It’s no surprise Earl Slick was in the middle of a tour when the first Covid lockdown began. The guitarist is, in his own words, “the biggest thug on the planet”, one of rock’s most famous sidemen: his association with David Bowie spans five decades; he’s played with everyone from John Lennon to The Cure to Carl Perkins.
This time he was playing in the UK with his friend Glen Matlock, which means he spent the first six months in confinement not living at his home in New York but in the former guest room at Sex Pistol. in London, an experience that he competently compares to the 1968 comedy The Strange Couple. Apparently, Matlock was the character of Jack Lemmon and Slick, Walter Matthau’s more laissez-faire character.
They put on live performances on Facebook, which, Slick notes, “probably had more comedic than musical value.” Between songs there was certainly a lot of staring at the camera and talking about whether or not it was on.
Called by video from his home in New York, he says he “lost a lot of concerts and a lot of money” because of the pandemic, but at least he had time to put the finishing touches on a solo album, Fistful of Devils , his first in 18 years. It’s instrumental – a stark contrast to 2003’s Zig Zag, which featured Def Leppard’s Bowie, Robert Smith, and Joe Elliott among its supporting cast. “But when I go out live, he notes, I always go out with a singer. When I’m on stage with a singer, all of my sideman tools are out of the box. Even though my name is on the marquee, the emphasis should be on the singer.
He was a 22-year-old musician when Bowie unexpectedly hired him in 1974, on the recommendation of a mutual friend. It was the chance of a lifetime and a baptism of fire. The Diamond Dogs tour he was scheduled to play unexpectedly changed so drastically halfway through that a fan remarked “it might as well have been a different artist.” came a magazine inspired by the soul. “I didn’t understand what was going on,” Slick said.
“I really didn’t. I really wasn’t into how it turned out. For me it turned out to be like a Vegas cabaret number. I might as well have been in a pit orchestra or something. It was quite weird. Who knew what he was thinking? And all of that happened in the first seven or eight months that I was working with him, so I learned very quickly that he could change with the wind, which happened until the end. There was always a curve; you never knew what was going to happen next.
He persevered, playing on Young Americans from 1975 despite his equivocal feelings about the Philadelphia soul that inspired him – “too popy and syrupy for me” – then Station to Station from 1976, which has it right. claim to be Bowie’s greatest work, and is home to some amazing performances by Slick: the dazzling, angular solo ending the title track and Stay’s funk-rock hybrid. Station to Station is also one of the great mysteries in rock history: how people get so crazy about drugs – Bowie then claimed he didn’t remember the recording sessions at all – come up with something so extraordinary, powerful and focused?
“Well, the way I did what I do on this record was no different than the way I did anything else, and my drinking and drug habits were no different either, so I was operating on my normal paradigm, you know? Slick shrugs. “David had gone crazy, but the rhythm section – Carlos Alomar, George Murray, Dennis Davis – didn’t absorb any of the silliness David and I did. If they’d been as fucked up as us, this record would’ve sucked. But we spent a lot of time together, me and David, doing my guitar overdubs and things, and we were able to work in those conditions pretty well. We were in our twenties. You can seriously injure yourself in your 20s and still record. I was only doing [drugs] for seven or eight years. You couldn’t take that amount of drugs for 25 years and think you’re going to make records. You’re not. ”He laughs.
“Unless you’re Keith Richards.”
After all this time, if this is what I was supposed to do, this is what I would do
Still, he says, the condition he and Bowie were in contributed to his departure from the group before the tour that followed. There had been issues with his contract, but Bowie’s management refused to tell the singer. When the couple reunited again for the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, “he found out that they hadn’t let me talk to him, and I found out he had no idea what was going on. was happening. Reminded me of the Elvis thing, man. The guy was so screwed up, and everyone around him was taking advantage of his money and hiding information from him that they didn’t want him to know ”.
Instead, Slick pursued his own band, recording a few underrated albums, before receiving a phone call from record producer Jack Douglas, inviting them to a mysterious recording session, which turned out to involve John. Lennon and Yoko Ono. Slick performed on their latest album, Double Fantasy, and Ono’s Season of Glass, an icy howl of grief and confusion recorded, unbelievably, three months after her husband’s murder “with exactly the same band, the same studio, the same engineer ”.
