Adrian Belew’s credentials for participating in the Celebrating David Bowie Tour — which comes to the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, Oct. 27, and Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City, Oct. 29 — couldn’t be much stronger.
Not only did the wildly inventive guitarist perform on Bowie tours in the late ’70s — immediately after a stint with Frank Zappa — and in 1990, but he was also the musical director for the ’90 tour. He also appeared on Bowie’s 1979 Lodger album, and Bowie made vocal and songwriting contributions to two songs from Belew’s 1990 album Young Lions, including the single “Pretty Pink Rose” (watch video below).
This is the third Celebrating David Bowie tour, following ones in 2017 and 2018. Other performers at the New Jersey shows will include singer-guitarists Todd Rundgren, Royston Langdon of Spacehog, Angelo “Scrote” Bundini and Jeffrey Gaines, with the band rounded out by saxophonist Ron Dziubla, bassist Angeline Saris and drummer Michael Urbano.
I spoke to Belew — who has also worked with King Crimson, Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails and others and been a prolific solo artist in the course of his long career — by phone in mid-September, before the tour started.
Q: You’ve done a few of these tours before. Will this tour be significantly different in any way?
A: Well, they’re all different because we have different lineups every time, and we do different material. It’s based on who’s in the band, which is brought about by our producer (Bundini). We have five different singers, so each of us specializes in different areas of songs that we can sing and that helps determine a lot of the show a lot as well.
Q: Are you asked what songs you want to do, or does (Bundini) say, “Let’s do these songs. Who wants to sing them?”
A: He has worked with me extensively, each tour we’ve done. So we’ve worked through what I can and can’t do, or should and shouldn’t do.
For this tour, we have Todd Rundgren, of course, on board … there’s at least, I think, four songs — maybe five, even — that Todd and I sing together, either him singing lead and me singing harmony or us trading off, as in “Heroes” or in “Pretty Pink Rose.” He’ll be doing David’s parts and I’ll be singing my parts from the (“Pretty Pink Rose”) record, just as I did with David.
Q: Is this your first time working with Rundgren?
A: No. When we did our last Celebrating David tour, which I think was 2018, the last thing we did is, we played two concerts in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Todd came along for those. And then I think from that, Todd decided that he really enjoyed it and wanted to do more.
Q: But before that, there were no other projects with him?
A: I had not worked with him; we’ve known each other forever. Also, since (2018), he and I co-wrote a song together for his new record, which is coming out, and the song is already available to hear online. It’s called “Puzzle.” (Note: “Puzzle” is on Rundgren’s Space Force album, which came out on Oct. 14.)
Q: Before you started working with Bowie, were you a fan of his? Was he a big influence on you?
A: Yeah. You know, before I did anything of note, I was in a lot of cover bands. And yes, we played Bowie songs a lot. I played songs like “Heroes” or “Rebel Rebel” or things like that. I knew some of his catalog, not all of it. I was very familiar with Young Americans because I was in a band or two that played some of those songs. I knew the Low and Heroes albums.
I was driving in my little Volkswagen up 21st Avenue South here in Nashville, in my broken down Volkswagen, and I heard “Heroes” for the first time, come on the radio, and I was really loving the song. And then 18 months later, I was playing it onstage with David Bowie.
Q: When you left Zappa to play with Bowie, did you see that as a temporary thing: that you you were just working with him for a while and might go back to Zappa? Or did you see it as a permanent split?
A: Originally, the offer that David made to me was a four-month tour. And Frank had told the band that when our tour finished, he was going to rent an editing suite and edit the “Baby Snakes” movie, and that would take three to four months. So when the offer came from David, I went to Frank and let him decide. I said, “You know, I could either go out with David now or I could stay on retainer with you and wait until you start (touring) again,” and he told me that I should go with David.
Q: Did you ever cross paths with Zappa again, or was that it?
