being ‘David Bowie,’ these three particular people would never let me get away with it,” says the singer.

“The only problem is when we’re out in public,” says Gabrels. “Early on I learned to always get out of the van first, because the barriers would start to collapse as soon as David got out.” “Really? I always thought all that commotion was for me,” says Hunt.

Finally, word comes that it’s show time. Tin Machine is brought downstairs to the ballroom stage, where a Wherehouse worker breathlessly introduces the group as “the future of rock & roll.” It may sound like ridiculous hype — it may in fact be ridiculous — but there is a touch of truth about the statement. For the band in general, and especially for Bowie — the boy who some feel has cried “new persona” one too many times — Tin Machine ultimately seems to be about a heartfelt and altogether admirable desire to be more than a freeze-dried part of the classic-rock past, as profitable as that might be.

Onstage this evening, Tin Machine does a very unlikely thing. On its own uncompromising terms, the band rocks the joint, offering up its soon-to-be-patented combination of heavy riffs and cornball shtick — after all, half of this band did literally spring from the loins of comedian Soupy Sales. In the most unsuitable of settings, Tin Machine delivers a loose, often inspired show of passionate rock & roll, spiced by bits of heavy-metal Borscht Belt. As the band performs numbers like “One Shot,” “Baby Universal” and its riveting cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something,” it’s clear that even if the band members must schmooze, the music most emphatically does not. And to see Tin Machine at work is to know that for David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers, this really is a band, and a truly ambitious and great one at that.

Now all they have to do is convince the rest of the world.

It isn’t going to be easy. One recent review of Tin Machine II in England’s Melody Maker ended with the memorable phrase, “Sit down, man, you’re a fucking disgrace.” The adult but primal charm of Tin Machine is — by design, one could argue — not something for everyone. This is, in fact, a band that some people absolutely hate, and not all for the same reasons. Somehow, Bowie has taken more heat for doing something ambitious than so many of his contemporaries have for simply cashing in. Recently, Tin Machine got a few wildly positive reviews — including a rave from the New York Times — but the band members try to put the whole thing in perspective.

“The truth is we’re not doing this for anybody else’s approval,” says Tony Sales. “We’re doing this because we all get off on doing this.” And why not? The united front of Bowie’s edgy lyrics and reinvigorated singing, Gabrels’s lyrically explosive guitar work and the soulful looseness of the Sales brothers is a potent if controversial one. “I’ve been a sideman,” says Tony, “so I know what that’s like, and this is nothing like it. Everyone in this group makes a major contribution.” As Tony puts it, Gabrels contributes “a sense of cerebral chaos”; Hunt brings “danger — he’s a very dangerous cat.” As for Bowie, Tony says, “I can’t say with David. But I just have so much respect for him. There’s a reason he’s David Bowie.”

Tin Machine’s debut effort — which was released in 1989 by a less than enthusiastic EMI — sold approximately 900,000 worldwide, hardly a disaster but certainly a disappointment if judged against the sales of Bowie’s own catalog. An ambitious and often brutal piece of hard rock, Tin Machine offered sharp lyrics, raging guitar and a generally uncompromising edge. “The idea,” says Bowie, “was really good songs played with lots of aggression.”

The new album — the first release by the new JVC-sponsored Victory label — is a more varied piece of work, with Hunt Sales, for instance, singing two soul-influenced numbers. The second time around the quartet shows more range, and there are moments of musical delicacy on tracks like “Goodbye Mr. Ed” and the wonderfully exotic “Amlapura.” Still, the album is not for the fainthearted, and Bowie utterly dismisses the idea of it as representing the work of a kinder, gentler Machine. Asked if he thought that Tin Machine’s assaultive and often brilliant debut effort was widely misunderstood, Bowie doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh, I don’t know about misunderstood,” he says, laughing. “How about unheard.”

Some who did hear Tin Machine’s debut found it too relentlessly thrashy for their tastes. Others found the entire concept of Tin Machine ludicrous, seeing the group as a bizarre career move and a desperate attempt at credibility on Bowie’s part. For these naysayers it was impossible to take seriously the admittedly unusual proposition that Tin Machine was not David Bowie’s group but rather a group in which Bowie was one of four members. “I hope the fact that we’re still together will help some people over all that,” says Bowie. “But I’m sure there will be a lot of doubters. It comes with the territory. I’m a big boy, and I find myself less and less interested with how I’m perceived anyway. I’m much more concerned these days with how I feel. I think the only way to work through all that confusion is to keep working.”

