Tony Visconti spills the beans on cocaine, AA and sushi with David Bowie

After a silent decade David Bowie is back. Tim Teeman talks to the singer’s producer, friend and representative on Earth.

(Interview originally published 12 Jan 2013 in The Times. Text via Bowiezone; tracklist images via Teenage Wildlife)

Tony Visconti has known David Bowie since 1967 and produced 12 of his most memorable albums, beginning with The Man Who Sold the World (1970). He has done “mountains of cocaine” with his longtime friend, “though alcohol was far worse”. Both are now sober veterans of Alcoholics Anonymous, living in New York with a shared passion for Japanese food — Bowie is “very much a sushi guy”.
But when Bowie called Visconti two years ago to “work on some demos”, the 68-year-old producer admits that he was shocked.

“I had no idea he was writing again. We had spoken in 2009 and he had made it clear he wasn’t writing. And now this week, the single came out and it shocked the world,” he says.

The song, Where Are We Now?, a melancholic lament for Berlin where Bowie and Visconti lived in the 1970s, caused a global Bowie-gasm on Tuesday, Bowie’s 66th birthday, released with no advance hype at 5am GMT. It received its premiere on Radio 4’s Today programme. An album, Bowie’s first for ten years, The Next Day, will be released on March 11.

On the eve of the single’s release, “I couldn’t sleep,” Visconti reveals, drinking water in a smart New York private members’ club. He is dressed all in black, slim — he traded in drugs and booze for t’ai chi — with cropped white hair. “I’d kept a secret for two years, I knew the release date for two months, it was a countdown, 47 days to go … the final day we were e-mailing each other. I’d say, ‘I’m biting all my nails down, it’s 2 hours and 35 minutes,’ and he [Bowie] would write back, ‘2 hours and 26 minutes.’ Then I saw some posts on Bowie Worldwide just after midnight: ‘Holy shit’, ‘Oh my God …’ Everyone had written him off. The next day he was very happy about how well it had been received.
‘Well, what did you expect?’ I said.”

Bowie, he says, told him he would “never do another interview again” making Visconti, I say, his voice on Earth. “Tell me about it,” he says, wryly. The singer had a heart attack in 2004 and there have been rumours that he was suffering from cancer. “They’re categorically not true,” Visconti says. “He does not have cancer. If there’s one thing I would like to dispel it’s the rumours about his ill-health. He’s incredibly fit and takes care of himself. Obviously after the heart attack he wasn’t too thrilled but he has an amazing family and friends. Visconti calls family “the F-word” with good reason. He became estranged from Bowie in 1988 having talked about Bowie’s close relatives to the press in a way the singer felt was “too intrusive”. They reconciled “because we’re friends”.

Since his heart attack, Bowie has been painting — an exhibition of new work is possible, Visconti says — “and doing a phenomenal amount of reading: old English history, Russian history, the monarchs of Great Britain — what made them bad and good. Everything he reads makes it into the lyrics of his songs”, which is evident in our exclusive breakdown of the rest of the songs on the album about tyrants, spies and soldiers.

“I’ve worked with other rock stars who want to talk about their yachts and horses. Not David,” says the producer, fondly. Love in the internet age, glam rock and the workings of fame form more personal thematic ballast.

Certain to create the most headlines is Valentine’s Day, Bowie’s response to the epidemic of gun violence in American schools. It was written a year before the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December. “It’s about mental health rather than gun control. It’s all young people doing these shootings. It goes inside the head of the shooter. David gives him the name Johnny, which I think is the name he’s given to about 12 people in his songs over the past 40 years.”

Why Johnny?
“I don’t know. Maybe it rhymes well: a generic name which helps describe the common man. The issue for him isn’t so much guns but the mental health of the shooter. In the past two years there have been so many shootings and the next day we’d come into the studio and say ‘What the f*ck? Why is this happening?’ We were shocked like everyone else and don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon. We have kids and we can’t imagine the horror … the worst thing to happen to our kids would be them being shot in public.”

The Berlin period featured in the new single, when Bowie lived with Iggy Pop, wasn’t as depraved as people think. “We got drunk a lot. But he lived a very spartan life. Iggy had his bedroom, David had his.”

Did their relationship go beyond friendship?
“No, absolutely not and at that time he had serious financial problems. He was breaking up with [first wife] Angie and he was reconstructing his life. Certainly there were periods when he reached the depths.

