My Brushes with Bowie

My morning, like everyone’s, started with a devastating gut-punch: “David Bowie died.”

I can’t say I knew Bowie, but I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with him back in the ’90s. And he was every bit as cool as his music.

bow1I’d done a Guitar Player interview with Reeves Gabrels after the release of Tin Machine in 1989, and we’d stayed in touch. When Tin Machine II came out in September 1991, the band came to San Francisco to play at a music conference. My future wife Elise and I offered to show Reeves around the city. And Reeves invited David along, accompanied by an amiable bodyguard. We spent the afternoon tooling around town in my dumpy Mazda two-door hatchback with David perched astride the back-seat hump. (He insisted on taking the most uncomfortable seat.)

David was charming and unpretentious, yet freakishly charismatic. This is going to sound a bit woo-woo, but he just seemed to scintillate with some weird luminous energy. That probably sounds like the typical star-struck reaction of a lifelong fan. But I’ve met several members of the super-famous tribe over the years — Madonna, Springsteen, Ringo, Steve Jobs — and never encountered anything remotely like David’s spark.

Some stars have a gift for dimming their light as needed. For example, I used to see Robin Williams around my San Francisco neighborhood back in the ’80s. He’d be walking down Haight St. close to the building fronts, slouching a bit with his hands in his coat pockets and his face downcast. You wouldn’t notice him till the instant he slinked past. David was the opposite: When he’d round a street corner, it was as if everyone on the block instantly felt the energy shift. It was uncanny.

UnknownDavid and Reeves wanted to get piercings. First we grabbed lunch in Japantown (David had pork katsu, and treated everyone. His credit card was in his real name: David Jones.) Then we took them to the Gauntlet, SF’s premier piercing parlor at the time. It was David’s first piercing. He told us that he and his wife-to-be Iman were both getting simple single-ear piercings. It was an old sailor’s tradition, he said: The departing seaman and his love who stayed behind would get matching piercings as a symbol they’d be reunited some day.

David confessed to being a bit scared. As we scaled the stairway to the second floor, he jokingly clutched the bannister as if hauling himself up against the wishes of his legs. Naturally, the guy behind the counter recognized him within milliseconds. He was too hip to make a fuss, but you could literally see his eyes widen. After the guys got their piercings, the wide-eyed dude explained the maintenance procedure, recommending that David rotate the stud to keep the hole from scabbing over. David initially misunderstood and thought he had to remove the stud from his ear. “No,” Piercing Guy explained. “Leave it in there and just rock it.” He paused for two comically perfect seconds. “You know how to do that.”

We drove up and down the city’s hills, climbing out at viewpoints and talking San Francisco lore. David was easy to chat with. Unlike many of the super-famous, he’d actually listen to what you’d say and would usually respond with something fascinating. At the same time, it was exhausting. I felt like 33% of my mind was on the words. Another third was studying his eyes with their famously mismatched pupils. And everything else was OHMYGODI’MTALKINGTODAVIDBOWIE.

Everywhere we went, shy fans would approach David, thanking him or seeking autographs. Without exception, David would pause what he was doing, take a moment to chat, and humbly thank them. It was like a master class on the right way to be a rock star. What a gentleman!

David-BowieBut the gentlemanly feat that most floored me was purely physical. By that point, Elise insisted that David, the out-of-towner, sit up front while she sat on the hump. When we got out to enjoy some view, David helped her out of the rear seat. It wasn’t just extending a hand — it was a deft and complex balletic gesture, as if levitating her out of the car, bowing slightly, and ushering her on her way. I can’t quite describe the impossibly graceful maneuver, and I couldn’t begin to replicate it. It was like something a 17th-century French courtier might do.

Our last stop was a funky hat shop in North Beach. I jokingly urged David to try on an orange plastic pith helmet with a Grateful Dead sticker front and center. Instead, he asked to see a green felt fedora. “How does this look?” he asked, turning and striking a smoky 1940s film star pose. Elise and I swear we felt an electrical shock. We’d almost relaxed by that point, and suddenly David Bowie was standing there! (And yes, he bought the hat.)

Later, back home, we were exhausted. Elise theorized that there’s something vampiric about that sort of charisma. David didn’t just emanate energy — he seemed to soak it up it from those around him. Yeah, woo-woo again. But that’s how it felt.

