Whenever the “who’s the greatest Bowie guitarist” debate arises (typically by dudes), there are few contenders. Mick Ronson, architect of Bowie’s breakthrough. Carlos Alomar, ultimate right-hand man. Adrian Belew, Reeves Gabrels and Robert Fripp: instigators. That’s pretty much the lot.
It’s rare for someone to argue for Earl Slick, despite his pedigree—hot Young Turk on the Diamond Dogs tour, adding guts to the Lennon tracks on Young Americans, being the linchpin of Station to Station. Called back for the Serious Moonlight tour, and the mainstay of the last Bowie tours and albums. Slick is one of the last remaining ties to Bowie’s past: of the players on The Next Day, only he and Tony Visconti had worked with Bowie in the Seventies.
So why doesn’t he get his due? Maybe he never shed the “hired gun” label (he had to fill Ronson’s shoes in 1974 and was drafted as a last-minute replacement for Stevie Ray Vaughan on the 1983 tour). Or that he’s not considered a bandleader in the way that Ronson, Alomar and Gabrels were. Some critics and fans have argued he lacks a signature sound. You can hear a few notes of Ronson and Alomar and likely place them, but what defines Earl Slick?
This gives him too little credit. Slick’s playing has a distinctive tone, a bluesy, swaggering sensibility: there’s an attitude in his string bends (only Ronson could wring more out of his bends) and pick attacks; he seems hell-bent on making his amplifiers smoke. John Lennon got Slick for the Double Fantasy sessions because “he wanted one street guy in there” among the studio aces, and Bowie regarded Slick in much the same way, as a fearless “blue-collar” guitarist who wasn’t plagued by good taste. Slick’s peak was “Station to Station,” where his regiments of overdubbed guitars created a sound that even Belew struggled to reproduce on stage.
Slick grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Kicking around in a few NYC bands in the early Seventies, Slick met the composer/arranger Michael Kamen, who hired him as a roadie and then as a guitarist. Kamen, chosen as bandleader for the Diamond Dogs tour, suggested Bowie consider Slick as a lead player. “I went down to RCA Studios to meet him, they stuck a set of headphones on me, turned on some Diamond Dogs mixes and told me to play along,” Slick recalled in 2003. “They didn’t even tell me what fuckin’ key they were in.” He got the gig.
Within months, though, he was on the outs. Bowie reconfigured the tour in September 1974 to reflect his new “soul” music and Slick now had to share the stage with a rival guitarist, Alomar, and a new vocal chorus, and tackle songs that Bowie hadn’t even released yet. “I thought I was important to the thing but I’m starting to feel like a fuckin’ throwaway,” he told Bowie biographers the Gilmans in the mid-Eighties. “David had gone completely in a direction I didn’t like.” Slick realized he’d only hung onto his job “because they needed me for the rock material.”
So Station to Station became Slick and Alomar battling for control, each overdubbing the other, each trying to outplay the other. Alomar, who’d assembled a rhythm section he was in sync with, had pole position; Slick, who’d made the strategic blunder of signing with Bowie’s soon-to-be-estranged new manager, was outside, trying to knife his way in. The title track, “TVC 15,” “Golden Years” and “Stay” are the records of their battles—Alomar sparring with one of his endless catchy riffs, Slick retaliating with massive chords and feedback concertos.
Slick was gone before the 1976 tour. In the Eighties he was a session man and leader of his own sub-super group, Phantom, Rocker & Slick. In the Nineties, he cleaned up and burned out. “Every time I got called to do anything, or when anybody was going to get involved with me, it was for that—more of the same,” he told Billboard in 2003. “And I remember going onstage doing another, yet one more blues rock solo, and just thinking, ‘Man, this is not fun.’ And at the time, I don’t think I was conscious of whether I was bored with what I was doing, with that kind of guitar playing, or if I just started hating music. I didn’t know where I was at.”
So he quit. Moved to Lake Tahoe with his Newfoundlands, stayed off the grid for years. When he put up his own website, around 1999, he got back on Bowie’s radar. The story was that Bowie, who was spending hours on the Internet at the time, did the usual thing: he wondered “hey, whatever became of Slick?” and typed his name into AltaVista. And so Bowie (or a staffer) discovered Slick was living in the High Sierras. Around New Year 2000, an email invitation was sent to Slick’s webmaster, and Slick went to New York to, yet again, step in for a departing lead guitarist: in this case, Reeves Gabrels. Slick played on Bowie’s 2000 mini-tour, and has been on every Bowie album and tour since.
It helped that Bowie was reviving many of his Seventies rockers on stage and that the new songs from Heathen and Reality suited Slick’s style—Bowie wasn’t asking him to do many drum ‘n’ bass numbers. Slick also had cooled down. “I don’t like using my chops anymore. It bores me,” he told Vintage Guitar. “I approached David Bowie’s stuff a lot differently way back than I do now. I’m playing less, but I think my playing is a lot more intense and I’m playing more to the sound of things. I’m playing simpler and a little more thematic, and a lot less jammy and bluesy than I used to. Because I write so much now, I’m approaching the songs more like a songwriter.”
Invigorated by working on Bowie’s albums and tours, Slick in 2001 began planning his first solo album in over a decade. Originally he was going to make an instrumental record, using fellow Bowie sideman Mark Plati as producer, but he didn’t have the stomach to cut a “noodling” album, as lead guitarists usually produce. (“I’ve never been that much of a heavy noodler anyway,” he said.) Instead, Zig Zag started as Slick’s attempts at writing incidental music for films, keeping his tracks concise and melodic. “The album was almost like making a demo to get scoring jobs.”
But Slick had racked up admirers over the years, so he soon had Robert Smith singing on one track, and Joe Elliott, Royston Langdon (Spacehog) and Martha Davis (the Motels) were also on board. Bowie not-quite-subtly invited himself. “He overheard a conversation I was having with [Plati]… and said, ‘I guess you’re not interested in me maybe doing a little something on the record,‘” Slick recalled.
Each guest singer had provided their top melodies and lyrics, and Bowie did the same. His contribution, “Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary),” which Slick described as “pensive,” came after Slick sent Bowie “seven really rough pieces” and he picked one. Once the track was properly recorded, Bowie came to Looking Glass Studios (during the recording of Reality in early 2003) to cut his typically quick-take vocal. “He asked what I thought about the ending and I said, “Well, what if you tried this on the harmony…,” Slick recalled. “It was fucking weird giving him direction! I was stepping back from myself the whole time, like there was one of me at the console and one of me just watching everything in the room.”
The result was a track that, unlike some other Bowie side-project contributions, was worthy of his own albums. Bowie’s lyrics and melodies are in line with the somber theatricals of Heathen and Reality, with some striking lines (“one dies on the lawn/his face turned away from it all“). The track’s final-curtain mood makes “Isn’t It Evening” another end point for a professional life that, unknown to all concerned, was about to go on hiatus for a decade.
So here’s to the perennially-underrated Earl Slick: say what you’d like, but he outlasted ’em all.
Recorded: (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, ca. February 2003; (guitars, backing tracks) ca. late 2002, early 2003, Looking Glass. Released 9 December 2003 on Zig Zag (Sanctuary 06076-84671).
Top: Camilio Vergara, “‘Satan, you are not longer my Lord,’ Outdoor service of the New Creation Ministry, Sutter Ave., Brooklyn, 2003.”