“During the making of Young Americans [1975] he was taking so much cocaine it would have killed a horse. Cocaine certainly almost killed me. During the making of that album I nearly died. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I worked day and night. He’d come in to the studio at 11pm and work till 11am. One day I said, ‘I have to pack it in, the cocaine isn’t propping me up any more. I cannot stay awake. On the way home my heart felt like it was going to explode. I didn’t want to cause a scandal for him and me by going to hospital, so I took 12 sleeping pills — no suicidal intent, just to slow my heart and it did and I survived. We’d have both been dead if we’d carried on. There was a myth it wasn’t habit-forming back then. Foolishly we believed that. It was a social drug and socially acceptable. You went to any cocktail party and somebody put a line or spoon under your nose and you said ‘Oh, thank you.’ I know people who sold their homes to feed their habit. For us there was no limit.”

Visconti stopped taking cocaine in 1984. “I woke up one day imagining there were phantoms in the room. I just went cold turkey.” He stopped drinking in 2000 and Bowie and he both went to AA. “David found it very useful. We talk about being each other’s support system. If two people from the programme sit together that’s technically an AA meeting. Every two or three days we talk about it, although we don’t start and end with a prayer. I’ll say, ‘I’m coming to my 12th birthday’ and he says, ‘Well it’s been my 23rd.’ I ask, ‘Do you miss it?’ and he says, ‘I don’t miss it at all,’ and I say, ‘Me neither.’”

Sometimes the men recollect how drunk they were at a party, the limo that would wait for them outside after-hours clubs in New York. Their most outrageous night? “We stayed up with John Lennon until 10.30am. We did a mountain of cocaine, it looked like the Matterhorn, obscenely big, and four open bottles of cognac.” Visconti pauses. “He doesn’t do anything now. He’s Mr Clean. He looks great, rosy-cheeked. If you’re doing drugs and drinking at 66 you look like shit.”

Bowie’s poison now?
A strong macchiato. Otherwise he drinks water in the studio, and eats roast beef sandwiches and salads.

The two have created 29 songs together of late, making a second album almost inevitable. “We’re not going to give up on the songs that haven’t made this one,” Visconti says.

“We’re going to go back and look at them because they’re spectacular musical pieces, they just haven’t been finished lyrically. I think he’s on a roll, and will possibly return to the studio later this year. If people don’t like this album then maybe he won’t, but it doesn’t matter to him. He told me what he wants to do is make records. He does not want to tour. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years and he’s tired of it. I’ve been with him on tour and, no matter how cosseted they are, they lose sleep, they get miserable and lonely. After being on stage they just want to get into the limo and crash. It’s gruelling and the star of the show has to deliver most on stage.”

Visconti recalls seeing him after a concert at Jones Beach outside New York in 2003. “He just sat there and said, ‘I’m knackered.’ He wasn’t enjoying it.”

It has been rumoured this week that Bowie might appear at the Glastonbury and SXSW festivals. “There is no possibility whatsoever,” Visconti says. “I don’t want to give people any hope. He’s pretty adamant that he’s found his muse. ‘I just want to make records,’ he told me.”

After the heart attack, Bowie resumed contact by sending Visconti “jokes and YouTube videos of people doing stupid things. I don’t think artists ever retire, why would he retire? Some artists have long periods of not creating: they need to accumulate experiences and have something to write about. I’ve read Christopher Hitchens’s book Mortality and I’m sure David has too.”

Bowie walks among New Yorkers well disguised: “He doesn’t stand on street corners for any length of time.” He was papped outside the recording studio in SoHo, New York, in October, but it was a rare sighting. He travels all over the world, “but you wouldn’t know it because he doesn’t want you to. He values his privacy because he hasn’t had a private life.”

The album was made over an 18-month period, then in the studio intensively for three months, two weeks at a time. Bowie makes his own demos at home on a computer.

“He knows how to make a drum loop and record chords and do a backing vocal over them,” his friend says. Sometimes tracks are just music or “la-la-las”. “He gets us to feel a song might be about an assassination, so everyone gets in that mood. None of the songs are pre-written, he jots down notes and I keep the microphone settings the same for each song so we can return to it.” The new single has very sparse lyrics, he explains, but every line evokes a feeling and reminded him of how much Berlin felt like a film noir, “a Third Man city. There is such drama there: the killing, Hitler …”

Visconti met Bowie and the singer Marc Bolan at the same time. “I knew they’d both be big,” he says. It was Bolan who was the more rivalrous, and Bowie, who discovered glam rock — in Visconti’s estimation — “about an hour before Bolan. They’re like my sons, I can’t say who I love more, but Bolan saw everyone as a threat. A friend showed me a picture of him, disguised, watching David and I on stage supporting Hawkwind, the hairiest band ever. He’s wearing a cloth cap so we wouldn’t recognise him.”

