Though I’ve been a Bowie fan for just about as long as I’ve been a sentient human being (thanks, Dad!), I’ve only seen him live once and it was on this tour. My favorite moment, oddly enough, was the very beginning, seeing him come on stage and thinking “that’s really him!” My favorite musician, live and in the flesh.
Of course, there’s a big difference between a live show and a live album, in as much as there’s a big difference between having sex and watching Internet pornography. Oh sure, with the latter you have the option of skipping to the good stuff, but I’m sure most folks would go with the former any day. I’m not going to carry that awful metaphor any further, but you get my point. At best, a live album is a handy (heh) substitute for the real thing, getting all the moves right but rarely in a way that you actually feel it.
True to form, A Reality Tour is nowhere near as exciting as seeing these songs being performed on stage, but it does serve as a satisfying conclusion to the latest (though hopefully not last) phase in Bowie’s career, giving it a sense of closure that the actual Reality album didn’t. It’s rare to hear a man in his mid 50s performing like a young man at the top of his game, but Bowie genuinely sounds like he’s having a blast. The band, too, is in fighting form. Particular credit must go to guitarist and bandleader Gerry Leonard, whose off-kilter contributions neatly fill the shoes of such wild cards as Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, and Reeves Gabrels.
What’s most interesting about this set, truth be told, is how good the recent songs sound alongside their classic counterparts. “The Loneliest Guy,” once a blip on Reality‘s radar, now becomes one of the highlights of the show, a moody showcase for Bowie’s gorgeous, near-operatic vocals. Likewise, “Sunday” (from 2002’s Heathen) is elevated to new heights by a clenched-fist-to-the-gut guitar solo from Earl Slick. The real highlight, though, is a completely stripped-down version of “Loving the Alien” that replaces the cathedral-sized excess of the original with an intimate, yearning quality that’s practically heartbreaking. And if this all sounds too dour for you, there’s a whole bunch of Ziggy songs at the end designed to send everyone home happy. That’s rock and roll, that’s entertainment, that’s David Bowie, and that’s all. Until the next encore.
In conjunction with this album’s release, I was able to chat with longtime Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and pick her brains about life on the road with David Bowie.
It seems to me that even when Bowie wasn’t acting out a specific character, he really did have a tendency to emphasize some radically different aspects of his persona with each release. Did you find his personality would shift with these different musical phases, or was most of that just the public image?
I think public image, really. I mean, I never saw him going into any kind of character as he progressed through different albums. He just was himself, which is a very lovely and funny and intelligent man. But I think that it’s not so much a public display, but that he does it as part of the art of whatever he’s working on, just a visual thing for the heck of it. Whatever he’s creating has its own concept so I think he just kinda works within that and he’s 100% true to the origins of what he’s creating.
Although he definitely seemed to be drawing more on his own past once Tony Visconti returned to the fold, at least in terms of the kind of music he was writing. Any thoughts on past Bowie bassists? Was there anyone that stood out for you?
Well, I think everybody that’s been involved in any of those bands has been pretty incredible. My personal favourite is from the Young Americans period, I think Willie Weeks was the bass player. He just happens to be one of my favorite bass players.
Well, Bowie had an amazing band for that album.
Oh yeah. That’s my favourite Bowie album of all time. I dunno, I wasn’t a huge Bowie fan as a youngster. I liked his singing, I still think he is one of the greatest vocalists of all time, I mean, right up there with Tony Bennett or Sinatra or Elvis or… anyone who someone would consider a great singer. He’s just an unbelievable singer, that was something I always liked. I liked a certain period of his records but I wasn’t an aficionado.
Well, that does lead me to my next question. I’ve seen people ask you about your influences on bass, but what are some of your vocal influences?
For me, I love Olivia Newton-John. That’s, kinda, my favourite era of music really is that ’70s pop thing. Male vocalists would be David, definitely. Freddie Mercury, of course. Incredible. Vince Gill, beautiful singer. Great voice. Those are the vocalists that I really, really like. I love Streisand, Judy Garland… Bette Midler, she’s a great singer.
I have to ask about… THAT version of “Under Pressure,” which I believe goes as far back as the Outside tour. How did that originally come about, and was it intimidating to be filling Freddie Mercury’s shoes?
