A Guitarist Remembers: David Bowie Just Wanted A Good Laugh

Jan 11, 2016
Originally published on February 9, 2016 3:23 pm

For more than a decade, Reeves Gabrels was David Bowie's go-to guitarist, playing in the rock band Tin Machine and crafting '90s Bowie on albums like Outside, Earthling and 'hours...' The world is mourning the visionary chameleon, who died Sunday at 69, but Gabrels also wants to remember Bowie's sense of humor.

"The picture I have in my head is of him cracking up in the studio," Gabrels says. "Because we just used to be able to make each other laugh."

Gabrels tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that, at a young age, he was drawn to Bowie's sense of pure adventure, which is maybe how he later ended up sawing a water cooler in half to make a cool vocal effect that never worked.

"We rode on tour buses together," Gabrels says. "We shared apartments together. We borrowed socks from each other."

What kind of socks did the visual icon wear? "The gold-tipped, sheer black socks."

Yes, the same kind you find in 10-for-$10 bags. Funny man, that Bowie.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People around the world are celebrating pop icon David Bowie who died of cancer last night. In his hometown of London, fans, including Loretta Hopewell (ph), remembered Bowie as someone whose eclectic blend of music and art brought people together.

LORETTA HOPEWELL: And that's what's so amazing about him, is his passion for music respected - went across all kinds of genres and boundaries. And I suppose that's the amazing thing about music, really, more than any other art form, that people are desperate to celebrate and share that.

SHAPIRO: Bowie was more than a musician. He was a playwright, actor and provocateur. To guitarist and longtime collaborator Reeves Gabrels, he was something more personal. Gabrels posted on Twitter today, well done my friend; the world has the music. What I remember most is the laughing.

REEVES GABRELS: I'm still in shock about what has happened, but the first thing I thought of was when everything else falls away, I wish I had the picture I have in my head of him cracking up in the studio 'cause we just - we used to make each other laugh.

SHAPIRO: What did you guys laugh about?

GABRELS: Oh, it was things like - we were going to do some backing vocals on a track, and we were trying to find an interesting sound. So one of us got the idea to cut out the bottom of a water cooler jug. And when you're not using a power tool, it's a fairly lengthy endeavor.

SHAPIRO: So which one of you had the saw, and which one of you held the plastic jug?

GABRELS: I think we alternated 'cause your arm would get tired. And we got the bottom cut away, and then it was - David's shoulders were narrow enough that we could put it over his head, and then the opening, the spout end, was just wide enough that we could put a microphone in. And then he could sing inside of it.

SHAPIRO: And the two of you were laughing about this the whole time.

GABRELS: Well, the funniest part was, we got done, and it sounded horrible.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) So we can't even play the track to hear what it sounded like 'cause you didn't use it.

GABRELS: Right.

SHAPIRO: What does it say about an artist that, when looking for an interesting-sounding backup vocal, he says, I know; let's try sawing the bottom off a plastic water cooler and see how that sounds?

GABRELS: Well, that's just indicative of the bigger picture. I mean, that was what drew me to David's music when I was 13 years old - just sheer adventure.

SHAPIRO: His public image was so otherworldly. When you were in the studio early in the morning or late at night, did he have an otherworldly quality about him, or did he ever just seem, like, slogging away in the studio like any other old guy?

GABRELS: Well, he was my friend, you know? So I didn't think of him as - you know, that was a public facade. We must all have these eccentricities and quirks. But we rode on tour buses together. We shared apartments together, you know? We borrowed socks from each other.

SHAPIRO: What kind of socks did he wear?

GABRELS: The gold-tip, sheer black socks.

SHAPIRO: Wait a minute. David Bowie wore the gold-tip, sheer black socks that are, like, 10 for a dollar - those kinds of socks. You're, like, destroying my image of this man (laughter).

GABRELS: Well, I don't want to - you know, on a somber today like today, I don't want to tdo that. But often, given where most recording studios are, you'd be in New York, and it would be 10 for 10 on the street, you know? So you could get white tube socks, or you could get black socks.

SHAPIRO: David Bowie put on his socks one foot at a time, just like everyone else.

GABRELS: Well, I think the joke was the difference between, you know, Albert Einstein and the rest of us is, he puts on his pants one leg at a time, but then he comes up with the theory of relativity.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Reeves Gabrels, musician collaborated and friend of David Bowie, thank you so much for joining us today.

GABRELS: It's a sad day. And he went out the way he came in, which is sort of like on his own terms. That's all, I think, anyone can ask for.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you for remembering your friend with us.

GABRELS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: David Bowie inspired generations of glam rockers. Some of them went on to pop stardom, like the band Scissor Sisters. We called the lead singer, who performs under the name Jake Shears, to talk about the impact Bowie had on him as a kid.

JAKE SHEARS: I remember being in a record store. And I asked if they had any Bowie, and she pulled out three cassettes. I can't remember what the third one was, but the other two were "Let's Dance" and "Tonight." And I picked "Let's Dance."

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE SONG, "LET'S DANCE")

SHEARS: And that was my first rock album I ever owned, and it still is my favorite album to this day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DANCE")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Let's dance. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.

SHEARS: I was in the fourth grade, and I would just play the record nonstop. I would put that cassette on my desk in school. I would just have it sitting kind of, like - I would look at it all day long. I was absolutely in love with it. And my first fantasy about performing was listening to the actual song "Let's Dance." I remember being in my bed, and I had this fantasy about, like, oh, maybe I could perform. Wouldn't it be awesome to get on stage and sing a song (laughter)? I specifically remember that moment, and it was to that record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DANCE")

BOWIE: (Singing) I'll run with you.

SHAPIRO: That's singer Jason Sellards, who performs under the name Jake Shears of the band Scissor Sisters, reflecting on David Bowie's music and legacy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.