Tony Visconti Part 2 (The Encores)

Interviews, by phone or in person, generally top out at 45 minutes, an hour. Anything going longer demands either a recess or a follow-up, or else both parties start getting fidgety. File it under the theory that focused concentration requires some sort of reset every 60 minutes.

Tony Visconti, record producer to the stars, spoke lovingly about his latest charge, Real Animal Alejandro Escovedo, for just over a half-hour on the morning of June 10, after which our phoner was more of less done. Wrapping, I asked him if I could lob a couple more questions. Really, with someone of Visconti’s stature, you could elicit music history ‘til Elvis comes back for a snack, but that’s why last year he set his autobiography down in print. Bowie, Bolan, and the Brooklyn Boy produces enough rock & roll sound bites to satisfy Hall of Fame war-story quotas. Milton Berle’s foot-long certainly stands out….

Which left me with one burning inquiry about the album that could well become David Bowie’s Tattoo You – his final masterpiece – 2002’s Visconti-helmed Heathen, and of course a general prompting about a personal pet obsession. Tony was only too happy to oblige. As T. Rex once titled one of his Visconti productions, Tanx.

Will Bowie ever make another album as good as Heathen?

Well… that’s hard to say. It depends on how motivated he is. Lately, I think he’s been kind of disillusioned – like everyone – with the state of the record business. He’s saying, “Why bother to make a video? Why bother, why bother?” I think Bowie’s the kind of artist who will write something if he knows he has an audience there. He won’t just pick up a guitar and sing to himself. He’s certainly one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s so smart, so creative, but he really has to be motivated to make an album like that and he was on fire during the Heathen album.

Is that because you guys had been reunited after many years? Why is that album so good?

That’s one of the reasons. We’re really old friends as you know from the book. We had a falling out over the years; it was over a misunderstanding – something I said in an interview. When we spoke to each other after the 17 years of silence, it was as if not a single day went by. We picked up our conversation where we left off. We work very, very well in the studio together. There’s a synastry that’s amazing. We’ll look at each other and wordlessly someone will pick up a guitar and either him or me will start creating. It’s a great relationship and I think he missed that.

And I’ll tell you why: because I know him 40 years and he feels comfortable with me. Say if someone like Mark Ronson worked with Bowie tomorrow. Mark Ronson would be in awe of Bowie and he wouldn’t actually give him any feedback. He would just build a track around any mistake Bowie made. Whereas I don’t like the mistakes and I’ll say so.

Is it overstating things to say Heathen’s as good as any of Bowie’s classics?

[Emphatically] No, no! I think it is one of his classics. It’s definitely there. It’s one of the best albums he’s made in years. And it’s one that I listen to. I listen to that one. I listen to Lodger, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters, The Man Who Sold the World. These are favorites. If I didn’t produce them, I’d listen to them anyway. They’re just magical records.

In going through Bowie’s catalog, it was clear that out of all the great albums, it was either you or Ken Scott producing. I’m wondering if you have a sense of him specifically going to you for one album and then saying, “Okay, I’m gonna need Ken for this one.” How did he choose between the two of you?

You’re absolutely right. I call it the “leapfrog” syndrome. First of all, he collaborates with people. He’s incredibly inventive and creative, but he loves the situation where he can bounce off somebody. He loves that. He’s not a dictator surprisingly. People imagine him being some kind of a Svengali, some kind of dictatorial person, but he’s very easygoing in the studio. And if he’s comfortable with a collaborator, like Brian Eno for instance, he creates magical music.

He also doesn’t like to get complacent. I know that once he did something great with me, he’d worry about repeating himself. He doesn’t like repeating himself. Take Nile Rodgers for instance. When they made that album Black Tie, White Noise, Nile Rodgers rubbed his hands together and said, “Okay, let’s make Let’s Dance 2.” And Bowie said, “Oh no! I’m not going to do that ever.” Nile didn’t understand that about David. David has to do something completely different every time he steps in the studio. By not using me, he will also accomplish that. Then by leapfrogging – jumping over me – going to another producer and coming back to me again, both of us will have fresh ideas.