As for Bowie’s sexuality (in the Seventies he said he was gay, then bi), “I never witnessed him with a boyfriend. I certainly think he wanted people to think that but his main squeezes were always women. There was such homophobia back then. He said the best tactic was to go the other way and shock people. He said Ziggy Stardust was a persona but it confused people. I hear people even now saying, ‘You work with that queer.’ It’s never been dropped completely.”

Bowie “doesn’t care” about criticism, Visconti says. “He’s a very smart guy. Part of his thinking releasing the single may have been, ‘Let people think what they want, I’m going to shock them with this.’ If so, it came off flawlessly.”

Like many music journalists, Bowie and Visconti joke about good songs Bowie has made since the widely hailed album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) as “the best since since Scary Monsters”.
They also have another joke.
“Every time we go into the studio, we say, ‘This one’s going to be our Sgt Pepper.’”

He reveals that Bowie loves British comedy,particularly Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (he makes Visconti play Cook in sketch re-creations). DVDs of The Office played through the 2003 recording of the album Reality. Bowie is also addicted to the ITV drama Foyle’s War, the American police series The Shield and the French drama Spiral.

Visconti’s least favourite Bowie songs are from the Never Let Me Down period (“He lost his way”) but he likes Let’s Dance, even if he didn’t produce it. He says he likes to “mix things up” and has worked with Elaine Paige as well as Thin Lizzy. He produces younger bands today (including Razorlight and the Dandy Warhols) but is shocked by “how little musicianship they have compared to the 1970s, and I’m not being an old man — I was shocked by how little musicianship we had compared to Charlie Parker. Today they put 10,000 hours in on the computer, rather than shredding a guitar.”

Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire are honourable exceptions but he hates bands “channelling” the 1970s and 1980s. “It’s bollocks. Listen to the ballad we just released: it’s just a man singing from the heart with no trickery.”

Another single may precede the album’s release in March. Until then Visconti, three times married (once to the Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin), with four children, and in a relationship for 12 years (“I’m more faithful as a single man, you have to work harder to keep up the romance”), will practise t’ai chi on his Manhattan roof and await more tantalising calls from the still-Thin White Duke. So, there’s more Bowie music to come and more surprises? “Oh yes,” Visconti says, grinning to the max.

David Bowie’s album The Next Day will be released on March 11 on RCA. The single Where Are We Now? is available on iTunes

1. The Next Day

An historical song and horrendously gruesome. I think it’s about a Catholic cardinal or tyrant. It’s very violent: the main character is hung, drawn and quartered, burnt and then torn apart by people.

2. Dirty Boys

A euphemism, and song, for all the glam rock stars that have ever been.

3. The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

It’s about all kinds of stars. You can say I’m being secretive.

4. Love is Lost

That’s not about a love affair, but how everyone has cut down their feelings in the internet age.

5. Where Are We Now?

A very personal song - it’s about the Berlin we had been in in the 1970s. It is not as autobiographical as people are suggesting. He is a storyteller. This could be about him, or Berlin at a certain time.

6. Valentine’s Day

Inside the mind of a high school mass murderer named Johnny, inspired by the spate of shootings in US schools.

7. If You Can See Me

A challenging jazz-funk-rock composition, extremely fast with accompanying vocals by longtime Bowie singer Gail Ann Dorsey. Identities switch between someone who may be Bowie and a politician.

8. I’d Rather Be High

The lament of a demobbed Second World War soldier who would rather succumb to base emotions than be a human being. Bowie does not want to be high. He is clean and has been an AA member for years.

9. Boss of Me

Someone feels oppressed or abused, speaking in the third person.

10. Dancing Out in Space

A song about another musical artist, possibly a conglomeration of artists.

11. How Does the Grass Grow?

It’s a companion song to I’d Rather Be High and is about the First World War: how British soldiers were trained as a metaphor for a lot of things. Sheer poetry.

12. (You Will) Set the World on Fire

About a young female singer who gets discovered in a nightclub in the 1960s. Does she set the world on fire? It’s not about anybody specific, but a couple of people who sang alongside Dylan.

13. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

It’s about Russian history, from the time of the Cold War and espionage and about an ugly demise. It sounds like an R&B song.

14. Heat

It could be about prison, loneliness and sociopathic detachment. the lyrics are so bleak I asked him what he was talking about. “Oh, it’s not about me,” he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer.

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