Released: 15 September 2003
Gerry Leonard: guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Mike Garson: piano
Sterling Campbell: drums
‘The Loneliest Guy’ is the fourth song on Reality, David Bowie’s 25th solo studio album.
It was partly inspired by Brasília, the federal capital of Brazil, although Bowie’s perception of urban decay in the city was inaccurate.
That song is a very despairing piece of work – a guy qualifying his entirely hermetic, isolated existence by saying, “Actually I’m a lucky guy. I’m not really alone – I just have myself to look after.” But in setting up the analogy of the city taken over by weeds, there is this notion that our ideas are inhabited by ghosts and that there’s nothing in our philosophy – that all the big ideas are empty containers.
I keep touching on something that I am awfully scared of: the prospect that there really is no meaning to anything. I was trying to avoid it like crazy on this album, but it did slip into that song. I had this image of Brasília – it seemed to be the perfect standard for an empty godless universe. I think it’s the most extraordinary city: these huge public squares with these 1950s, 1960s kind of sci-fi buildings. The architect Oscar Niemeyer [Soares] designed all these places thinking that they were going to be filled with millions of people, and now there are about 200,000 people living there, so the weeds and the grass are growing back up through the stones of this brilliantly modernistic city. It’s a set of ideas – the city – which is being taken back over again by the jungle.
Interview magazine, October 2003
By 2003 Bowie was happily married and domesticated, a father to his young daughter Lexi, and living in New York. Yet he remained attuned to the alienation many felt with the modern world, and channeled some of those thoughts into ‘The Loneliest Guy’.
Well, one thing that’s different [in recent years] is I don’t have that sense of loneliness that I had before, which was very, very strong. It became a subtext for a lot of things I wrote.
My priority is that I’ve stabilized my life to an extent now over these past 10 years. I’m very at ease, and I like it. I never thought I would be such a family-oriented guy; I didn’t think that was part of my makeup. But somebody said that as you get older you become the person you always should have been, and I feel that’s happening to me. I’m rather surprised at who I am, because I’m actually like my dad! [Laughs]
That’s the shock: All clichés are true. The years really do speed by. Life really is as short as they tell you it is. And there really is a God – so do I buy that one? If all the other clichés are true… Hell, don’t pose me that one.
On Reality, the song segues from ‘Never Get Old’, and the two tracks share a preoccupation with mortality and the preciousness of time.
What is very enlightening for me right now is that I sense that I’m arriving at a place of peace with my writing that I’ve never experienced before. I think I’m going to be writing some of the most worthwhile things that I’ve ever written in the coming years. I’m very confident and trusting in my abilities right now. But I’ve got to think of myself as the luckiest guy. Robert Johnson only had one album’s worth of work as his legacy. That’s all that life allowed him.
‘The Loneliest Guy’ was one of four Reality songs on which producer Tony Visconti played bass guitar.
Before the band came in, I’d played bass on all of the demos, and some of my bass parts eventually made it all the way to the album in preference to Mark Plati’s. This was the case on ‘New Killer Star’ – Mark had a go at it, but there was some kind of personality in my bass playing that David preferred, and the same applied to ‘The Loneliest Guy’, ‘Days’ and ‘Fall Dog Bombs The Moon’. It’s Mark’s bass on all of the other tracks, including the part that I wrote for ‘Looking For Water’.
Sound On Sound, October 2003
Mike Garson’s piano part was recorded on a synthesizer at Looking Glass Studios in Manhattan. He then took the MIDI file to his home studio in Bell Canyon in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, and recorded the results when played back through his nine-foot Yamaha Disklavier piano.
We recorded this album in Greenwich Village at Philip Glass’ studio. The piano was originally recorded on a Yamaha keyboard which I had given to David as a present. Here’s a great shot by Myriam Santos (@masklab) of David and I with that keyboard. #TimsTwitterListeningParty pic.twitter.com/bVHEVWQvWX
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) August 2, 2020
David told me a story connected with ‘The Loneliest Guy’, that there was this town built somewhere in Brazil, they spent years building this town and somehow no-one ever moved into it. He was some almanac of all kinds of trivial information. So I got this very dark piano sound and I played in the lower register and Gerry Leonard did this amazing ambient guitar playing with all kinds of noise and effects and I was able to play this stark piano part, very unshowoffy and very solemn, low on the piano. It’s a very underrated track.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
David Bowie performed ‘The Loneliest Guy’ on 94 occasions in 2003 and 2004, at the majority of shows on A Reality Tour.
It was first played on 8 September 2003 at London’s Riverside Studios, at a warm-up show the month before the tour began.
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) August 2, 2020
Bowie’s final performance of the song was on 25 June 2004 at the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel, Germany, his final tour date.
A recording of ‘The Loneliest Guy’ from Dublin’s Point Theatre in November 2003 was released on the A Reality Tour album and DVD.