Always recognized as an artist unafraid of a new challenge, Bowie openly confesses to losing his direction in the multiplatinum wake of 1983’s Let’s Dance, the soulful Nile Rodgers-produced effort that became the bestselling album of his entire career. “The truth is that Let’s Dance just threw me for a loop,” says Bowie. “For a minute or so there, I really enjoyed all the attention. I’d walk into a restaurant, and my record would be playing. I felt like I’d arrived, that I was legit. I didn’t realize that I’d just come from prison.”

For perhaps the first time in his career, the Man Who Sold the World seemed on his way to becoming the Man Who Wanted to Sell Some Records. “Suddenly, Let’s Dance became the yardstick against which everything was measured,” he says. “It put me in a very uncomfortable place. I had always been a complete tyrant until then, but I started to relinquish control, and I made a lot of mistakes.”

To hear some of those mistakes, check out 1984’s Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down, which saw Bowie treading water musically, as he sabotaged through overproduction and underthinking most of the strong material he did have. “Frankly, those albums still sold really well compared to some of my earlier work,” he says. “That was the irony, because they were substandard to anything I’d put out in the Seventies.” Things bottomed out on the 1987 Glass Spider Tour, a horribly confused spectacle in which a silly giant spider prop failed to compensate for an uncommitted Bowie. “Things got real strange,” Hunt Sales recalls, “because here was David Bowie, a guy who’d always blown your mind and done incredibly cool things, then all of a sudden he didn’t seem quite so damn cool.”

“I realized finally that I had to stop thinking about my career,” says Bowie. “I had to remember what it was I love about rock & roll in the first place. For a while I belonged to the rock & roll lifestyle. It was all the booze, all the drugs and all the sex. I lived out everybody’s fantasy of what rock & roll should be. I did it all in an effort to make myself more rock & rolly. But the truth is I was covering up. I’m not Keith Richards. I always felt more like an artist than a rocker. But that doesn’t mean I don’t dearly love rock music — I do. And I had to start working on the sort of stuff that satisfies me as a person.”

In the end he didn’t have to look far for satisfaction. Sara Gabrels, a journalist who’d served as his liaison to the press during the Glass Spider Tour, had waited until the end of the tour to slip her boss a tape of her guitarist husband, Reeves. It was only when Bowie was back home in Switzerland unpacking after the tour’s conclusion that he found the tape and put it on.

Before long, Gabrels — a thinking man’s guitar god, without many disciples despite years on the Boston music scene — got the call of a lifetime.

“I was getting really depressed,” says Gabrels. “Because I knew I could play, but if you look at the ads in the music papers these days, it’s all ‘must have shoulder-length blond hair, be 150 pounds, six foot two, between the ages of 20 and 25.’ And I had gone out to put up a sign for guitar students. And I came back and was playing and working with my four-track. Every time I got something going, the phone rang. Finally, I pick up the phone for the fourth time, and this voice says, ‘Hi. It’s David.’ And I said, ‘David who?’ He says, ‘David Bowie,’ and I assume it’s a friend pulling my leg.”

It was no joke, and soon the two were working up an arrangement of “Look Back in Anger” for a charity-dance performance, as well as writing songs. “As much as I was enjoying it, I still had no idea where this was leading,” says Gabrels. “But then I got this light-bulb call from David. He said, ‘Reeves, I’ve just found our bass player and drummer, Hunt and Tony Sales.’ And I remember the word ‘our’ really stuck with me.” Bowie had known Hunt and Tony Sales for years and had played with them when they were backing Iggy Pop in the late Seventies. The brothers’ professional music careers began as children when they recorded a single as Tony and the Tigers. “I was like 13,” says Hunt, “so I definitely didn’t get into the music for the pussy.” As the sons of Soupy Sales, the pair got an early taste of celebrity. “When I was twelve and thirteen, my dad was as big as the Beatles,” says Hunt. “We had kids sleeping on our doorstep. So we had a pretty good idea what fame was about.” Later they played with Todd Rundgren, Iggy Pop and others.

In the late Seventies, Tony nearly died in an automobile accident — he says Bowie was one of the only musicians to visit him in the hospital — and later played with Checquered Past, an ill-fated early-Eighties attempt at a supergroup. To pay the bills, he sometimes did carpentry. Hunt played with Bob Welch in the band Paris, as well as with Las Vegas show bands, among many others. Bowie invited this band, which did not yet exist, to Switzerland. “I had a strong hunch that something would happen,” says Bowie. He was correct. After a period of hazing, the group started to click.

Gabrels says: “It was about a week into things that David said, ‘Look, you guys don’t listen to me. I’m not really directing this. We’re all collaborating, so this should be a band.’ And at first I was torn, because I’d gotten excited about the idea of us playing on a David Bowie album. But because of the way this group functions and the way things get written, it would be a lie to say it was anything other than a band.”