My second encounter was in 1995, when I flew to NYC to interview Reeves and David separately and together for a Guitar Player cover story. I got to sit in on a rehearsal, where David was calm, kind, and focused with his band. We also went to a Rosie O’Donnell Show taping where the group played live at some decidedly un-rock n’ roll morning hour. Again, David was the very picture of modesty and graciousness.

My solo interview with David was as fascinating as you’d imagine. The focus, of course, was guitar playing. He had compelling things to say about his great accompanists: Mick, Earl, Carlos, Robert, Stevie Ray, Adrian, and, of course, Reeves. But we also spent a lot of time talking about David’s own underrated playing. Did you know he was the sole guitarist on the Diamond Dogs album? And have you listened to that record lately? Those grinding, clanking guitars are like Sonic Youth 15 years ahead of schedule. And that’s David playing the immortal riff from “Rebel Rebel.” He said it came to him in a flash, and when it did, he looked up at the sky and thanked God.

2001-07TotalGuitar-BowiewithEccleshall12-stringAt one point David made an arch comment about a then-huge band he’d shared a flight with — something like, “They were nice enough kids, and I’m told they’re quite popular.” Back in my hotel room after the interview, the phone rang. “Oh, one thing,” said David. “Would you be so kind as to leave that comment out of the story? It wasn’t a nice thing to say, and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” I did as asked.

I almost had a third encounter later that year when I was touring with PJ Harvey. David contacted Polly, asking her to duet with him and his band on “The Man Who Stole the World” for some TV or award show. Polly being Polly, she said she’d only do it if she could use her own band, and we even rehearsed a dirge-like version of the tune. (Without David, of course.) In the end David nixed the idea, opting to perform his song with the musicians of his choice.

I could write reams about David’s music from the perspective of a naïve young fan (I’m old enough to have had Hunky Dory on my radar when it was new), as an aspiring music student during his Berlin era, and from the jaded perspective of a middle-aged music journalist. I probably will at some point. But now I’m just feeling grief for our collective loss, and gratitude for my brushes with Bowie — and getting to spend some time with that remarkable gentleman genius.

41 comments to My Brushes with Bowie

  • joe

    I recorded this a few years ago. I’m reposting it as a meager tribute.

  • Very nice post/story and really nice playing Joe!

  • Kord Taylor

    A great retrospective and remembrance. He was such and innovator and total artist. It was so nice to read of his humanity and humility. Thank you.

  • Tessa J

    This is a beautiful story Joe- thank you for sharing. I’m feeling it too. Much love friend!

  • Al Milburn

    Thanx Joe, you’re a beauty.What a loss, and what a gift!

  • Rich Thomas

    Lovely Joe! Thanks for sharing the memories!

  • Today I listen in the car a late live album from him. Tears came out.
    Thank you for sharing your stories. It truly shows how special he was.

  • Brooks Bell

    Glad it didn’t go like this (though I laughed a lot when I first saw it!)

  • Phillip Rivlin

    A beautiful tribute Joe! I’m feeling cold and empty, and at a loss for words at the moment. I’m thankful for all of my friends that have so eloquently expressed their grief, and recollections. Since we met around the time yours took place, when you were playing with Polly, I know how spot on they are. Thank you brother!!

  • Tony G

    wonderful story, and your last 2 words summed it up perfectly, Gentleman genius

  • Ro Favilla

    A great moment with a great a complete artistic human being, who’s left to us all a vaste artcrafted legacy, which still have much to furfill our souls and the next generation’s ones. thanks for sharing it.

  • Gary Hicks

    Great story Joe, thank you for sharing it. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that he’s gone. Such a loss. I have an unfortunate connection to your David Bowie / Reeves Gabrels cover story. I’m featured in the Fretwire column of that same issue, but unfortunately the blurb is about my priceless guitar being stolen, it still hasn’t been recovered all these years later. Just another sense of loss without resolve, much like the one we all feel today. Thanks again for sharing the story, how great that both you and Elise got to experience that with him.

  • Big Dave

    It is really nice to hear about stars that are good people to be around.

  • joe

    Did anyone love Bowie as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige as much as I did?

