Adrian Belew looks back fondly on his relationship with David Bowie
Belew will appear in Wichita with Todd Rundgren and others in a concert celebrating the work of the late superstar.
Adrian Belew will tell you that he's an artist who likes to stay focused on the future, but like most with a career that spans several decades, he also has occasion to revisit his past.
This fall, he's teamed up with Todd Rundgren and several other players for Celebrating David Bowie, an evening of music that sees him performing the music of the late British rock musician who has achieved icon status.
The tour arrives in Wichita at the Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
Belew's relationship with Bowie's music runs deep: He was plucked from his first major gig, with Frank Zappa, by Bowie in the dimming days of the 1970s. In a short amount of time, he was in a studio with Bowie and producers Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, hard at work on the album "Lodger," which would complete Bowie's Berlin trilogy.
From there, he spent more than a year on the road with the veteran musician, handling guitar duties (alongside Carlos Alomar) on the LP "Stage," before shuffling off for a decade of work with King Crimson, The Bears, Talking Heads and as a solo artist.
Then, in 1990, he got a second chance with Bowie as the singer said goodbye to his greatest hits on the monumental Sound + Vision tour. Belew says the tour changed his life and also deepened his relationship with the superstar vocalist.
Speaking with KMUW from Los Angeles, ahead of a performance with his former bandmate in Talking Heads, Jerry Harrison — the pair are revisiting the band's landmark album "Remain in Light" — Belew describes his working relationship with Rundgren as well as sharing memories of Bowie.
Though some of the stories have been told before, he maintains an enthusiasm for his old friend and for the new ones he's making with Celebrating David Bowie, including Fishbone frontman Angelo Moore (whom he calls "a master of the stage").
Moore will perform alongside Belew, Rundgren, the show's producer Angelo "Scrote" Bundini and special guests through mid-November.
Belew's latest solo outing is "Elevator," and he appears on Rundgren's new album, "Space Force," as well.
Tell me about this pairing of you and Todd Rundgren.
We've known each other for many years. I've gone to his shows; he's come to a few of mine. So we always said, "Maybe we should do something," but that's how far it got. [Laughs.] When we did the last version of Celebrating David Bowie in 2018, the very last two shows were in Reykjavík, Iceland, at a beautiful concert hall with a full orchestra. So Todd said, "I'm going to sign on for that." I think that was what convinced him that this was something he'd like to continue doing. Since that moment we've gotten close.
The next step that happened after that was that he called me and said that his next record was a collaboration with different people, and the way that he was collaborating was to ask people if they had something that was unfinished that they could send to him and then that would be the way that he would collaborate. So, I said, "Well, I have four songs sitting here right now that I can send you." He chose one and finished it.
What I had sent him was two verses and the music, although he added more music to it and produced it. What he did was wrote the choruses and did his vocals in that section and it really, really changed the song in so much a better way. I was really pleased with the outcome of that. So that's called "Puzzle"; it's on his new record. I think it's already online as well. They released it as a pre-single.
So they were are, and now Todd and I are doing many things together and all of a sudden we're doing this show. In the show we oftentimes harmonize together or trade-off vocals. For example, in "Heroes," he sings some and I sing some. The same is true for "Pretty Pink Rose." He does David's parts, and I'll be doing the parts I did.
I think that's fun because Todd brings another level to the Celebrating David Bowie thing. We also have guest artists that will appear as we move across the United States and Canada. In Annapolis, Maryland, for two nights we have Thomas Dolby.
I love "Puzzle," and I hope there's more collaboration between the two of you.
It's very possible now that we've opened the doors. What I loved about "Puzzle," just to briefly stop on that subject for a second, is that when I sent it to him, he called me and said, "I really love this one, but it is so somber." I said, "Yeah, that's kind of what it is. It's about struggling through life." He said, "I think I can make it more uplifting." I said, "Well, good luck!" [Laughs.]
That's exactly what he did when he wrote the choruses! All of a sudden it turned the whole attitude of the song around to a positive way. That's one of the reasons I couldn't finish it myself. I kept thinking, "This song is a little bit too much of a downer, and I don't know where I'll put that." Usually, when I write something that's that way I tend not to put them on records that much! [Laughs.] He saved that song for me!
How do you go about selecting the material for these shows. I would suspect that you and Todd are aiming for the unexpected to some degree.
From the beginning, this has been produced by Angelo Bundini, who is also known as Scrote. Don't ask why. Scrote and I have developed a very good friendship around this Bowie stuff. So he asked me for suggestions and thoughts and things, but it really is his production. He comes to me and says, "OK, this is what I'm thinking of this time. I'm thinking of bringing in these players because I think this player could do this kind of material and this person could add that." And so on. So, it's a different band every time. Therefore, the material is dictated by the lineup to a certain degree. You bring in someone and say, "What Bowie stuff will this person be good at?" We have five or six singers; there's no one trying to be David Bowie but that's how the material is selected. He asked me about it, but I'm generally just trying to be on the sidelines trying to say yes to everything.