That decided, there was really only the matter of a band name to attend to. Leather Weasel was considered and quickly discarded. “I think one day David said ‘Tin,’ and someone else said ‘Machine,’ and away we went,” says Tony. “The whole thing was like some bizarre blind date, except of course my blind dates usually had more hair.”

Of course, that blind date turned out to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

It’s a few weeks before the release of Tin Machine II, and the band has a lunch date at a trendy Thai restaurant on Melrose Avenue. Seeing the four of them together, it’s very clear that this is still a band very much in love, musically.

“I’m always happy with this band,” Bowie says. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart — I’m completely happy about everything we do together.”

Tin Machine is so happy, in fact, that the members don’t seem especially concerned with the reception they have received from the public so far. (Tin Machine II debuted in September at Number 126 on Billboard‘s album chart.) “Listen, we know we’re not making your typical stadium rock,” says Gabrels. “We’re selling scones, not Big Macs.”

“Sadly, most of the bands that we love don’t sell dick,” says Bowie. “Right now I’m excited more by bands like the Pixies than anything at the top of the charts. We’re making the music we want to make and still manage to sell a lot more records compared to a lot of bands.”

Discussing the commerical fortunes of the band, the normally direct Bowie turns momentarily cryptic: “449 says you are in the place you’re supposed to be.” Only after being pressed does he explain that 449 is a page in an Alcoholics Anonymous text. “It says that you are where you’re supposed to be, and that’s how I feel about the band. What we’re doing is trying to create a new adult thing. It’s a scary proposition, especially in such an ageist society. But at this stage in life, we all seem to share the feeling that everything we do has to be really important.”

So important that it’s worth fighting for. Bowie met with resistance from all sides. Asked, for example, if it was hard to convince his business people about doing a band project, the members of Tin Machine break out laughing.

“Frankly,” Bowie says, “what we were trying to do wasn’t well received by anyone.” Why, then, did Bowie decide to take a break between Tin Machine albums to resurrect his hits one last time on the Sound and Vision Tour?

“I was so ambivalent about that,” Bowie admits. “It was really hard. But it did two things for me. One, the money was so big that I would have been stupid not to do it. Two, it was a good way of me stopping that side of what I’ve done. For a long time, I’ve wanted to stop fucking doing those songs. I mean, it’s really hard for me to get it up for ‘Major Tom’ at this point. I absolutely loathe singing ‘Young Americans.’ So I killed two things off that way. Yet it was a gamble that it wouldn’t do irreparable harm to the band. But knowing how strong this band is, I didn’t think it would.”

“And in a way it actually helped the band,” says Gabrels. “Because when David did interviews, he spent about half his time promoting Tin Machine.” That’s not, however, all that was written about Bowie in the recent past. Last summer, for instance, Bowie’s ex-wife, Angela, briefly made headlines by suggesting on The Joan Rivers Show that he’d slept with Mick Jagger.

“It’s not my problem if people want to talk about that sort of thing,” Bowie says matter-of-factly. “It’s Angela’s problem, and it’s Joan Rivers’s problem, and it’s her audience’s problem. They have to deal with it. And if that’s what they want to focus on, they have a real problem. It’s outside of me. I can’t fix the situation, and it has no bearing on my life whatsoever.”

Still, he must have been surprised that the topic caused so much commotion. “It’s probably one of the most exciting things that’s been said about me in a few years, because I haven’t done much,” says Bowie. “I haven’t fucked any kangaroos lately, so there’s not much to talk about.” This from the man whose group did record its latest album in Australia.

In order to support that album, Tin Machine is now hitting the road. Last time out, the band played a limited tour of small halls. “It was great,” says Bowie. “No one screamed out for ‘Heroes.'”

“They all screamed out for Soupy,” adds Hunt. The band’s mission is not an easy one. This is not your usual chart fodder, and MTV has yet to jump on the video for the album’s hard-edged first single, “One Shot.” Still, the band is optimistic, especially with a new corporate home, one where it feels wanted. The band looked for a label that wanted Tin Machine, rather than taking Tin Machine in order to get David Bowie, and decided to go with the brand-new Victory Records. For the first time in his career, Bowie remains unsigned as a solo artist, and he will soon get back the rights to his EMI recordings, which may then be released by Rykodisc, the company with which Bowie has coordinated an impressive reissue program of his earlier material.

“I have no recording plans on my own,” he says. “I do some acting, but I’m totally with Tin Machine.” Once more the million-dollar question is asked: Why?

“Because it seems right to me,” says Bowie. “Listen, I’m not a kid anymore — in fact, I have a kid of my own who’s 20 years old. I’m an adult, and with this band we’re not trying to fake anything. What we’re trying to do is take rock & roll along with us. I love it way too much to just leave it behind.” 

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