  • Randy

    Great memories, Joe, thanks for sharing that. Very gratifying to hear how unpretentious he was, as one of our iconic rock legends.
    I had to laugh at the “OHMYGODI’MTALKINGTODAVIDBOWIE” comment.

  • Katherine C. James

    Thank you for this. The person you describe meeting in San Francisco is exactly Bowie as I imagine him. I’m happy to know he was a gentleman genius. I also agree with Elise: Truly charismatic people give off energy and drain energy. Spending time with a charismatic person is like spending time with the sun.

  • el reclusa

    Thanks for sharing, Joe. I don’t know many people who had brushes with Bowie, but the very few who have, have all described a sort of otherworldly warmth. I still can’t fathom that his passing is even possible- I just imagined he’d kind of go on forever.

    What I wouldn’t give to hear what the PJH band plus Bowie would’ve been like!

  • That’s so cool he retracted his arch comment about another band. So graceful of him to not offend others. Truly a good soul.

  • Joel

    Great stories. Damn, he & PJ could have sounded pretty great together!

    I loved him as Tesla too.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Fred

    Great stories, I still have that GP copy from June ’97. The Earthling album when I first heard it, I thought was the future of guitar. (I’m not a purist) I loved that it was practically a demo for the VG-8 and the best $50 I spent was for Reeves’ VG-8 patches long ago. I’m listening to Seven Years in Tibet as I type.
    But the funniest line was when the sammiches arrived…”Look David you got Ham,” say Reeves. “I’d rather be a ham than a turkey,” sniffs David. Priceless!!!
    And that opening image of Bowie seeming to be screaming in Reeves ear!!!
    p.s. Bowie as Tesla was a huge highlight of The Prestige!

  • Fred

    sorry, I thought the choice of uploaded JPG was for the avatar next to my name not for the post.
    My black cat next to black Les Paul, oops.

  • Coley Caldwell

    I still have the issue of Guitar Player that featured your interview with Bowie and Gabrels. It was for the Earthling album. I remember it in detail. It even had a diagram of Reeves’ Roland VG-8 set up haha. Without a doubt it was the most fascinating interview I ever read in a guitar magazine

  • Tom Curl

    What great recollections of a special artist and a special person. Very nice work, Joe. Thanks to Lobosky for posting about this and getting my attention.

  • Jake Modica

    One of the greatest things about his turn in The Prestiege is that everyone I’ve ever mentioned it to says “THAT WAS DAVID BOWIE????!!!”

  • John Williams

    Nice tribute to the wonderful Bowie. His brilliant early to mid 70s period is rivaled by few, ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Ziggy…’ being personal faves.

    For accuracy’s sake, I believe there were a couple of guest guitarist spots on ‘Diamond Dogs’ by Earl Slick and session ace Alan Parker.

    What a blast it must have been to hang with him!

  • Joe

    My dear friend and sometime musical collaborator Dmitra Dawn captured herself in a remarkable Bowie fan image.

  • Jimbok

    Thank you, Joe, for sharing your experience. Although I, personally, would have thought “everything else was like HOLYF-KOHMYGOD I’MF-INGTAKINGTODAVIDBOWIE”.

    Brooks Bell: That link’s sketch was absolutely hilarious.

  • What a lovely write-up. Thank you, Joe!

  • What a great read. Thanks Joe!

  • NiagaraTim

    correction: it’s The Man Who SOLD the World not “Stole the World” and sad to hear of passing of your starman friend.. He’s gone back up and roaming the heavens once again.. If you look up in the starry night sky, you can clearly see his Blackstar shining the brightest..

  • Steve Barr

    Great recollections of the man and a fine cover/tribute of “Heroes”!
    Just letting you know that a whole bunch of us up Toronto ways have been following your progress since you gave Guitar Player mag. a nice kick in the pants.
    Keep it up Sir, yer one o’ the good one, who is always worth a listen.

  • Wonderful remembrance, Mr. Gore. If you could kindly indulge a tech question re: your equally fab “‘Heroes'” rendition: what tuning are you using? Such a deeo tone def. suits that song.

  • Wonderful remembrance, Mr. Gore. If you could kindly indulge a tech question re: your equally fab “‘Heroes'” rendition: what tuning are you using? Such a deep tone def. suits that song.

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