1978-79

David Bowie spent the early months of 1978 on a variety of projects. He starred in his second feature film, the critically-panned Just A Gigolo, and with Brian Eno co-produced Devo’s debut album Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!.

Bowie also took his son on safari in Kenya, from which he returned looking tanned and healthier than in years.

In February and March he assembled a band and conducted rehearsals for the Isolar II 1978 World Tour, which kicked off in San Diego on 29 March. The new recruits were guitarist Adrian Belew, violinist Simon House, pianist Sean Mayes, and synth player Roger Powell.

The tour was mostly positively received, and resulted in the live album Stage. After leaving North America it stopped in Europe and Australia before concluding in Japan on 12 December.

We were talking about the shape some of us were in. I told David it was good to see him looking healthier than he used to with a tan and not so skinny. He pinched a small fold of flesh on his sparse frame and made a face.

‘But I can’t be flabby!’ he complained. ‘One reviewer described me as “nearly plump”!’

Sean Mayes
Life On Tour With Bowie

Bowie was mostly drug-free during this time, although he continued to smoke heavily and drink alcohol. After a 24 May show in Paris, however, he succumbed to temptation and embarked on a cocaine binge, and stayed awake for the following 24 hours.

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In July, midway through the tour, Bowie and the live band recorded ‘Alabama Song’ at Tony Visconti’s London studio. This was a prelude to the Lodger sessions, which began with the same core musicians over two weeks in Montreux, Switzerland, in September 1978.

Bowie gave a series of interviews in early 1979, ostensibly to promote Just A Gigolo. One interview, with reporter Jean Rook, took place in London’s Dorchester Hotel on 13 February.

Today he looks 17. His undyed hair is pale brown and short-back-and-sides. The unmade-up face is guileless and spotless. In grey flannel bags, grey shirt and tasteful tie he looks like a public schoolboy. Or like Edward before he met Mrs Simpson. And looking like that after all he’s been through, Mr Bowie is even more terrifying. Interviewing him is like coming across a daisy in hell. How the hell does he do it, after all he says he’s done? And has he really been reborn a brand-new Persil-washed man overnight?

“Not overnight – it’s been a struggle,” said the one-time glittering, diamante, lipsticked superstar. “I hated the pop lifestyle but it’s hard to kick the habits of a lifetime. I’m learning to be happy. To go to bed at night instead of 5am and get up in the morning instead of halfway through the day. I’m painting pictures nobody wants to buy, but I love it. I’ve grown my hair back to mouse. I’m even practising walking down the street.” […]

Our undercover meeting took place in a hired private suite, later cleared of any trace of us. Down to the butts of the 60 cigarettes a day on which Mr Bowie is still hooked. How did he drag himself free of the deeper, more dangerous hooks which finally tore apart [Keith] Moon and [Sid] Vicious?

“I don’t really know what happened to them – their deaths were terrible. If I really knew that, I’d be one of them. I nearly was. I realised just in time that I was destroying myself,” said the man-god who claims he shocked himself even more than he electrified his audiences.

Daily Express, 14 February 1979

The final overdubs for Lodger were recorded in March 1979 at the Record Plant’s Studio D in New York City, where it was also mixed.

The location was far from ideal, and Tony Visconti remained dissatisfied with the results. He later said the album was made in “two uncomfortable studios” at a time when “cocaine was ubiquitous and naïvely abused”.

During one of the mixing sessions two groupies asked if they could be allowed inside the studio.

We were up for a laugh so we told them to wait for a few minutes. With a white grease pencil we drew four white lines on the black Formica panel of the recording console and put a newspaper over the lines. When the girls came in we took an instant dislike to them, but we were still eager to play our little trick on them. When we offered them a couple of ‘lines’ they were extremely enthusiastic. We carefully lifted the newspaper and gave the first girl a rolled-up dollar bill. She lowered her head to the lines, took a deep snort and couldn’t believe nothing went up her nose. She complained that she’d been overdoing cocaine recently but enthusiastically continued her attempts at getting a pencil line up her nose. We finally had to call it off because she just didn’t get it. After we explained the joke they left quickly.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Bowie may have been mostly clean by this point, but some of his former collaborators were not. This was brought into sharp focus on the night of 10 April 1979. Bowie had watched Lou Reed perform at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, and afterwards the two men and Reed’s band went to dinner at the Chelsea Restaurant.

They were up to dessert when writers Giovanni Dadomo (Sounds) and Allan Jones (Melody Maker) turned up. Arista press officer Howard Harding had brought them along at Reed’s behest after Reed saw Dadomo’s glowing preview of the concert in Time Out. After some friendly conversation the writers left Bowie, Reed and their companions to their Irish whiskeys. From their table they watched them laughing and talking about old times and toasting ‘to friends’. Then Reed’s guitarist Chuck Hammer heard Reed ask Bowie to produce his next album.

Bowie said, ‘Yes, if you clean up your act.’ Reed turned on Bowie, slapping him twice and shouting, ‘Don’t you EVER say that to me!’

Everything settled down for a few minutes when suddenly Reed again exploded with rage. ‘I told you NEVER to say that!’ he yelled as minders struggled to restrain him and eventually escort him blank-faced from the restaurant.

Melody Maker, 21 April 1979

Bowie had another encounter with a former Velvet Underground member on 5 October. This time it was with John Cale, and a more harmonious affair. The pair recorded at least two embryonic songs – known as ‘Piano-La’ and ‘Velvet Couch’ – with Bowie singing and Cale on piano. The two songs were later bootlegged.

The session, which took place at New York’s Clarbis Studios, was not considered a success; Cale later put it down to their excessive lifestyles, although he did not reveal whether through drink, drugs, or other forces.

When we did that bootleg, it was like the good old bad old days. We were partying very hard. It was exciting working with him, as there were a lot of possibilities and everything, but we were our own worst enemies at that point…

Did I ever want to produce Bowie? After spending time with him, I realised the answer was no. The way we were then would have made it too dangerous. Nowadays it would be different, though. He could improvise songs very well, which was what that bootleg was all about. The great thing about when we met and then started hanging out in the ’70s was that he would say [puts on thick Welsh accent] ‘That’s Dai Jones from Wales, isn’t it?’ He loved all that. That set us off. We got along really well, but most of what we were doing was just partying.

John Cale
Uncut, June 2008