Oh, absolutely. Number one, Queen is my favourite band of all time — I don’t think that David even knew that when he first approached me about doing the song. So that was pretty crazy for me. It did happen on the Outside tour, actually, he came into the dressing room after one of our shows and just kind of said to me: “What do you think about doing a duet with me on ‘Under Pressure’?” I think he first asked me if I saw him do it with Annie Lennox on the Freddie Mercury tribute at Wembley Stadium. And I said yes, of course I did, and he said “well would you maybe like to try her version?” And I just… I didn’t think it was gonna be possible! I mean, to play the bass and do it at the same time, I really didn’t, but at that time, I was so new in the band so, kind of, in awe and frightened. [laughs]
I remember you saying it took you a while to get comfortable within the band for the first couple of years. I mean, when do you think you sort of… came into your own?
I think it was maybe on the Earthling tour, which was two years into me being involved and was the only album that I’m ever really actually playing bass on. That album grew out of the Outside tour once the band stripped down a little bit from that tour and it became the sorta-four-piece (well, with David, five-piece).
It was interesting because it was really split down the middle in terms of electronic instruments and organic live band stuff. Was the drum-and-bass element difficult to adapt to or was it just another one of Bowie’s transformations?
It was just another one of his transformations, I think every album that I’ve been able to tour with in my 12-13 years being there… every one was an adventure, you know? You never knew what was coming from the next one to the next. For me, I think I felt comfortable by the time of Earthling, because that was something I was kind of a participant in in terms of making that record and, kind of, being involved in that drum-and-bass transition.
And you’re working with [Earthling drummer] Zachary Alford again right now, eh?
I am, actually, yeah! We’ve just been doing a little project, just a little something fun that, uh, we don’t even have a name for it yet. I’ve done several things with him outside of Bowie. We did two Gwen Stefani tours together, we were her rhythm section from 2005 to 2007. And I’ve done a few projects with him in France as well. We work together a lot and we’re doing a little fun band that’s a local group right now, up here in Woodstock, New York. You’re in Montréal, right?
Yup! I’m in Montréal, Québec, Canada. Out of curiosity, how much contact have you had with Bowie and the band since the end of the Reality tour?
Well, I get e-mails from time to time and most of the band members live in this area so I see them… I don’t really see them that much, but… you know, e-mails, occasionally remembering birthdays, holidays, that kinda thing. Everybody’s pretty busy doing…
Their own thing.
Their own thing.
I mean it seems like, at the time, the Reality touring band was a pretty tight-knit bunch. Could you have seen that particular lineup lasting longer had the tour not ended the way it did?
I guess so, yeah! It’s hard to say, you know, I always feel like a solo artist who is not really, like, a member of a band who changes his or her band over the years is like a painter just deciding different colors for a picture. I’ve always felt like, every time one tour or whatever project I was working on with him was over, that that was it for me! You know, maybe next time I won’t come back! So I was always grateful for the time that I was able to be a part of it. Even doing one show with him would’ve been an incredible experience in my life, you know, let alone having a wonderful opportunity to work with him for so many years. I mean, put it this way: I know he was very happy with the lineup as it ended up for the Reality tour. I had been there through a few different lineups and I knew that he was probably most comfortable with that band. And I mean, of course, when I received this new CD I just could not believe how great we sounded! And I’m very critical of myself, I’m always looking for the flaws instead of looking for the good things! [laughter]
Well, I think that’s typical of a lot of musicians and artists.
Yeah, but I listened to this and I actually… had a tear in my eye! Sort of, “wow, this is… this is good stuff” and I’m so proud to be a part of it, I can’t even believe it. Can’t believe it’s me! [laughs]
On the subject of the tour, how much freedom were you given in terms of the song arrangements? Were there any songs where you were essentially given free rein to do your own thing?
Well, our musical director was Gerry Leonard, the guitarist, and he was in charge of kinda wrangling everybody and getting the songs into shape. I would say… each individual musician was able to do what they needed to do for their part but, you know, I think for any good songwriter you just have to serve the song, and the songs were all so brilliant. From the brand-new songs to the old songs, it didn’t matter. I think everything he writes is spectacular, miles above most writing. But you know, he said to me at one point that it’s kind of like a director casting a movie. If you get the right people in the right role, you don’t even really have to do anything. The talent lies not even in directing someone in how to do something, the talent lies in picking the right person to know that what they do, in conjunction with the other members, is going to create the magic. That’s how he puts his bands together. And so, we really could be who we were. I don’t think he had any lack of confidence and there were very few times we had any direction from him other than something he specifically might’ve wanted, like a certain riff he might’ve heard that wasn’t being played. Otherwise, we would work things out with Gerry and… listen to the record.
So I guess it was true of most tours, then, that a lot of it came down to the natural dynamic between the musicians.