A: From that moment on, every time I went to L.A., I would go up and see Frank. I kept on really good terms with him and I would always go up to his house and he would show me all the new changes in the house, because they were constantly building his studio. It took years to complete that. He called it his construction site, not his house. So we kept in touch, and occasionally I would send him one of my solo records or something like that, for him to check out. But the touring with David went on for a year and a half instead of four months. By then, Frank had another band and had gone in a different direction.
Q: Do you feel almost a responsibility or a sense of mission to keep Bowie’s music out there, to play it in concert and keep it in people’s consciousness?
A: Well, I think when this idea (for Celebrating David Bowie) first began and I was asked to be a part of it, that was certainly an aspect to it. I thought, “Well, I would do anything to return what David gave me.” But now, having done it a couple of times, I do it more for the audience, to be honest. I know there’s a lot of people who didn’t get to see me with David, or missed him entirely, or people who are just wishing that they could have that music in a concert again. So I feel compelled to do it.
I don’t think I could do it over and over forever. My primary thing right now is my solo work, especially since I’ve just completed my 25th record called Elevator (released this summer), and that’s what comes first for me. But I think every artist — Todd, I’m sure, feels the same — puts their music first. And then you find other things that still interest you, like me and Jerry Harrison doing (concerts devoted to the Talking Heads album) Remain in Light again or, in this case, celebrating David’s music.
Q: It’s ironic because, for that tour you did with Bowie in 1990, he said that he was retiring his classic songs, and they would never be played again. Then, of course, he kept playing them, and now you’re still playing them.
A: Yeah, that was the idea. I thought it was kind of a curious idea. I understood what he was doing, at the time. He really wanted to do Tin Machine and be in an avant-garde kind of pop band. But as we know, history shows that didn’t last that long and he went back to what he had done before, which is the right thing to do, I think. When you have such a vast catalog like that, I think it’s only fair that you dip into it, as I do with my material. I’ve got 25 solo records and all the King Crimson records, and The Bears, to choose from. That’s a lot of music. So I do the same. Every tour, I choose something different and see what’s working for what we’re doing then. It’s the same thing that David would do.
Q: So what else is in your plans now, besides this tour?
A: I’m looking at a lot of different things for next year. This tour ends in the middle of November and I’m not going to do anything beyond that for the rest of the year. I’m going to go back and start recording the next record. I’ve already recorded seven songs for the next solo record, so I want to continue with that process. And I have a lot of songs written, and ready to be finished. And then, I’m sure next year, I will do some touring with my trio again and complete that because we only did really the East Coast (this year). So we have a lot of the U.S. and Canada left to do.
Beyond that, I don’t know. There’s talk of other things to do with the Talking Heads band, or the Celebrating David Bowie band. There’s also some other ideas that I’ve floated out there with some people and we’ll see which of them come to fruition.
Q: When you say the Talking Heads band, I assume you mean the thing with Harrison.
A: Yeah, the 10-piece Remain in Light band. I don’t know how any of these things will turn out, at this point. It’s all down to who’s doing what and economics and available dates and so many other things that are out of my control. But I’ve left the door open to see what happens. And every year surprises me (laughs). I rarely ever have a plan.
Q: If there was one thing that you could tell people about David Bowie from working with him and knowing him … what would you want people to know?
A: Well, I think people should know that David never took the whole thing that seriously. If you really knew him, he kind of made fun of his own stardom, a little bit. I think people probably realize that he loved to find new things to be interested in. And when he did find something new, he would exhaust the subject. And so, he took in a lot of knowledge, and then the thing he was so great at, of course, was taking those different bits of knowledge and synthesizing them into something new for himself.
He was insatiable in that way. He always loved to keep changing: changing his music, his look, his whole thing. I think that’s what makes him so unique. He was basically rock’s chameleon. And as a person, he was very intelligent, very fun to be around.
He’s a rare, rare person. I’ve never met anyone else like him.
For more information, visit celebratingdavidbowie.com.
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