I hate hearing that Bowie and Visconti will never revisit Berlin!

Well, he’ll go to Afghanistan next time! That’s your answer to that. Berlin’s so yesterday, so five minutes ago [laughing].

Have you been there recently?

I have. It really is a very ordinary city now that the wall isn’t there. Cause my very first experience was working in a walled city in an occupied zone. It doesn’t get better than that.

The anecdote in your book about Bowie looking out the window and seeing you kissing your girlfriend against the wall and then writing that into a song is priceless.

Ah, that was great.

Similarly, with Thin Lizzy, are there better albums in that catalogue than Live and Dangerous and Black Rose?

Uh, well, Bad Reputation! They are really three great Lizzy albums. Bono told me that U2 listened to Live and Dangerous all the time. That was their education, their primer. He said, “We studied that album. That’s what made us into a rock band.” That’s an album that I didn’t think much of at the time, but looking back, and from all the emails I still get about [producing] it, it really was a groundbreaking album.

I would imagine that over the years you’ve had a legion of Thin Lizzy fans come out of the woodwork and accost you for information about working with the band.

On everyone I work with really. What a lot of people don’t like to hear is that Phil [Lynott] was a very self-destructive person. I get many negative emails about that, and about the way I portrayed him in the book. I only portrayed him that way in the book because that’s what I had to deal with. I wanted to go on record saying that I talked to him a lot about cleaning up his act. I knew at one point that he didn’t have long to live. He would just be in denial about that: “I can handle it. I can handle it.” A lot of people don’t like to hear that their idols were human. That they have any frailties.

Would Phil have been the same man without those appetites? Was he one of those guys that was destined to burn out rather than fade away?

He had so many sides to him. He was a very complicated person. As crazy as he was with rock and roll and drugs and sex, he was also a wonderful father, writing songs like [Black Rose’s] “Sarah.” He wrote this baby song for his little daughter. He had the potential to be a very loving father and husband, but I don’t know. Was it peer pressure? I don’t know what motivated him to go the other way. I think Phil could’ve done well without [alcohol and drugs], but I think he had a self-image that he had to keep up. That was his problem.

As a bass player yourself, can you assess his abilities on the instrument?

He was great. He was really great. He played it more like a guitar. His bass lines were terrific. Furthermore, he could play bass and sing at the same time, which is no mean feat.

Did you go to his funeral in 1986?

No I didn’t. I think it was a very private funeral. I might have been here in America.

My last question: It’s clear through your autobiography that you’ve always been a man on the cutting edge of technology. What musical advancement would you like to see?

Hmmm. Well, digital recording is getting better and easier to work with. I don’t personally miss analog tape. That had many, many faults. People will always wax lyrical about how great it sounds, but it was a very, very hard medium to work in. In the past 10 years, digital technology has been difficult because the computer platforms that they were written on were written by geeks and not for musicians. So it’s only just becoming user friendly, digital recording. I can see 10 years down the line where it’s going to sound so wonderful. It’s sounding better and better every year.

To me, the setback has been MP3s. I think it’s the most dreadful thing that’s happened in technology – the MP3. At the same time, we’ve gotten music up to 96 kilohertz on a DVD. If you buy a Surround Sound DVD and play it, that’s sound you’ve never experienced unless you’ve worked in a recording studio. You can have that at home now. And it seems like this cruddy format, the MP3, is winning. It’s won. It’s a fact of life. In my pocket I’ve got like 3,000 songs now [laughs], but the price I pay is dreadful, tinny, scratchy sound.

I think now with iPhones and the way everything’s getting better that we’re going to go back to hi-fidelity, because it won’t be long before your iPod will carry a tetrabyte worth of files in your pocket and you’ll get back up to that great sound again. That’s what I think is going to happen – the quality of sound will get better.

What I don’t really like, and it’s not sour grapes – or maybe it is – is that the technology is already too readily available. You go on MySpace and you have millions of people making bad music, even though technically it sounds very good! So I mean this is the dilemma. It just makes wading through the muck and mire so much harder than it used to be.

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