Bowie's longtime collaborator and friend talks about the man and the music
For a guy who yearned for change, David Bowie kept guitarist and collaborator, Carlos Alomar, around longer than most. He's also the co-writer of Bowie's first US #1 Single, Fame. Here's part of Carlos Alomar's interview with As It Happens host Carol Off
Carol Off: Did you know that David Bowie was so ill?
Carlos Alomar: No, I had no idea. The last time I saw him about a year ago ... I was so glad to see him ... although I did find him very frail.
We just finished celebrating his birthday. We had just finished celebrating the release of his new album. And then within the same week, we hear that he died. I mean that doesn't give you time to process-Carlos Alomar-Carlos Alomar
CO: How did you react then when you heard the news?
CA: Well I think that I am just like all the other fans. I think the correct term would probably be numb. We just finished celebrating his birthday. We had just finished celebrating the release of his new album. And then within the same week, We hear that he died. I mean that doesn't give you time to process ... I'm just trying to wait for the tears to fall and I'm just going through the stages of denial and acceptance and all the other things that fans are going though ... It took all the wind out of my sail.
CO: You are more than just a another fan, you were with him for decades. You met him in the early seventies ... tell us your first impressions of him.
CA: He was a curious, odd fellow, is what he was! Remember he had just finished coming from Europe, from the Spiders from Mars and the whole London glam-rock thing. So, he still had the orange hair. He still had the pale white skin. He was ninety-eight pounds and was very short. You know, just this little guy.
And he comes out with, "hey man that's cool" and all these little hipster sayings and so I was like let's go to Harlem. Let me take you to the Apollo Theater. Let me take you to the Hunts Point Palace to listen to some real salsa.
We were in our twenties ... and we were extremely curious and I think that curiosity lead us through all the different eras that we went through together. You know, through experimentation and exploration and it helped us to continue feeding that curiosity that we both seem to have.
CO: What was he like to work with?
CA: I mean, when we first started, it was literally grab it from thin air ... Sometimes you pick up a guitar, and it's three chords that you have for a song. So, you let me hear the three chords and I listen to it and I say "OK you know what, with scale progressions we can get from point A to point B by doing this" ... So, my theory and composition added to his inspiration and ability to hear other options.
CO: You helped him write Fame, one of his biggest hits, a song that John Lennon was involved in ... Can you tell us a bit about how Fame came about?
CA: Well, Fame originally was a song called Footstompin. We had done Footsompin on tour and he really liked the song. But when we went into the studio to record it, this phenomenon happens which is that sometimes a song you perform live sounds good live but when you take it into the studio it really falls flat. It doesn't really have that sparkle.
And so we abandoned the song. It was then cut up... I had this little guitar line which he really liked, which was the basis of Fame. He let me hear this current version of Footstompin, in this more bluesy format. And when I heard it I was like "wow that's really funky."
Now, at that point John Lennon had come in and they were having a good time. You know, he's playing acoustic guitar. But then they said they want to go get something to eat. But I said "you know I've got these lines that I'm hearing in my head. I'd rather stay here and just record the track." I laid down like four or five guitar parts and then when they returned from dinner Fame was done.
CO: Another part of of David Bowie's life that I'm sure you encountered is that he did wrestle with his demons and one of them was drugs. What effect would that have on his his ability to create?
CA: I don't think we should look at his drug use as ability or inability to create. I think that quite honestly they went hand in hand. First of all, you come to America, you're used to doing albums like Ziggy ... and you look up this band that you think is going to give you what you want ... You've got the smokinest tracks you ever heard in your whole life. As a singer, you have to rise to the challenge and get that lyric written and do that performance. That kind of anxiety is one that if you have coffee, you would drink coffee all night long in order to stay up. So, this type of thing created a situation where Bowie was doing coke ... he could stay up and do all the things that had to be done. When you're in the grip of inspiration, you can't go home and say "I'm a little tired today. Let's cancel today's session."
The [Young Americans] album was done in like a month and a half. That's crazy. And so in order to compensate [for] the inspiration and the energy, it wasn't a cup of coffee or pills that you pop, it was coke. So one little bit of of coke and you would be able to stay up all day long and get everything done. And then you go home and crash.