I don't feel like this show is going to have a lot of the unexpected. I feel like this time around we talked about it and said, "Well, this is the first time people in the United States and Canada are really going to get to see this show." Up to this point, I think we've only played New York and L.A. So let's give them a lot of what they would come for, hoping for. Obvious things like "Ashes To Ashes" or "Stay" or "Space Oddity" or "Life On Mars," those are the ones I think of immediately as being ones that, if you didn't play them, people would be disappointed.
Let's talk about the Sound + Vision tour that you did with David in 1990. You had played with him roughly a decade prior. What changed between the first time you played with him and then?
Well, for me, the personal relationship changed enormously because in the 1978 and '79 band, that was a year-and-a-half of touring but there was always a kind of buffer around David. I think he was going through some troubled times, and he had people around him and it wasn't easy to be his friend and hang out with him. Plus, I was new to the whole thing. I was a young, green Kentuckian, as he said. I didn't want to get out of line or do anything. I just wanted to be professional and do whatever was required of me.
When you move forward to 1990, everything is different. I think David was in a completely different, more positive place in his life. By then I felt pretty established myself. That tour went much longer, went to 27 countries, 108 shows, and we were together all the time. So, we developed a very good, deep relationship. A friendship.
One of the reasons being that we had this $12 million dollar stage and all these videos and opera scrims and things, all of which that had to be built in every city that we went to and that took two days. If we went to, say, Spain, we'd be in Barcelona for two days and then play on the third day. So that gave us two days off everywhere we went and that gave me a lot of time to hang out with David and say, "OK, where are we going to go to today?" OK, let's go to the Prada Museum and we'd go and do something there and maybe have some dinner later on. We were in a private jet a lot of the time in the United States, so we were together many, many hours. That changed that whole relationship. It was a life-changing experience, actually. To be on that level with David Bowie, who was a superstar, and to know him as the person, not the David Bowie image.
When he passed, [former Bowie guitarist] Reeves Gabrels said, "I'll miss the laughter" because he apparently was a very funny person. Did you have that experience as well?
Exactly. That's the one thing about David: He was very charming and disarming in a sense because he was funny, and he made fun of the whole thing in a self-deprecating sort of way. He had a great sense of humor and enjoyed just being one of the people. The star thing was something that … he had that, of course, but it was really almost a costume that he put on when he walked on stage or in front of a camera and had to do that.
That's really a big part of who he was but, underneath that, when you get to know these kinds of people who are so far up the stardom ladder within no time at all you find that they're just people. They're just kind of as in awe of what's happening as you are. [Laughs.] He was really a lot of fun. We had so many times, one the busses and things, that we laughed about so much stuff.
On the 1990 tour bus … David was friends with David Lynch, so David Lynch sent us all the episodes of "Twin Peaks." We'd all gather around in the open cabin area of the bus and watch those shows and make funny comments and that kind of stuff. I also watched "The Rutles" with him when that came out. I went to his hotel room, I think there was just three of us, we watched "The Rutles," and he thought that was just the funniest thing in the world.
You mentioned "Heroes," and I think that's probably the most covered Bowie song. What do you think it is about that song that connects with people the way that it does?
It's an anthem. The anthem is, "You can beat them" whatever they are. You can rise above it and be what you want to be. We were in Berlin for a little while when the wall was coming down. That was really an amazing time because David had lived there for about a dozen years so it really meant a lot to him. I think that song meant more to him than most of his material. It was really from the heart to see what was going on there. The kind of heartbreaking attitude that was happening around that whole scene. So I think David really meant that song and it comes through. It's just so heartfelt.
You hadn't played some of those songs for close to 30 years. Did you miss the music over time?
I didn't think I missed it because I was so busy. My real aim in life is to keep creating new music. But, every now and then it is really nice to take a look back and then start remembering all those things. And the music does, of course, still mean a lot to me. Right now, I just learned "Station To Station" for this tour, and I haven't played that since 1979, and I'm surprised at what I did back then and how hard it is to do it now! [Laughs.]
On the guitar that is.
All the material comes with its own little film I have of playing those songs, being on stage with David. Nothing is more chilling to me than the song "Space Oddity" because, on the 1990 tour, that's the first song we played and we did it with just David and I on the stage. Big, dark stage. The lights would come up, the imagery would start, he'd start singing "Ground control to Major Tom" and then I'd come in with the harmony. It never failed, in 108 shows that I would get a full-on body chill. It was just so amazing to be in that position. It's a rare thing to experience, to look out and see 40 or 50 thousand dots and you know each one of them is a person.
You mentioned the importance of making new music, and I wanted to congratulate you on this new album, "Elevator."
I'm really, totally happy with it in every way. I wish millions of people loved it, of course, but that's not really the aim anyway. It was wonderful to me in a sense … not that COVID was wonderful in any other way, but at least I was at home and I couldn't go anywhere, so I could curate my own record and say, "OK, I've got all this material here, what do I want to fit together and what do I want the artwork to be?" It was very special for me because I really had a lot of time to think it through and put together exactly what I was aiming for. It is exactly what I wanted it to be, and the response from my fans is what I hoped for because I wanted it to be an uplifting record coming out of the Covid draught and the horrors of that. I felt like people would want to put on a record that would make them feel good, kind of like the way I feel about [Talking Heads'] "Remain In Light." That's also one of those feel-good records. I think I accomplished that.