“And if that wasn’t strange enough, Phil Spector was producing, which was just the icing on the cake. He was mad. The guy was walking around with a bodyguard the size of a 12 ton truck and one of those Clint Eastwood .44 Magnums with the long barrel, in a shoulder holster. John had just been shot! How could he be so callous and ridiculous as walking in front of Yoko with that gun, eh?
“He had the control room completely turned off, the air conditioning below zero, and he spoke to us in the third person, ‘Tell the guitarist to do this… tell the bassist to do that.’ He was an asshole, a disrespectful side. One day, after about two weeks, I asked Yoko what time Spector was coming to the studio, and she replied, “He’s not. And you won’t see him again. It’s okay for me! Everything he did has been remade, and there is no trace of him on this record.
Despite his gleaming resume, Slick’s career has not been without lengths. There was, for example, the moment in the early ’90s, when – battered by a succession of’ ridiculously failed ‘projects, broke up and unable to find a decent sideman gig – he gave up music, moved to Lake Tahoe and decided to work normal. Embarrassed that he “didn’t have a working CV, zero – what am I going to write?” Former Employers: David Bowie, John Lennon, Capitol Records? – he found work as a timeshare salesperson. It must be said that Slick looks a lot more like a member of the New York Dolls (which he briefly was, in 2011) than someone you might consider buying a vacation home from, and it didn’t. not really worked.
“I did it for about four years. Selling timeshares – this has to be one of the most despicable things on the planet. You’re not selling them anything of value, and I knew it. So I didn’t do well. I made enough money to cringe.
He was unexpectedly rescued by another Tahoe resident, Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale. Slick turned down an offer to join Whitesnake, but ended up co-writing a coverdale blues solo album. “That didn’t make me come out saying, ‘Wow, I’m all revitalized now.’ This didn’t happen until I got this really weird and cryptic message. When I saw that the company was called Isolar and it had an area code for New York, I thought to myself : it looks like it has something to do with David Bowie. “
He ended up performing with Bowie again from 1999 until the singer retired from the stage in 2004. “Then he did his usual disappearance thing and we didn’t do anything for eight years until the next day in 2012. “
During the top-secret sessions of The Next Day, he noticed that Bowie “didn’t look so good-looking, didn’t look like himself, but he was prone to depression, and that” did I think it was ”. He was quickly disillusioned that there would be a subsequent tour. “We were sitting in the studio control room, listening [You Will] Set the World on Fire, and David says, “Man, that track would be great live.” I looked at him, but before I could even answer he said, “Don’t even think about it.”
Slick says he was as shocked as anyone when he heard on the news that Bowie had died of liver cancer. “We had known each other very well for a long time, but we didn’t get into each other’s personal stuff. We were friends when we worked, but in between it wasn’t like we called each other and went out for a cup of coffee or something.
He performed with Lorde at the 2016 Bowie Britons Tribute and toured briefly, with Bernard Fowler performing Station to Station in its entirety. The tour had been planned before Bowie’s death. “The last time I spoke to him was in September or October 2015. I walked past him and he said, ‘Great idea, Slicky. Having fun. ”“ But Slick refused to “take it to another level and come out for months and months,” and only played the dates that had been booked before Bowie died.
Instead, he immersed himself in his work with Matlock, which he hopes to resume next year. There is another solo album coming out – this time with vocals – and a UK tour in small venues with a British singer called Jesse Smith. “I don’t want this to turn into another Bowie tribute – I’m going to have to do a Bowie song or two, but that’s all I’m going to do.”
He’s clearly enthusiastic about concerts, but he’s still a die-hard sideman. “If Buddy Guy needed a second guitarist, I would take it and go on my own. Oh yes. I am very comfortable in the role of a sideman. People see it like you’re always a second violin, but I don’t see it that way: it’s about playing music instead of trying to be something I’m not. People tell me, ‘You’re so good at what you do, you should really be in front.’ You know what? After all this time, if this was what I was supposed to do, this is what I would do.
Fist Full of Devils released on Schnitzel Records